Reverse Camino Day 9: Aguapesada to Santiago

After walking four days from the Atlantic, I finally arrive in Santiago. But I’ve been walking much longer than that.

Total distance on foot: 12.3 km/7.6 mi (plus three years)
Towns traveled through: Alto de Vento, Quintáns
This day in 2013: Day 40 Santiago to Negreira

Now I walk alone, I told him.

The helpful man saw me weeping and looking lost fifteen minutes ago in a park outside Santiago de Compostela. I show you, he said. Grateful, I followed this speed-walking, parka-wearing pilgrim with the thick accent through the busy streets toward the cathedral.

 *   *   *

I’ve been walking eastward from the Atlantic toward this city over the last four days, but in reality, it’s been much, much longer.

In the time since I was last here, I returned home, emotionally naked as a newborn, to discover my life no longer fit. There’s no way to count the miles through an unending dark night of the soul. How do you measure facing your deepest fears and ultimately finding the will to live in spite of them?

Eventually, I committed to traveling that road out the darkness. Of learning to tell the whole truth, not just the diplomatic one. Of understanding the deep attachment I felt to Meg, my joyous pilgrim sister. Of deciding whether to stay in my marriage. Of learning that walking outdoors is my salvation and that opening my heart—even when it feels terrifying—is the only way to survive this condition called being human.

It took me all this time to learn how to live an undivided life. If the true Camino starts in Santiago, as they say, the last three years have borne it out; I have been a pilgrim ever since. One step at a time.

 *   *   *

Although I’m hoping to arrive in time for the noon mass, I take it as it comes. I’m only ever 60% sure I’m going the right way, but up I go through little cobbled villages of quiet, cobbled houses. Past the quiet dude inexplicably carrying an inflatable giraffe head. Past the funny, flirtatious Puerto Rican man from Queens. Past the inquisitive, sixty-something lady from Queensland who says there’s a party in Santiago. Up a hill, stopping for a bar’s strong coffee and blaring news. One foot in front of the other.

In a quiet suburban neighborhood, I chat with a local guy about the direction of Santiago as a cat rubs against his black slacks. He points into the morning sun and says, Down the road then to the right en el bosque. Through moss-covered trees, the bright sunlight streams into my eyes.

Then, at last, in a clearing at the top of a hill, I see it: the cathedral. There it is! My eyes well up, and a grin spreads across my face. The emotion spills over I continue walking, as I have all these years, to that distant place where the real pilgrimage began.

*   *   *

My fast-walking, helper-guy stops to chat with a friend, but I continue, feeling as though pulled toward the square where all pilgrims arrive. When he catches up with me, I’m almost there. Gracias, I say. Thank you for helping me. Now I must continue alone.

He nods knowingly and gives me a friendly pat.

Up the steep street, I see the cathedral from the top down—first the spires, then the facade, the doors, and the double symmetrical stairs—and finally I arrive at the plaza, overwhelmed by emotion. Here is where it all started. Here is where I felt happier than anywhere else on the planet. Where I arrived with dear Scott and Gary. Where I met Meg. Where I realized who I really am.

My hands are shaking. My knees feel wobbly. Here I am. At last. Collapsing onto the cobbles of the cathedral plaza, I’m overcome with gratitude and relief and joy. I lean forward, sobbing, my butt in the air, elbows and knees on the cold ground. I don’t care that my pack is still on or that dozens of sight-seers might witness my body shaking with sobs. I’m here. I’m here at last. I’m so grateful. For everything.

Finally, when I sit up and wipe my eyes, I lift my chin to see the clear blue sky and silhouetted spires, grinning madly. Oh my God, I’m here. It’s so beautiful! I recall the last arrival and the hugs and tears I shared with Gary. My spirit is bursting.

I notice a well-dressed woman approaching me, bowing slightly. Hand on her heart, she says in an Irish accent, I was so moved to see you arrive. The pin on her lapel is a tiny gold angel. Reaching down to touch my shoulder tenderly, she smiles at me. I smile back at her, grateful but speechless.

You must have walked a long way, she says.

Sometimes all we need is to be seen. This Camino angel blesses me with her acknowledgement. The truth in her words make the tears start all over again.

I have walked a long way. I really have, I reply. And it was worth every step.

Reverse Camino Day 8: Vilaserio to Castelo (part 2)

Hours of solitary walking later, I stop at a cafe in Negreira to order coffee and a bocadillo sandwich to go.

Sipping my coffee at an outdoor table, a young man approaches. We haven’t exchanged a word, I already like him. A few days from his last shave, he has deep tan skin and short, curly locks. We smile warmly at each other, and I say, “Hola, buenas dias!”

He greets me in Spanish and, situating his bicycle, asks me where I’m from.

Los estados unidos,” I reply.

He’s amazed that an American can speak anything but English. “And so well!”

I laugh. “Gracias.”

“I’m Rafael.” From Cuba. “Like the archangel,” he says, smiling. He is one of those people with whom I immediately feel a deep connection. He radiates love.

Rafael sits with me for a short but animated, open-hearted conversation about our respective journeys, where we’ve been, where we’re going, and why. He’s traveling without a map, so I show him mine so he can going off the Camino to visit a stunning, secret waterfall further down the Galician coast. It’s not the words we exchange, it’s the love.

“What a beautiful soul you are,” he says, eyes boring into mine. He speaks the truth. We see each other.

They say you can tell whether you’ve been visited by an angel or a demon by how you feel when they leave your presence. After we exchange emails and hug goodbye, I’m glowing.

Rafael, in case you didn’t know, is the archangel of healing.

*   *   *

The thing with liminality is that you can glimpse it, but it’s fleeting. We’re not meant to live in that rarefied space all the time.

The rest of the day is unexceptional, bordering on challenging. In fact, I can’t even find my way out of Negreira. After countless backtracks and asking for direction, it still won’t release me from its clutches. I note that nothing in me wants to stop and just get a bed here for the night. Meg and I stayed here last time, and I can’t do it. I’ve got to keep going, break the pattern, and get as close to Santiago today as possible.

For all my effort, I’m eventually rewarded with a smooth trail along a river and friendly pilgrims who point the way as my fatigue grows. Then, I take one single turn, and I’m completely lost. I merely ascend from the riverbanks to the street by a sandy trail, and the arrows disappear. My map shows the bridge that’s directly ahead of me, but something isn’t right. I’m tired, I think to myself, but I can do this.

Crossing the long concrete bridge, I remember nothing about this place from the last time. There’s a bar at the end, so I stop there to ask a local if I’m on the Camino. He addresses me in slurred Galician, a mixture of twang and boiled octopus. I comprehend only his pointing gestures first to the west and then north along the street. Neither of these options seems right.

I’ve got to get back on the Camino. Muttering to myself and staring at my guidebook, I proceed on the north option he indicated along a quiet rural road. No arrows for at least a half mile. After ten minutes, I pass a house whose occupant stares at me as I pass. This can’t be right. Panicky nausea sets in. Two more steps, and I turn around to head back to the bar by the bridge. The old Galician guy is still standing out there, watching my slow return. I can’t ask him again. It’s useless. I just can’t.

So I attempt the other way he suggested, going about three blocks uphill near a school, but there’s no one else around to ask. No arrows. No cairns. This isn’t right either. I stare at my useless map. Tired, hungry, and all options eliminated, I don’t know what to do.

Against my better judgment, I go back to the bar. The guy is gone now. When I walk in, the stools are filled with no less than nine older men, all of whom turn to stare at me without saying a word. Either I’m an oddity or completely unwelcome, but feel intimidated. I fight the urge to run and instead ask the bartender for an orange soda. He serves me the drink, I pay, and then flee outside to the empty tables.

It’s mid-afternoon now, and I’m truly stuck. Lost. Tired. Miserable. The tears start before I even sit down.

Moments later, I hear a shuffling sound behind me. The bartender gently sets a small plate of bread rounds with a generous assortment of charcuterie. On the house. I look up at him with tear-stained face and choke out a moitas grazas. He hesitates. Does he want to help?

“I’m lost,” I say in Spanish. “Do you know where the Camino is?”

“Oh, uh…” He points to the other end of the bridge from where I’d come, and then to the left. “I think it’s that way, under the bridge.” But I’d already walked from that direction.

“I am going to Santiago. To the east,” I say. My Spanish isn’t good enough to convey more. “I see no arrows.”

“Oh, I think maybe you go under the bridge. To the right.” It’s the only option not tried. I thank him, and he bows slightly and makes his leave.

Sure enough, after a few minutes of walking, I realize he is right. But I’m so weary, and tired from the anxiety and embarrassment, the sense of relief evades me.

Instead I pitch a fuming fit at myself. I was wrong! I made a mistake! I hate making mistakes! Angry tears start falling. I hate that old guy for watching me walking stupidly everywhere and not saying anything. And in the bar they all stared at me without offering any help! I feel like a total idiot. I look like an idiot–especially in front of all those people. My whole life I’ve tried to be perfect, and all I ever do is fail!

This backwards Camino thing is pressing all my buttons. There’s no way I’m going to succeed at perfection, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. It’s what I do. It’s how I am.

A new thought arises: I wonder where the perfection urge comes from in the first place. I’m the older of two, the big sister, the first born. If I got it perfect, no one would get mad. Being good was how I made everyone happy.

What if that’s a lie? What if I don’t have to be perfect?

Suddenly, this truth dawns on me like a shaft of light: Even if I do make mistakes, what if I’m intrinsically okay? Suddenly something deep shifts within me, a muddy, slippery tectonic plate shlunks into its rightful place. I don’t have to be perfect. 

I’m swamped with the relief of releasing this forty-year-old burden. As if I’ve just liberated a massive weight from my pack and left it on the side of the trail.

Walking the Camino is the cheapest, most effective therapy ever.

*   *   *

Of course, about a mile down the path, I cross a cobbled, medieval bridge which I remember with perfect clarity. It’s gorgeous waterfall cascades between an old mill and cute, whitewashed stone houses. Two pilgrims splash in the shallows. I remember this. Of course. I just needed the detour.

*   *   *

I’ve walked way too many miles today than is sane or reasonable. I’m dusty, sweaty, tired, and weary—and I still haven’t arrived yet. A few pilgrims pass me going west, but I don’t want to talk anymore. I just want to get wherever I’m staying tonight. After crossing the bridge, I don’t notice the scenery. My feet ache. Trying to keep the pep in my step and hang in there, it’s all bravado now.

There’s a slog up an interminably inclined street. Its sidewalk is covered in loose bricks and laid out in constantly-changing widths to accommodate trees, , utility holes. I can’t just zone out or I’ll twist my ankle on a slanted driveway entrance. At the top at last, I turn onto a side street, hopeful to find the pension in my book. I’m only a few miles away from Santiago. With no reservations, they may not have room for me.

A block down through an odd, colorful neighborhood, I find signage that matches the address in my book. However, a huge metal gate is drawn across the driveway. Are they closed? Does this mean they’re full? Bravely, I slide it aside as it rattles and set neighborhood dogs to barking. Down the drive to an adorable two story home with a full porch, there are lots of shoes on the step. Oh God, don’t let them be full!

A few anxious minutes after I knock, a wiry, fast-talking man comes to the door and greets me in Spanish. I’m not catching all the words, but I inquire about the prices of the rooms. His reply is so fast, but I only hear the word “no” before concluding they’re full. I’m out of luck for the night. Now I have to find another place. I’m crushed.

“Do you know if there are other albergues nearby?” I manage ask as my voice warbles with emotion. A tear escapes without my permission.

Siii…” he says cautiously, like there’s a question mark at the end. “I need to look up the number.”

I need water. I can’t believe I’m being so forward, but I ask him for a glass. If I have to keep walking to Santiago, I’ll need it on this hot afternoon. While he’s gone, I try to pull myself together. I can do this.

Returning, he hands me the cool glass and asks gently, “Pardon me, but why do you not want to stay here?”

“I want to, but you say there are no rooms.”

Si, there are!” I’d misunderstood him. I laugh as another tear leaks out. God, I’m so tired.

“Oh! I don’t understand! I think there are no beds! I’m sorry!” Saying this makes me realize that I’ve got to work on my verb tenses.

My host settles me into a beautiful, quiet private bedroom with a separate bath. After a restorative shower and a batch of laundry, I sit in the back orchard in a comfy chair, enjoying the scenery of the hills I’ve climbed and descended.

I sit and write in my journal to recount the day and take stock.

I’m nearly crawling out of my skin not being able to contact Mary. It’s been four days. I’m afraid that she’s afraid. Maybe I should just accept what is.

I feel nervous about Santiago tomorrow. So much there. Not sure where to stay. Do I go back to the albergue where everything started? If I don’t, will I regret it? My sense is to go there. To trust. See what comes up. 

I’ve returned here for gratitude for the changes in my life, to reclaim my soul, and walk my whole self home. But I also remember how I fell apart after my first Camino, how I struggled for so long to integrate its lessons. I’m afraid. I don’t know if I can stand the test of arriving, of remembering, of being completely undone a second time.

There’s only one way to find out. After today’s revelations, maybe I’m more ready than ever.

Reverse Camino Day 7: O Logoso to Vilaserio

Annoying the Germans, getting lost, and trying to live with an open heart

Total distance on foot: 15.2 mi / 24.6km
Towns traveled through: Olveiroa, A Picota, Maroñas
This day in 2013: Day 42 Part 1 and Day 42 Part 2

I’m annoying the crap out of the Germans. No. Let me correct that. It’s mutual.

Yesterday, the first pilgrim I encountered in the morning was a tall German striding like he was making a dash for the finish line. As he passed, he looked at me and sternly said, “Wrong way.” No smile. Nothing.

What the…? I was shocked.

Then this morning, a German woman stops in her tracks to interrogate me. “What are you doing?”

“I’m walking back to France,” I reply.

“The Camino isn’t set up to walk backwards,” she informs me. Her insistence provokes instant ire. Seriously? 

She is mid-rant about how I’m doing this incorrectly when I interrupt her to say, “In the past, Santiago was halfway. I’ve already walked it once, so now I’m finishing.” Then, annoyed, I continue walking and say over my shoulder, “Buen Camino!”

I don’t mean it. Judge me if you will, but I could easily have substituted a swear.

This is really pissing me off. I’m clearly succeeding at the thing they insist is incorrect and not possible. Do they say it just to be right? To show they’re superior? What gives someone the right to comment on my path, anyway? It must have something to do with the German sense of order and discipline.

Whatever the reason, I’m not amused. I’ve worked too hard to overcome perfectionism to let myself be judged by a total stranger. If it keeps happening, I don’t know what I’m going to do. It is seriously infuriating.


I’m having breakfast and my first cup of coffee when the hospitalera introduces me to an huge group of Spanish pilgrim cyclists. She says proudly, “This americana stayed at my albergue three years ago! I taught her to say ‘thanks very much’ in Galician—and you know what? She remembered how to say it!” My host beams and says, “Go ahead!” The whole group of cyclists swivels their heads toward me.

I’m still sleepy and now crimson-faced from flattered embarrassment, but I manage to say, “Moitas grazas!

A few ohhhs come from the cyclists, and I grin at them. Then I recognize a few! They’re the guys I met in front of Ruby’s hotel in Finisterre the day before. The one guy who teased me about speaking English bids me a good morning (perhaps I’ve redeemed myself?). I feel happy to see familiar faces.

Before I leave, I give the hospitalera a big hug and a final moitas grazas. She says, “Visit us again in three more years—and bring your esposo!”


Five minutes down the road, still grinning, I remember my walking sticks and go back to retrieve them. Then I’m out again on my own in the cool morning air for a long day’s walk. I can hear the whooshing hum of a dozen windmills lined up along the distant hill. Birds are singing in the sunlit forest. The sound of running water from an invisible creek gurgles through the trees. The road is flat and well-graded so each footstep crunches as I walk. I’m lost, then not lost. Confident, then uncertain of the way. I remember being here. Then I forget. Am I on the way? Was I here? Ah, now I remember.

This is what it’s like to walk the Camino backwards. I’m living in past and present all at once.

Before long, I hit the steep hill where Meg and I collected gorgeous blue-green rocks and—same as yesterday—I start bawling, just wordless uncontrollable sobbing. I miss her. It’s something deeper too. As I ascend this hill, the past is shedding like bits of dry skin behind me. My old, constricted way of living is sloughing off.

I miss living with my heart open.

When I came back from Spain three years ago, I resolved to change my life. Full of grand plans, I was going to see friends more often and connect more meaningfully. I was going to change my livelihood and start doing what I loved. Exercise was going to be a regular part of my life as a result of rediscovering how much I loved being outdoors.

But since that time, I’ve slowly shut down. I’ve become increasingly isolated from caring friendships, still not doing work I love, and struggling to show my true self to the world. Instead, I distract myself with screen time and swap my authentic self for the presentable, PC version I think everyone wants to see.

Change is hard.

It’s not that I’m back to square one. My marriage is renewed in a way I didn’t dream was possible, and maybe I am closer to doing more satisfying work. I just see a huge chasm between where I am and where I want to be. Walking on this very terrain reminds me that I’ve settled for less since I was here last. Walking over the land where I admitted aloud to understanding, supportive Meg what I really want in life brings it all back. I can’t pretend here. I remember. I want more.

As pilgrims pass me downhill, I try to look fine. I sniffle, but grin at them. I wipe my eyes, but say buen camino. There is more grieving to do, but I set it aside. Sometimes you have to just watch yourself make the same choices over and over again until you change them for good.


Fortunately, I have time to sort it out. I have weeks of walking ahead of me.

In the meantime, I notice as I walk that the whole region is in full-on springtime soil-preparation mode. Huge agricultural machines are out in force—tilling, spraying manure, dusting with lime, and filling the valleys with the sounds of growling diesel engines. Later in the day, the path is more level and for a half hour or more, I can survey the machines’ progress as I approach. Occasionally, I wave to a passing farmer. In the distance, I spot a lone pilgrim far ahead who–like me–is also walking east toward Santiago!

At one point, I get completely lost up on a hill above dairy country. About 100 feet back I saw a huge white sign stating in Spanish this is an alternate route of the Camino. Tracking helps me determine whether I’m on the trail, but I see no stick marks, no pilgrims ahead, and no sign of boot prints in the mud. The good news is being lost gives me privacy to go poo—which I desperately need to do—and successfully dig a cat hole in the soft soil.

Once relieved, I take stock: I’m lost, but not panicky. I know my way back, even if I don’t know the way forward. I’m okay, I reassure myself. Just retrace your steps.

As I stare at my map, I realize this is the exact same place that Meg and I got lost three years ago. I can even see the dairy and farm below where we sat and watched the cows rounded up by a woman on a moped. How uncanny to be lost in the same place. Is there a vortex here? Or some Galicia magic? I wonder if I’ll meet a witch on the way.

Maybe the Camino isn’t set up to be walked in reverse, but it can be done. At the white sign, I realize I just missed the turn and am on my way again.


The last few miles of the day seem interminably long as my body aches from walking on pavement. As I stop to fill my water bottle at a community fountain, the east-walking pilgrim appears beside me! I gather up my pack as he fills his bottle, and we are ready to depart at the same time.

Gesturing with his arms in a sweeping motion toward the path, he says, “Ladies first” in an unmistakable accent.

“No, no. After you,” I grin.

“Shall we walk togezzah?”

“I would love that,” I say.  Yes, Heinrich is German. He is kind and curious, though embarrassed by his English skills. We’re headed to the same albergue. How novel to have a walking companion for the final two miles!


As many times as I’ve lived it, I always forget what a touchy mood I’m in when I arrive at an albergue feeling tired, hot, and hungry. Today is no different. I’m immediately offended that the barista insists on speaking English (insinuating that my Spanish isn’t good enough). She’s abrupt and terse. There are a litany of rules.

  • No using the clothes dryer if you hand wash.
  • No hanging clothes in the laundry room.
  • No hanging clothes from your bunk.

Do they not care that we’ll walk around sopping wet tomorrow?

When I get a snack at the restaurant, the barista hovers and whisks away my plates before I’m done. Later, she sneers at me with disdain when I tell her the coin-op computer isn’t working. I’ve been anxious all day that I haven’t sent Mary an email in three days and hope she’s not worried. Anyway, I’m told there’s no fix for the computer. The reception here couldn’t make me feel less welcome.


The upside is that after laundry and a shower, Heinrich and I join another man in the bar where the three of us have dinner together. Despite my walking alone, I have actual dinner companions. In an additional twist of irony, Ralph is also from Germany. He is great company, speaks English flawlessly, and tells great stories throughout the meal. He’s a hoot. My spirits lift.

So I take back what I’ve said about Germans. They were my saving grace tonight.

Maybe my heart is more open than I realized.

Reverse Camino Day 6: Cee to O Logoso

A day of emotions, imaginary friends, and a heartwarming reunion

Total distance on foot: 10.7 mi / 17.2km
Towns traveled through: Hospital
This day in 2013: Day 43

I’m going to be frank: it’s emotional to be back here. One minute I’m okay, the next moment I’m in tears. Unsettled. Open. For someone with a lifetime of practice being “fine” (or at least acting that way), these unpredictable waves of emotion are both cathartic and unnerving.

Taped to today’s journal page is a note from my 13-year-old niece,

“It doesn’t matter how slow you go as long as you don’t stop.”

Seeing this wise message in her fanciful, multi-colored handwriting makes me teary. Walking backwards is slow. Arrows are confusing. Backtracking burns up minutes and miles. People stopping to question my motives jars me. It hardly seems linear.

The same holds true for inner journeys. Letting go and acceptance are astoundingly slow-going work. Have you ever noticed how, after committing to letting go of a habit or a person, you catch yourself grasping again with white-knuckled fingers, trying squeeze out what it can never provide? Oh, we say, taking a deep breath. I can let this go. And we choose to release it again… and grasp again… and release again… until something truly shifts.

This work is slow, but it’s the process. And so important not to stop.

*   *   *

My primary challenge of the day is to make the steep, three-mile climb outside of Cee to a point almost nine hundred feet above me. I’ve been dreading it. Anticipation of this hill has kept me awake at night—sweating and anxious in a dark cocoon of blankets—for weeks.

Out in the cold morning air, now the sun rises over my right shoulder. A mile in, I’m gasping for breath from the exertion, but keeping at it. My heavy breathing turns into ragged sobs, and I don’t stop. I just give in to the waves of emotion as I continue to climb.

Meg. She was here with me three years ago. The landmarks we once passed and the memories approach then fall behind me, one at a time. Thank you. Somehow as I walk, the way in which my soul had entwined with hers is slowly untwisting.

*   *   *

At the top, the path is a gravel track through high, open fields of gorse and newly-planted young eucalyptus trees. For the next five hours, there isn’t a single café, farm, or home. Although this isolation is what I need, it’s tinged with nerves. I’m still not confident about finding my way. As I walk, I hear only the wind and the sound of my breathing.

The view from here is stunning, and I pause periodically to look back at the Atlantic. When Meg and I were here last, we mistook distant, heavy clouds for another line of mountains. Now I can see all the way to the tiny lighthouse in Finisterre. Several more times, I glance back before the view disappears for good.

The sense of Meg being with me is at times palpable. I miss you, I say into the air as the tears flow again. Thank you. Thank you for walking with me and helping me discover how happy I could be. Thank you for witnessing and accepting me for who I really am.

Finally, I tell her the rest of the story.

All my life, I’ve tried to stay as small as possible and not make waves… but this meant living a divided life. People only knew the self I showed the world, but not the authentic person I feared others would find unacceptable. But, Meg, you taught me that I didn’t have to be divided. You with your quick wit and sarcasm and potty mouth. You just didn’t care what anyone thought of you… and I’ve always cared too much. You made me laugh and loosen up. God, it was so fun to laugh with you.

I’m talking out loud, telling her how things unfolded after we parted and about returning to my less-than-stellar life. My inner judge wants me to shut the hell up, not look like a crazy person. Talking out loud! After all these years, the truth just has to be spoken, even if Meg’s not really here and God is my only witness.

“Imagination and fantasy are both beautiful things,” I say. “Provided they’re not used to escape from living in the physical world. But that is actually what happened for me. I lost myself in fantasies about being with you and in the process lost touch with reality. It was a really dark time. And it took a really long time to find my way again.”

“What I know now is that it was never your job to save me. It would have been a disaster if we’d been together. I believe you showed up to teach me. But I was obsessed with being with you because I wanted to be like you. It took forever for me to finally let go and learn to live with same authenticity I admire so much in you.”

The morning’s first pilgrim appears ahead at a bend in the path. I drop my gesticulating arms and try to look sane. As he passes, his face looks surprised, but he wishes me a buen Camino. As soon as he is out of earshot, I continue talking.

It takes hours to say what happened for me and why everything unfolded the way it did.

“Today, I am just grateful. I have never felt so messed up in the head as I did after the Camino, but it was a turning point in my forty-year existence. Slowly, painfully, I learned how to live an undivided life.”

Now the whole story has been told aloud. Maybe I’ve said it for myself… to the Meg who is actually me.

“Thank you, Meg.”

Thank yourself. I grin. What I admire in her is a part of me.

Thank you, self… For going so far out of your comfort zone in order to be truly happy. Thank you for ignoring advice to just go back to sleep. Thank you for hanging in there through the darkness and for choosing to live. Thank you for coming back here to Spain. It is so beautiful here.

*   *   *

It really is. It’s quiet and woodsy, and the warm sun fills my senses. I walk in silence now—alive and buzzing and cleansed. My thoughts are almost nonexistent. My body like a machine, just taking step after satisfying step.

Eventually, I enter the first village of the day after hours of forest paths. Up along a cobbled, corridor-like street, the cool, deep afternoon shadows draw my eyes to the blue sky. Overhead, I notice an active beehive in the stone wall of a home. Honeybees are a good omen for me.

Here’s where I’ll stay tonight.

*   *   *

Sliding my passport and credencial across the bar for inspection and a stamp, the hospitalera tells me the price for the night and about the pilgrim menu for dinner.

I recognize her face. “I was here three years ago,” I say in Spanish. “You and your friend taught me how to say ‘thank you very much’ in Galician.”

She raises her eyebrows and says, “I did?”

“Yes, I still remember. It’s ‘moitas grazas‘.”

Crinkles form at the corners of her expressive eyes as her face cracks into a smile. “Moitas grazas!” she parrots back. “You remembered! And you returned here again!”

“Yes, I remember your hospitality very well and the fun you have here. This albergue has a special place in my heart.”

She puts down the stamp, walks around the bar, and embraces me warmly, planting a kiss on each cheek. “You remembered!” How could I not? She and her friend repeated ‘moitas grazas‘ with enthusiasm and emphatic hand gestures until Meg and I got the pronunciation just right. I vividly remember the four of us sharing this warm exchange and laughter that morning.

The life of a hospitalero is a constant, daily stream of new faces never to be seen again. I wonder if the fact that I remembered how to say thank you in the local language, the words she taught me, touches her.

“I will teach you more words in Gallego,” she says.

“I’d love that!” I reply.

“Do you have a husband?” This intimate question makes me jump. We don’t ask about marital status in the US until we know someone better—or we ask in a roundabout way, not directly.

“Yes,” I say simply. Spain has legalized gay marriage, but this is a rural place. I decide not to quibble about esposo vs esposa.

“Y niños?”

“No, no children.”

She looks sad for a moment, then says, “It’s too bad you’re married. My cousin has a son about your age. You are learning Gallego and speak Spanish. And we already have an American girl here in the village who is married to my friend’s son.”

I am smiling. This is a stunning conversation. She’s matchmaking with a pilgrim who made the slightest effort in Spanish. I feel loved and highly amused.

“What work does your husband do?” she asks.

I don’t know how to say ‘dental hygienist’ in Spanish, so I say simply, “Es dentista.

“Oooohhh,” she says, then points to me. “Que princesaaaa!” she says, drawing out the last vowel for dramatic effect. A princess.

Simultaneously, I blush and burst out laughing, “Si… princesa.” Spoiled, loved, cherished. That’s me.

Satisfied that I’m well provided for, the hospitalera gives me the option of several rooms, and I choose the tiny, stone one with red accent walls and a skylight. Foreign coins rest on the stones for good luck, perhaps. With only four beds, it should be a quiet night (and it is). I unpack my things, still grinning and giggling to myself about the princesa comment and can’t wait to tell Mary about it.

It was Meg, in fact, who’d asked our hospitalera that morning how to say thank you in Gallego.

At the time, I was agonizing over my unspoken attraction to Meg and whether my commitment to Mary was the right choice. Who would have thought Mary and I were capable of reinventing our relationship? Who could have imagined that the harder choice—staying together—would teach us to expose our well-protected hearts?

Meg’s acceptance showed me how. I eventually found a way to bring this whole authentic, courageous, and vulnerable self into my marriage. It took time. Even now, it’s not always pretty or perfect, but I am one very grateful princesa—I discovered a love I didn’t know was possible.

Moitas grazas to Meg.

*   *   *

It’s an emotional day. But that’s typical on the Camino. There’s a relentlessness to this experience, in the same way that dripping water eventually wears away stone. It can’t not change us. Though challenging, surprising, and difficult at times, the Camino slowly reveals its gifts—as long as the pilgrim doesn’t stop.

Reverse Camino Day 1: Portland to Dublin

Spain awaits, and I really can’t believe I’m going back!

Total km on foot: Officially 0. Navigating through airports was probably a mile or two.
Towns traveled through: Chicago
2013 Camino contrast: How this day went 3 years ago

“Why are you walking the Camino backwards?”

Even with a year of planning and seven weeks to hone my answer, nothing rolled off my tongue when people asked. And they asked a lot.

It’s a really hard question to answer.

*   *   *

In the front of my journal, pasted next to my emergency contact information is a note from Nancy. Written in her hand on pink paper, it became both a touchstone and a rallying cry for my second journey across Spain:

Set out!

Your steps will be your words,

The road your song,

The weariness your prayers,

And in the end

The silence will speak to you.

Taken from a longer message written on a monastery wall in Majorca, every time I opened my journal, I saw these words and knew their truth. Some days the empathy brought tears to my eyes. Sometimes in astonished silence under a silvery sky, answers came. Now, as I prepared to leave, this message filled me with excitement. I’m going! I’m setting out!

*   *   *

The cats blinked at us incredulously as we rose in the dark. We spoke little as I tied my shoes and tossed my pack in the trunk. Just before turning the ignition, I remembered: my altar!

I raced inside to retrieve the worn-smooth, grey scallop fossil Mary had found on the coast. Its presence at our back door would anchor my return. I paused to set the fist-sized fossil on the cool concrete step, then added two pieces of frosty teal beach glass from Finisterre and a soapstone carved with the word FAITH from Nancy. When I touched them again in seven weeks, they would confirm that I had walked the full circuit, and my pilgrimage was truly complete.

I took a deep breath to focus. I asked for blessings on Mary and peace in my absence. Then, turning toward the garage, I walked with purpose into the darkness.

These are my first steps. I’m on the Camino now. 

*   *   *

At the airport, backpack checked with time to spare, we held hands and said the kinds of things you say when a long journey is just beginning, and no one knows how it will turn out:

I hope you have an amazing time and get exactly what you need from this.

– Thank you. So much. Me too. 

Nothing terrible will happen, but if it does, know that my last thoughts will be of you.

– Yes. (pause) But you’ll be fine. Better than.

Thank you for supporting me in doing this. It means the world to me.

– Of course. I love you.

I love you back.

It’s hard to say who started crying first. We hugged a really long time, my face pressed to her freshly-washed hair, and then she let me go. Through security, waving through tears until I was out of sight.

It was so so so hard to leave this time.

I didn’t expect that. On my last Camino, I was so excited to go—scared too—and eager to be on my own. Her emotion annoyed me then, but now I feel blessed and grateful. How much things have changed between us in three years.

*   *   *

Finding Chicago’s international terminal is like running a human-sized rat maze. I looked around as I deplaned and was immediately confused. I needed help.

A TSA agent passed me. I stopped her for directions.

“Oh, yeah. That’s hard,” she said in a Chicago accent. “Whatchew do is follow the signs to baggage claim? Then you gonna take the elevator up, cross the bridge, and then take the tram to the International Concourse.”

“Okay.” I summed up to be sure, “Elevator, bridge, tram.”

“Yup. That’s it.”

“Thank you!”

I repeated this three-part phrase as I navigated the maze. Elevator, bridge, tram. Elevator, bridge, tram. I didn’t care if anyone thought I was a muttering nut. Elevator! I found it! Bridge! There it is! Tram? No problem!

I’m on my way. I’ve set out!

In the air toward Dublin, the reality of it hit me. I’m really doing this. I’m really going back. I was returning to the place where my false shell of a life crumbled apart. The place where joy awoke and strength coursed within me—until I abandoned them on the rocky shores of Finisterre, disbelieving and afraid. And although I now feared the emotions that might arise in seeing these places again, somehow I was returning to reclaim the authentic self I’d left behind three years before.

That’s the reason I walked the Camino backwards. I would walk myself home at last. It was finally time to be whole.