The practice of meeting your Camino teachers

Everything and everyone you meet on the Camino can be your teacher if you allow it.

Some of the most difficult experiences—physical pain, loneliness, doubt, conflicts with other pilgrims—can show you what you most need to understand and heal in yourself. This is because everything you encounter on pilgrimage is a mirror image of your everyday life, just concentrated and intensified.

Looking into that reflection, pondering the similarities and what they can to teach you, can be a transformational practice.

Two stories of loneliness

Walking the Camino backwards, for me, meant walking alone. Even though dozens of people crossed my path each day, the numerous three-minute conversations about why I was going the wrong way led to feeling lonely at times. I felt “othered,” a backward-walking novelty, not part of the group. As a result, I looked forward to stopping at a cozy albergue with a communal dinner so I could feel connected with people and have meaningful conversations. We all need to belong.

Story One: A hard teacher

On this particular afternoon, I was feeling the familiar pain of loneliness. In my everyday life, I distract myself with food, social media, and watching programs online. On the Camino—especially without a phone—those go-to comforts weren’t available. I felt more emotionally exposed not having them, but that was the point. If the Camino were completely 100% comfortable and familiar, it would just be a vacation. I went seeking more.

The albergue that evening was almost empty, promising a quiet night’s sleep. For dinner, I decided to have the menu peregrino at the in-house café. In hindsight, I feel badly for the young Russian woman who was there, alone, to enjoy the wifi.

“Do you mind if I join you for dinner?” I inquired, hopeful. She had a friendly face and seemed like she’d be good company.

“No problem,” she replied and set down her phone.

I asked her all the usual pilgrim questions about where she’d come from that day, how she was feeling, when and where she started walking. If you’ve never done the Camino, this might sound intrusive, but it’s quite common. Pilgrims often swap stories about how their body feels, about pilgrims they know in common, who took the bus due to injury, et cetera.

As we chatted, the phone on the table emitted a jingle, her eyes darted to the device. She tried to ignore it, looking back at me, but not successfully.

“Excuse me a moment,” she said, picking up the pink phone, a smile dawning and tapping rapidly. My dinner came. She put the phone back on the table.

I asked about where she was from and in the middle of telling me, her phone jingled again. This time, she looked less torn. “One moment,” she said, picking it up. More tapping.

Allow me to pause here and say that it wasn’t her responsibility to help me beat my loneliness. She was on her own journey.

On the third jingle, however, she dropped the pretense of talking with this grey-haired, American stranger. “Excuse me,” she said and made a call. Body turned at a right angle to me, she spoke for the time it took to finish my dinner.

As if I didn’t exist.

Now, if I’d been on a vacation, I’d probably now rant about the evils of cell phones and the degradation of courtesy. But this is a pilgrimage. If you’re willing to look into the mirror of circumstances, you will learn a lot about what you need to change about yourself and how you do your life.

After I got over my crocodile tears, paid my bill, and left her talking, I realized something important:

This is how I do my life. The woman sitting across from me was me. Like her, I check out mentally using my devices. I wish humanity would vanish. I get annoyed by people, especially my spouse, when I’m in thrall with something online—to the point of similarly rude, inconsiderate behavior. Furthermore, I regularly prioritize connection with those not present at the expense of the people right in front of me. Ouch.

That is what the young Russian woman taught me. I realized that the connection I seek is right here, in front of me. Not just with others, but with myself and with the Divine.

As easy as it would be to judge her, the lesson was right there for me to accept. The teacher showed up. And the student was ready. I now seek to change my behavior so that I connect with the people around me—seeking them out—and turn off my devices so I can really be present with them.

Story Two: A gentle teacher

On a different blue day, I showed up too early at an albergue that wasn’t yet open. Its name referenced an angel, and my heart felt certain was supposed to be here. So I stood anxiously outside, unsure of what to do.

A short, round woman with curly dark hair slowly approached the albergue. Her face was radiant, and she smiled warmly at me, making eye contact.

“You are staying here tonight?” she asked in Spanish.

“I hope so,” I replied.

“Just one moment, I will unlock it for you.” And I realized she was the hospitalera. She was letting me in, despite arriving so early in the day.

Gracias, señora,” I replied.

“Anna Maria,” she corrected gently.

When we entered, she showed me where to put my sticks and asked, “Would you like some coffee?”

Surprised by the familiarity and warmth, it took a moment for me to answer sí. “Good,” she said. “We will sit and have some coffee.” She hobbled to the kitchen and I heard clinking cups behind the glass door.

Sometimes you meet teachers on the Camino who impart the lesson with such honesty and compassion, it percolates into your soul.

Anna Maria and I sat across the table from each other in the quiet. As we began to talk about the debilitating pain in her knees and about my first life-changing Camino, the connection felt so real. “It’s hard walking alone,” I confessed.

She channeled the answers I needed to hear.

“You may feel alone,” she said. “But you can never be alone.” The Divine is always with you. Love is always with you. The loneliness you feel is something you create. Open up to the abundance that’s already waiting for you.

Tears sprang to my eyes. I needed to hear these words so much. Anna Maria reached out across the table and held my hand. Tears welled up in her eyes too. “You are never alone.”

And, just like the Russian woman, Anna Maria taught me something important about my life. By being willing to listen and accept, I understood how I make my life harder than it needs to be trying to do everything myself. I can connect more deeply with What Endures. It’s there waiting for me.

The practice of meeting your Camino teachers

Any time we have an intense emotional response on the Camino, we are meeting a teacher. The feelings can be everything from frustration and anger to deep love and profound, wordless connection.

Anytime this happens, it’s a moment of truth, an opportunity to reflect on what the feelings mean, and what they can show you about your life. The practice of reflection can guide you through the second Camino—the one that happens after the walking ends—into transforming your life.

Reverse Camino Day 8: Vilaserio to Castelo (part 1)

The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience. ~ Emily Dickinson

Total distance on foot: 15.2 mi / 24.6km
Towns traveled through: Cornado, Santa Mariña, Olvieroa, Negreira, Aguapesada
This day in 2013: Day 41 Negreira to Santa Mariña

First thing in the morning, the same condescending barista that checked me in last night is at the counter again. After a good night’s sleep, and no longer exhausted and weary from walking, I feel a desire to connect and discover her better nature, if she has one.

Approaching the bar, I glance at my watch and ask her, “Did you even sleep?” I see you. I see you working here night and day. 

A light sparks in her eyes. “Yesss…” A grin spreads across her face.

“It must be difficult working so many hours.” All that repetition, all those revolving pilgrims everyday.

“No, not too difficult,” she says, her body square with mine. Yesterday she talked with her back to me. “I am from here, in this village, and I am lucky to have a job,” she adds with softness.

There isn’t an ounce of impatience in her voice now. We’ve made a real connection, however momentary. Maybe we all just need someone to see us for who we are, to meet us where we are and just listen.

While she makes my café americano I ask, “Have you walked the Camino?”

“No,” she replies flatly. “I don’t like walking.”

“Me either.”

Surprised, she looks at me. “No? Then why are you walking?”

“I had to. I felt called to. I walked it three years ago, and it changed my life. Now I’m walking in reverse for gratitude.”

“Again?” Her slight frown shows I’ve given her something to think about. There’s something amazing about this pilgrimage. Maybe she’ll discover one day.

*   *   *

I am walking for gratitude, it’s true. But another part of my reason for returning to Spain to “go backwards” is to connect with the Divine. Emily Dickinson once wrote, “The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.” On my first Camino, I had several encounters with something vast and loving and far wiser than I. And, for whatever reason, those experiences don’t happen as often or as intensely in my everyday life.

So I’m back.

I suspect that many pilgrims have similar moments of pure peace, deep understanding, and euphoric joy. However, as I’ve read pilgrims’ numerous narratives about the Camino, I note with frustration how many skirt around describing those very ecstatic moments Emily Dickinson mentions. While we’re walking out there, our soul is open. One moment, you’re walking on the solid ground and, the next, something transcendent happens. What is that—and why don’t we find words to express it?

One reason I want to avoid describing these experiences is because they defy logic. Spiritual encounters don’t stand up to rigorous scrutiny—nor should they, perhaps. I just note with some humor that I’d prefer to reference science and data to support my theories.

The other reason is that I don’t want you to think I’m nuts, dear reader, and want to avoid being subject to your skepticism. However, in spite of these, I know firsthand that the Divine speaks—through messages, coincidences, through people and myriad creative channels. It wants to connect. I can’t say for certain what these encounters mean—except perhaps to confirm we’re not alone—but trusting them has led to wonderful changes in my life. Perhaps my retelling will inspire you to trust in your own experiences of the Divine, no matter how illogical, and inspire the healing and change you seek.

*   *   *

Years ago, when I began my own journey of emotional and spiritual growth, I awoke one sunny morning with a very real sense that I had a wing coming from my right shoulder. It was more like a nub, really, a radiant little bump on my scapula with the potential to be more. At this astonishing realization, I frowned and thought, What the heck? It’s not every day that one hallucinates a new appendage. Yet there was a rightness about it, not scary, but merely perplexing and completely out of my life’s experience. Huh… I have a kind of wing thing back there. And then I went on with my life.

A year later, I saw an angel intuitive (coincidentally also a fellow peregrina) who validated this awareness as a good omen from the Powers That Be. She encouraged me to trust it and be open to messages. In the time since then, especially when I’m feeling really open and joyful, I wake with the sensation that this energetic wing is still there, changing, growing in to a tiny fan of white feathers.

What the heck, right?

Whatever this sensation is, it feels like a sign about who I really am. Maybe we all have a secret truer self than we believe is logically possible. A gift. A superpower. A wordless connection with the Divine. Anyway, in the midst of daily living, they’re easy to overlook or brush off. It doesn’t mean you’re not a living miracle.

*   *   *

When I left Finisterre three years ago, it felt like ripping two vital parts of myself apart. While transporting my body back home to Oregon, my heart protested, saying over and over I’m not ready! A message I ignored. What else could I do but go home? However—and this is important—although I physically left Spain, my soul stayed rooted out on the rocks of Finisterre. In the intervening years of this painful split, I created a life my soul would want to return to.

Now, after three years’ absence, returning again to this place is emotional. A profound relief.

To finally stand on those rocks again is to know wholeness at last. I have retrieved what I lost. With no lost parts, no lingering questions, no division, everything in me feels united—body, mind, heart, soul.

Now I would walk my whole, holy self home.

*   *   *

This morning, walking with this inner wholeness, I feel amazing. Galicia is her stunning self. The early golden sunlight glows through the spring-green leaves of trees. Shadows and light play across the path through tunnels of moss-covered stones. How stunningly beautiful and magical everything is that I  stop walking just to absorb it, to really take it in. I don’t care that pilgrims stare at me in wonder. I am in love with the world, the glittering streams, the distant sunlit hills, and the whispery eucalyptus forests.

In the middle of this fragrant woods, I recognize a little dirt slope to my right with a small hole dug into it. It’s still there. Three years ago, Meg spotted a nest of bumblebees here in this very spot. We stopped and stared at them with delight as they bumbled along their happy comings and goings. Marveling.

I grin at the memory, overflowing with joy. Suddenly, I’m awash in memories of my stunned attraction to her and the bolt of energetic lightning that went through me in her presence in Santiago.

My soul opens to the ecstatic experience. As I walk, I feel taller, almost regal. Then, natural as anything, two gorgeous white wings unfold behind me, like they’ve been tucked up and waiting for the right moment to unfurl. The astonishing sensation of their feathered weight is accompanied by a sense of rightness. No more nubs and half-wings. There they are.

What Meg showed me, I now feel to the center of my being. It’s not just part of me anymore—something to be brushed off or tolerated—it is me. I am it.

I walk on toward Santiago, illuminated from the inside out.

Reverse Camino Day 3: Finisterre, finally and forever

A hard-earned, much-anticipated homecoming

Total distance on foot: 0mi / 0km
Towns traveled through: Dublin (airport), Santiago, Cee
This day in 2013: Day 46: The beginning of the end: Finisterre to Santiago

Now that Dublin’s given me an advanced degree in getting lost then found again, today’s journey will take me by plane, bus, and on foot to Finisterre—a tiny fishing village at the west end of the Iberian Peninsula. It will be hours of travel, lots of waiting, awkward connections, and at the end, a tight timeline to check in at my pensión. After a few days’ rest, Finisterre will be the starting place for my reverse Camino.

Although I’ve been to Finisterre before, it was a deliberate choice to stay somewhere unfamiliar, different from where Meg and I stayed three years ago. For distance. For understanding. To honor a precious memory. If all the connections go well today, I’ll arrive just after sunset and find my pensión in under thirty minutes before they lock up.

From Dublin to Santiago de Compostela

While waiting for my flight at Dublin airport, I strike up a conversation with a friendly-looking woman sitting beside me. Margaret is from Dublin and going to volunteer for two weeks in Santiago’s pilgrim office. She seems confident and no-nonsense. She’ll do a great job awarding compostellas to recognize each completed pilgrimage.

Before boarding, we swap contact information. She tells me, “When you get to Santiago, come look for me in the office—we’ll get coffee!”

From SCQ airport to the Santiago bus station

I’m always grateful when flights are uneventful. We land with no issues, and I can hardly believe I’m here. In Spain. After three years away.

Margaret and I walk out to the ground transportation area. The air is oppressively warm—even in the shade of the airport’s vast architectural cover. A huge crowd forms around the stop where the shuttle takes people to the city center. We wait. Everyone is talking loudly, smoking, standing closely, and managing to look both testy and bewildered.

A coach bus pulls up where we stand, and I reasonably expect to board. The driver takes one look at the crowd and tells us to move to a another spot about forty feet away. A rumor forms in the crowd that another bus, our real bus, is coming shortly. Ten minutes later, the same driver waves the group to his bus to board. For the second time, I lose my place in line as the disorderly horde moves back. Nothing makes sense.

The bus fills completely. As we roll toward Santiago, I’m hot and jetlagged and in a mild state of shock. Is this real? From the bus, even the sunlight is disorienting—brighter due to our proximity to the equator. It blanches everything from car hoods to recycling bins, casting inky shadows where it longs to reach.

On the way, we pass purpose-built buildings of cinder block and stucco with red-tile roofs. Hillsides are lush and verdant, but not even weeds dare to grow in the pavement of the small villages we pass. These two-second villages reflect the sun’s intensity from concrete sidewalks and two-story buildings, until the green countryside appears again.

The realness of it begins to land when we arrive at Santiago’s bus terminal. I remember it from the last time, this uninteresting, three-story concrete terminal smelling of diesel. Oddly, there is no clear place to buy tickets. As passengers disappear, I look around the vacant, echoing station, and my eyes follow a set of stairs to the second story. A janitor is working overhead.

Perdon, señor,” I muster my best Spanish as I ascend. “Donde se puede comprar los billetes?

He looks up from sweeping, his navy blue overalls immaculate despite the surroundings. Pointing his index finger heavenward, he says, “Go up the elevator one more floor. There you can buy your tickets.”

Sure enough, there’s another long, cavernous room plastered with posters and time tables, every wall lined by counters with closed windows. No one is there. It’s siesta time. At the very end, a single window is open. As I approach, a lanky, dark-haired young man looks up at me unamused.


“I want to buy a ticket to Finisterre,” I say.

Para hoy?” Today?

Sí.” He tells me when the bus is leaving. I nod my assent.

Ira, o ira y vuelta?

Bwelta. Bwelta… I should know this vocabulary, but I can’t think. Looking at him, I stammer, “I… uh, I want to win Finisterre.” This is obviously not what I meant to say. I just want a bus to Finisterre.

“Okay. Twenty seven euros.” I pay in cash. Only later do I realize he sold me a round-trip ticket. Ira y vuelta.

With almost three hours to kill before my bus boards for Finisterre, I consider going out to explore Santiago, get something to eat, but decide to wait here. With plenty of snacks on hand, I reason, there’s no need to spend extra money. And besides, I really want my arrival in Santiago to be on foot a few days from now. Right now, I’m just passing through to the ocean.

Foregoing exploration, I buy an orange Fanta from a nearby vending machine and sit on a bench with my snacks. There are no buses and no people around. It’s pleasantly quiet. In my journal, I sketch the side view of a parked bus; its rounded glass front and antennae-like mirrors give it the air of a giant white bug.

The janitor walks by, and I raise my hand in a small wave. “I have my ticket. Gracias por la ayuda,” I thank him.

He nods with understated pleasure. “Your bus will be here at 7pm. At number 11,” he points to the bay numbers and raises his eyebrows to ask, Do you understand?

Muchas gracias!” I say, smiling.

From Santiago’s bus station to Finisterre

I just can’t believe I’m here.

As the bus rolls out of town, I catch a glimpse of the cathedral, see a few pilgrims walking along the road, and even spy a sign marking the Camino path as it intersects the road. Then familiar landmarks fall away, and it’s stop after stop until it seems like we’re never going to leave the city.

But we do. It’s evening, and the light is still bright as we make the insane zig-zagging journey across the west-most part of Spain toward the ocean. Spanish buses are consistently efficient, clean, and almost brand-new, putting American long-distance bus companies to shame.

Unfortunately, the passenger experience on this trip is not for the faint-hearted or those inclined toward motion sickness. The roads are narrow and winding. When cars approach in the opposite lane, our driver slams on the brakes. When the coast is clear, he guns it—even around the tightest of corners. I hold the seat in front of me and make the best of the three-hour ride.

Two college-aged girls are a few seats in front of me, talking animatedly in bright, open-voweled accents. I’m sure they’re American. An overweight, heavy-breathing Spanish man moves to sit in the seat behind me. I turn around to see who it is, and he leers. I scowl and turn my back. He’s giving off that vibe men have when they see women as objects rather than people, certain that foreign women are “easy.”

After my cold-shoulder treatment, the guy moves again and sits behind the American girls. As the miles pass, he starts peering between their seats as they’re looking at photos on their phones. I wonder if this creep thinks he’s going to get lucky, leaning forward, trying to catch their eye.

This won’t do.

I talk over his head, “Hi ladies! I keep trying to guess where your accent is from!”

They laugh, and we start a conversation. I move up beside them, and we talk about how they’re from Michigan, doing a semester abroad to Spanish in Salamanca, and decided to take a mini-vacation to Finisterre for a few days. They ask for suggestions of places to see. After apologizing for the intrusion on their conversation, I tell them I was looking out for them because of the creepy dude.

“He was like breathing over our shoulder,” one said.

“Just wanted you to know I’ve got your back,” I say. They seem grateful. Our conversation fades, but the guy moves to the front of the bus and gets off a half-hour later.

Back in my seat, I stare—stunned—out the window at a sight I remember: The Atlantic. The relentless wind whips the jet-blue waves into a froth all the way to the distant, misty horizon. Even viewed from the climate-controlled bus, this ocean and the moon slowly rising whips up a frenzied longing inside of me that I’m trying hard to allow. This scene is in the very marrow of my bones, part of my spiritual DNA. We’re so close to Finisterre now. This is where I left my best self behind, and where I will reclaim her once again.

From the Finisterre bus stop to my pensión

I’m here. I’m here. At the very edge of town, I stand in the fading twilight. I’m looking across the cove to the pensión where Meg and I stayed, feeling a mix of bittersweet emotion and gratitude. The wild wind whips through the palm trees above, through my hair and clothes, chilling me and making me feel so very alive. I’m really here.

Over the last three years, I can’t admit how often I have thought of this place. Visited so often in my memory, it started to seem like a place out of time, just a vivid imagining of my soul, but now the screaming gulls, the extraordinary air, and the rocks pushing against my soles tell me: I’m home. I’m home.

I’m also lost, and it’s almost dark. Making one last tour of the village, I finally locate the pension where I made my reservation. My host walks me down the street, hands me the key, and I spend the next eight hours swamped by vivid dreams and a heart full from homecoming. I’m really here. I’m really here at last.

The two girls I admire most

Though I’m not exactly the black sheep of my family, I’ve certainly not followed the path they might have imagined for me. I don’t have kids. I’m the token rainbow-flag waver. I didn’t follow a typical upward career path. Instead, I juggle self-employment and find ways to travel and explore the world–both outer and inner. Sometimes it seems as if it’s my job to carry on the adventuring gene while everyone else in my clan does the right and responsible things.

When my brother had kids, I was kind of baffled about how to be an aunt. Over the years, I’ve made time to get to know these two amazing young women on their own terms. L is practical, wickedly funny, and a master negotiator. O is smart, vividly imaginative, and an old soul. They’re so different, and I love them so much–even though we only see each other every summer.

Last December, I gave the girls a Christmas present. It was one of three hints leading up to an activity we’re doing together this fall. Although they have no idea what this activity is (their current guess is Mars), the USPS has bridged the 3000-mile distance between us, allowing me to send bizarre and hilarious hints to their doorstep. They’re smart kids, so they’re overthinking my clues. No matter. It’s the connection that really counts between us.

So I couldn’t have been more surprised today when they returned the connection to me. In mail came a fat envelope that said “Buen Camino,” full of inspirational quotes, scallop shell confetti, hand-made keychains, and a real scallop with love notes written on it to carry in my pocket.


I don’t even have words. Just speechless tears of gratitude.

How amazing to be loved right back. For my seeking to be understood, even just a little, by these two young women I admire so much.

To think–I was so worried I might feel lonely on this return trip. Now I know two Camino angels who will be along for the journey.

(Two and a half days!!!)

Serendipity, songs, and pre-Camino angels

I knew my blue mood wasn’t permanent

Ever since my Camino, I’ve come to believe that invisible spirits look out for me, guide me, support my path. Yours too. Although my logical side wants to deny this, sometimes the coincidences are too numerous to ignore.

The key is being open. It’s about remaining unattached to How Things Will Turn Out. A few days ago, I surrendered the need to know.

Not surprisingly, signs started showing up. My blue mood lifted. Hope and excitement began bubbling up in its place. By doing my part and letting go, I started hearing the messages that were there all along.

Song angels

When I was on the Camino, song angels would come and whisper lyrics of a long-forgotten melody into my ears. Receiving these songs was a profound spiritual experience. When Desperado came to me, for example, I remembered to come down from my fences and open the gate of my heart. Each song that arrived carried with it a message my soul needed to hear.

Styx and Sparks

Now they’re showing up before I leave. One song came in the grocery store last week. Two days ago, it was Show Me the Way by Styx—a tune I haven’t heard in years. Its message of surrender and trust reminded me not to worry and to trust that the Way is there for me to find.

Show me the way, show me the way
Take me tonight to the river
And wash my illusions away
Please, show me the way

The next day, a more contemporary song—One Step at a Time by Jordin Sparks—came to me like a silver thread. The drum beats are actual footsteps, and its message is about taking your time, making one choice, taking one breath, and focusing on what you can do.

When you can’t wait any longer
But there’s no end in sight
It’s your faith that makes you stronger
The only way we get there
Is one step at a time

I needed to hear these words. We all do.

People angels

The Divine uses people as messengers too.

Three songs and then a day later, dear Meg, the original Camino archangel, called me out of the blue.

As we caught up, it became clear that both Meg and I are walking at life’s edges, challenged by conflicting choices. We talked about the difference between thinking and knowing. How to make everything more complicated with cruel self-judgment. How hard it is to really change your life.

We also reminisced about our Camino when the topic of gear came up. Meg told me about a sweet woman she met who was carrying a third of her own weight on her back. When Meg eventually helped lighten this woman’s load, she revealed she was carrying no fewer than a half-dozen knives from well-meaning friends.

Meg contagious laughter got me going. “Why would anyone need six knives?” she asked.

“It’s not like the Camino is in the wilderness!” I said. “No hacksaw necessary!”

Meg cracked up. “Right! Do you even really need one? I mean, if you have cheese, you can just bite some off with your teeth! And the lightweight sporks, Jen! What the fuck?”

Our laughter was cathartic.

You can pack your bag full for every contingency, and it will physically hurt you—even end your Camino early. In the same way, you can fill your mind with every worry, doubt, and fear—and ruin a perfectly lovely walk. That mental mess makes you miss the blessings, the serendipity, and life-changing messages.

Wake up

As we discussed Meg’s current big decision, I suggested the best way to get the outcome she’s looking for is to get really clear about what she wants.

“I have to disagree,” she said, surprising me. “I fuck up everything I try to influence. I really think the point is to let go of control.”

As a lifelong control freak, this got my attention.

She continued, “Someone asked me once why I should set the bar myself, when I have no idea how happy I’m capable of being. If you try to control everything, you limit the outcomes of what’s possible. Your ideas of what you can create are too small, too limited. Let go instead and see what shows up. It could be even better than you can imagine.”

Wow. Just whack that nail on its shiny little head.

Stay open and let go

These words, from exactly the right person, were just what I needed to hear. Her humor lightened my worries, and our conversation reminded me to open my heart to the wonder and miracles everywhere.

When we were just about to hang up, she said, “If I don’t talk to you before you go, have an amazing time, Jen. Don’t pack too much.”

“In more ways than one, right?” We both laughed.

“Yeah,” she said. “Try to keep it to just one knife.”

What will it be like walking backwards to Saint Jean Pied de Port?

For all the certainty I feel about my call to walk the Camino in reverse, it feels strange not to be walking toward something. Saint Jean Pied de Port is a lovely Basque town, but it lacks Santiago’s saint and the epic coastline of Fistera and Muxia.

If I were European doing this trip, I might literally be walking home. Though few modern pilgrims do, ancient peregrinos left a cozy bed—and voila!—their pilgrimage began. All they did was step out the front door and go to their closest cathedral, where pilgrims united with guards in tow. Once the whole band walked to Santiago, they turned around and walked home again. The closest I can come to simulating that experience is to return to the beginning of my original journey (SJPP) and hope to get a bed at the albergue where I spent my first night.

In reality, my walk is not a return to a location, but to a place within. To walk the Camino backwards and arrive in the Pyreneen foothills is to revisit who I was on April 18, 2013. It is an practice in noticing how the Camino has changed me and how I’ve used the experience to grow in the time since.

Oh, I was so adorably naive!

That day, I was so tired and jetlagged when I arrived—and so clueless. Where do I go? Why is the pilgrim office so far from the train station? Did they really have to put everything at the top of a hill? Why do the welcome center volunteers seem so gruff?

That newly-arrived pilgrim was so eager to have other people like her. So willing to put her own needs in second place to get along. There was no way this journey wouldn’t change her, make her more resilient, but it would have to break her first. It would have to challenge her so profoundly, that her old ways of being would break under the weight of their ineffectiveness.

Pretending nothing was wrong would stop working when her feet hurt so badly, she could barely walk. And later when she got a fever and an ear infection. Denial stopped working. Her body’s needs forced her to wake up and take action.

The pattern of trying to get other people’s approval would break when she repeatedly ignored her own needs to keep her Camino family together. Then, when they were all gone, she would face loneliness head on and discover what it would teach her.

Pushing down her emotions would stop working when she experienced a profound and magnetic attraction to another pilgrim. The feelings couldn’t be banished. This unfamiliar situation would push her to the edge.

At the beginning, I had no idea how the Camino would test me. Maybe it’s better I didn’t, but I’m glad angels showed up.

Camino angels

On that first day in Saint Jean Pied de Port, I met a man who told us how he left his wife and four children for a Camino romance. Even now, I marvel at how irrationally angry I felt about his story. (Chicken shit, I believe, were my inner words of choice. Not a very nice thing to call an angel.)

As I sat in judgment of him, I was blissfully unaware. I couldn’t have known I would meet someone who’d take my breath away 500 miles from that very place. I would face the very same dilemma.

Now, having lived that dilemma, I understand how human it is to want the more exciting path over the harder one. I’d been emotionally absent in my own marriage long before I left for the Camino. When I returned home, I faced a decision: to be as open with my wife as I’d been with Meg—or leave. There were really no other alternatives.

Would I have chosen the same if that Camino angel hadn’t crossed my path and given me fair warning? Had I not been so furious at his choice, would I have been as informed about making my own? In the end, I opted for integrating the Camino’s lessons. I chose to transform myself and re-choose my marriage with an undivided heart. That’s not the right choice for everyone, but for me, it was a path toward wholeness, of living an undivided life.

The power of intention

As I arrived in Saint Jean Pied de Port, I didn’t know any of this awaited me. My stated hope had been “to be changed” by the Camino, and I was. Or, more accurately, the Camino shaped me. And then I used the experience to change my life.

Looking ahead, retracing my steps will give me time to consider the soul-ground I’ve trod the three years since, and invite completion.

At least, that’s my intention for this return trip. Who knows what else it has in store for me?

And for you too…

If you’ve already walked the Camino, reflecting on the journey, its angels, and lessons invites profound spiritual and personal insights. You don’t even have to walk it backwards for this to happen! It’s enough journal, share, reminisce, and connect with others who’ve walked similar paths. What’s important is to make the conscious choice to apply these insights to your life and live them.

The rewards are worth the trip. ❤