Flight screwups and glorious training hikes!

Getting to the Camino

This morning, I sat down to confirm all my Camino transportation details and discovered a mistake in my flight schedule. My mistake.

My original plan was to:

  1. fly to Dublin on a red-eye
  2. fly to Santiago the same day
  3. stay in town that night to rest up
  4. then take a bus to Finisterre in the morning

Well! Precise scheduling details like this are not my strong suit. I transposed a date on my spreadsheet and gummed up this tidy little plan.

So now I will:

  1. fly to Dublin overnight on that same red-eye
  2. stay in Dublin that night at a hotel
  3. Take my flight to Santiago the next day
  4. and hope to catch an evening a bus to Finisterre or Cee

Even though the tidiness is gone (and a degree of uncertainty and the need for hope inserted), it’s not that big a deal. My ego is just a tad bruised. I want to spend as little time getting there so I can be there.

In other news!

Training Hike #8

Distance: 7.2 mi
Elevation gain/loss: 1000 ft.
Pack weight: 10lbs

Martha is a new Camino friend I met back in December when I attended the Portland APOC Christmas potluck. She met me at Silver Falls State Park for a hike despite mud, rain, and wind. It’s a beautiful place in any kind of weather!

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We hiked for several hours and even with the steep elevation gain and loss, my knees didn’t hurt or swell at all! Woohoo!

We had Camino-quality conversations too. My favorite part about walking is the freedom and spaciousness to discuss whatever topics come to mind, to listen, to share deeply from the heart. I want to remember that conversations like these aren’t just a Camino thing. They come from making a choice to show up authentically and vulnerably with others anywhere.

Training Hike #9

Distance: 8.2 mi
Elevation gain/loss: 1240 ft.
Pack weight: 12lbs

Then! Last weekend, I got to stay with my friend Nancy. You remember her, right? She is my right-hand training buddy and Camino soul sister who walked the Way last fall.

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When Nancy was preparing and training last year, I was living vicariously (and a little enviously) through her. Now that I’m getting ready, she confesses to the same.

Jen and Nancy

We agreed to do a hard hike and chose Cascade Head on the Oregon coast. I love this hike. In terms of geology, it’s a lot like Finisterre—a tall, narrow landmass that juts out into the ocean—only with more trees. The elevation gain is 1,200 feet up and back down again. And the views? Stunning.

Cascade Head

Except when you ascend into the clouds.

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At the top, we met a tall, hip-looking woman and talked together for a few moments. Then she disappeared into the mist.

Nancy and I had decided to be clever by leaving one car at a different trailhead so we could walk just one way, Camino-like. What we didn’t plan for was the scary trail closure sign (threatening a $5000 fine and 6 months in jail) that met us as we proceeded into the woods toward my car.

We agonized, really. We’re both first-born big sisters and good girls with a strong sense of responsibility.

“We should probably go back the way we came,” Nancy said.

“But I really want to have our adventure!” I whined.

“Me too!”

We scrutinized the sign: TRAIL CLOSED TO ALL FOOT, BIKE, AND MOTOR TRAFFIC. When I’d parked my car, a similar sign specified only a single trail to avoid. I’d thought we were in the clear. Now doubt set in.

“I know this is to protect a fragile butterfly species,” I said. “I guess we should do the right thing.”

“Yeah. We should.”

On the way back down the hill, the tall lady passed us.

“Where did you go after we talked with you?” I asked.

“Oh, I walked down the road a way.”

“Did you see the sign?” Nancy asked.

“Oh, yeah. I didn’t think it applied to me,” she said pragmatically. She was right. It was only the side trail we needed to avoid.

Nancy burst out laughing, “The two good little Catholic girls followed the rules.”

“And this Jewish girl ignored them!” We all laughed.

For me, the lesson is to not make decisions from a place of fear. Choose because of love, because of passion, because of joy. Don’t step on butterflies, of course, but don’t diminish your truth and your calling out of fear.

There’s a big difference between fear and actual danger.

Getting ready!

These two hikes really tested my body and allowed me to discover what it’s capable of doing despite the diagnosis. I’ve felt a little sore, but my knees felt terrific. I couldn’t be more thrilled.

I’m getting really, really, REALLY excited for Spain.

What’s the point of pilgrimage? No, really.

Photo credit

Lately, as I wake in the morning, I can feel the realization dawn over my body like a wave of prickles cascading from head to toes: Jesus. Seven weeks. In seven weeks, I’ll be in Spain. In seven weeks, I’ll be walking every day.

I haven’t been blogging because I’m feeling pretty discouraged at the moment. Not with my body or my training, but with what’s happening in my country. On one hand, I want to stay informed. On the other, everything I see about the presidential race shocks me, appalls me, and scares me. What are we doing? Most candidates are sleeping with Big Money (or want to) and another is talking about the size of his sexual organ. What on earth is happening?

It feels as though the very fabric of this country–one with so many kind and generous souls–is being stretched and torn. Is it race? Is it sexuality? Gender? A growing millennial generation with wholly different values than the old, dying guard? I have no answers, but a growing dread of September elections.

With all of this going on, I’m deeply in doubt about the usefulness and relevance of pilgrimage in a modern, connected age. What’s the point of unplugging and walking? Why spend all that money, time, and energy? What does it accomplish, and how does it solve anything?

I am having a dark night of the soul. It’s not permanent, but it is real: Part of me truly and earnestly does not want to walk another five hundred miles. It feels like such an interruption of my life that, in many ways, I haven’t learned to live since my Camino three years ago. Yes, despite the fact that I’ve assented to this calling, I am not thrilled with it. I’m resisting it still because I don’t see the point.

Maybe that’s the way a calling works. A yes is required before anything will be revealed about the journey or its purpose. The messages I heard over a year ago were clear and unequivocal, “You will walk again. You will return to the beginning.”

I assented. I will go.

It’s then I remember that the Camino is life. There is nothing we can do that isn’t part of the journey. I can walk in Spain, or I can walk through my own neighborhood. I can open my heart to other pilgrims as we share a meal, or I can open my heart to the person behind me in the coffee drive through or give a five bucks and banana to the homeless guy with the cardboard sign. It’s all part of the same journey. There is nothing outside it. Everything is included.

This helps me remember that my country is on its own journey—of which I am a part. We are called to create a more perfect union. That is our purpose. We said yes to this over two hundred years ago, but we don’t know where that will lead. Our country’s journey is a camino.

So with all of this swirling around in my mind this morning, I walked into the grocery store to pick up a few things, and I received another message. A confirmation. A benediction: The song playing on the PA system was a Camino anthem, “I will walk five hundred miles, and I will walk five hundred more…”

I get it. This path I walk is blessed. All our paths are.

Buen camino, peregrinos. Keep walking.

Needs and knees: Camino training hike #5

The deep need for the Camino experience

Every pilgrim I’ve ever met longs to reconnect with the Camino experience after they return. Sometimes you feel it so deeply, it’s like a physical ache—yet it goes mysteriously unnamed. What is this? Why do I miss it so much? What can I do to make this uncomfortable feeling go away?

This feeling reminds me of the springtime buds about to pop where I live. How uncomfortable to be a swelling flower, furled up and encased in a husk. The Camino revitalizes the soul after years-long winter. Post-pilgrimage longing is an urge to burst into bloom, to be radiantly alive every day, the way we were as pilgrims.

Out of that feeling, at least for me, comes a desire to connect meaningfully with other pilgrims. Nothing nourishes me more than connecting with other souls who willingly challenge themselves and ponder life’s deep questions.

Walking is a kind of meditation. To intentionally walk with others can be a sacred, moving ritual.

Training Hike #5

Distance: 5.5 mi
Elevation gain/loss: 25? ft.
Pack weight: 8lbs

Although the easiest, most obvious choice would be to participate in the monthly event hosted by my closest APOC chapter, the idea of gathering with friends to do longer walks held more appeal.

So, for training hike number five, I met up with two aspiring peregrinas and a veteran. Together, we walked along the interconnected paths and parks of Salem. The weather was astonishingly beautiful for early February.

The walk was full of happy accidents. One in our group realized she needed a hat just as we approached Salem’s independent camping gear store. From a hilltop in one park, a guy practicing his trombone, giving us a free, quarter-mile performance. When we stopped for a restroom break, we broke metaphorical bread by sharing chocolate (maybe that’s even better).

Along the way, we compared the merits of gear options for long-distance walking. The aspiring pilgrims asked wonderful questions about the Camino, probing especially for the meaning, the significance, and the moments that made it so much more than just a walk, but a life-changing, soul-healing experience.

Knees

Addressing my arthritis diagnosis is still a relatively new thing for me. I mean, how can I be old enough to have arthritis in the first place??

After finishing the previous training hike with Nancy, it was clear my knee had had too much. Within a few hours, it tingled, felt mildly warm, and was a bit puffy. I suspect that the combination of a ten-pound pack and almost 1000 feet elevation loss and gain over 2.5 miles had been too big a change from all the mostly-flat walking I’ve done so far.

On training hike number five, I was glad for the flat walking, but my knee was still uncomfortable. A few times, it even hurt a bit. This was new and unnerved me. I can’t be messing with this in Spain. I can’t just walk the way I did last time with only meager training. I’ve got to be ready.

Writing it will make me accountable, so I’m recommitting here to doing my daily physical therapy exercises and taking all of my physician-prescribed supplements. Doing yoga was really helping me too, but I just got bust. So I’m going to do that at least every three days.

I do not want to be caught by surprise while walking the Camino. I want my body to be in great shape before I get there.

On the up-side, I’ve lost seven pounds so far. This is helping lighten the literal load on my joints. I would like to lose another seven before I leave (10 weeks left!), so I might have to forego the chocolate I love so much—at least until I’m walking on the Camino!

Simulating the Camino at home

I loved walking with these ladies and talking about life, our respective journeys, and the Camino.

peregrinas on the train bridge in Salem

The need to connect, to gather, to share unstructured time in community is a deep human need. As hard as it can be to find, all we need is a clear intention to create it. Although not everyone can walk (or return to) the Camino for various reasons, the experience can be simulated or recreated to similar effect.

After the walk, we gathered at my home to share a potluck meal—a cozy end to a beautiful day—all vowing to walk again soon.

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. ❤

Camino training hike 3 and Altus poncho review

Everyone has been asking me when I see them—at work, socially, my family—how’s the training going?

It’s going!

Training hike 3

Distance: 5.55 miles
Pack weight: 5lbs

A peregrina friend sent me her Altus poncho to borrow for my upcoming Camino. The morning of my third training hike, I saw the threatening clouds and drizzle and was excited to test it out! (Only in Oregon are we excited about this kind of weather!)

Honestly, I’ve been kicking myself since April 2013, when I passed up the opportunity to purchase an Altus in Saint Jean Pied de Port. They’re part-poncho, part-raincoat with sleeves, but not sold outside of Europe. In fact, today they’re not available at all because they’re not made anymore. When my peregrina friend offered to lend me hers to use in Spain, I was tickled!

As soon as I arrived at the park, got my pack on, and the poncho situated, this happened.

Keizer Rapids Park

The sky cleared.

Even with only a slight mist, the wind was strong. Ponchos are notoriously billowy, so I was curious to see how it responded in the wind.

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The hood has tiny clips allowing for adjustment of fit. The wrist sleeves are elastic. The zipper was surprisingly tiny–maybe to keep out water? There’s a protective flap over the zipper with velcro closure to keep out the rain. My favorite part is the back which works like a wedding-gown bustle. Snap it up, and it’s short when you’re around town. Unsnap the three fasteners, and it’s longer and pouchy to fit over your backpack.

Like a floating bright blue cloud, I passed three women with five small dogs. One quipped, “The rain won’t get you today!”

The earthworm game

After a night of rain, the paved footpath had thousands of tiny earthworms all over it. They reminded me of the little snails on the Camino path every morning. I hated stepping on them, so I turned it into a game. At my walking speed, I stared at the ground as they “sped” by placing my foot so I wouldn’t squish one.

This nightcrawler was so huge (I wear a size 11 shoe), he insisted we take a selfie together.

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It’s amazing how your mind can wander as you walk. Seeing this sign along the road into the park made me recall my early driving days in high school.

bump ahead sign

“Bump ahead!” yelled my impish, slightly younger-than-me brother.

The yell was followed by a shove to my forehead, bumping the back of my skull into the car’s headrest. “Hey!!” I replied in protest.

“Sign says ‘Bump a head,’ so I did!”

A grin. Do all siblings mildly torture each other this way?

Back to the poncho again

After 20 minutes, I was hot. I was afraid that would happen. The Altus has no side or pocket vents, no tiny armpit holes to let out the warmth the body produces while exercising. After 40 minutes, I took a short rest. When I took off the Altus, I discovered the chest and shoulder area drenched with condensation.

My first reaction was disappointment. I really wanted to use this poncho, so lovingly shared by a friend. There’s just no way to hike for hours with this much moisture inside. My next reaction was profound remorse: I had steered my friend toward purchasing this jacket for her own Camino. (I’m so sorry, Sarah!)

The danger in non-ventilating rain gear is hypothermia. All that condensation makes your clothes wet, makes you wet, and can lower your body temperature—especially if the air is cool, if it’s windy, or if you need to rest, sodden, for any reason. Wet and cold are not a good combination.

The problem is that the better your rain gear vents body heat and dampness, the chances of getting rain under the protective barrier increase.

So, I’m back to the drawing board. I do have my original Camino poncho, the model that leaked and is on the heavy side. If I can tape the leaky seams, it could work. It’s not ideal, though.

The other idea I keep tossing around came from a convincing article I read about hiking with a lightweight umbrella. A reflective parsol takes the place of rain gear, eliminates the need for a hat, allows for complete ventilation, and protects against sun (portable shade!). The average price is about the same as a decent lightweight poncho or rain suit. The down side is that legs can get wet, but that’s true with ponchos too.

So rain gear is on the agenda again.

In the meantime, I walked my longest training distance yet five and a half miles, and felt really good. No funky knees, no soreness the day after, just a touch of stiffness in my right foot toward the end. I’m averaging fifteen minutes per mile too, which is about right for me.

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More hikes are in the plans!

Do you have a good rain gear solution? I’d love to hear about it!

Camino training hikes 1 and 2

At a bent elbow of the Willamette river sits a quirky little park with just enough trail for training. Since my current goal is to increase distance (elevation comes later), paved trails on a riverbed are perfect.

Training hike 1

Distance: 4.12 miles
Pack weight: 4lbs

Late in the afternoon, Mary and I decided to go together to take advantage of the sun. While she bee-lined to the river’s edge to hunt for agates, jasper, and petrified wood, I did a full two loops of the park.

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We’ve had a lot of el niño-related storms, so the water was unbelievably high and running fast.

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At the end, we walked back to the car, and this spray-painted arrow appeared on our path. Whenever I see these somewhere random, they remind me of the Camino’s yellow arrows that direct pilgrims to Santiago. This particular arrow pointed us back the way we’d just come—just the way all my upcoming Camino arrows will be.

 

Training hike 2

Distance: 4.54 miles
Pack weight: 4lbs

Same park, different day—this time solo in early morning. I had the park practically to myself.

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It was lovely not having anyone around to stare at my backpack-and-walking-sticks getup. I swear I am going to train in the rain (especially if I ever get my Camino rain gear figured out), but I was so grateful for the mid-winter sun.

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The river is high again, but not nearly as swollen as before. As I walked along the path, I heard the croak of a great blue heron (AKA pterodactyl) protesting my presence and a number of songbirds testing out their songs (yellow-rumped warbler, winter wren, Anna’s hummingbird, among others).

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I spied a flock of small waterfowl bobbing in a back current, but I couldn’t identify them. As I stood there, breathing in the quiet, a pair of Canada geese aloft called to each other, their wingtips almost touching. It’s hard to believe nesting might already be in progress in late January.

This forested half-mile along the water is my favorite part of the park. The rest of my loop is through open field that runs beside an old hazelnut orchard. Although I resist taking my camera at all, I loved the sunlight, mist, and trees full of fuzzy catkins. Spring is coming!

 

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Most of all, I’m grateful this sweet little park is so close to home. It means I can get my early training and mileage doing without having to drive very far to a trail.

At the moment, I’m working on a training calendar that will help me get up to fifteen miles and will post about it soon. My hope is to feel strong before I leave for Spain. With these two first hikes in, I know I can do it!

Meeting Meg again

After two years of almost-silence, Meg emails me to say she’s thinking about leaving London to relocate to the US and planning a cross-country tour of organic farms. She asks, “Do you think I could see you while I’m in Oregon?”

Meg was a Camino archangel to me. Meeting her changed the course of my life as we walked together from Santiago to Finisterre. For many reasons, I was afraid to tell her at the time what she meant to me or how instrumental her example was in making major changes in my life.

Because of this, you can imagine the excitement I feel when she parks her truck in our driveway a few months later and walks up to the house. I can hardly believe it. It’s the real Meg. Not the woman I conjured up for so many months after we walked together, nor the one I pined for and missed, but the living, breathing soul on a new adventure. She is every bit as beautiful as I remembered, but I’m more grounded now. Content. Happy.

Meg stays with us for four days, meeting Mary, our friends, and hanging out. She’s been on the road for weeks and seems grateful for the warm hospitality. To me, her visit feels like an opportunity to bring things to completion somehow. Instead of the hike I planned, we decide to take a mini road trip together to my favorite wilderness retreat center whose main attraction are its hot spring-fed soaking pools.

*   *   *

On the drive up, we pass scenic gorges, rivers, and thick forests and reminisce about our shared journey and talk about what we learned on the Camino.

“I discovered my best self in Spain,” I tell her. “I felt strong and confident and happy. Walking with the guys was amazing because I realized how simple life could be. How easy. It was so liberating for me, ever the control freak.”

She laughs. There’s more I want to say, but I hesitate. Can I? 

“And then I met you. I had so much fun walking with you out of Atapuerca into Burgos, but didn’t think I’d ever see you again. One of the things that impressed me was your clear desire to walk alone. So, when we met again in Santiago, and you said you wanted to walk with me, I was shocked—and thrilled.”

“I’m sure,” she says, smiling.

“I was! Meg. . .” If I learned anything from my time with Meg, it was the importance of telling the truth. Keeping silent nearly destroyed me. I want her to know how much she changed my life, and this might be my only chance to say it. “Look. Here’s the whole story. . .” My mouth is dry. “I felt so attracted to you.”

From the corner of my eye, I see her look out the window. We’re driving over rutted road in the wilderness, and the truck bounces around suddenly. “Is this where you drive us off the cliff?” she asks. “Like Thelma and Louise?” We both burst out laughing.

“It’s nothing like that. It’s just. . .” How can I say this so she can hear it? “I met this woman on the Camino, and in all my life I have never been so powerfully attracted to another person—physically or energetically. I walked with her for five days and the feeling just got stronger. I was awakened by her. That woman was you.”

She doesn’t say anything for a moment, as if digesting my words. “But. . . wait. . . but you’ve been with other people.”

“I know. I know it doesn’t make sense. I can’t explain it. It’s like I woke up for the first time.” I need to slow down, so I take a breath. “What I felt for you was physical, but it was also energetic, like a soul connection. It shocked me awake. I’ve never felt anything like it in my life.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah. And at the same time, I was also terrified. Of acting on it, of upsetting you, of hurting Mary. So I did everything I could to push it down, not let it show.”

“I had no idea.”

“You really didn’t?” I believe her, but I’m surprised.

“No.” She shakes her head earnestly.

“Wow, I guess I’m better at hiding my feelings than I thought.”

She laughs. “When I like someone, I’m always convinced they know.” I grin back. Isn’t that the way?

“When I came back home, nothing in my life felt the same. It took a long time to understand, but I had to figure out how to make myself happy. I didn’t know what was going on for you, but even if you felt the same, it isn’t fair to put the responsibility of my happiness on you. That’s not healthy or even right. I had to do the work myself. In the last year or so, I’ve gotten a lot clearer about my path . . . I learned so much from you, Meg. I’ll always be grateful.”

Now we’re parked at the retreat center office. We can check in at any time and go soak, but she’s still sitting here with me, listening intently.

“I’ve always wanted to ask you.” In for a penny, in for a pound. “I was kind of confused . . . when we were watching the sunset at Finisterre, you said ‘this is romantic,’ and I’ve always wondered . . .”

“Oh,” she interrupts. “Oh, yeah,” a grin spreads across her face. “I was just saying, you know, it was so beautiful there, and that guy came over and gave us wine. I was just thinking it would be a great thing to do on a date.”

“Well, that’s what I thought!” I laugh. “But then you started asking about whether Mary and I ever watched the sun set and how far we lived from the ocean. I was all like, ‘What does she mean? Is she saying what I think?'” At the time, I wanted to believe she was hinting we should be together.

“Oh, man.” We’re both smiling.

“I have to tell you, Meg, it took every ounce of effort I had not to kiss you just then. I forced myself to stare straight out at the ocean and not look at you. I couldn’t. If I had—I mean, I wasn’t sure how you felt, but I also didn’t want to hurt Mary.”

She looks at me. “Does she know about all this?”

“Yes.”

“God, she must hate me.”

“No. She doesn’t, actually. You didn’t do anything.” She laughs. “In fact, Mary and I had some good talks when you said you might be coming to visit. She said, ‘What kind of relationship would this be if I kept you from spending time with someone? Meg was a really important person on your Camino. I won’t interfere with that.’”

“Wow.”

“I know.”

“I wonder what I would have done if you had kissed me.”

Her idle musing makes me pause, but I know with all my heart that things happened as they were meant to. “I didn’t really know what was happening for you. I couldn’t risk it. I guess the dolphins were a good distraction.”

“Oh, my God! The goats!” Meg lets out a joyous laugh, remembering how I had heard a sound I mistook for dolphins in the ocean. They were actually bleating wild goats on the cliff below us. “That was so crazy!”

I’m grinning from the memory, but also with the pure and utter relief of having told the truth and requesting hers. I’m at peace. Now I know.

“So, I’ve shared a lot,” I say. “I can’t tell you how thankful I am for you listening. I’m curious how you feel about what I’ve said.”

Something about her demeanor changes, becomes softer. Is she touched that I ask her this? “I just had no idea that was going on for you. No idea. You hid it well!”

“That’s not necessarily a good thing.” I smile. That was part of the lesson too. I can’t hide anymore. I have to be myself.

“So, now you’re over it.” I can’t tell if her words are a question or a statement.

“Well. . .” It won’t help anything to tell her how I thought about her every day for more than a year. It won’t change anything to tell her how I forced myself to stop playing the “what if” game because I might literally have gone crazy. A soul mate shows up to wake you up; use the lessons and you’ll transform, but try to trap the lesson-giver, and you’ll both be miserable.  “I will always think you’re amazing,” I say from the heart. These aren’t the right words, but they’re enough. “Wanna go check in?”

“Sure,” she says. So we do.

 *   *   *

After six weeks of walking the Camino, my heart broke wide open. Only then, when Meg showed up, was I ready for the unflinching message she brought me: Are you living the life you want? And if not, what are you going to do about it?

Meg was a smart, curious, and witty messenger. The lessons she transmitted were powerful: speak your truth, be who you are without apology, be adventurous, and listen deeply. So deep was my need to hear these that I confused the message with messenger. I couldn’t see a way to live the lessons without her in my life. I was very lost for a long time before I came to understand this: Meg showed up on my path to awaken me, but she was not the awakening itself.

The attraction I felt for Meg almost destroyed my marriage. Keeping it a secret made it worse. In the year that followed my Camino, I discovered my wife is made of far stronger stuff than I ever imagined. Mary’s love for me and her belief in our relationship carried us through many painful, distant days. She waited me out as I unearthed the Camino’s insights and finally found the courage to live daily what I learned from Meg: speak the truth, laugh, be passionate, and most of all, live!

Through that difficult process, we didn’t just save our marriage, I reclaimed my life.

*   *   *

Seeing Meg again somehow brings everything full circle.

It’s early autumn and a perfect blue-sky day. We spend it eating delicious meals, soaking in natural hot springs, and talking about Meg’s current adventures. Later, we sit in silence under scented cedars and breathe the cool air by the river. As the day of laughter and conversation draws to a close, I ask her if she wants me to make good on the back rub offer I’d mentioned a few days before.

“Yeah!” she says, almost scoffing.

“I just want to assure you my intention is totally clean.” This is true.

“I know.”

I crouch behind her, resting my hands above her scapulas when I learn her secret. Though she doesn’t say a word, her body tells me: it’s been years since someone has touched her lovingly. Her shoulders feel like a tortoise shell, impenetrable.

“Do you tend to carry your tension in your shoulders?” I ask.

She exhales abruptly, “Yeah.”

“It feels like you’re carrying a lot.”

We barely talk, but for those fifteen minutes I get to give her something she’s actually willing to receive. Her body gradually loosens, but this tension seems at odds with the openness, playfulness, and spontaneity I see in her.

And it makes me wonder: do we ever really know anything about a person beyond what we project onto them? For all the time Meg and I spent together in Spain, and the countless hours I’ve thought about her since we were last together, I don’t really know who she is. I feel sad for her unspoken struggle. And more so because I’m not the one who can heal her. Maybe only she can.

When I’m done, her muscles are softer, though not fully released. As I rest my palms on her back behind her heart, a prayer comes to me so forcefully, tears spring to my eyes:

Bless this magnificent woman.

Bless her on her journey into the world.

Help her know how precious she is.

Amen.

In the silence, we both take a deep breath. For the first time since I met Meg, I am finally letting her go.

Doing a Slow Camino

A slow down sign

Back in 1980s Italy, the land of homemade pastas, sauces, and delicious wines, where food is an art and a way of expressing love, Rome’s citizens protested plans for a McDonalds restaurant. Can you blame them? What an affront to la dolce vita, a proud way of life!

From that protest sprang a celebration of preparing food intentionally using locally-sourced ingredients. The movement was dubbed Slow Food (in contrast to fast food) and has since grown a following around the world. Some of Slow Food’s offspring are Slow Cities, Slow Talk, and Slow Travel—with the common theme being consciously stopping the hurry and choosing to be present with what you are doing. It’s called the Slow Movement.

A crash course in slow

When I was on Molokai for three weeks this summer, I got a front-row seat to slow living. I’m one wound-up chica most of the time and don’t even realize it. The daily, relentless slowness of the island made me downshift and truly relax. It made a difference for the whole experience. Had I whisked in to Teri’s bookstore like a selfish haole (literally without breath), I would never have been invited to sit with locals talking story or learn of the island’s sacred places.

The idea of intentional slowness on my next Camino has been coming up a lot.

What does a slow Camino look like?

I can only give you my version. Perhaps my reflections will give you a chance to think about what a Slow Camino is to you.

Deeply appreciating my environment

My journal from 2013 has numerous sketches of the birds and wildflowers I saw. A walking pace makes it easy to take note of the rocks underfoot, observe geological formations, and the changing terrain. Noticing my environment often leaves me in a state of wonder about my smallness in creation and gratitude for being alive. As I move through towns and open spaces, I want to be present enough to look gently and appreciatively into the faces of the people I pass.

Eating what the locals eat

No matter how desperately I may long for peanut butter or oatmeal, allowing myself to hunger for these familiar foods is a powerful spiritual practice. Sitting with longing can invite gratitude or show me how to be satisfied with what I have. Eating how the locals do invites delight in tasting foods grown nearby and prepared by hand, even if unfamiliar.

Being open to spontaneous connection

Some of the most profound moments of my first Camino came from a smile that led to a conversation and unexpected generosity. Locals gave me gifts, wine, invitations to dinner, good directions, tips on places to eat, a laugh, encouragement on a hard day, and so much more. But I had to be willing to connect, to look up and make eye contact. This takes vulnerability!

Often, the timing of these unexpected meeting was just what I needed—a tremendous gift for this self-reliant introvert. Connections reminded me that humans are communal creatures. We need each other.

Relying on signs, maps, and the kindness of strangers

I could carry a device with accurate maps, but I want to learn what I’m made of. Some might say this makes the journey unnecessarily harder. If I get off track, what does this allow me to discover? Can I ask for and receive help? Getting lost on the Camino can contain may prepare me for times when I get lost in life, where neither GPS or Google street view are an option. This takes courage, but the insights are worth it.

Space and time for reflection

Have you ever been in the middle of a short walk or a long shower and had a new insight about a long-standing problem? To me, this is what slow travel provides. Removing myself from the everyday habits and triggers of my life allows space for new thoughts and ideas to arise. On the Way, each unhurried day unfolds at walking pace, leaving ample time for reflection.

On my last Camino, writing each night was a priority, and I cherish the memories that arise when I read my journal. For me, journaling daily is a way to synthesize the many experiences that take place and mine them for meaning. Both walking and writing have an inherent slowness to them that allows the mind to relax its grip and the heart to unfold.

Little to no technology

This topic deserves its own post, but I’ll say that by its very nature, technology is fast. Technology today is also tiny. A sponge-sized computer allows us to make reservations, take photos, store endless songs and books, make connections via video, bank online, and perform countless other functions. It’s a miracle, really. There’s no denying the plentiful and myriad advantages of carrying a cell phone.

But. (You knew that was coming.) As a highly distractable person with a technology addiction, every second of screen time takes me away from my surroundings. It’s just that simple. For every dollar I’ve raised or saved to get myself back to Spain, I simply can’t bring myself to waste a single minute on Facebook or behind a lens. Will I get lonely and want to connect online? Absolutely. Will I wish I could take a photo of someone or something while I walk? Yes. Will I wish I could make a reservation somewhere? Possibly. The bottom line is I will be able to survive without these tools in the same way that an alcoholic can survive without wine and beer (and even thrive).

To me, the absence of technology is a choice that makes room for a different, less-controlled experience in spite of its myriad advantages. It’s this lack of control and decreased speed I’m longing for on my return to Spain.

Enjoyment

With fewer distractions and a slow pace, the pilgrim can be fully present to notice herself think, hear Divine whispers, and witness the truths of other travelers. She can delight in discovering the world around her and connect meaningfully with fellow humans across generations and cultures.

Although pilgrims stay in a new place almost every night, it’s possible to know rural Spain and its provinces in a deeper way that even the Spanish themselves. I came away from my first Camino with an enduring love for its cultures and people.

For this reason, I’m not preoccupied with achieving a specific number of miles per day and am open to taking public transportation if needed. Some say you haven’t “done” the Camino if you haven’t walked every mile, but I’m not among them. I’ve met too many people who got injured on the Way and were still committed to getting to Santiago. If you enjoy the journey and learn something valuable from it, I say it counts as a pilgrimage without exception.

Slow is a state of mind

Years ago, I discovered a book by Carl Honoré called In Praise of Slow and read it cover to cover—twice. In it, he explores the many ways we can bring intention to our everyday lives. I highly recommend it.

As convenient as our speedy culture is, the calling so many hear to walk the Camino may be connected to our collective disillusionment with the pace of our lives. We’re longing for something deeper than fast. And to get it, slowing down enough to walk across a country is one incredible solution. How slow do you want to go?

I’d love to know your thoughts! What does a Slow Camino look like to you?

This might be the week…

This might be the week I actually buy airfare. Committing to those non-refundable, staggeringly-expensive tickets is quite possibly the scariest part of the journey for me.

At present, I am watching no fewer than eight possible itineraries on Google Flights.

flight price graph

Conventional wisdom holds that the best prices are 171 days from departure from the US to Europe. Sadly, everything took a jump last week while I bit my nails and second-guessed myself. I hope I don’t regret that.

In spite of my nerves, the most amazing generosity has been pouring my way. I don’t have adequate words to describe my feelings about this. Stunned comes close. Humbled too. I’ve wept in astonished gratitude more than once. The faith of supporters in my purpose invites me to trust the Divine plan at work in all of this.

 *   *   *

 

In quiet moments, I hear two messages about this journey. One of them is a constant companion, my old chattery brain with its hair-trigger worry reflex. It sets off without stopping to take a breath, “What if you’re doing the wrong thing? What if you’re not supposed to go? Don’t you have better things to do with your time and resources? This is ridiculous. Why are you doing this to yourself?” All reasonable concerns.

But. If I pat this hyper messenger on the head and send it off with a cookie, it settles down. Only then can I hear a second one, a truth-telling guide who whispers gentle, one-word messages in basso profundo, “Go.”

“Are you sure?” I ask.

“Trust.”

Though I lack a strong conviction about the identity of that messenger, its simple statements make my jaw unclench, my shoulders relax, and my body takes a deep, refreshing breath. This gets my attention.

 *   *   *

Tuesday mid-morning is the best time to buy airfare, so I’ll likely be hovering over the “Purchase” button with sweaty palms this week.

With everything happening in the world right now, I hesitate to ask for prayers when so many suffer and endure extreme uncertainty. My struggle seems so small by comparison. What compels me back to Spain is a calling into deeper relationship with the Divine and to be on the path, both literal and spiritual. With my whole heart, I hope to be a beacon of peace wherever I go.

I’d be grateful if you can send up a flare or a prayer for this one pilgrim’s next step.

Risks and sticks — Safety on the Camino de Santiago

“I’m worried about you going back there,” Steve tells me.

“You are?” This is news to me. “I’ve already been there once, you know.”

“It just doesn’t seem safe for a woman alone,” he explains. Steve is twenty-ish years my senior and former military, so I respect his opinion. His words of concern echo my dad’s worries three years ago, when I was planning my first Camino.

“You know, Steve, I have two walking sticks with pointy tips. I’ve thought of at least eight ways to kill someone with those suckers.”

He cracks a smile, “What if there’s more than eight of them?” I burst out laughing.

Steve’s fears about my solo journey aren’t completely unfounded. Last April, when an American pilgrim Denise Thiem disappeared en route, her frantic family turned to social media to try to locate her. Sadly, this fall we learned she was murdered by a local man–now in jail. However, her disappearance sparked unprecedented sharing online about other accounts of harassment, particularly of penis-exposing and groping by older men.

Then, a few months after Denise disappeared, a local Spanish woman was almost abducted by two men in a car while she was out for a walk outside Astorga. This really spooked me. My response was to spend hours online reading about organized crime, the organ trade, and sex trafficking in Europe. It turns out that eastern Europe is where the really scary stuff happens whereas Spain’s organized crime focuses primarily on trafficking tobacco. In other words, it’s just like everywhere else.

For all the creepy details that have emerged from these events, it’s important to view the information about crimes in perspective: over a hundred thousand pilgrims walk the Camino each year without being killed or accosted. In my opinion, it comes down to odds–and the odds of completing this pilgrimage without incident are very favorable.

That said, travelers would do well to prepare for worst-case scenarios in the unlikely event they do occur. For example if you’re traveling internationally, it’s a good idea to learn how to get in touch with your country’s consulate for aid (not the embassy) and know the region’s emergency response number. For pilgrims, it’s important to take precautions en route; don’t let yourself get too tired, hungry, or distracted, making you less able to respond to danger. I spent time online after the near-abduction report came out learning how to prevent an abduction or escape from one. Necessary? Probably not. Good to know? Definitely.

Not to go all Girl Scout on you, but being prepared is a great way to not get hurt or injured. Be prepared, and you’ll be able to deal with the unexpected.

In terms of odds, the real peril comes from the terrain itself since the chances of falling, injury, or breaking a bone are good. The path is sometimes nothing more than a long, downhill swath of loose cobbles. Be alert. Don’t walk while eating, reading, texting, or anything that takes your eyes off the terrain. Historically, one of the biggest killers of pilgrims is of getting struck by oncoming traffic.

As a naturally high-strung person, I am inclined to hear a comment like Steve’s and join him in the fear. As if I don’t already have my own worries! The truth remains that not going on this journey doesn’t make me safer. I could just as easily be accosted or killed by an intruder in my own home, blinds drawn and doors locked. But what kind of life would that be? I can’t wait in fear of an unlikely worst-case scenario. I want to live, to challenge myself and grow!

So I’ve made peace with this fact: it’s not unsafe to be a solo peregrina, but it’s unsafe to travel unprepared. That’s a big difference. I’ve got a good brain and some pointy hiking sticks–and I know how to use them both.

Ultreia!

 

Want to know why I’m doing the Camino in reverse — and how you can help? Read on!