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 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.

Pilgrim wisdom and the US elections

Ever since the US elections, the messages have come in flurries.

From Ireland:

How are you holding up today? Am thinking of you here.

New Zealand:

We have earthquakes, you have Tr*mp. It’s not a perfect world.


How are you feeling with all that’s going on in the US? Have been thinking about you… x


Everyone (people, country…) has to face its demons before growing inside. The world shows that it is the time to do that. Think about yourself and your close ones as light warriors. And remember, whatever happens, at the end, LOVE WINS.

This gesture of reaching out by Camino friends all over the world has touched me deeply.

The Camino community is bigger than nationality

When I was a pilgrim, every time I sat down to dinner with a group, I marveled at the international presence. Every time. Sometimes there were faces from seven, ten, fifteen countries all gathered around a table to share a meal and break bread. We conversed in many languages, and sometimes only with smiles and laughter (maybe the best language of all).

Many pilgrims marvel at this. Some of them say the same thing I did, “All world leaders should have to walk this route before taking office. It would teach them—as it is teaching us—that the similarities are far greater than our differences.” When it comes to hearts, countries don’t matter.

We are a world community

In the wake of our election here in the States, I share the sentiment Nadine expressed in her recent post. This isn’t a political blog, but it would be a denial of the Camino’s gifts not to mention what has shifted. Every person on the planet is affected by what has transpired—the messages I’ve received are proof. We are not separate.

There’s a lot at stake. We are being given the opportunity to face our shadow, as my French friend so wisely observed. We have a choice to make about whether we’ll give in to fear, or rise above it. This question is alive in the US, but it is a global one.

Fear informs, but it doesn’t dictate

On the Camino, pilgrims learn about fear. I faced mountains that scared me yet rose above them. I faced my fear of losing control and became braver and more open. I faced the anxiety of being lost and learned to walk with it.

What the Camino taught me is that fear isn’t a reason to stop. It is a gift that allows me to pull from resources both inside me and from community. Fear just makes you take stock. But it doesn’t stop me anymore.

This is what it means to say that the real Camino starts in Santiago. I have experienced what it means to overcome fear. As we face this confusing, uncertain time in my country’s story, I can use this resiliency on the path ahead. All of us can.

Pilgrim wisdom

What pilgrims know (that our leaders may not) is that we need each other. Some can cook, some guide, others tell great stories or speak better Spanish. We know how deeply satisfying it is to give and receive, even when sharing resources is challenging. We worked together toward a common goal, and help those who are struggling. Even if we could do it alone (and some do), we’ve experienced firsthand that together we are stronger.

This wisdom is useful.

The path ahead

It is my prayer that we choose to welcome everyone to the table, no matter which flag we wave, nor language we speak, nor which Divine name we pray to.

May we commit to living what we learned as pilgrims: the value of welcoming others and of looking out for one another.

If it is possible to live this on the Camino, it is possible everywhere. Let us commit to the path.

Reverse Camino Day 5: Finisterre to Cee

My first day in reverse, attempting to find my way, and the insufferable Australian

Total distance on foot: 8.7mi / 14km
Towns traveled through: Finisterre, Sardiñeiro, Corcubión, Cee
This day in 2013: Day 43-44

What was it like to walk in reverse? That’s what I wanted to know too the morning I left Finisterre behind.

Before I could do this, I had to return Ruby’s bright pink blanket which she’d accidentally left with me the night before. It was still early, the sun barely up and a cool, damp wind blew off the Atlantic into Finisterre’s sleeping streets.

Looking up at her locked hotel, I noticed two men come out of the entrance. As I approached, they held the door open for me, but not without a quick, funny chat in English and Spanish. On my way out, the two men turned into six Spaniards and a young American from Chicago. We gabbed a moment and, as they smoked and laughed, the older Spanish guy complimented me on my English. His humor hinted at my rudeness, but when I’m tired, I’m unable to speak any Spanish or French. I’d offended, but not horribly. They waved me off with a rousing buen Camino!


The first thing I did was wander around the familiar town and look for the yellow painted arrows until I was sure I was on the path, but I then doubted myself over and over. The arrows weren’t as frequent as I’d imagined they’d be. Walking along the high road by the beach, I sensed this was the right direction. Without my compass, I couldn’t verify it. Over and over I wondered as I walked, Is this the Camino? Am I on it?  Any hope that I might remember the route from three years ago dissipated quickly.

Along the way, I passed several old men of varying girths out walking their tiny dogs on skinny little leashes. Whether or not I was on the Camino, they didn’t volunteer and I didn’t ask.

Eventually, the road led to a flagstone-and-concrete path just uneven enough to make walking difficult. Memories surfaced of being here with Meg and growing exhausted before we could reach the town. There wasn’t another soul around. I felt every pound in my pack. On one side, the Camino follows the contours of Playa Langosteira, a long, crescent-shaped white sand beach and on the other pine forest. It was so quiet, I felt a little spooked to be alone.

Here I was again, walking the Camino. When would reality start to sink in?

Then the path went up and up to a road in a spacious neighborhood, but I didn’t know where to go. Do I cross? Do I stay along the road? Go back? I stood still for several moments looking at all my options. My guidebook had real maps, but none large enough to show the minute detail I needed. The arrow painted on the asphalt was faded, but once I saw it, it couldn’t be unseen. Cross the road. This went on for hours. The uncertainty. The stopping. The anxiety. The sudden spotting of an arrow or cairn. More tentative forward (backward?) movement.

If I slowed down, took a deep breath, and waited a few moments, it was easier to find my way. This Camino was going to be a turtle’s race, not the hare’s.


At times, I did actually recognized the path. A cute little farm with a tall fence, a sweet orchard, and happy chickens in a coop made me smile, just like the first time. What a range of feelings I had three years ago, walking with Meg—scared, sad, torn, afraid of losing my joy forever. Other times laughing with her and feeling so happy. As I retraced my steps on terra firma, images and memories surfaced, returning with clarity and emotion like I had hoped they would. Rather than resist, I let all of it wash over me.

There was a single yet significant moment walking under the magical oak trees, when I sighed with unconscious contentment. In response, my inner voice asked, “Is this all you needed?” Yes. Yes, it is. After scrimping, planning, and anticipating this for so long—just walking—so simple, yet everything I needed.


As the day advanced, I encountered interesting characters along the way.

Chloe from Montana said, “Of course there’s an Oregonian walking the Camino backwards!”

Irma from Holland—when I offered her one of my handmade inspiration cards—told me just how perfect the message was for the question she’d been pondering. She teared up. Then she asked a little breathlessly, “Are you an angel?”

A cute young man from NY and a raven-haired dancer from the UK were walking together. We chatted for a bit, and despite the ring on his left hand, he had that wistful look I recognized so well. The end is coming. Are you living the life you want?

At lunch, I sat with a twenty-something guy from Cork and a woman from Germany—both of them employed in law enforcement—who questioned me with increasing intensity about Benghazi. It wasn’t until they left I realized I’d been holding my breath the whole time. Plot twist: the guy paid for my lunch and hugged me goodbye. What was that? 

One German guy went on and on about the daily distances he’d walked the whole journey. Rattling off each day’s mileage as though from a spreadsheet in his mind. Now that he was nearing the end, was he examining how well he’d done? Did he have something to prove? Was he starting to question that this walk might be about more than just distance?


In Cee, I was walking along the road as the sun got higher. Even though I’d lost the official Camino, passing the houses with their whitewashed steps and pots full of red geraniums was scenic and pleasant. I was planning to stop here for the night, so I wasn’t stressed about the exact route. You just go all the way around the tiny harbor, then up the hill on the other side. At the top and almost completely out of Cee, I stopped at an albergue for the night. Even though it was only about 2pm.

I’d survived my first day of walking backwards. It wasn’t as bad as I’d feared.


If you ever want to connect with locals, show up at a privately-owned albergue just as they open to pilgrims in the early afternoon. As the sole peregrina for almost an hour, Pedro gave me the royal treatment. He let me choose whatever bed I wanted. He offered me beer. He helped me operate the laundry spinner and then re-hung my clothes when the rack blew over.

Later, when I was clean, we chatted for a long while about pilgrimage (he’s done many sections of the Camino himself) and about how it changes your life. How simple it is. How deeply satisfying. His albergue offered complimentary sheets and towels because he’d learned how precious those were as a pilgrim. By late afternoon, we were buddies. I was even translating for Pedro when non-Spanish-speaking pilgrims showed up.


Which, I’m sorry to say, made it all the more awful when the Annoying Australian Woman arrived. I should have kept my mouth shut, but she and a friend peeked in trying to decide whether to stay, and I piped up with, “It’s a great albergue! They even have towels!”

Entitled. Demanding. Snappish. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand how someone could have walked the Camino so long and not gotten the message that “the traveler demands, but the pilgrim is grateful.” Over the course of the next few hours, she would interrupt me while I was talking to others, resting, and journaling to say things like, “Tell him I want some food.” and “Why should I have to know how to speak Spanish?” and “You know what kind of hill you have tomorrow?!” (And to think I’d only been worried about that for months.)

I could not shake this grumpy, demanding character. Her friend seemed to have the patience of Job. AAW napped for a while and when she woke, she was a ravenous dragon. She complained to me that there was no restaurant at the albergue, nowhere nearby to eat (except two places she didn’t like the looks of), that the heat-and-eat options available for purchase weren’t her normal preference, and that she couldn’t understand the Spanish directions on the noodle package (this, despite me pointing out the handy picture diagrams, “Oh, I can’t be bothered with that!”).

“Does she want me to make it for her?” Pedro asked me in Spanish. I bristled and didn’t want to translate his question. It’s not his job to be kind to this rare bird! But when I did, she said yes. In astonishment, I watched as he prepared the soup, set the table, and served it to her—and she didn’t thank him. She ignored him like low-life servant!

Later, she complained to me that there was no heat in the albergue, though it wasn’t cold and ample blankets were available. “I don’t know what to tell you,” I said, mustering the last ounce of patience I had.

“Well, you sold me on this place.”

Are you kidding me?? Of all the blaming, victimy, passive aggressive, fill-in-the-freaking-blankety-blanks…

“You know?” I paused to regain my composure. “I’ve had a hard day too. I need you to cut me some slack.”

“Oh. Well, there was another girl who spoke Spanish who told me she wouldn’t translate for me anymore.” And do you wonder what the connection might be??


Escaping to the patio in front, I passed Pedro and said in Spanish, “What a pilgrim! I’m so sorry about this woman. You have amazing patience.” He grinned at me, the tiredness visible in his eyes.

I missed home. I missed Mary. I thought of Nancy whose quote was pasted on this day’s journal page, “May flowers spring up where your feet touch the earth. May the feet that walked before you bless your every step.” (Macrina Wierdekehr) Seeing these words made me a little misty. This is the experience I want to be having, not dealing with this demanding snip. Could there be some message here for me?

But then a kind man from Ireland joined me, and we had a great chat about what he’d learned now that his journey was ending… and why I had returned after three years to walk the Camino again. This was more like it. My clothes dried in the breezy sunshine. I wrote in my journal uninterrupted and sipped a glass of wine, feeling grateful for life.


In the morning, I stiffened when the Australian woman sat down across from me on the couches as we tied our respective shoelaces. She looked at me in the eye and said, “I hope you have a wonderful Camino. Truly.”

Then she thanked our host.

This proved to me, once again, that you cannot know another person’s heart. No doubt, I was definitely back on the Camino.

The weirdness of walking a backwards Camino

Everyone’s a comic.

“How are you going to see behind you as you walk?” (does a backwards-walking demonstration)

“Yeah, you’re going to wear a rear-view mirror on your hat, right?”

“You need one of those backup beepers like trucks have.”

Guffaw, guffaw. Yes, you’re hilarious.

Even if it’s getting a little old, I still remember my astonishment when an east-bound pilgrim approached me in 2013. I stood stock still to gape at her, bouche bée. She looked tired and weary, uttering only “Camino?” with raised eyebrows. I pointed the way, and she passed us with a nod.

I wanted to ask her. “You’re walking backwards?” Despite it being so obvious. “Why?!”

She got me thinking. I mean, isn’t Santiago the destination? Isn’t getting there the whole point? As if walking 500 miles wasn’t hard enough, why on earth would anyone willingly turn around and walk back?

My incredulity at encountering that brave Frenchwoman and the myriad jokes of my friends makes me think about the word backward. It’s a mild insult that implies slow, behind the times, and incorrect. Bass-ack-wards, my family says playfully.

It’s curious. If backwards is bad, is the past not valuable? Do we think what’s behind us is less important? It would seem if we’ve already “been there—done that,” the only way to live is to move forward. We have science and technology to thank for that inclination, but perhaps there’s also a cost.

Now that I’ll the one on the receiving end of stares and incredulous questions (and, according to another reverse pilgrim, the refrain “You’re going the wrong way!”), I’m rather excited! There I’ll be, causing countless pilgrims to question the point of walking to Santiago. Or even the point of striving at all. What if it’s all part a larger journey? What if where you are is perfect? Wouldn’t that be great!

That’s partly why I decided to make little question cards to give to pilgrims I meet. (Not everyone, of course. I can’t handle the pack weight!) I made a hundred or so with questions on them and quotes that make people think.

What is calling you?

I anticipate feeling so grateful for good directions, for meaningful connection, for inclusion in Camino families, I just wanted a little something to say thank you.

Making these cards was so fun and satisfying, I decided to make sets of them for friends and clients (here’s info if you want some too). And although my intention isn’t to make people think differently about doing things backwards, maybe the practice of being reflective can heal a tiny bit of what is happening in our world. Or explore the value of our past. In my small way, maybe I can use this pilgrimage to give back and contribute, not just walk. This feels really good to me.

So, as I’ve already said, I’m getting excited about this journey. I wonder who I’m going to meet. So many possibilities lie ahead of me—and perhaps behind me, too!