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.

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. ❤

Exciting almost-news about my 2016 pilgrimage

Oh, wow. I have news! Well, it’s almost news. Technically, it’s not-quite-for-sure-yet news, but a conversation today took a next step into discussing actual dates and locations. A thing! It’s moving from the realm of “wouldn’t that be nice?” into “OMG, this might actually happen.”

What on earth are you talking about, Jen?

Well, I had a lovely catch-up Skype session with one of my camigas today who lives in Europe. I shall not name her since it may all fall through, but she is a wise soul who was part of my little Camino family early on in the journey in 2013. I adore her. And I learned she might be able to join me for the tail end of my walk.

OMG! I’m so excited!

And you know what? We had this great discussion about how one of the key lessons of the Camino is to Trust How It Turns Out, whatever it may be. Stay Open. Refrain From Being Attached. Her reminding me of this pivotal insight was so great, because I am now free to just enjoy the possibility of shared walking plans without worrying about what ifs. It may happen or not, but I’m at peace with any outcome. That’s living the Camino, right there.

If it does work out, I will still get to walk alone in Galicia, which I very much want to do. I will get to have the experience I’m supposed to have as I make my way towards France and the Pyrenees (it’s still so strange to think of the big mountain pass coming at the *end* of my journey, rather than the beginning). And if she and I can rendezvous in Pamplona, I will have a companion of the most delightful kind at the very end of my journey back to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

The very idea!

I’m so excited about this development, I just had to tell you.


I want to thank Mary Ellen for the perfect thermometer/compass key fob (which I mentioned needing in a previous post) and also to Nancy for my newest pair of Injinji liner socks! I am so blessed and grateful for your thoughtfulness and generosity!

Finally, I will likely be buying airfare in the next week. With the risk of such a big purchase and so much room for error, any good energy or prayers for “the best possible outcome” are welcome. Here I go!

Finally, finally, I wanted you to know about a new page on this site which is back after a three-year hiatus. Also exciting!

Stay posted for a new post soon!

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