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.

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.”


“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?”


“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.’”


“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.


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

How the light got in: A post-Camino reflection

We weren’t terribly observant Catholics when I was growing up, but my whole family was in attendance at my first holy communion—the first time God spoke to me. I was holding a hymnal in my kid-sized hands as the organ pealed its first crystalline chords.

In song, the Divine asked me, Whom shall I send?

In response, my reed-like little voice sang out, Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? … I will go if you lead me.

Standing there in my veil and white lace dress, symbols of purity, I trusted with every ounce of my being that I would be led and protected always.

*   *   *

Becoming an adult made me forget. Being in the literal driver’s seat deluded me into thinking I had all the control. My unconscious mantra—Do it by yourself—taught me not to ask for help from anyone, least of all an invisible god. By the time I heard of the Camino in my later thirties, any sign of my youthful and unwavering trust in the Divine was gone.

When I heard a call to walk the Camino, my reaction revealed just how stuck I’d become: Seriously? No. Ridiculous. I don’t want to. I have no interest in Spain. I don’t like exercise and the very thought of walking five hundred miles is insane. No. I don’t want that kind of uncertainty. I couldn’t handle it.

I wanted to control. Everything.

Despite my lack of preparedness, the Camino was relentless in its pursuit of my soul. References to the Way appeared in random reading materials and unexpected conversations. Scallop shells revealed themselves in the most unlikely places. Even with all these flirtatious hints, the seeker must assent to her own transformation. Yes is just a word, but it’s astonishingly, remarkably difficult to utter. The longer I waited, the more I felt it.

It’s amazing to think about how much I fought the very thing I needed. Ego is perfectly content to sit in its own stink of self-righteous, small-minded, and destructive habits. Saying yes is terrifying because it calls us to face our own destruction. With yes, we become nothing, yet everything: luminous and present with the Divine. With yes, personality melts away. The ego wants no part in this appalling arrangement.

Eventually, I came around to a grudging admission of the spiritual merit in attempting this uncomfortable experience. Like a cautious lover, I relented. I said yes. And yet again. And again many times until I had clicked “purchase” for my airline tickets.

*   *   *

If I would be spiritually transformed by the Camino, my inner fortress of protection would have to crack. As Leonard Cohen wrote, “That’s how the light gets in.”

The Camino broke me open. It had to. I needed to find a new way of being. My years of resisting help meant I would not respond to subtle messages. Splitting open the layers of defense required hard, sometimes painful encounters until I learned to trust. It was not fun. For example, after a week of walking, my feet became so sore that I limped with every step. When I began to doubt my ability to finish the walk, I cried. I cracked open, admitting my helplessness. In this weak place, I asked for help, and some light got in.

Despite being with lovely new friends, I felt broken at times by debilitating loneliness. At one point—in a miniscule, one-star hotel room that reeked of old cigars, I thought to myself, “What would your father think of you here? This is what you’ve come to, all of what you’ve made of yourself.” These painful thoughts broke me open, and as I reached out for friendship, more light got in.

One day, as Muriel and I walked together on the meseta, she observed, “It seems like you’re sorry that you were born.” The truth of her words struck me to the core. I had no reply—only my silent agreement. For many days after she’d made this poignant observation, I reflected on my struggle to show up in life and merely take up space.

As my feet pounded the path, I listened to the wind and my breathing, and I wondered for the first time: Am I really allowed to trouble this person, or any person, with my story? Is it okay to ask for help? Or actually receive it? Am I allowed to say no or tell someone I’d rather be alone? Is it really okay for me to be here? This stripped-bare honesty helped the light get in.

In the most trying and desperate moments, my ego was smashed to shatters. Yet that suddenly-vacant space made room for my heart to open. It was a hard-earned blessing. Slowly, over the miles, I emptied out the sludge of my small living, and miraculously, despite myself, the light got in. An abundant waterfall of love, laughter, wisdom, and insight made me realized how loved I am. Pilgrimage revealed to me how to let go of my fearful striving and trust something greater than myself.

*   *   *   *   *

That isn’t the end of the story, of course.

In a workshop I attended last fall, the following words hit me like a spiritual two-by-four: Enlightenment is not transformation. ~ Dara Marks

I suddenly realized why everyone claims that the true pilgrimage starts in Santiago: the Camino is an experience of enlightenment. It gave me a glimpse, a tantalizing taste of how life could be. it showed me how I could let go and trust, how light and joyful I could be moment-to-moment.

Completing the Camino is only half the journey. Enlightenment isn’t transformation. It wasn’t done with me yet.

Like many pilgrims, I really struggled after I got home from Spain. Some people call it the Camino blues, but it’s more than that. I could not resolve what the pilgrimage had revealed to me despite obsessively re-reading Brierley’s guidebook, looking at my journal, and drinking Spanish wine with friends.

It was nice to be home with my familiar people and possessions, but I struggled with the sense that something precious was dying—something I had to hang on to no matter what. And I lost it anyway. Into its place moved unspeakable sadness and longing.

Intellectually, I knew that the second half of the journey was about learning to live my Camino epiphanies in my life. “Bring home the boon,” someone said. But I hadn’t the faintest idea how to do this. I just felt terrible. I had to shake it off somehow.

Within a few weeks, I was back to where I’d started, repeating my life-long pattern of controlling everything. My Camino had revealed that my life could be better, but I didn’t know how to get there once at home.

I got stuck for a long time. Most days felt like walking through a deep, dark cave with no exit. And, erroneously, I kept thinking, I can do this. I can figure it out. I thought had to find my way through its passages alone. This is the part of the journey many never walk, or if they do, few talk about it. In the months that followed my Camino, I went down many blind alleys, trying to find my way—out or though, I didn’t care.

After struggling for over a year, Dara’s words were like discovering a bright-yellow, spray-painted arrow on the wall of my labyrinthine tunnel: the Camino gave you enlightenment, now you must move toward transformation.

But transformation doesn’t just happen on its own; it requires assent. Last week, almost two years to the day of my anniversary of starting the Camino, I remembered. Yes wasn’t just for that innocent seven-year-old me, or my reluctant, pre-Camino forty-year-old self. It was something I would have to choose again. And again. And again.

Yes is power. Yes commands armies of angels to move heaven and earth in support of the seeker’s goal. Now I understand that yes is the key to moving from enlightenment into transformation. Say it again: yes to uncertainty, yes to change, yes in spite of fear.

In the weeks ahead, I’ll be sharing a play-by-play of my second, inner Camino. The one in which I transformed my life. I’ve talked to so many pilgrims struggle with Camino blues, my hope is that my story will help you walk your own journey that begins after Santiago—and say yes to the transformation that awaits.