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.

Reverse Camino Day 8: Vilaserio to Castelo (part 2)

Hours of solitary walking later, I stop at a cafe in Negreira to order coffee and a bocadillo sandwich to go.

Sipping my coffee at an outdoor table, a young man approaches. We haven’t exchanged a word, I already like him. A few days from his last shave, he has deep tan skin and short, curly locks. We smile warmly at each other, and I say, “Hola, buenas dias!”

He greets me in Spanish and, situating his bicycle, asks me where I’m from.

Los estados unidos,” I reply.

He’s amazed that an American can speak anything but English. “And so well!”

I laugh. “Gracias.”

“I’m Rafael.” From Cuba. “Like the archangel,” he says, smiling. He is one of those people with whom I immediately feel a deep connection. He radiates love.

Rafael sits with me for a short but animated, open-hearted conversation about our respective journeys, where we’ve been, where we’re going, and why. He’s traveling without a map, so I show him mine so he can going off the Camino to visit a stunning, secret waterfall further down the Galician coast. It’s not the words we exchange, it’s the love.

“What a beautiful soul you are,” he says, eyes boring into mine. He speaks the truth. We see each other.

They say you can tell whether you’ve been visited by an angel or a demon by how you feel when they leave your presence. After we exchange emails and hug goodbye, I’m glowing.

Rafael, in case you didn’t know, is the archangel of healing.

*   *   *

The thing with liminality is that you can glimpse it, but it’s fleeting. We’re not meant to live in that rarefied space all the time.

The rest of the day is unexceptional, bordering on challenging. In fact, I can’t even find my way out of Negreira. After countless backtracks and asking for direction, it still won’t release me from its clutches. I note that nothing in me wants to stop and just get a bed here for the night. Meg and I stayed here last time, and I can’t do it. I’ve got to keep going, break the pattern, and get as close to Santiago today as possible.

For all my effort, I’m eventually rewarded with a smooth trail along a river and friendly pilgrims who point the way as my fatigue grows. Then, I take one single turn, and I’m completely lost. I merely ascend from the riverbanks to the street by a sandy trail, and the arrows disappear. My map shows the bridge that’s directly ahead of me, but something isn’t right. I’m tired, I think to myself, but I can do this.

Crossing the long concrete bridge, I remember nothing about this place from the last time. There’s a bar at the end, so I stop there to ask a local if I’m on the Camino. He addresses me in slurred Galician, a mixture of twang and boiled octopus. I comprehend only his pointing gestures first to the west and then north along the street. Neither of these options seems right.

I’ve got to get back on the Camino. Muttering to myself and staring at my guidebook, I proceed on the north option he indicated along a quiet rural road. No arrows for at least a half mile. After ten minutes, I pass a house whose occupant stares at me as I pass. This can’t be right. Panicky nausea sets in. Two more steps, and I turn around to head back to the bar by the bridge. The old Galician guy is still standing out there, watching my slow return. I can’t ask him again. It’s useless. I just can’t.

So I attempt the other way he suggested, going about three blocks uphill near a school, but there’s no one else around to ask. No arrows. No cairns. This isn’t right either. I stare at my useless map. Tired, hungry, and all options eliminated, I don’t know what to do.

Against my better judgment, I go back to the bar. The guy is gone now. When I walk in, the stools are filled with no less than nine older men, all of whom turn to stare at me without saying a word. Either I’m an oddity or completely unwelcome, but feel intimidated. I fight the urge to run and instead ask the bartender for an orange soda. He serves me the drink, I pay, and then flee outside to the empty tables.

It’s mid-afternoon now, and I’m truly stuck. Lost. Tired. Miserable. The tears start before I even sit down.

Moments later, I hear a shuffling sound behind me. The bartender gently sets a small plate of bread rounds with a generous assortment of charcuterie. On the house. I look up at him with tear-stained face and choke out a moitas grazas. He hesitates. Does he want to help?

“I’m lost,” I say in Spanish. “Do you know where the Camino is?”

“Oh, uh…” He points to the other end of the bridge from where I’d come, and then to the left. “I think it’s that way, under the bridge.” But I’d already walked from that direction.

“I am going to Santiago. To the east,” I say. My Spanish isn’t good enough to convey more. “I see no arrows.”

“Oh, I think maybe you go under the bridge. To the right.” It’s the only option not tried. I thank him, and he bows slightly and makes his leave.

Sure enough, after a few minutes of walking, I realize he is right. But I’m so weary, and tired from the anxiety and embarrassment, the sense of relief evades me.

Instead I pitch a fuming fit at myself. I was wrong! I made a mistake! I hate making mistakes! Angry tears start falling. I hate that old guy for watching me walking stupidly everywhere and not saying anything. And in the bar they all stared at me without offering any help! I feel like a total idiot. I look like an idiot–especially in front of all those people. My whole life I’ve tried to be perfect, and all I ever do is fail!

This backwards Camino thing is pressing all my buttons. There’s no way I’m going to succeed at perfection, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. It’s what I do. It’s how I am.

A new thought arises: I wonder where the perfection urge comes from in the first place. I’m the older of two, the big sister, the first born. If I got it perfect, no one would get mad. Being good was how I made everyone happy.

What if that’s a lie? What if I don’t have to be perfect?

Suddenly, this truth dawns on me like a shaft of light: Even if I do make mistakes, what if I’m intrinsically okay? Suddenly something deep shifts within me, a muddy, slippery tectonic plate shlunks into its rightful place. I don’t have to be perfect. 

I’m swamped with the relief of releasing this forty-year-old burden. As if I’ve just liberated a massive weight from my pack and left it on the side of the trail.

Walking the Camino is the cheapest, most effective therapy ever.

*   *   *

Of course, about a mile down the path, I cross a cobbled, medieval bridge which I remember with perfect clarity. It’s gorgeous waterfall cascades between an old mill and cute, whitewashed stone houses. Two pilgrims splash in the shallows. I remember this. Of course. I just needed the detour.

*   *   *

I’ve walked way too many miles today than is sane or reasonable. I’m dusty, sweaty, tired, and weary—and I still haven’t arrived yet. A few pilgrims pass me going west, but I don’t want to talk anymore. I just want to get wherever I’m staying tonight. After crossing the bridge, I don’t notice the scenery. My feet ache. Trying to keep the pep in my step and hang in there, it’s all bravado now.

There’s a slog up an interminably inclined street. Its sidewalk is covered in loose bricks and laid out in constantly-changing widths to accommodate trees, , utility holes. I can’t just zone out or I’ll twist my ankle on a slanted driveway entrance. At the top at last, I turn onto a side street, hopeful to find the pension in my book. I’m only a few miles away from Santiago. With no reservations, they may not have room for me.

A block down through an odd, colorful neighborhood, I find signage that matches the address in my book. However, a huge metal gate is drawn across the driveway. Are they closed? Does this mean they’re full? Bravely, I slide it aside as it rattles and set neighborhood dogs to barking. Down the drive to an adorable two story home with a full porch, there are lots of shoes on the step. Oh God, don’t let them be full!

A few anxious minutes after I knock, a wiry, fast-talking man comes to the door and greets me in Spanish. I’m not catching all the words, but I inquire about the prices of the rooms. His reply is so fast, but I only hear the word “no” before concluding they’re full. I’m out of luck for the night. Now I have to find another place. I’m crushed.

“Do you know if there are other albergues nearby?” I manage ask as my voice warbles with emotion. A tear escapes without my permission.

Siii…” he says cautiously, like there’s a question mark at the end. “I need to look up the number.”

I need water. I can’t believe I’m being so forward, but I ask him for a glass. If I have to keep walking to Santiago, I’ll need it on this hot afternoon. While he’s gone, I try to pull myself together. I can do this.

Returning, he hands me the cool glass and asks gently, “Pardon me, but why do you not want to stay here?”

“I want to, but you say there are no rooms.”

Si, there are!” I’d misunderstood him. I laugh as another tear leaks out. God, I’m so tired.

“Oh! I don’t understand! I think there are no beds! I’m sorry!” Saying this makes me realize that I’ve got to work on my verb tenses.

My host settles me into a beautiful, quiet private bedroom with a separate bath. After a restorative shower and a batch of laundry, I sit in the back orchard in a comfy chair, enjoying the scenery of the hills I’ve climbed and descended.

I sit and write in my journal to recount the day and take stock.

I’m nearly crawling out of my skin not being able to contact Mary. It’s been four days. I’m afraid that she’s afraid. Maybe I should just accept what is.

I feel nervous about Santiago tomorrow. So much there. Not sure where to stay. Do I go back to the albergue where everything started? If I don’t, will I regret it? My sense is to go there. To trust. See what comes up. 

I’ve returned here for gratitude for the changes in my life, to reclaim my soul, and walk my whole self home. But I also remember how I fell apart after my first Camino, how I struggled for so long to integrate its lessons. I’m afraid. I don’t know if I can stand the test of arriving, of remembering, of being completely undone a second time.

There’s only one way to find out. After today’s revelations, maybe I’m more ready than ever.

Reverse Camino Day 7: O Logoso to Vilaserio

Annoying the Germans, getting lost, and trying to live with an open heart

Total distance on foot: 15.2 mi / 24.6km
Towns traveled through: Olveiroa, A Picota, Maroñas
This day in 2013: Day 42 Part 1 and Day 42 Part 2

I’m annoying the crap out of the Germans. No. Let me correct that. It’s mutual.

Yesterday, the first pilgrim I encountered in the morning was a tall German striding like he was making a dash for the finish line. As he passed, he looked at me and sternly said, “Wrong way.” No smile. Nothing.

What the…? I was shocked.

Then this morning, a German woman stops in her tracks to interrogate me. “What are you doing?”

“I’m walking back to France,” I reply.

“The Camino isn’t set up to walk backwards,” she informs me. Her insistence provokes instant ire. Seriously? 

She is mid-rant about how I’m doing this incorrectly when I interrupt her to say, “In the past, Santiago was halfway. I’ve already walked it once, so now I’m finishing.” Then, annoyed, I continue walking and say over my shoulder, “Buen Camino!”

I don’t mean it. Judge me if you will, but I could easily have substituted a swear.

This is really pissing me off. I’m clearly succeeding at the thing they insist is incorrect and not possible. Do they say it just to be right? To show they’re superior? What gives someone the right to comment on my path, anyway? It must have something to do with the German sense of order and discipline.

Whatever the reason, I’m not amused. I’ve worked too hard to overcome perfectionism to let myself be judged by a total stranger. If it keeps happening, I don’t know what I’m going to do. It is seriously infuriating.

*

I’m having breakfast and my first cup of coffee when the hospitalera introduces me to an huge group of Spanish pilgrim cyclists. She says proudly, “This americana stayed at my albergue three years ago! I taught her to say ‘thanks very much’ in Galician—and you know what? She remembered how to say it!” My host beams and says, “Go ahead!” The whole group of cyclists swivels their heads toward me.

I’m still sleepy and now crimson-faced from flattered embarrassment, but I manage to say, “Moitas grazas!

A few ohhhs come from the cyclists, and I grin at them. Then I recognize a few! They’re the guys I met in front of Ruby’s hotel in Finisterre the day before. The one guy who teased me about speaking English bids me a good morning (perhaps I’ve redeemed myself?). I feel happy to see familiar faces.

Before I leave, I give the hospitalera a big hug and a final moitas grazas. She says, “Visit us again in three more years—and bring your esposo!”

*

Five minutes down the road, still grinning, I remember my walking sticks and go back to retrieve them. Then I’m out again on my own in the cool morning air for a long day’s walk. I can hear the whooshing hum of a dozen windmills lined up along the distant hill. Birds are singing in the sunlit forest. The sound of running water from an invisible creek gurgles through the trees. The road is flat and well-graded so each footstep crunches as I walk. I’m lost, then not lost. Confident, then uncertain of the way. I remember being here. Then I forget. Am I on the way? Was I here? Ah, now I remember.

This is what it’s like to walk the Camino backwards. I’m living in past and present all at once.

Before long, I hit the steep hill where Meg and I collected gorgeous blue-green rocks and—same as yesterday—I start bawling, just wordless uncontrollable sobbing. I miss her. It’s something deeper too. As I ascend this hill, the past is shedding like bits of dry skin behind me. My old, constricted way of living is sloughing off.

I miss living with my heart open.

When I came back from Spain three years ago, I resolved to change my life. Full of grand plans, I was going to see friends more often and connect more meaningfully. I was going to change my livelihood and start doing what I loved. Exercise was going to be a regular part of my life as a result of rediscovering how much I loved being outdoors.

But since that time, I’ve slowly shut down. I’ve become increasingly isolated from caring friendships, still not doing work I love, and struggling to show my true self to the world. Instead, I distract myself with screen time and swap my authentic self for the presentable, PC version I think everyone wants to see.

Change is hard.

It’s not that I’m back to square one. My marriage is renewed in a way I didn’t dream was possible, and maybe I am closer to doing more satisfying work. I just see a huge chasm between where I am and where I want to be. Walking on this very terrain reminds me that I’ve settled for less since I was here last. Walking over the land where I admitted aloud to understanding, supportive Meg what I really want in life brings it all back. I can’t pretend here. I remember. I want more.

As pilgrims pass me downhill, I try to look fine. I sniffle, but grin at them. I wipe my eyes, but say buen camino. There is more grieving to do, but I set it aside. Sometimes you have to just watch yourself make the same choices over and over again until you change them for good.

*

Fortunately, I have time to sort it out. I have weeks of walking ahead of me.

In the meantime, I notice as I walk that the whole region is in full-on springtime soil-preparation mode. Huge agricultural machines are out in force—tilling, spraying manure, dusting with lime, and filling the valleys with the sounds of growling diesel engines. Later in the day, the path is more level and for a half hour or more, I can survey the machines’ progress as I approach. Occasionally, I wave to a passing farmer. In the distance, I spot a lone pilgrim far ahead who–like me–is also walking east toward Santiago!

At one point, I get completely lost up on a hill above dairy country. About 100 feet back I saw a huge white sign stating in Spanish this is an alternate route of the Camino. Tracking helps me determine whether I’m on the trail, but I see no stick marks, no pilgrims ahead, and no sign of boot prints in the mud. The good news is being lost gives me privacy to go poo—which I desperately need to do—and successfully dig a cat hole in the soft soil.

Once relieved, I take stock: I’m lost, but not panicky. I know my way back, even if I don’t know the way forward. I’m okay, I reassure myself. Just retrace your steps.

As I stare at my map, I realize this is the exact same place that Meg and I got lost three years ago. I can even see the dairy and farm below where we sat and watched the cows rounded up by a woman on a moped. How uncanny to be lost in the same place. Is there a vortex here? Or some Galicia magic? I wonder if I’ll meet a witch on the way.

Maybe the Camino isn’t set up to be walked in reverse, but it can be done. At the white sign, I realize I just missed the turn and am on my way again.

*

The last few miles of the day seem interminably long as my body aches from walking on pavement. As I stop to fill my water bottle at a community fountain, the east-walking pilgrim appears beside me! I gather up my pack as he fills his bottle, and we are ready to depart at the same time.

Gesturing with his arms in a sweeping motion toward the path, he says, “Ladies first” in an unmistakable accent.

“No, no. After you,” I grin.

“Shall we walk togezzah?”

“I would love that,” I say.  Yes, Heinrich is German. He is kind and curious, though embarrassed by his English skills. We’re headed to the same albergue. How novel to have a walking companion for the final two miles!

*

As many times as I’ve lived it, I always forget what a touchy mood I’m in when I arrive at an albergue feeling tired, hot, and hungry. Today is no different. I’m immediately offended that the barista insists on speaking English (insinuating that my Spanish isn’t good enough). She’s abrupt and terse. There are a litany of rules.

  • No using the clothes dryer if you hand wash.
  • No hanging clothes in the laundry room.
  • No hanging clothes from your bunk.

Do they not care that we’ll walk around sopping wet tomorrow?

When I get a snack at the restaurant, the barista hovers and whisks away my plates before I’m done. Later, she sneers at me with disdain when I tell her the coin-op computer isn’t working. I’ve been anxious all day that I haven’t sent Mary an email in three days and hope she’s not worried. Anyway, I’m told there’s no fix for the computer. The reception here couldn’t make me feel less welcome.

*

The upside is that after laundry and a shower, Heinrich and I join another man in the bar where the three of us have dinner together. Despite my walking alone, I have actual dinner companions. In an additional twist of irony, Ralph is also from Germany. He is great company, speaks English flawlessly, and tells great stories throughout the meal. He’s a hoot. My spirits lift.

So I take back what I’ve said about Germans. They were my saving grace tonight.

Maybe my heart is more open than I realized.

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!

Blessings await walking the Camino backwards

Having already walked the Camino westerly to Santiago and Finisterre two years ago, now the return awaits, as it once did for every pilgrim until modern travel came to whisk us away mid-journey. I feel excited about walking “backwards” next spring, retracing my own steps to the beginning where I started, when I was an eager, green peregrina in France.

Having already accounted for what makes me quake in my boots about this journey, now I’m sharing what gifts I imagine await on returning to this pilgrimage.

Blessing #1: Meeting LOTS of people

Despite my plans to walk alone, my path will intersect with thousands of west-bound pilgrims from all over the world. What will this be like? I’m genuinely curious about how this will impact me. I’ve thought about giving those who stop me a small token, like an angel card, or wearing a pin that says “free hugs/abrazos gratis” just to connect with them.

In the evenings, I’ll have a new opportunity to meet people who are at least sticking around for the night. Despite being an introvert, I still long for companionship, and I wonder how that will unfold. Will I ask to join a group for dinner at times? Will I invite someone to share a bottle of wine and snacks? This is a huge opportunity for me to stretch out of my comfort zone.

Blessing #2: Solitude

 

I’ll be going early in spring when there are fewer pilgrims and starting in Finisterre, where significantly fewer pilgrims go. In my experience, being alone makes space for reflection and conversations with the Divine. In solitude, I’ve found resolutions to some of my most difficult questions — like how to forgive what was previously unforgivable and how to make peace with suffering. Reflecting on these topics is so much harder amid the daily hustle and noise. Combined with being in nature, solitude brings me insight and nourishes me to the core. Bring it on.

Blessing #3: Practice asking for help

They say the Camino gives you what you need, and this particular lesson couldn’t be better timed. Since arrows, maps, and signage all point westward (not east, where I’m going), my fellow pilgrims and local residents will be my source for guidance. Since I know nothing terrible will happen if I get lost — it’s survivable — asking for help is just the practice I need to open myself up to receiving help, unspool my tightly-wrapped self-reliance, and experience daily gratitude for helpers on my path.

Blessing #4: Revisiting my first Camino

My pilgrimage in 2013 included many meaningful insights, awakenings, and synchronistic, life-changing events. My journey brought people who made me laugh, challenged my thinking, and helped me grow as a result. Although it’s not possible to walk the Camino again for the first time, I am looking forward to the opportunity to revisit those places and memories. I’m especially eager to walk from Finisterre to Santiago. Something significant was revealed to me there, and walking that ground again may help me solidify my understanding.

Blessing #5: It’s Spain, for goodness sake!

I mean, seriously! Friendly people, delicious food, amazing wine! And Fanta Naranja! (Man, that’s going to taste soo good!) The scenery is stunning. Fields will be green and blooming. Color me jazzed to be back in Spain and discovering new places, people, and provisions.

Blessing #6: Simplicity

In 2013, I stayed in hotels and private rooms in albergues about half the time. My parents didn’t call me Princess and the Pea for nothing — no one likes a good, luxe hotel more than I do. The sheets! The towels! The shower all to myself with hot water guaranteed! The bliss of complete quiet. Oh, yes! How I love a nice hotel!

However. The more I consider practicalities and listen to my heart, the more I sense this Camino will be different. I’m planning to devote a whole post about the call I feel to walk with the barest simplicity. What kind of insights would I have if I lived the way more than half the world lives?

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

Why I’m afraid of walking the Camino backwards

Let’s face it: the prospect of a 500-mile pilgrimage is not a field day for a control freak.

You’d think walking the Camino once already would teach me I could handle whatever the Way threw my way. Instead, I’ve only discovered new things to worry about as I prepare for my second pilgrimage.

Before my first journey two years ago, growing anxiety compelled me to write down my myriad fears. Surprisingly, only a few of them came to pass on my actual pilgrimage (peeing in the open air, loneliness, and dealing with bedbugs). In hindsight, none were that terrible. I survived.

Last weekend, I got together with a pilgrim friend and enjoyed reminiscing, swapping funny stories, and recalling its transcendent moments. Our conversations reminded me of how amazing it is to walk this sacred path. Although I’ve already found new deterimation to go, our talks started to get more excited to be back in Spain.

Today, though, it feels terrifying again. Here’s what I know for certain: I need to go. I feel called to go. I’m just plain scared of the unknowns. I can’t help that. But! Since I found listing my fears helpful the first time around, I’m going for it again in this updated version. Fears, take two!

Fear #1: Confusion

Although I know without a doubt I can transport myself to Finisterre by plane, train, and/or bus, I get profoundly overwhelmed thinking about starting the Camino eastward. I might have a map to use, for sure. If memory serves, I vaguely recall the path going along Playa Langosteira. But finding the actual route? Beyond me. Where do I go?

I just plain hate feeling confused and disoriented, and worse — looking stupid. Being certain and having the answers is my comfort zone, so I expect I’ll receive lots of lessons about getting comfortable with confusion as I bump headlong into it. Ugh.

Fear #2: Getting lost

Once, when I was a teenager playing hooky from science class, I nearly drove off the Connecticut map and across the border into New York state. In some unfamiliar and tranquil neighborhood, I pulled over to find out where I was (remember the days when you cross referenced the nearest street name with coordinates on a map?). At A5, I was on the very edge of the page, frighteningly close to — what? Not existing? Being obliterated? I flipped out, turned around, and high-tailed it back to school. In other words, I would rather fail a chemistry exam than be lost.

One of the things that makes the westward Camino Francès easier are the arrows on every post, tree, and wall. If in doubt about direction, just look for an arrow or — lacking that — pilgrims ahead of you. O just ask those you’re walking with. “This sign is confusing. Do we bear right here or just up ahead?” After a little convo, everyone walks together. If the consensus is wrong, at least we’re lost together.

Despite being afraid of getting lost, it only happened once on my first Camino. Meg and I took a wrong turn in the hills of Galicia en route to Finisterre. It was spooky not to know where we were, exactly, and walk for miles and miles with no one around. When we arrived in a town, it was siesta-time and not even the wind stirred. Creepy. Imagining that scene completely solo and alone positively gives me hives.

Walking east means there are no arrows for guidance. Some friend have jokingly offered to send me a bike mirror to see the arrows behind me. Others have suggested I ask people who are walking toward me for guidance. The fact is, I’m going to have to find my way without the ease I enjoyed on the westward journey and the risks of getting lost are higher. Bring on the chemistry exam!

Fear #3: Loneliness

Despite my brave declaration in 2013 to walk alone, I spent most of my Camino walking with other pilgrims I met on the way. Walking together passed the time and made hard, tiring, soggy, and long days much easier and enjoyable. Though I sometimes struggled to meet my desire for solitude, I loved the people I met and learned much from them. Some are still friends to this day.

While there are no official statistics on the number of pilgrims walking the eastward return trip, I encountered exactly three on my own springtime Camino. In other words, it’s very likely I’ll have no companions during the day. At albergues, I’ll be surrounded by people I’ve never met before. I fear feeling like an outsider.

I honestly don’t know what it will be like to hit an emotional low out there all alone. It will certainly be illuminating if it happens, but as you can imagine, I’d rather not find out.

Fear # 4: Emotional pain

Have you ever made a good decision, but later wondered where the road not taken might have led? Long-time readers know that I fell hard for Meg, a fellow pilgrim, while we walked from Santiago to Finisterre together. This happened though I was (and still am) married. As you can imagine, this experience brought up a lot of emotional conflict. Even as I inwardly agonized over what to do about my feelings, I loved every step of the way with Meg and remained faithful to my beloved partner.

Though I survived, I was a mess when my Camino ended — and remained so for a good year after. I wonder if part of returning to Spain is about transforming this partially-resolved, emotional jumble into something whole and even healed. I honestly don’t know what I’m looking for over there, but I trust the call I feel.

As I set foot in the very scene of that difficult, jubilant experience, I anticipate deep feelings will arise. Oh, how I dread this! And oh, how I need it! Something powerful awoke in me on my final days on the path. I feel pulled to return to that holy ground to discover what it was.

Fear #5: Funds

Finally and truthfully, I am not in a position to afford European travel at the moment. I saved for two years for my last Camino. This time I have about nine months. As someone who likes a good hotel splurge to restore the spirit, I already dread staying in only public albergues, eating bread every meal, and foregoing cafés con leche. I’m exaggerating, of course. I’m sure it won’t be that bad.

While I don’t subscribe to the God-is-an-ATM philosophy so popular in positive-thinking circles these days, I do believe in faith. I do believe that when someone is called to something significant, support arrives. Not in cash, necessarily, but in connection, encouragement, a gift of an apple, or a fountain for filling one’s water bottle.

Abundance is everywhere if we’re open.

I’m not naive, though. I do believe in planning. Because of this, I’m writing a budget for my Camino so that I have a savings goal.

I also believe in trusting. What if I’m meant to do a bare-bones Camino? What if I do ask for lodging in exchange for cleaning toilets? What could I learn from desperately *wanting* a hotel room, but choosing the most basic accommodation instead?

The possibilities are, of course, humbling and scary, but the part of me that is eager for inner change. The personal challenge of it is — dare I say it? — a little exciting.

To be clear

We live in a culture that does not handle emotion well — especially messy, unresolved ones. Reading about my fears may evoke concern or discomfort in you. In turn, you may need to feel the need to reassure me or offer suggestions for managing mine. No need.

Instead, I’d love to hear about what scares you or what you were afraid of before your own Camino. Learning to walk with our fears, rather than overcome them, is a path to wholeness.

Love,
Jen

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