In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.
A funny thing happened on the day we left Zubiri, but it’s hard to find a way to put it in words, since the change was literally all in my head.
At the end of my last blog post, Natalie, Claire, and I were at the municipal albergue in Zubiri, Spain. The next morning, I awoke in a manner that would become pretty much the norm for the rest of my Camino: people started to stir and pack up around 6, and I stubbornly stayed in bed until around 6:30. Eventually I took my earplugs out and wrapped them in my eye mask, deflated my pillow, and sat up to see where my girls were at. Claire was also on a top bunk, and she and I made grumpy little morning grins to each other as we tried to pack up as best we could without crawling down from our bunks just yet. I had a momentary thought that I was SO lucky to have ended up with two other non-morning people.
I was still getting my packing routine down to a science, but it went something like this: tuck earplugs into special pouch, tuck pouch in sleep mask flaps, deflate pillow, wrap sleep mask (with earplugs) in pillow, stuff pillow in its own bag. Next step is to change pants in sleeping bag if at all possible (pants were stored under pillow all night, along with pillow bag and sleeping bag bag). Slide out of the sleeping bag, shift over just enough to pull it out from under me, zip it up and roll it up, then stuff it in its bag (which was under the pillow all night, with the pillow bag). Get out of bed, pack PJs, pillow and sleeping bag in backpack, change shirt (typically wore sports bra to bed to make it possible to change out in the open in the morning, since bathrooms could be touch-and-go first thing), off with the hiking socks, on with foot treatment stuff (Un-Petroleum Jelly from Alba, moleskin, toe tubes for little toes), on with socks. Pack everything else into pack, and roll out with pack and walking sticks, either towards breakfast area if there was one, or to boot storage if I needed shoes on first. From waking up to walking out, the entire routine took about 15 to 20 minutes, giving me plenty of time to get out before they kicked us out, but still stay in bed for as long as possible.
We three met up in the communal kitchen/dining area to eat breakfast. I can’t remember what we had, other than cafe con leche from the kitchen’s vending machine. It wasn’t that great, but it was much better than anything you’d get out of a vending machine in the US. That was the morning that I started getting into the habit of texting my boyfriend “good morning,” since I knew that I was waking up just around the time that he was going to bed each night, and it was fun to have a few minutes to say hi before hitting the road. Claire was trying to get a few things settled via email before leaving for the day, so we dragged breakfast and chatting time out a bit, and were the last to leave the albergue. As we were leaving, Claire noticed that Natalie had decided to leave her Keen walking sandals behind in the donation area. Natalie had decided that they weren’t useful for showering, she didn’t need them for walking, and they were just weighing her pack down. It turned out that they were the perfect fit for Claire, so voila! she had a new pair of sandals. We shuffled off together, the slowest of the pack, but happy to be walking together for another day.
Natalie had already walked the Camino Frances a couple of years before, and was walking this time with the intention of stopping at places she hadn’t stopped at before. Other than that, she had time, and didn’t mind if she walked a shorter or longer day than other pilgrims. Claire had a shorter amount of time alotted to walk the Camino, and was concerned with schedule and budget. She was particularly interested in visiting all of the churches she could along the Way, and no matter how “in a hurry” things got, she’d still stop to check if the churches we passed were locked or not. My biggest goal on the Camino was to relax and stop worrying so much about making other people happy. I wanted to use the walk to step out of myself for awhile and find a way to be more content with myself. My only concerns at this point of the Camino were to get to know my new friends, to walk as far as I was comfortable, and to make sure to try tortilla as many times as possible.
We had talked a little bit the night before about our itineraries. We were all looking forward to getting to Pamplona, and many peregrinos were going to be walking straight from Zubiri to Pamplona. However, we all walked a little slower, and our friend Terry had suggested that Zabaldika was actually the perfect place to stop for the day. The abbey there dated from the 13th century, and in recent years had been abandoned until a small order of nuns moved there to reopen the place and turn it into a warm and welcoming albergue for passing pilgrims. She said we might even get to ring the church bell if we behaved ourselves! So we talked it over, and set a course for Zabaldika and the nuns.
It turned out that Claire had a close friend, Neil, whom she said owned an old abbey between Zubiri and Zabaldika, so we decided to stop in and see him along the way. As we got closer to what I was thinking of as Neil’s hangout, I realized that I hadn’t quite understood what Claire had meant by “old abbey.” La Abadia de Eskirotz y Ilarratz, known simply as The Abbey, is rather unassuming, compared to many other Spanish religious structures. It’s presumed to be a 12th century fortress that was converted into a church sometime in the mid 13th century. Neil and his partner purchased the property from the diocese and began restoring it, but have been met with some unfriendliness from the local community during the course of restoration, presumably because the couple are outsiders and locals fear that the building will be put to bad use. However, as we three pilgrims saw during our private tour of the building and chat with Neil, the church was forgotten and unloved for quite some time. It was looted, the ceiling was falling in, there was water damage and settling, and it was in danger of becoming a ruin before it came into private possession. Furthermore, Neil and the team of volunteers who have been working for years to bring this beauty back to life have pledged to never use it for financial gain or in any way that would damage the building, grounds, or local community. They simply want to restore a gem back to its original state – and they’re doing a damn good job.
Neil and Jacobie, his volunteer, met us at the door of the building, and Neil and Claire quickly got to catching up. Several more pilgrims walked up as we did, and the volunteer gave us a quick tour of the place, explaining the architectural details that remained intact, including several very important and unique touches, like rosettes laid in stone at the front door, stars carved in the door lintel, a remarkable painted altar which was in spectacular shape due to being covered by a later altarpiece (now missing, presumed looted), and a small medieval lectern that was found tucked away in the attic when the team started renovations. After the other pilgrims had left, Natalie and I sat down with Jacobie over a wonderful cup of homemade cafe con leche, and asked her story. It turned out that she had grown up in South Africa, like Neil and Claire. She moved to London for work, but had taken time off recently to walk the Camino Frances. During her walk, she visited The Abbey and met Neil, and the project stayed on her mind after she finished the walk and went home to London. After a month or so, she called Neil to see if he could use any help, quit her job, and took off for a couple of months of volunteer work at The Abbey!
At one point, I asked to use the bathroom, and I was pointed upstairs to the staff toilet, typically off limits. The tour we’d taken had only led us into the large, open main floor, so I was excited to get to go up where the choir would have been. I didn’t realize that there was a whole second section to the building beyond the church, itself. (I should have, since it’s an abbey, and that means there had to be some form of living quarters, but that’s what you get for turning your brain off and going on a long walk.) Up the stairs into the choir, then through a doorway, into a dark, spooky hallway, down another set of stairs, and you’re in the other half of the building. It was a sturdy enough space, but one that’s not exactly confidence-inspiring if you’ve always had the secret fear of dying by falling through a floor. The ceilings were low, and the beams were quite hefty. Some looked to have been touched by fire, but it might just have been centuries of fireplace smoke. The bathroom was absolutely charming, though. It was flooded with light, covered in old floral linoleum, and the plumbing didn’t work, so you had to use a couple of buckets of water to make the toilet flush. I was weirdly happy over the entire experience, especially knowing that not many people got to see the bones of the building the way I had.
After the bathroom, I walked back outside to find that Claire was getting a tour of the grounds. Natalie and I tried to let them have their distance, since it’s not often that two old friends get to have a private conversation when one has moved to a different country, and they only had an hour or so to catch up before we’d have to move on. While Nat and I were looking around the building, she pointed out that you could see exactly where the old Camino had been in relation to the building. It has moved slightly over the years, as the path was widened and improved by the local government, but the old path is still there to see, running right beside The Abbey, like two old friends, still close enough to talk.
Eventually, we bid The Abbey farewell and walked on. Zabaldika was another two hours’ walk away, and it was already getting on towards afternoon. As is the way on The Way, our paces varied. Sometimes we’d all be walking together, other times one of us would fall behind or move ahead, and sometimes we’d all be walking alone, lost in our own thoughts. When we walked together or in pairs, we’d typically talk about our lives back home. For my purposes here, I won’t ever share anything deeply personal that a Camino friend shared with me, because the Camino is a place where many people go to figure themselves out, free of judgment, with the help of other people who are in something of the same spot. As I quickly learned, almost everyone I met had an issue or two that they were trying to work out by walking, and some days were heavier than others. You never had to talk with anyone if you didn’t want to, but often people were surprisingly open about their lives and what they were hoping to achieve, so it could feel a bit like a big walking group therapy.
That day, I remember a specific conversation that Natalie and I had. It means a lot to me, because it was the beginning of a shift in my perception. One of the big problems that I was dealing with for a year or two before the Camino was a feeling of being left behind by my best girlfriends. For much of my youth, I just assumed that I’d be the first married, with kids, and a house/picket fence/etc. My biological clock ticked for about a year in my early 20s, and by my late 20s I was starting to secretly dislike the idea of ever having children. By the time I hit my early 30s, I was getting out of an eight year relationship and realizing that I really, really didn’t want children – and I didn’t have too much faith in ever getting married, either. Nor did my finances look like they’d ever be right to own a house, or a car, or even have a dog, for that matter. In short, the traditional “American Dream” was not where I was headed, even under the best of circumstances. Without any of those things in my future, where did that leave me? What would my life be? Was it worth living? I didn’t know. And while I was sorting through all of these weird questions, one by one, almost every one of my best girlfriends got married and started having children. I was happy for all of them – they’d found good partners, professions, homes, and had moved on to the next step that worked for them. But as they became wives, then mothers, they shifted into new life perspectives, becoming subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) different people. They were still my friends, but our friendship had changed. I felt alone, left behind, and like it was horrible of me to ever talk about how hurt I was out loud, because I was the freak who couldn’t get her shit together, not them. At the same time that I was thinking that I was a loser with no life to look forward to, I was also thinking, “Hey, look at this amazing life I get to live now that I’ve figured out I don’t want to get tied down to other people!” But that was the smaller thought, being buried under all the “Gee, what a loser, might as well just die” thoughts. That’s where I was hanging out, mentally, on the day Natalie and I had our first heavy talk.
As we walked the path, Natalie and I got to talking about life as a single woman without kids. First, a little about Nat. She’s cool with a capital C. She’s about 15 years older than I am, but looks a little younger than me. She advocates for the disadvantaged and abused for a living, plays banjo in a folk band and guitar in a rock band, and splits her time between small homes in the Yukon and Mexico. When you’re talking with her, she’s truly seeing you, and she brings joy with her into a room. She’s just got this amazing inner light that attracts people to her, and her genuine goodness is evident as soon as you have a conversation with her. In retrospect, it’s no wonder that she was one of the first people that I noticed on the Camino; how could I not?
As is my wont, I started rambling on about the sorrow and anger that I’d been harboring, and once I got started, I laid everything out on the table: how I was lost and lonely, but had no way of peeling that away from the anger and sadness, so I couldn’t talk to the people I needed most in my life anymore. She listened to everything, interjecting here and there to clarify something I’d said. Then she gave me a truth. She said that she’d been through a similar thing, but it had passed. And yes, her friends had become different people, and she’d been forced to make some changes to adapt, but in the end, the kids grew up, and most of the friendships remained and grew strong again. There was more detail, of course, but these were the basics that allowed me to accept that I was allowed to grieve for old times and old feelings, without feeling guilty. I was allowed to be frustrated that things change, but it was also time to realize that while my friends were building their own life stories, I had time and space to do other things with mine. You know, things like spend a month walking across Spain, or hours writing blog posts about architecture and emotions.
It was a good talk. Afterwards, we caught up with Claire and took a short break by a beautiful, fast-moving river. We drank tea and had some snacks, and I took off my boots and laid back on a makeshift bench while Claire and Natalie described their homes to each other. It was a beautiful afternoon.
Tomorrow I’ll tell you about Zabaldika. It was one of my favorite spots on the Camino, so I want to spend a whole post just about that night.