Sometimes I Go To Extremes

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I went to work yesterday morning at 7:10am, left at 3:45, went home and slept for two and a half hours, then worked from 11pm last night to 6pm tonight. I feel oddly fine, but that could just be the psychosis setting in. After all, on the walk home tonight, singing along to Billy Joel’s 11th album (which I just discovered, since I am nothing if not a super-duper late bloomer in all things…and the reason I’m not including the album title is because Googling it brings up a white supremacist group, which I just do not have the mental capacity to handle at this precise second), I spent at least 30 seconds marveling that I’ve been too tired to feel anxious or depressed for the last two weeks. (Did anyone else get the joke-not-joke here?)

Anyway, this lack of life outside of work and sleep is a drag, but I’m resolved to see it through as I pay off my credit card debt once and for all, opening up a world of possibility. You know, possibilities like owning more than one pair of work pants, or maybe affording to go to a proper laundromat instead of washing my towels by hand in a large stewpot in my bathtub. I’m actually not sure what the possibilities are, because I just don’t have any of those particular brain cells – the ones that fly me into flights of fancy – available right now. I think they’ve all been sleeping out of self defense since around noon today.

Anyway, today’s Daily Post prompt is “natty,” and I figured it would be fun to explore word associations using this thoroughly work-pickled brain. What was the first thing you thought when you read “natty”? I thought about Daniel Day Lewis as Natty Bumppo, and how the actor is actually quite the natty dresser in real life. Did you know he’s a cobbler? Like, he has the ability to craft shoes of fine Italian leather. I’m very picky about needing comfortable shoes, but I don’t think I’d say no to a pair of sensible heels made by President Lincoln.

Talking about shoes, the second I think of a handsome hunk of man holding a gorgeous chocolate leather spectator pump in his strong, yet elegant, hands, I head straight off to a scene in one of my all-time favorite movies, Only You, staring Robert Downey, Jr. and Marisa Tomei (and of course we can’t forget the inimitable Bonnie Hunt, or Billy Zane playing at playing the best douche-nozzle west of the Apennines). Downey plays a shoe salesman on holiday in Italy, and Tomei is the high school teacher/dreamer he runs into by accident, in a great scene that involves him running after her, holding a shoe, shouting “Signora, la tua scarpa!” There’s a great scene later in the film that apparently doesn’t exist on YouTube (bet you’re breathing a sigh of relief, but you won’t be for long, HAHA!) where Marisa Tomei is getting dressed in this bone-colored jumpsuit thing that only she could ever have worn, and she’s looking all dreamy and 90’s and European, and she’s heading out to FINALLY meet the man of her destiny. Or so she thinks.

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But anyway, there’s Robert Downey, Jr., in love with her and still helping her get ready for her date, doing that nonchalant kicked puppy thing he does so well. She’s in the bathroom getting changed, so you don’t see her. You’re watching him talk to her through the closed door, idly walking around the room and picking out the things that she’ll need to complete the ensemble – scarf, shoes, jewelry – so she can go out on a date with this other man. And it’s so intimate, the way he’s casually thumbing through her jewelry pile to find the right earrings. Of course, there’s a duplicitousness to the scene and the emotions he’s giving off, but but that little, stupid task he’s completing is one of the most romantic motions I’ve ever seen. Anyway, I bet now you wish I could have found the stupid clip, but whatever you do, don’t watch the movie trailer. It’s a terrible, terrible trailer. Just the worst. It’s almost as jarring as the first notes of Andrew Powell/Alan Parsons score for Ladyhawke, but nowhere near as satisfying. It’s just a silly romantic comedy, but the trailer makes it look even dumber than it is. You lose sight of all the tender moments that make it great. Plus, there’s Italy. Just – Italy.

And talking about Italy, you know what I just thought of? This mummy I ran across by accident at that little church in Murano a few years back. By now y’all have to know that I love saints and religious relics/reliquaries, but I don’t always search them out when I’m traveling. Most of the time, they find me. I suppose I should be thinking about that next time I’m pondering big, blinking signs from the cosmos. But as cool as this particular preserved dude was, I didn’t catch his name and have had no luck finding him online. I remember feeling sorry for him, because he was German, and stuck on a tiny island in Italy, so far from home. On the other hand, I did have luck finding another pair of dressed martyr skeletons whom I’ve visited a few times now, at Peterskirche in Vienna, Austria. Talk about natty dressers! They’re just loaded with jewelry and perfectly tailored gold duds. Here’s a great Smithsonian article about similarly dressed holy skeletons across Europe.

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Click here to find Horny Goat Brewing Co.’s fine beverages at a shop near you!

Back when one of my best friends lived in Vienna, also when we were young and had strong constitutions, we spent a fair amount of time there drinking beer (mostly Stiegl, as it was local and cheap). A few months back, I tried Stiegl again for old time’s sake, and though it’s not the worst thing ever, I just can’t get excited about anything lighter than a porter these days. My taste buds always insist that anything lighter tastes about as delicious as that gold standard of swill, Natty Light. Every time someone tells me that I just need to try this IPA/APA/Cream Ale/Fruit Beer/Wheat Beer/insert beer type here, I give it a go and end up sad that now I’ve got to finish this thing before I can go back to a drink that I enjoy. It turns out that I prefer malty or nutty flavors, and can’t stand hoppy beers. I’m not one of those snobs who’s going to insist that there’s not a single hoppy beer that would suit me, and I’m not going to turn down a free beer if someone’s been nice enough to invest in changing my mind, but I’m never going to waste my money trying to find the one magical beer out there that will get hoppy beer pushers to lay off and let me enjoy my own damn drink. My latest favorite find is the Peanut Butter Chocolate Porter, by Horny Goat Brewery.

If goats attract gnats, does that make them gnatty?

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Guys. Guys. GUYS! This goat got arrested, y’all. This is a picture of a goat in a cop car. Holy crap, this might be the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in the last five minutes as I’ve struggled to finish this blog post and just go to bed, already. Also, “therapy goats in cruisers” – I think I love this cop just a little bit more than is wise at this junction.

Also, I just got curious about Daniel Day Lewis maybe owning goats and making goat cheese, since that would obviously push him firmly into the “sexiest man alive” category for me (nope, not stopping to explain this, you’re just gonna have to go with whatever’s happening in the old brainpan) and found out that GOAT is an acronym meaning Greatest Of All Time. Who knew? Apparently lots of people, but let’s just ignore that for a minute. Those people clearly aren’t fantasizing about men who know their way around a foot massage AND can whip up a mean goat milk ricotta, but do think that no one can beat Daniel Day Lewis. You know, except for Amsterdam Vallon.

Sidenote: I’m sure if I scrolled down, I’d found out that GOAT is also an acronym for other, less savory things, as that’s the way of the interwebz. Thus, I will not. I will stay safely in my snug cocoon of film references and cute goat memes, oh, and cats, of course. Interwebz made me think of Ceiling Cat and Basement Kitty. Still the best interpretation of the bible, IMO.

Who are you guys, really? Why is it so weird up in this joint? Where’s the DJ, and why does he keep playing the Eric Prydz “Call On Me” remix on repeat? Wait, does this one have slightly more bass? I’m not saying this is the worst dance party I’ve ever been to, but I certainly am not a fan of the lighting in here. I think I’ll just close my eyes for a bit…

 

Thoughts Re: Bus Upholstery

The hopeless case
A holy grail
The codependent swoon

The eldest child
A married man
Guitarist and a spoon

With cactus dreams
A westbound bus
No quarter left to find

The optimist
Believes in “us”
But what us will I find?

 

Note: This was written in response to today’s Daily Post prompt, Trace. I’ve always really enjoyed bus upholstery. The first time I saw brightly colored bus upholstery was on a very nice shuttle bus in London, when I was 17. My dad’s an upholsterer, so little details like that always give me a thrill. It’s a strange life, but someone has to exist in it, right? Anyway, this poem is about being alone, and how the people we’ve left – and who have left us – are still there, just under the skin. We’re just distracting ourselves with the superficial patterns, to avoid paying attention.

Anna’s Camino: Day 16 (Part 4) – Reaching Cardeñuela Riopico

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.

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By the time Cardeñuela Riopico came into view, I was ready to drop from exhaustion. As I shuffled down the main street, I began to feel the melancholy seeping in through my aching spots. I’d managed to push it away all day, but now it was obvious I’d gone as far as I could, both mentally and physically. Whether or not I found the only friend I had left in this new Camino world, this would be my stopping point for the day.

The town was pretty small, and there were only three options for albergues, but I had no clue which one Natalie had chosen. By now it was bordering on late afternoon, and I wasn’t even sure if she had stopped in this town. I had no idea how far ahead of me she’d been. What if her plans had changed, and she’d called it quits in Atapuerca? What if she’d felt energized, and kept walking to Burgos? I knew that no matter what, I was done walking until tomorrow. My legs were in rough shape. I told myself that I would be OK if I couldn’t find my friend, but I didn’t believe it. I wasn’t ready to give her up just yet.

 

I walked all the way through town, and saw a few faces, but not one pilgrim. It occurred to me that perhaps Natalie had tried to send me a Facebook message with her location, so I stopped in at a local bar to use the wifi. Being my normal awkward self, I didn’t feel comfortable asking the bartender for the wifi password, so I ordered a beer and tried not to look conspicuous while glancing around for a sign with wifi password. Finally the bartender took pity on me and asked if I needed help. I took my chance, and in broken Spanish explained that I was looking for my friend, a girl wearing orange pants. Never had I been so happy that my high school Spanish teacher had taught us how to go clothes shopping en español. The bartender said she hadn’t seen anyone in orange pants, but picked up the phone and started to call around town for me to see if anyone else had. After a couple of calls, she let out a hoot – the girl in the orange pants had been spotted, and was staying at the first albergue in town! Now that I’m retelling this story, I realize that since I’ve returned from the Camino and started my new career in hospitality, I’ve held this woman in mind as a paragon of kindness and hospitality. She really saved me that night, just by making a few phone calls, even though she didn’t have to. Wherever she is now, I wish her many blessings, across the miles.

Shoelaces tightened, pack back on, poles in hands, feet one in front of the other, back through town, every step its own form of torture. Natalie was waiting at the front door for me, clearly relieved that I’d showed up in one piece, long overdue. She helped me get checked in with the hospitalera, who showed me my bunk and instructed me on the rules for where to take off shoes and what doors to keep locked, etc. The water wasn’t that hot in the bathrooms, but the shower pressure was good, the rooms were well-appointed, and even better, the albergue was nearly deserted. Ruth (the Anglican priest that had been in our room the night before) was here, and turned out to be a sweet, friendly person. We chatted for awhile, did laundry and hung it out on the line in the waning sunlight, then Nat and I went to see if the town church was open. It wasn’t, but we wandered around anyway, and I took some of my favorite photos of the entire trip. The sunlight was just so beautiful that afternoon. It put a cap on things. I knew it was our last day together, but instead of feeling sad or angry or lonely, I started to get excited for what was to come.

 

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There were only four of us in attendance at dinner that evening: Natalie, myself, Ruth, and a fourth person whom I can’t seem to place. I had so much fun asking Ruth questions. I’d never met a female Christian religious leader. I’d met women with strong religious beliefs, and I’d met preacher’s wives, and I’m sure I must have seen a nun or two in passing, but I’ve never met a female preacher, and until then, definitely never a female priest. I had so many questions. Of course, since she was British, I also had all sorts of TV questions about the obvious things – like, had she watched Vicar of Dibley or Father Brown, for instance (the answer was yes to both, of course). I regret not having more time to get to know Ruth. It must be difficult to go on vacation as a spiritual servant, especially on something as personal as a pilgrimage. How can you ever really escape your job when the world is your work? I wish I could have asked her how she felt about that, and whether it was a burden or a joy, or a little of both.

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Self portrait with fluffy eyebrows.

After dinner, I enjoyed luxuriating in the albergue bar in my most fetching ensemble of elephant pajamas, neon green compression socks, and hiking sandals, drinking pacharan with Natalie and Ruth while we chatted and caught up on our online posts via cell phone. We discussed our plans for the next day, and somewhere in there, I made my announcement.

I’d spent the entire day feeling anxious and frightened that my only walking companion would leave me, when in actuality, it was the opposite. That afternoon, it came to me that I would be the one doing the leaving – at least metaphorically speaking. I’d decided to take time off in Burgos. We’d been walking for over two weeks now, and I knew it was time for a real break, an actual bed in a private room, time for my legs to recover, and some time to explore a city I’d heard was quite beautiful.

As I was describing my intention, the tiny, scared part of me hoped that Natalie would want to stay, but the braver part of me knew that it was time to part ways. She had somewhere to be, even if I didn’t yet know the full story. Our time was up for now. Though this meant that the Claire/Natalie/Anna sisterhood was officially dissolved, the timing felt right. So I skimmed through the various Burgos hotels on the Wise Pilgrim app – truly indispensable as it is – and stumbled across Meson Del Cid, where I could get a private room for around 50 euros a night. That was far more expensive than any albergue, but also much more luxurious than anything I’d get for that price in the U.S.

Visions of bubble baths danced through my dreams that night. Burgos or bust!

Click here to read about Day 17.

Anna’s Camino: Day 16 (Part 3) – San Juan de Ortega to Cardeñuela Riopico

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.

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Before leaving the States, when I was still just doing my own lazy version of researching the Camino Frances, I had discovered that there were quite a few labyrinths along the way. One of my goals was to visit as many as possible, so it probably won’t surprise you to find that I managed to miss all of them but two, both of which I found by serendipity alone on Day 16.

Natalie and I walked along in the woods outside of San Juan de Ortega, sharing anecdotes as we walked down the trail. I remember that she was telling me a story she had heard long ago in the Yukon, and I was completely engrossed – so much so that we were nearly on top of the bull before either of us saw him. There in the woods, in what we believed to be the middle of nowhere, was a GIGANTIC bull – nose ring and all – having a quiet snack in the undergrowth beneath the trees. It was a complete shock. We’d seen plenty of animals so far along the Camino, but had never run into anything this large without the comfort of a fence between us and it. I don’t know Natalie’s experience with cows, but I was terrified for a moment. We both stopped talking, and walked around the creature with great care. I expected him to run us down at any moment, but he was having a lovely afternoon in the woods, doing his own thing. He barely even registered our presence.

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Soon, we were out of the woods, into a light-flooded clearing. We could see for miles over the rolling hills. The sky was so blue, the grass so green, the trail so inviting…and there were cows everywhere. This portion of the Camino wound directly through the pasture land, no fences, just a well-worn dirt path, and lazy cattle lounging about, enjoying a beautiful day. My original terror at seeing the bull was pushed aside, overwhelmed by a sense of wonder. I love animals, and cows are no exception. It felt a unique privilege to get to share space with them. I’d change my mind about cows a couple of weeks later, but for today, I was in heaven.

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The first labyrinth was a tiny thing, up on a rise. There was already a pilgrim there, walking the old spiral, as we approached. I waited until he’d finished to take my own place there, and as I followed the radiating path, Natalie walked on along the Camino. I felt a twinge of panic as I watched her figure retreat into the distance, but forced myself to do the thing I needed to do, rather than follow my fear. It’s funny how you can learn and relearn a lesson. Mine has been – and continues to be – the art of letting go. This time I got it right. So many other times I fall short of the prize.

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Labyrinth walk completed, I finally walked on. The old town of Agés wasn’t too far down the road, and I was sure that I’d find Natalie in a cafe there, just like before. Even though there had been plenty of pilgrims on the road during the course of the afternoon, Agés seemed curiously empty. The first place I thought to stop for a coffee was shuttered tight. I consoled myself with the fact that it was getting on into the afternoon, and it must be siesta by now, but the fact is, the town was dead. What used to be a bustling place in the Middle Ages had failed. There were less than a hundred inhabitants, many of them elderly.

With the failing Spanish economy, the tiny towns all across the country are dying. The younger population move away to the cities for work, and fun, and culture, leaving their tiny towns behind to fall into ruin. I felt a strong affinity with Agés, because it has much in common with my tiny hometown in rural North Carolina. I, too, had betrayed my home for the promise of a better life – a life that allows me the luxury of traveling to other countries. How could I ever begrudge the young of a tiny, dying town their need to see a bigger world? How could I see the similarities between my tiny hometown and this lovely place, and still feel no tug to hurry back to the place I’d left behind to die in my absence?

The town is pretty small, so I walked up and down the main strip, made a detour to the town church (locked and looking somewhat decrepit), and finally crossed someone’s backyard to head back to the only cafe that seemed to be open. There were a couple of pilgrims sitting outside, one of whom was a younger guy from California – let’s call him Dude – that I’d run into before, and was not excited to see again. He wasn’t a bad kid, just not too bright, and not at all shy about saying whatever came to mind. I’d overheard Dude criticizing various Spanish customs in that special, uncultured, particularly demeaning way that only we Americans seem to grasp with aplomb. I had no wish to be associated with that kind of behavior. If I’m going to be a stupid tourist, let me do it on my own steam, thanks. Today he was being generally loud and dumb near the front door, so I ducked inside to see if there was a spot out of hearing range at the bar.

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The bar was empty, except for the required contingent of elderly local farmers. The bartender/owner quickly came over, and we discussed food and drink options in pigeon Spanish and a smattering of sign language. He very sweetly asked me where I was from, where I was headed, and what I liked the most to eat, and when he found out that I was from New Orleans, he was all smiles – he’d visited my city before. I ordered my old standby – a beer and a slice of tortilla, which he happily informed me was freshly cooked. When my plate was delivered, I was surprised to find he’d included a heaping helping of something entirely new to me – Pimentos de Padrón. He insisted I eat the first gorgeously blistered Padrón pepper in front of him, then laughed as I practically melted in delight. Move over, tortilla – my new favorite dish had arrived!

While I was eating, Dude and his walking buddy came in to get another drink and generally annoy everyone in the room. It felt like something out of an old western; had I not been annoyed with him, myself, I would have laughed at how obvious all of the old locals were being about staring daggers at this total outsider. The radio was on, and tension was broken when The 5th Dimension came on, singing “Aquarius,” from Hair. By then, Dude, the other pilgrim guy, and I were all drinking cans of Aquarius, the ubiquitous sports beverage of the Camino. I couldn’t help but giggle at the coincidence. Dude started to sing along and do a little routine with his drink can. The innocence of the scene diffused the situation, and soon after, both pilgrim guys sauntered off, leaving the locals and me in peace. A couple of weeks later, I’d hear that Dude drank an entire water bottle full of unfiltered water he’d gathered from a stream somewhere, and had to spend a couple of days in hospital. Gossip travels on the Camino, and I heard the story a few times, from different people. No one seemed too surprised.

By the time I left the cafe, it was seriously late – going on 2pm, at least. Any other day, it would have been time to start wrapping things up and finding a place to bed down for the night, but I had plans to keep. Just outside of the bar, there was a sweet little cat napping on the sidewalk, so I bent down to pet him. When I straightened back up, who should I see but Terry, walking out of a door just a few feet down the block. It was a seriously wonderful surprise, since that morning it had been pretty obvious from our varied plans that our paths wouldn’t cross again this Camino. I hurried over to give her a hug, and before I knew it, I was tagging along to try to find an artist that she remembered from her last trip here. We wandered around, looking for this particular house she remembered, where an old man made perfect little miniatures of real architecture from the town.

As it turns out, we didn’t find the artist in question, but as we were walking down a particular street for the second time, in retrospect most likely looking completely lost, a door opened down the way. A wizened old woman walked out, pointed our way, and started to yell. At first, I thought she might be angry, but then I realized she was just slightly deaf and asking us a question. Terry spoke enough Spanish to understand, and yelled back an answer. The lady ducked back into her little house, then came out a minute later carrying a gigantic iron key – the thing was at least as long as my forearm. She started off down the road, beckoning us to follow her. Terry filled me in: the woman was the guardian of the town’s church key, and had offered to give us a tour. We followed along, feeling so blessed to be offered the opportunity to glimpse the interior of the town’s precious worship spot. It was plain, but beautiful in its stark interior.

Once we stepped inside the building, our guide started to chatter along happily. Her presence somehow brought the holy space to life, giving it color I wouldn’t have seen without her. She knew that we couldn’t understand much Spanish, and she didn’t speak any English, but that didn’t stop her from telling us everything there was to say about the church. Somehow, between Terry and I, we picked up enough words to fill each other in on the basics. Our guide had been baptized here, and married here, as had her children. She showed us the timeworn baptismal font, and a beautiful figure of the Virgin Mary. We left donations with her for the church’s upkeep, and she gave us each a blessing, hugging both of us and kissing our cheeks. It was a moment of such shining kindness. It happened beyond words, and escapes my explanation, even now. I felt like a real pilgrim in that moment.

When I left Terry behind in Agés, I refused to say goodbye. I knew that it was the last time I’d see her, but I’d also known that earlier in the morning, when we’d said goodbye the last time. So really, what could I know? Instead, I told her, “See you later.” All the better, since I’d actually see her a couple more times!

I’d heard that I should spend some serious time in Atapuerca, the famous archaeological site just outside of Agés. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s the home of some of the earliest human remains currently known. Before leaving for the Camino, I’d been positive that I’d spend a day there, so of course I didn’t spend any time there whatsoever. I walked through the town and right back out, even though I saw that several pilgrims I’d met over the last few days were sitting out in front of an albergue, boots kicked off, having the first lovely beers of the afternoon. I still had about 6km left, which meant more than an hour and a half of trudging along, maybe even two hours, given my current pace. I mentally kicked my own ass as I walked out of town. I didn’t want to walk any farther, so why was I pushing myself to keep up with this schedule?

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The walk over the hill at Atapuerca was grueling and a little creepy. The entire path was strewn with large rocks, making every step a chore. I spent a majority of the time I walked over the hill thinking about the many ways I could get hurt, and mentally rehearsing how I’d get in contact with emergency services if and when I broke a leg. After leaving town, I didn’t see another person for quite some time, and it seemed likely that I might not meet another pilgrim. Even so, I finally did, just around the time I saw my second labyrinth of the day.

The night before, in Villafranca Montes de Oca, I’d briefly run into a man and woman traveling together. In their early to mid-30’s, they had a strange intensity, moving as a solemn singular unit, not exactly inviting of outside interaction. Here they were again, despite not having seen them at all today. I was so relieved to see new faces that I instinctively just started babbling along at them, not really considering if either of them spoke English. Luckily, they both did. They were kind enough to walk with me for awhile, brightening my afternoon and giving me a love story to think on for years now. I wish I could remember their names – maybe Terry can remind me, because I know that she met them once, too – but we’ll call them Raul and Minka.

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Raul was a Spaniard, and Minka was from Eastern Europe, I think the Czech Republic. They’d met a year before, on the Camino. She spoke no English or Spanish, and he didn’t speak Czech. He said that he saw her from across the room, and fell for her instantly. He endeavored to speak to her each time they saw each other, and though she thought he was weird at first, she began to see the charm in the situation. Eventually they figured out how to communicate, and despite the language barrier, fell in love. She went back home to her country and started learning Spanish (and a smattering of English, evidently, since she told me some of their story while they walked, though he was the talker of the duo). He went back home and started learning Czech. He visited her, and she visited him. Even though it was difficult trying to figure out living situations, they were both sure that this was the right choice, that they’d found The One. They got married, and now they were on a second Camino to celebrate their honeymoon. Unfortunately, they were short on money, and only had the budget to stay at albergues donativo (donation-based hostels), which were few and far-between. They would be walking all the way to Burgos today, even if it meant walking in the dark. Eventually we parted ways, since they needed to pick up speed in order to reach the city.

After the hill at Atapuerca, there was another nearly abandoned town, Villalval, where I was shocked to see an abandoned church in ruins. I stopped and investigated the church for some time, walking all over the church grounds, attempting to look in windows, and wishing that I had the guts to try to break in. In case you didn’t know this about me, I’m a total goody-two-shoes, not because I want to be, as much as because I prefer to avoid unnecessary conflict. So no breaking in, just some photos, and then on my way again. Towards the edge of this tiny village, I started to feel someone watching me. I’m sure that more than one dark window had a lonely little old lady behind it, and I was marginally more exciting than whatever was on TV that afternoon. Still, I thought I heard someone call my name once, just one faint, “Anna!” floating across the rooftops. My imagination ran wild. Needless to say, the last couple of kilometers were completed at a trot.

Click here to read about Day 16 (Part 4).

Anna’s Camino: Day 16 (Part 2) – Villafranca Montes de Oca to San Juan de Ortega

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.

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Though I believed I’d seen my fair share of the Spanish countryside by the time we got to Villafranca Montes de Oca, this day’s walk was to be a lesson in avoiding assumption. Shortly after leaving town that morning, we entered a large swath of beautiful, undeveloped forest land, and it seemed like there was a new surprise around every curve. I walked down a long, quiet stretch of fern forest, saw the prettiest little flowers, and happily analyzed every new type of rock I stumbled across (sometimes literally). My college geology professor would have been amused at how a girl who’d often slept through class (you can’t blame me – it was at 8am, and you already know I’m not a morning person) would one day grow up to geek out over pebbles.

One of the biggest regrets of my morning was coming to a huge dip in the road and realizing that no photos I took were going to capture its stupefying dimensions. I’d walked up and down mountains before, but this was something else. It looked like a freefall I’d absolutely hate to take via rollercoaster. I was in awe, but still remembered an important lesson I’d found on my first steep downhill climb, going into Roncesvalles on Day 3. I unpacked my sandals and switched shoes, just in case, to make sure there was no way of hurting my toes on the downhill climb. I might have been masochist enough to go on this stupidly long walk, but no way was I going to lose toenails in the process. (Click here to learn about how I took care of my feet on the Camino Frances.)

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It’s difficult to make out in this photo, but the dark spot in the trail ahead is where the trail drops completely out of sight. The little speck far in the distance on the trail is Natalie.

By the time I got to the big hill, Natalie was already far ahead on the trail. In fact, if you look very carefully in the picture above, you can just make out a tiny hiker wearing orange pants on the uphill portion of the next hill. I spent most of the morning alone, only meeting one other person, a woman pilgrim who was nearly done walking her intended portion of the Camino. She and her husband were vacationing through Spain together via RV, and she had split up from him a few days before to walk to Burgos, where they would meet up again and drive on. I thought it was such a pleasant idea for sharing an experience with your partner without forcing them into a specific travel style that didn’t suit.

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Before getting to San Juan de Ortega, where I hoped to regroup with Natalie, I ran across two things I hadn’t expected. The first thing was situated just before coming to the big hill – an archaeological site and memorial plaque, at the site of a mass grave. I couldn’t understand much of the signage, but was able to understand that this site was the unfortunate location of an execution during the Spanish Civil War (here’s an article about the dig, as well as the possible victims). I took a moment to reflect and offer up a prayer, feeling sadly inadequate – it was striking me how woefully unprepared I’d been to be a traveler here. It felt like the ultimate disrespect, to spend so little time getting to know the ins and outs of the country that was to shelter me.

I did my best on the Camino to divorce myself from expectation, and to be present and aware that it was my job to listen, follow the locals’ leads, and most of all, to be courteous in all dealings. I’m not sure if I succeeded, but I take some solace in knowing that I tried. There was so much history under my feet, and I had so little prior knowledge of any of it. I walked on, sober in the realization that I was completely incapable of showing proper respect to the dead here. As much as I have tried to be open to being a child of the world, much of history is alien to me, evanescent, ultimately untouchable. Of course, this is obvious – none of us are time travelers (if you are, call me!) – but it doesn’t keep me from deep regret. The best I could do was to interpret the scene through a human lens, and understand the tragedy that accompanies any theft of life.

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This “Buen Camino” helped dispel a little of the unease felt on this part of the trail.

The second site I encountered was almost the exact opposite scene – an unexpected art installation, in the middle of nowhere. There were no explanatory plaques, so I still have no clue who made the art, or why, but it was a refreshing find. The path had become flat and very wide, and though the mud was drying, it was obvious that had we walked that way a day before, it would have been the same shoe-sucking muck that we’d encountered leading into Villafranca Montes de Oca. It appeared that there had been some deforestation along the trail in recent history. Where before, the trees had come right up to the trail, here there was a wide stretch of fern growth bordering the path on each side. At some point in this stretch, I began to feel uneasy. The quiet was overbearing. Something about the road just felt wrong. It wasn’t the first time on the Camino that I’d thought back to how medieval travelers hadn’t liked to travel through the woods, on account of the threat of brigands. At times, I felt time overlapping. It’s hard to explain properly, but I was afraid of the past of the woods, not the present. Present me felt no threat – in fact, felt no human presence lurking. But another part of me felt tapped into a primordial fear, like I was stepping into someone else’s feeling-shoes, and experiencing their emotional reaction to being watched from the woods of another time.

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Dat banana tongue, tho…

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Dear artist – if you’re reading this, your beautiful sun/moon/heart/rainbow composition was one of the prettiest things I saw on the whole trip. Thank you! ❤

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Either way, as soon as I got to the magical little clearing where the art installation lived, this eerie feeling passed. Perhaps it was the little burst of happy energy from all of the colors, or maybe I was just instinctively relieved to see signs of other humans nearby. I wish I knew who’d taken the time to leave this lovely little art collection behind, and I hope that it grows along the path, in the way that so many areas of Camino offerings seem to grow and accumulate more cairns and milagros. Soon after, I passed a really nice little km marker that gave me the burst of energy I needed to pick up the pace.

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As I’d hoped, Natalie’s pack and hiking pole were waiting in front of a little cafe in San Juan de Ortega when I arrived. I happily dropped my pack and went in to find her, only to realize that she had been waiting for awhile, and was impatient to leave again. Before I’d arrived, she’d taken a short tour of the monastery, checked emails, and had a leisurely cup of coffee. Though we were both relieved to meet up again, I knew that our speeds were no longer aligning, and got the feeling that she had something new on her mind. It felt like the distance was more than physical, and I began the emotional practice of reconciling myself to what was to come, another Camino “break up.” But it wasn’t to be today. She waited with me for a little while, so I could grab an Aquarius and a slice of tortilla, and we took a look at the maps to confirm our plan to march on to Cardeñuela Riopico that afternoon. After my short break, we strapped on packs and headed off towards Ages, chatting happily about the things we’d seen so far this morning.

Click here to read about Day 16 (Part 3). 

Anna’s Camino: Day 16 (Part 1) – Leaving Villafranca Montes de Oca

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.

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An early view from the day’s walk. Even the most difficult mornings carried their own quiet joys.

From the moment that I awoke, I was feeling run-down and pensive. The day was a struggle, one of the hardest of the Camino, especially mentally. It was also one of the most beautiful and memorable. It was the first day since leaving St. Jean Pied de Port that I walked alone for much of the day, something that provided me with a chance to reflect and come to terms with the changes that I intuited for my near future.

Since leaving home, my anxiety had abated significantly, but this morning I felt that old familiar post-anxiety attack feeling, like someone had hollowed me out, leaving my shell, both fragile and strangely pliant. I am always slower, sweeter, my sense of humor skewed slightly more towards the bittersweet (typically I’m firmly in the schadenfreude camp). I went with the flow, letting my body guide me, packing up and getting ready in a haze. As I’d thought they would be, my clothes were cool and damp in the morning. I knew I should have brought them in from the line overnight, but I left them outside anyway, and by morning they were soaked with fresh dew. It was crisp out, making the effort of donning clammy running capris especially daunting. My butt was cold, and my feet were freezing. I worried that I hadn’t brought enough clothes to get me through colder weather than this.

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This little guy REALLY liked my shoelaces. I’ve got a whole set of photos of him nom nomming away. I didn’t mind one bit; I’m not above bribing adorable kitties to like me.

As usual, I was one of the last few to finish packing and leave the dorm. I joined the rest of the pilgrims in the hotel’s little cafe/breakfast area, reveling in a steaming cup of cafe con leche and a little glass of sweet, freshly-squeezed zumo. I also seem to remember a slice of tortilla (which wouldn’t be hard to believe, given that I ate tortilla at every opportunity – several times a day, on average). This particular specimen must not have been great, though, because I can’t remember anything special in conjunction with that morning’s breakfast. The best part of the morning, as far as I was concerned, was after breakfast, when I plopped down in the garden and let the cats play with my shoelaces for a few minutes. This was just one of many animal experiences on the Camino, but again I was relieved to find that a few quiet moments shared with animal friends gave me the energy I needed to press on.

I walked away from Villafranca Montes de Oca in the morning with the knowledge that we wouldn’t all be heading to the same destination. Terry had decided the night before that she’d like to spend the night in Ages, a tiny, ancient town that she’d fallen in love with on her last Camino. Natalie and I had talked it over, and agreed to walk further, to a town called Cardeñuela Riopico. It would be a challenging day for the both of us, but would make up for some time we’d lost in taking a few shorter days, and also allow us to get into Burgos early the next day, on relatively fresh legs. The promise of a short walk, and maybe even a day off from the trail, buoyed me along for the first half of the morning. Even so, I was to spend much of the day alone, for better or worse.

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From time to time, the Camino Frances intersects with other hiking trails. The yellow arrow tells you that you’re still on the Camino (and headed the right way), while the other trail markers denote the other paths encompassed on this stretch.

Click here to read about Day 16 (Part 2). 

Anna’s Camino: Compartmental Packing

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.

Before leaving for the Camino, I spent possibly too much time researching, and was a member of several different Facebook groups where people talked about what to bring, what to see, how to get ready, etc. When the conversation about packing cubes came up, I read along eagerly. It’s a generally accepted rule that one doesn’t just throw everything into her pack indiscriminately – it’s much easier to find what you’re looking for if you use some sort of containers to pack things separately. It’s also handy to have containers that provide extra waterproofing for your items. Most people have pack covers, but the pack itself will still get a little damp in heavy downpour, meaning that the items inside are still liable to be damaged in wet situations. Plus, anyone who’s watched The Way can tell you that rain isn’t the only way a pack can get drenched (not that I met anyone else who dropped their bag off of a bridge, but hey, there’s always a possibility!). To provide extra waterproofing, some people use a trash bag as an inner liner, or have waterproof packing cubes. Other people, like me, use Ziploc bags to separate out their items.

Before deciding to use Ziploc bags rather than their more expensive packing cube counterparts, I read a few online conversations about how Ziploc users were terrible people for waking up the rest of the people in the dorm with their packing noise. I thought long and hard when making my decision. I knew that I didn’t want the hassle of a trash bag liner, but I still wanted to make sure my clothes and important papers stayed dry.

I thought about how I’d feel if people woke me up with loud, crinkly bags, and knew that I definitely didn’t want to be that person. Then I realized that there was NO WAY that I could ever be that person, anyway – I’m simply not an early riser. Case closed. I was on the Camino for 35 days, and I woke up before someone else maybe three times. Usually, by the time I finally struggled out of bed, the room lights were on and pilgrims were scurrying to and fro, making all sorts of other noise. As it turns out, sleeping bags and trash bags are far louder than Ziplocs, anyway.

I eventually realized that there are lots of noise makers you’ll come up against as a pilgrim, and either you’ll have to find a way to deal, or stay in a private room. If crinkling bags are a major problem for you, snoring, coughing, squeaking springs, showering, flip flop slapping, doors opening and closing all night, opera singing (not even kidding – this happened to me on several occasions), talking, alarms, and a host of other unforseeable-but-definitely-gonna-happen issues will quickly stack up to make you miserable. Don’t be afraid to ask other pilgrims to please be respectful, but also bring ear plugs, patience, and a sturdy sense of acceptance. You’re going to need it.

For those of you who have made it this far, and want to know exactly what kind of bag to buy – I fit all of my clothes that I wasn’t wearing into a large, travel Ziploc Space Bag. They’re different from your typical Ziploc bags in that they have tiny perforations at the bottom edge of the bag, so you can pack the bag, squeeze out extra air from the top, then start to roll the bag down (like rolling a tube of toothpaste), and the extra air escapes out of the bottom of the bag. In the end, it’s about the closest you’re going to get to a vacuum-sealed bag without attaching it to a vacuum, and you’d be surprised how well the bag packs down to save room. I was able to fit all of my clothes in the bottom compartment of my backpack, keeping the bulkiest item in the pack at around hip level to save my back. As I traveled, besides being glad of the extra waterproofing, I also was grateful to know I had one more level of protection against bedbugs. It was nice to know that if I accidentally ran into bugs and had to boil all of my belongings, I’d still have one set of clothes that they wouldn’t be able to get to. I also used a gallon-sized Ziploc bag to keep my various papers safe and dry, as well as a smaller baggie just for my passport. I also had a vinyl bag for my toiletries.

No matter whether what you decide to use, make sure to take the time to look into how you plan to segregate and waterproof the items in your pack. You will find it highly useful to include some sort of organizational compartments on your Camino packing checklist. Don’t wait until the last minute to find out what works best for your budget and needs.