Day 21 (Part 2): Villarmentero de Campos to Calzadilla de la Cueza

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.

All beautiful moments must come to an end, and soon enough, it was time to pack up and leave the garden at Albergue Amanecer. Buoyed by our little break and the lovely surroundings, my moodiness from the morning disappeared as we hit the road again. The weather had cleared up over the course of the morning, and once again we had blue skies and puffy clouds.

As we walked, Jakob and I discussed who we were and why we had each decided to walk the Camino. Despite our easy friendship, our lives had been extremely different. I was an only child, raised in a rural area by a lower income family.  I moved a thousand miles away at 17 and never looked back. At nearly 34, I had three college degrees and dozens of seemingly random jobs under my belt. My dreams of singing and writing hadn’t even gotten off of the ground, and I’d bounced around from idea to idea all of my life. I was pretty good at most things that I tried, and job transitions weren’t too difficult, but I’d yet to find a job about which I could be passionate. I was introverted, introspective, and struggling with depression. I was walking to find answers to questions I didn’t know yet. Though I enjoyed the religious architecture along the route, my only connection to Catholicism was my slight obsession with St. Francis, and I found him more in nature than in the built environment.

By contrast, my new friend grew up in a close-knit family, in conditions that many would call comfortable (both of his parents are professionals, and his father is well-known in his field). His family had lived in the same area of Bavaria for many generations – longer than my family had been in America. At 30, Jakob had only recently finished his law degree after many years of school. His dream was to become a judge, and he was almost there. His Camino had long been planned to span the bridge between graduation and job placement, and as we walked, he was keeping track of his job application process as it rolled along back home. I was surprised to learn that in Germany, there is no requirement to practice as a lawyer before becoming a judge. We discussed what the job meant to him, and the nuances of job hunting for a judgeship near his home in Munich. He was driven, optimistic, and given his patience and open-mindedness, I couldn’t help but marvel that he’d be great at his chosen profession. He was also religious, and for him, the Camino was a way to connect with his name saint, James the Apostle (called Jakob in German tradition, from the Latin Iacobus).

I was surprised, given how much I liked my new friend, that he was also highly active in his college fraternity. It took me awhile to wrap my head around how different it was to be in a frat in Germany vs. the U.S. He showed me a photo of their old-fashioned uniforms (complete with funny hats and military braids). Involvement seemed strict, and academics and conduct were of the utmost importance. Connections lasted a lifetime, and older members made sure that the college-age brothers didn’t stray off the path and embarrass the organization. But like the American frats with which I had more experience, beer was also a key ingredient. How could it not be, in the beer capital of Germany?

Speaking of imbibing, we found great kinship in discussing the party reputations of our respective hometowns during their two biggest festivals – Oktoberfest for him, and Mardi Gras for me. We shared funny stories of various debauchery we’d witnessed, and popular misconceptions of what these giant, world-renowned parties were actually all about. We each issued unconditional invitations for a festival exchange program – one day I still plan to make it to Oktoberfest.

IMG_7436

Bocadillo, Aquarius, Coca Cola – who could ask for more?

In early afternoon, we reached Carrion de los Condes, and sat down to have lunch at a little cafe. I had no idea, but this was about to be one of those life changing moments. We posted up at our table, me with an absolutely giant sandwich. I pulled out my phone to peruse the WisePilgrim app, and he pulled out his yellow guidebook (then only published in German – the English version came out a few months later), looking up our options. We were about to hit the longest stretch of the Camino with no opportunities to stop, and if we chose to keep walking, we’d have to really commit. No bathrooms, no water, no cafe con leche, nowhere to rest our weary feet! It would be hours before we’d make it to a stopping point, and it was already afternoon. Was it crazy? Should we do it, or just stop here for the night? Once again, I got this feeling that the Universe had put us together as some sort of challenge, to keep each other encouraged.

As we ate and mulled over the choice, it was also in the back of my mind that we must be reaching the end of our time together soon. It seemed natural to me that we would walk in each other’s company for a few days or so, then split up. Easy. No pressure. I was on track to find Natalie again, and also practicing a kind of detachment. Despite how much fun I was having, at some level I was letting things wash over me without getting too involved. Perhaps I was guarding my heart? I don’t know what I was thinking.

But then, over that jamón y queso bocadillo muy grande, somehow the conversation turned to books and TV, and I mentioned that I really loved the miniseries “Band of Brothers.” Weirdly enough, the show was my introduction to the Peace Prayer of St. Francis, and it was a series that I rewatch yearly to remind myself of determination, grit, bravery, and goodness. Jakob immediately geeked out, and gushed that the show was one of his favorites, too. In fact, he’d watched it multiple times in German and English, to make sure not to miss any nuances in the dialogue. I told him that years before, when I was training to run the Chicago Marathon, I’d spurred myself on in difficult moments with Easy Company’s battle cry, “Currahee!” He said he’d often done the same. With that simple exchange, something shifted. No more conversation was necessary – we were all in. We could keep walking. We could do this. That was also the moment that I realized I’d been handed a new Camino family without even trying.

The next albergue was 18k away, in Calzadilla de la Cueza, which meant at least another 4 hours walking at our current pace. We’d be very lucky to arrive before dark, and there were storm clouds on the horizon, so we’d probably be walking through crappy weather. It was a stupid decision, made out of false bravado, and one which had terrible consequences. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

On our way out of town, we stopped to purchase two cheap ponchos. I had a raincoat and a pack cover, but had found that my pack was still getting wet inside when I walked too long in the rain. Luckily, I’d packed all of my clothing inside a big space saver Ziploc bag, so my clothes stayed dry, but I still didn’t like the moisture in the pack. Additionally, wearing the raincoat made me feel like I was in a walking sauna. I thought maybe the poncho would do the trick if we encountered heavy rain, and soon, I got a chance to test out the theory.

IMG_7445

Within about an hour after leaving Carion de los Condes, the sky went from somewhat cloudy to absolutely treacherous. The wind whipped up into a frenzy, and we were hit with heavy bursts of rain. I changed out of my trail runners as soon as the weather shifted, to attempt to keep them dry. Instead, I switched to my Teva Tirras, worn with socks. My feet were cold and damp, but didn’t chafe – and I knew I could count on dry shoes the next day. Underneath the socks was the typical layer of moleskin on all of my “danger zones” known for chafing, plus a thin coat of Unpetroleum Jelly (made by Alba). The rain was so relentless that in the end, I ended up wearing the raincoat and the poncho together.

Between the insane crackling of the poncho and the wind whistling across the open Meseta over the Camino, there was little conversation. We marched on, wet and miserable, all afternoon. From time to time, the rain would let up a bit, and one of us would point out something funny or weird to examine along the road, from old boots left behind, to road markers. From time to time, I’d begin to despair that we would see civilization again. The road stretched on forever in those moments. Inevitably, though, as my spirits sank, Jakob would draw my attention to some small wonder at the side of the road. For awhile, we both put in our headphones, and realized we could walk “together” but separately, singing along to our own tunes. Singing is always a spirit lifter for me, and this worked out perfectly. Towards sunset, we stood and admired the clouds racing along the horizon. There was power in the land, and prayer in the walking. We were discovering something important together. It was still an incredible relief to see the first rooftops of Calzadilla de la Cueza appear on the horizon.

IMG_7451

IMG_7455

It was dusk when we walked into town. Luckily for two completely exhausted peregrinos, the Calzadilla de la Cueza Albergue Municipal was on the left, immediately as you walk into town. I don’t know if either of us could have walked another step. As it turned out, the facilities were cheap and pretty nice. The bathrooms seemed newly refurbished and very clean, and the beds were comfy. There were maybe 10 other pilgrims there that night, including Tom, the older American guy I’d met with British Mark a couple of weeks before. I said hi, and he not only acted like he didn’t remember me, but was also a little rude about it. I was too tired to care much, but Jakob later told me that he saw the interaction and was taken aback on my behalf. As we started to unpack our things, I heard Jakob start laughing, and looked over to see that he was peering at me through a giant rip in his poncho. I’d already decided I couldn’t stand the way mine crinkled as I walked, so I told him he was welcome to have mine as a replacement. My pack would just have to get wet now and then.


After a hot shower and putting on some dry, warm clothes, I felt slightly more human. However, my legs were killing me, and my face was chafed from the wind and sun. It was obvious that the day’s activity had taken its toll on my already tired body. I massaged my legs with Volaren, popped an Ibuprofen, and donned compression socks, but even with that, I could tell I’d done some serious damage to my legs and feet. We’d walked around 34K over the course of the day – over 21 miles, almost a marathon. Even with all of the walking I’d done up until now, it was a huge leap in distance, and I knew I’d pay a price. Leaving the albergue in search of food was out of the question, since I could barely walk. I ate a few random choices from the vending machine while checking my Facebook messages in the break room, and went to bed before the dorm lights were out.

Day 20: Hontanas to Fromista

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.

IMG_7350

It’s a strange thing, waking up alone after so many mornings spent in close company. I didn’t know what to do with myself that morning in Hontanas. Of course, I knew the basics – get up, get dressed, get packed, get the hell out of the albergue before they kick you out at 8am – but I was so used to the little morning intricacies that come from walking with other people. Waking up alone in Burgos hadn’t affected me quite so much as this, probably because there’s such a stark difference between waking up alone in a quiet hotel room, and waking up alone in an albergue full of people. While everyone else bustled along on their normal morning routines, I felt like I was only going through the motions of mine. It didn’t feel real. How do you leave an albergue without friends in tow? I wasn’t sure. In the end, I dragged my heels and waited around for the albergue to empty out. Even though I walked away alone, I didn’t feel quite so lonely with other pilgrims in my general area.

IMG_7358

Leaving Hontanas, I followed a loop in the Camino that led out into the hills, and gave a gorgeous vantage point to enjoy the morning. The day was clear, and I soaked up the tiny details – the crunch of soil under my boots, the dew that still clung to wildflowers along the way. After awhile, I could see that the track I was following ran somewhat parallel to the main road, and would eventually be joining back up with it. Many of the pilgrims from the albergue were hiking alongside the road. Even from rather far away, I could make out the German pilgrim, Jakob, at the back of the pack. I could tell from the hitch in his gait that he was experiencing some pain, either in his hip or his lower back. It was a feeling with which I was deeply accustomed, after throwing out my back a few years earlier. I’d been in almost constant pain for about five years before a mix of chiropractors, physical therapists, and a great personal trainer helped me overcome it. As I watched the German limping away in the distance, I felt a flash of annoyance at his situation, and picked up my pace to catch up with him across the field.

My behavior at that junction was completely out of character, much like plopping down at the table with strangers the night before. I don’t know exactly what happened. Even though we knew each other slightly from dinner the previous evening, I’d spent most of the meal chatting with Nestor and Dena, and only briefly engaged in any conversation with Jakob. I had no attachment to him, and could very easily have watched him limp away and have gone about my day. As I’m writing this, I keep thinking that maybe, looking across the field, I subconsciously recognized him from Burgos, and there was some sort of kinship already brewing on that account. At the time, though, there was only one basic emotion occurring – irritation. For no good reason, I was completely annoyed at this stranger for not taking better care of himself, and I felt an overwhelming need to be bossy and make him do better. Definitely not my proudest mental moment on the Camino!

I caught up with him within a kilometer or two, and didn’t bother to waste time. I merely matched his pace, quizzed him on what hurt, and asked where he was carrying most of the weight in his pack. It felt like someone had taken over my body for a moment – my normal self watched in shock as this new, pushy version of me informed Jakob he was doing it all wrong, told him what he needed to do to stop hurting himself, and promised to teach him some stretches to help keep from seriously injuring himself once we got to the next coffee break. Then I picked my pace back up and walked on, simultaneously horrified at my behavior and strangely confident that I’d done exactly the right thing. It was very weird. What’s weirder is that soon after, Jakob and I all stopped at the same cafe, where he immediately sat down to rearrange his pack weight. We had coffee, chatted politely, I showed him stretches, and he was gracious enough not to tell me off for being a know-it-all. After our break, I again walked on alone. Even though I had no reason to think that I’d forged a lasting relationship in a few moments over coffee, still I relaxed into the knowledge that I’d found a kindred spirit, and was no longer walking completely alone.

The first time this occurred to me in force was just a little up the road, at the ruins of St. Antonio de Abad, a beautiful old monastery. I had been eager to examine the building, but as I got closer, I saw that it was shuttered up tight. However, there was a van parked beside what had been the main gate to the compound, and a little old man sold crude, handcrafted wooden pendants out of the back of the vehicle. As I approached, I felt misapprehension, but the knowledge of my German friend on the road behind me gave me comfort. One or two pilgrims passed by as I examined the woodcrafter’s wares, and I eventually bought a wooden bird to take home.

The day stretched on. We had now entered Palencia. Though I chatted with other pilgrims as we walked, no one’s pace quite matched my own, and I remained mostly solo. I still had it in mind to push on and catch up with Natalie, and to do so, I tried cutting back on my usually numerous coffee breaks, stopping only when I felt it was most necessary. By the time I reached Itero de la Vega in the early afternoon, I could barely put one foot in front of the other. No coffee meant no tortilla, and no tortilla meant that I was famished! Everything in my body screamed for me to stop right here and call it a day.

There weren’t many places to stop and grab a bite, but Bar Tachu was on the main drag and seemed to still have a few people inside, so I entered. It had a rock-and-roll vibe to it, and I imagined that a Friday night at Bar Tachu had to be the experience, indeed. The first thing that I saw upon entering was Jakob, ordering a burger at the bar. I didn’t know how he and walking buddy had managed to pass me, but at some point in the day we had leapfrogged. They looked a lot better than I felt, and I felt another stab of guilt-not-guilt at being bossy that morning. They invited me to come and sit with them, and we all took off our shoes and ate bar grub at the rock-and-roll bar in the middle of nowhere. It was wonderful.

While we ate, the three of us discussed how much time was left in the day, and where we each thought we could make it to before it was time to quit for the afternoon. The general consensus was that it would be prudent to aim for Castrojeriz. We ended up leaving Bar Tachu together, and walking on together until Boadilla del Camino, about 8km away. We talked and laughed most of the way. Jakob’s friend wanted to go to a particular albergue somewhere between Itero de la Vega and Boadilla del Camino, but when we got there, it turned out to already be closed for the season. By the time we reached Boadilla del Camino, it was getting on into the afternoon, and the clouds were looming overhead. The friend announced that he was definitely stopping here for the night, so we shuffled into the first cafe to take off our packs and have one last coffee together while we all made up our minds about lodging for the night.

It was around 3pm, and the sky was gray. It was raining – heavy enough to be annoying, but light enough to not put a major wrench in the day. My feet hurt, but I still had energy. More than that, I still had the drive to catch up with Natalie. The three of us sat at our table, surrounded by food, drinks, and guidebooks. What was the next step? After consulting my maps, I made the call to keep walking. If I could keep up the pace, I could easily be in Fromista by late afternoon – it was only 6 more kilometers. Jakob’s friend decided to stay the night in the municipal albergue, and had figured out how to get there from here. I expected Jakob to also stay behind in Boadilla del Camino, but had a strange moment of pleasant un-surprise when he announced that he was going to walk on to Fromista with me. That might not make sense, exactly, but if you’ve ever picked up the phone without looking at caller ID, and still known exactly who it was, you might know the feeling I’m talking about. It’s more of a feeling of having absolutely no idea something is going to happen, followed by a feeling of absolute certainty that was obviously always going to happen. Maybe I’ll be able to more accurately describe it in some later draft. At the time, I was relieved not to have to walk on alone in the waning light, and pleased that it seemed like I’d found a solid companion.

The rest of the afternoon’s walk was spent swapping stories about our respective cities – New Orleans and Munich, and how, though they were extremely different, they still had some shocking similarities. We talked about Mardi Gras and Oktoberfest, and our favorite local foods, and showed each other pictures of our partners. Jakob was over-the-moon in love with his girlfriend, which made me more comfortable with him, since I also had a boyfriend back home, and wasn’t interested in any of tension and awkwardness I’d seen several times thus far on the Camino. It was becoming clear to me that some people go off on pilgrimage with their eye more on hooking up than on finding themselves, and I didn’t have the mental room for any misunderstandings with men. It was a major relief to not have to fend off advances, or explain my intentions to anyone that I met on the road.

We arrived in Fromista very late in the day, around 5pm or so. It was hours later than I’d typically walked before, and every inch of my body cried defeat. We consulted Jakob’s yellow Camino guide and my Wise Pilgrim app for a suitable albergue, and agreed on Albergue Estrella Del Camino, which turned out to be my least favorite spot to sleep on the entire Camino. It was the least hospitable albergue, by far. We had beds and showers, so that was nice, but we were the only pilgrims in the place, and largely ignored. The only nearby food option was a tiny market, where we bought a mishmash of food and wine to share, and went back to the albergue to eat in the common room.

Before bed, I called my parents to tell them about my travels, and chatted with my dad about the fact that we’d be visiting a Templar castle in a few days. That night, we were the only people in the dorm, and we chose beds like strangers choose seats on a train – leaving a few spots open in between, for privacy’s sake. If only the hospitalera had cared to have us, the experience would have felt luxurious. As it was, we were both happy to leave in the morning.

 

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.

IMG_7064

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.

 

IMG_7061

Natalie

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.

IMG_7050

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 12 – Navarrete to Nájera

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.

img_6736

I’m pretty certain that Day 12 ranks as my shortest day on the Camino, right after the walk up to Orisson on Day 2 (since I’ve been counting my arrival in St. Jean Pied de Port as my Day 1). From Navarrete to Nájera is only around 7 or 8 miles, so it’s not exactly a trek. But I started to feel pretty sick this day, and the short walk still took a lot out of me.

It was misting out when we woke up in Navarrete. Nothing major, just enough to make many of that morning’s crop of pilgrims take a little longer to get out of town. It was still dark out when Natalie and I left the albergue, and the town was still locked up tight. Why go out on a morning like this if you didn’t have to? We made a beeline to the first light we saw spilling from an open doorway near the cathedral square, and lucked into a cute little café, where we had orange juice, cafés con leche, and a chocolate bar for me. The place was tiny, just two counter-height tables, a couple of standing displays of snack foods, and enough standing room for a few people to line up to order at the little window near the front of the shop. We were among the first in the shop, and we squeezed in at one of the tables to have our light breakfast and look over the map for the day’s walk.

Word spread that it was supposed to rain today, and those who weren’t already wearing rain jackets or ponchos started pulling their bags open to grab what they needed. Pack covers went on, as well as rain pants, and gaiters. There was an air of expectation and resolution, no complaints, just giving in and going with what nature had handed us for the day. It’s all you can do.

As it turned out, the mist remained a constant through much of the morning’s walk, obscuring what were supposed to be beautiful views. However, it never did turn to a full downpour, which was great for me, since my health gradually declined through the morning. I’d brought two packs of tissues with me from the U.S. in case I needed to “use the facilities” when there were none to be found, and had to resort to popping a squat on the side of the road. I only needed those tissues in that capacity three times over the entire Camino, but I was very glad of them on this day, when I needed to stop and blow my nose every few minutes, it felt like.

Side note on tissues – first off, don’t assume you can just put them in the top of your pack and stop to take them out when you need them. If your nose is running like crazy, just put them in your pocket or if you have a waist pack, that’ll do, too. It will really slow you down to have to unstrap your pack and take it off every time you start getting particularly snotty. Secondly, don’t go hog wild and use a new tissue for every nose blow. I know it’s gross to think about, but when you’re on the Camino, you’ll start to understand how wasteful that is, and how little anyone cares that you’re reusing your tissue a few times. Just make sure to wash your hands once you get to the next cafe, and don’t touch people or things too much without de-germing as much as you can. No one needs your cold, but to be honest, everyone understands that when you’re sleeping in close quarters and wearing yourself out on a daily basis, your health is bound to take a hit, and we’ll all share each other’s germs at least once. Sucks, but them’s the breaks. Lastly, do your part to keep the Camino clean for all who come after you. Never, ever leave your trash behind you. If you use a tissue, pack it away in a plastic baggie, a pocket, wherever – just take it with you and dispose of it properly the next time you encounter a trash receptacle. You’ll be surprised and dismayed to see how disgusting parts of the trail can get, where people just leave their gross trash behind on the road. It’s quite sad, and we all need to do our part to lessen the impact. If you want to be an even better human being than I am, you could forego disposable tissues and just bring a handkerchief or two. They’re useful for more than nose blowing, and can be washed and reused for years to come.

That morning was absolutely gorgeous, and ranked as one of my favorite portions of the Camino. I loved the silence in the mist. One of the strange and interesting parts of the day is that we passed through a section of the Camino that was designated as an art exhibit. From what we could understand, there were supposed to be installations all down the trail, but in reality, the only thing we saw that could be art was a weird, solitary painting that looked almost as if it had been discarded there on the side of the road.

At one point in the morning, we walked out of the mist into a tiny town that was really just a roadside cafe. It had the feel of a truck stop, just no trucks. We popped in to grab breakfast, and I ended up having two breakfasts – a Kas naranja and a chocolate bar, plus a slice of tortilla and cafe con leche.

img_6738

That day, Natalie and I stayed pretty much within eyesight of each other, and played a game of hopscotch with English Mark. He and Tom weren’t walking together anymore; Mark’s feet were really taking a toll on his ability to keep up with the athletic Tom, so they talked it over and Tom walked on. It’s something that has to happen, and something that I’d prepared myself for years before getting to Spain (benefit of reading too many Camino journals), but it’s still a really tough moment for every pilgrim to have to make that kind of call.

Mark seemed sad to not be walking with his buddy, but also had a carefree air, like a weight had been taken off. He had finally found HIS Camino, and he was enjoying it despite the pain. As he walked, he listened to the Rolling Stones and various podcasts. Later that morning, during another coffee break (Is anybody doing the math on how much coffee I consumed on the Camino?), we sat at a cafe bar together and shared podcast names. I recommended a ghost story podcast that I enjoyed back in the states; I wish I could remember what he recommended I listen to. I’d love to give it a listen now.

img_6739

Walking into Nájera

The day remained overcast and gloomy – my favorite type of weather. We made it into Nájera in the early afternoon, and headed for Albergue Puerta de Nájera, which Natalie knew of from her last Camino a couple of years before. It was a solid choice, an adorable place with some private rooms and some dorm-style rooms with 6 to 8 beds each. The bathrooms weren’t unisex, which was a lovely bonus, but the bathrooms did share a wall. As I was taking my shower that afternoon, the weirdest thing happened. Along the walk, I had two major “earworms” occur. One of them was shared with Natalie – we both got into the habit of humming “La Vie en Rose” as we walked, keeping time with our walking poles. I have no clue why she was singing it, or if I got it from her, but later in the Camino I realized that it was also used on a popular shampoo commercial that played on TV every now and then at various cafes, so one or both of us might have gotten it from TV or from the other, who knows. The other song that happened ALL THE TIME for me was The A-Team soundtrack, from that popular 80’s TV show. I hummed it to myself daily, sometimes in hour-long loops, as I walked. I whistled it. I embellished it and turned it into a jazz tune. It drove me mad, but I couldn’t get rid of it. That day, as I showered, on the other side of the shared bathroom wall, I could hear a Portuguese peregrino singing a song – the theme to The A-Team. I almost died laughing, then spent probably a little too much time wondering if all of we pilgrims had tapped into a collective consciousness while walking. Can’t remember the theme? You’re welcome:

Along the Camino, you’ll find that some albergues like to have men and women in separate dorms and bathrooms, and others just mix it up. This one had same sex bathrooms and mixed dorm rooms. By the time we got to Nájera, I don’t think anyone really cared one way or the other about either thing. Everyone was courteous, there was no creepiness to having to share spaces – we were all sharing a goal, and though I’ve read some stories about incidents here and there, nothing untoward happened in any place I stayed. One of the couples in our room were a married American couple in their early 60s, who had been walking the Camino backwards, and were headed back to St. Jean Pied de Port. I don’t remember many details about them, but they were a pleasant pair, and they were into food and wine. There was a small communal dining area and kitchen downstairs in the albergue, and I remember him proudly unpacking a bag of supplies to make them both sandwiches. He did it with such attention to detail and obvious joy that the end result struck me as a gourmet masterpiece, despite the fact they were just regular old sandwiches. She poured wine and commented on his sandwich-making skills from time to time. They were so clearly relishing every second together, and this beautiful meal was just one more layer of the loveliness of their adventure. I didn’t exactly envy them, but in them, I saw what I’m looking for in life – a partner to share my adventures, and then make them sweeter just by being himself and laughing along the way.

img_6777

Sometimes you go shopping for staples, and end up getting entranced by the candy section…

img_6778

Other times you find things to laugh about (this is a mayonnaise-based “salad” mixture made of CARP, not crap)

On groceries – As far as groceries went on the Camino, Natalie taught me pretty early on to grab supplies at night for the next morning. I tended to buy a baguette, goat cheese or soft sheep’s cheese, thinly sliced ham, chorizo, eggs, yogurt, Knorr soup packets (an obsession of mine, since they’re not readily available in the U.S.) – I preferred chicken noodle and cream of asparagus or cream of mushroom – and chocolate. I didn’t buy everything all at the same time, of course, but some days I’d decide on walking with sandwich materials, and every morning I really wanted to have boiled eggs and yogurt to start out the day. Breakfast along the Camino is pretty depressing if you’re used to something hearty – they stick with coffee of some sort, fresh juice, and thick slabs of toasted bread, so if you’re used to starting the day with a nice helping of protein, you’re going to need to prepare yourself the night before. If you’re walking with other people, it can be beneficial for your wallet and your pack weight to go grocery shopping together, and everyone buy a piece of the puzzle. This means everyone can share resources at breakfast and snack time, but no one has to carry too much extra weight.

Another thing I learned on the Camino is that Americans are pretty uptight about food spoiling. You don’t have to refrigerate yogurt in cool weather – yogurt keeps for a couple of days, boiled eggs keep for a day or two, and sausage and cheese keep for a few days, as well. There’s a reason you think of people in the “olden days” eating bread and cheese, and hunks of cured meat. We’ve gone overboard in our dependence on refrigeration. Use common sense, but also don’t freak out about having food in your pack for a day or two. If you’re really afraid that the thing you’ve bought is going to spoil, share your resources with your friends, or talk to the hospitalero and leave the food behind for other pilgrims in your albergue’s refrigerator.

After we’d gotten our things settled in, Natalie and I decided to tour the town. We walked by this shop that looked absolutely dreamy, full of beautiful painted pottery, but when we tried to walk in, the shop owner told us that they were closed for siesta. So we made a note to come back by, then walked to Santa María la Real de Nájera, a famous monastery where many early royals are buried, to take a tour. After the monastery, we tried to visit the pottery shop, which now had a few customers, but the shop owner yelled at us and told us he was still closed, so we gave up on that plan and walked some of the back streets that used to be the Jewish part of town in medieval times. I was surprised to note that the area seemed a little sketchier than anything we’d experienced before, and was glad to have company. It was one of the few occasions that I was uneasy on the Camino. We passed a group of men sitting around, drinking beers and talking, and they seemed different. They stared at us with open unfriendliness, more of a “what the hell are you doing here?” vibe than an open threat, but we got the hint and walked back towards the center of town.

I couldn’t really pinpoint why they didn’t strike me as belonging (something about manner of dress and the way they were hanging out), since I’m no expert in Spanish culture, but we were obviously encroaching, and afterwards it occurred to me that they might have been Travelers. I can’t be sure of that – maybe it was just the bad part of town, or maybe we got the wrong idea, who knows? It’s a shame, though, because we were trying to get a better view of the cliffs behind town where there were little caves carved out that used to be religious dwellings.

Back at town center, we started looking around for a place to grab dinner, and ran into Mark, posted up at a cheesy-looking sports bar, drinking his trademark huge beer. We were all happy to see each other, so Natalie and I ran in to have a drink, grab some tapas, and see if he wanted to meet up for dinner. Though I’ve recounted some things about Mark before now, I think it’s important to say that this was really the first night that I felt I was starting to understand him. He told us that it would be his birthday in a few days, and also told us more about his job, and gave us some clues about his Camino. He had been a bus driver/tour guide with a popular tour company, and had traveled quite a bit. His manner was loveably gruff, rough around the edges, that bittersweet mix of joy and sorrow that I honed in on immediately. We had some things in common, and that night over drinks he let us in on some of the things that made him a special human being. I’m so happy to have had those moments to get to know him, now that he’s gone. One of the things that he said that made both Natalie and me laugh was something to the effect of, “Everyone wants to know your life story, why you’re here on the Camino and how your suffering lead you here, blah, blah, blah. What if you just want to take a long walk?” Very gruff, very “I don’t have feelings, stop assuming things.” Then, in almost the very next breath, he went on to start thinking out loud about why he was on the Camino, sharing those feelings that he’d just insisted weren’t a thing, lol. He was a funny, sweet guy. I hope he got what he needed.

img_6782

Later that night, I was brought to tears over dinner, specifically over a dish called Patatas Riojanas (Riojan style potatoes), a dish of potatoes stewed with chorizo. It’s strange, since my home area of Eastern North Carolina doesn’t have any strong ties to Spanish culture, but one of my favorite simple NC dishes is stewed potatoes, often served as a side dish to Eastern NC BBQ. Patatas Riojanas tastes like an improved version of the stewed potatoes I grew up eating, and that night, maybe particularly because I was sick and worn out and feeling a little more sentimental than usual, I started crying with joy at the dinner table as I ate my Riojan stewed taters. Here’s a simple recipe for Patatas Riojanas if you’d like to try to recreate this magic for yourself! Note that Spanish chorizo is a hard, smoked sausage, very different from the fresh, raw Mexican chorizo that we typically see in the states. You’ll have to do a little research on where to find Spanish chorizo in your area, but it’s available online if resources are scarce in your neck of the woods.

The other big memory I have from that night is back at the albergue, right before lights out, as Natalie and I unrolled our sleeping bags and got ready for bed. We were sharing a bunk bed (I got the bottom bunk – woot!), and she and I were sitting back to back, rifling through packs. It struck me that we probably wouldn’t be walking together much longer, and I got a little teary, so I told her how lucky I felt to have gotten to meet her. Like it wasn’t just by chance. It was a lovely moment of friendship, and I still feel like if there’s such a thing as Divine Providence, it led me to run into Natalie that first day on the bus into St. Jean, then again at Orisson. I’m also glad I had such happy things happen that day in Nájera, since the next day’s walk was going to be…well, I’ll tell you about that next time.

Click here to read about Day 13.

The End of the Road

I met my friend Mark on our way over the Pyrenees, on the Camino Frances. I could hear him before I saw him; his big attitude and Kentish accent were hard to miss. He and his walking buddies were having a conversation about Shakespeare (he wasn’t that big of a fan, and was saying that “Shakespeare” and “comedy” were an oxymoron). They came into view around the next bend, and I didn’t even stop, just remarked as I passed, “What about Romeo & Juliet – that shit’s hilarious!”. I could hear him laughing for a full minute as I walked on. The next time I stopped for a breather, he and his friends walked by and he stopped to chat with me. I adored him, sight unseen, and I adored him after that, too.

Later, Mark’s path coincided with mine, Natalie’s and Claire’s again and again, and we ended up getting dinner, having drinks, and sharing bunks on more than one occasion. After our darling Claire had to move on, one night Natalie and I met up with Mark for pints and had a pretty touching conversation about why people walk the Camino. He was one of those people who puts on a big show about being a gruff jerk, but as a fellow Scorpio it was easy to get a glimpse of his soft side, hiding just far enough away to not be too easily damaged by the folks outside of his safety zone. One night I made a quip about how tasty sharks were, and I remember how quickly he reacted, telling me that he was a diver and had great respect for the majesty of sharks.

I was bummed to learn that Mark’s blisters kept him from continuing the Camino. I was a few days ahead of him, but kept thinking that we could just meet up in Burgos, or maybe at the end in Santiago de Compostela. I sent him photos of a funny Rolling Stones shirt I saw in Burgos that made me think of him. He replied to say that he was heading on to somewhere where he could find some good kush and take a load off, lol.

Tonight I found out that my friend Mark passed away. He won’t be making it to Santiago de Compostela. He won’t be figuring out a better way to treat those poor abused feet. He won’t be sampling tapas with glee, or demanding a “large” when the Spanish bartender tries to hand him a regular pint. He won’t be diving, or telling people about the magic that is the ocean. I’m heartbroken, but I must believe that his goodness and laughter live on in me, and everyone else who knew him. He was a good man, a kind man, a hilariously funny man, and he could sure hold his lager.

Mark, I love you. And to the rest of my dear, dear friends from the Camino, please stay in touch and take care of yourselves. You’ve made my world a better place. ❤

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 Weekend’s Worth Of Thoughts

See? I do get a little sun now and then.

See? I do get a little sun now and then.

It’s Sunday night, and all is quiet in my little apartment. The cats are sleeping at my feet, the lights are low (mostly due to the fact that my lamp lightbulbs have both burned out, and they’ve also run out of lightbulbs at my neighborhood store), and I’ve got a million and one little thoughts running around in my brain.

This weekend I went on a short holiday to Crystal Beach, TX, on the Bolivar Peninsula. At just 5 hours’ drive from New Orleans, it’s a great little spot to get away for a few days. The mother of one of my best friends owns a beach house there, and each summer a few of us get together there to catch up. It’s the only time we see each other each year, and it’s always such a pleasant trip. It’s not a gorgeous tropical beach, but there’s water and sand, nice people, lots of local wildlife, and it’s quiet, a great place to think. Plus, there’s an added bonus for a girl who’s pinching pennies in preparation for a month-long trip through Spain: free room and board. We all pitch in for groceries, obviously, but it’s an extremely economical way to get together with friends at the beach.

We’ve been doing this girls’ weekend at the beach for three years now. The cast of characters changes a little each time – last year my friend’s mother couldn’t make it down, and this year the other friend’s little boy wasn’t able to attend – but it’s basically the same. Since we live all over the world, and have drastically different lives, the trip ends up being a miniature Big Chill (sans funeral) each time.

We talk about changes, catch up on who the others are becoming/have become in the interim, and it’s also a great way to mark our personal advances. This year was a particularly big year for change, with new babies on the way, a college graduation, several exciting new jobs, and lots of soul searching to be discussed.

When I get around my two best friends from college, I tend to fall back into old habits – lots of introversion and introspection. It’s difficult to vocalize what’s going on in my head much of the time, but somehow a little more so when I get around a bunch of vivacious, exciting women. I’m intelligent enough to realize that I have things to add to the conversation, but that’s always in retrospect. When I’m there I struggle to find words, and end up mostly observing, collecting conversation and images, and piecing them together later for further study. This weekend, I seemed to fall even deeper into my thoughts than normal. I’m just now climbing out, really.

Several things happened during the course of the few days that I was away, however:

#1 – Some really great news! More loved ones donated to my Camino fund, and now I’m up to $770 – just $1,230 away from my goal. How amazing is that?!? Thanks to everyone who’s donated, shared, commented, and most of all, to all of you who’ve paid attention and taken the time to talk to me about this major undertaking. Overall, I’m pretty confident and excited, but there’s still a lot of fear hiding under the surface, and it feels great to be able to get out of my head for awhile and talk about this with all of you. So thanks again. I really appreciate your support in all of its many forms.

#2 – Also decided that my blog needed a revamp. I’m going to be working on it more over the coming weeks, but I was tired of the old theme. I’m going to concentrate on getting back to taking photos and spicing the visuals on here up a bit, and I’m also going to shut down my other Camino-related blog and move all of the old posts back here. One other big change is that there’s a new link in the navigation above (“Support Anna’s Camino“) that goes directly to my GoFundMe page – thank you for sharing it with your friends!

#3 – I also had some time to sit on the beach and read this great book that I picked up in Assisi called We Were With Francis. It’s a collection of little stories told by St. Francis’ best friends after he died. I ruminated quite a bit on charity, humility, gratitude, and being humble enough to ask for the things that I need. Seeing as how typing those last few words gives me chest pains, I’m obviously not quite as open as I need to be, lol! While reading, I made a new goal: to memorize the Peace Prayer.

#4 – While I was thinking about the above, I also couldn’t help but return to that stupid Facebook post from the pilgrimage FB group. I need to let it go, as it’s weighing on me for no good reason. I haven’t participated on the page since that post went awry, but I won’t let my pride keep me away much longer from the many, many good people there. However, I have been thinking strongly about how to counteract the kind of negativity that I experienced, and give a chance to other would-be pilgrims who are having trouble funding their trip. To that end, I think I’d like to start a scholarship fund. There are some grants out there for very specific uses (like the American Pilgrims on the Camino scholarships and grants to help train people to become volunteers on the Camino, something I intend to do eventually), but I’d like to target pagans and other non-religious but spiritual people who are searching for something they don’t yet have the words to describe. So I’m going to be putting some brain power towards that while on The Way. Maybe from the proceeds of my book? Or maybe there’s another group out there that would like to participate (or that already has an effort I can help)? Right now there’s way too much going on to think too hard about it, but this is just to put my intentions out there. If you’re listening, Universe, I’m open to suggestions.

#5 – I was also lucky to be spending the weekend with another pilgrim. My friend’s mother walked the Camino a few years ago, and shared her advice with me. First up, after reading what I had to say about the great food and wine opportunities in my Q&A post, she warned me that she’d had a very different experience. She ran into lots of the same options over and over, and was not impressed by the food, in general. So I’m tempering my expectations. But that’s OK since I’m planning to eat lots of basic, healthy things anyway – eggs, cured meat, fruit. One of her suggestions was to pick up almonds dusted in cocoa, for a delicious treat that also gives quick energy. Definitely going to look for those once I get to Spain. She also advised that the Camino always takes something from you, but also provides what you need. She illustrated this with a story about having her toothbrush taken (accidentally) by a pilgrim who picked up the wrong toiletry bag in a dark alburgue. She was so irritated to have no toothbrush or toothpaste that morning, but started walking anyway. After setting out, she went into a cafe to get a coffee and use the restroom, and what should she find there but a toothbrush vending machine?

It’s time to clean my apartment and get some much-needed shuteye. Any thoughts/questions/comments on MY thoughts/questions/comments? I’d love to hear from you 😀

Have a great week!

Boundaries and Expectations

Boundaries are personal property lines

I’m too hard on myself. I attempt to do too much, without saying enough. I’m a giver, and I hate conflict, so sometimes it’s easier for me to just not say anything when I’m bothered by actions (or lack of) on the part of other people in my life. It’s incredibly stressful for me to talk about the ways they’re disappointing me, but then when I don’t speak up, it’s still incredibly stressful to be disappointed. It sounds simple, really, but from where I’m sitting, it’s a giant stress dragon, just trying to eat me alive from the toes up.

I’m suffering right now, but there’s no one I feel comfortable talking about it with. No, that’s not it. It’s that I’m too cowardly to bring it up to the one friend I should be talking about it with. And now that I’ve been stewing in the stress for a little while, of course I feel like the person should have already sensed my issue and be addressing it. But the problem isn’t with me or with our relationship, exactly. It’s about the limits I should have been placing, long ago. And now that I failed to enact such simple measures to keep this healthy, I’m overreaching. I’m doing too much. I feel that the balance is off, and things are out of whack.

So what do I do? I want our friendship to survive. There are so many good points. And I could keep up the “not talking about my problems” thing forever, if I wanted. I have lots of prior practice with that. But this isn’t sustainable. I can’t afford the emotional weight this is placing on me. I want to be supportive and have a can-do attitude, but I’ve got my own baggage to take care of.

The key is to let go of my expectations for myself. In the past, I’ve been the dead weight. My job is to make sure I don’t do that to anyone else. But it’s also to make sure that no one does it to me, either. It is not my job to be a babysitter, or a bankroller, or a cheerleader if I’m not emotionally capable of that responsibility. I can assess my needs and my friends’ needs on a daily basis, and make the call as to what I’m capable of that day. But right now my responsibility is to me. I don’t have children for a reason. It’s not my job to take on the world right now. It’s to heal myself. If our friendship is to survive, I need to find a way to set boundaries (out loud, in the presence of others), let go of the guilt and pride, and just take each day as it comes.