Anna’s Camino: Day 2 – St. Jean to Orisson

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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The clock tower in St. Jean Pied de Port, taken as I was leaving town in the morning.

The morning that I started walking the Camino, I woke up before dawn. It was dark out, even though it was almost 7am. My clothes were still damp from the night before, since I’d hand-washed everything that I’d been wearing for the last 48 hours of travel. I was a little grumpy to have to put on slightly damp, very cold, clothing, but there were so many other things on my mind that I was mostly just congratulating myself for having done an OK job of getting them slightly dry overnight.

Mostly, though, I just remember being a little anxious about what I was about to do. I had no idea of what I was getting into. Sure, I’d spent months researching and asking questions, and reading every Camino journal I could get my hands on, but now that I was here it was finally hitting me that there was no real way to be prepared. All I could do was just step out the door and continue to put one foot ahead of the other for as long as the road went on. So that’s what I did. I finished packing up my things, turned off the lights, locked the door, and started walking back towards town.

First thing’s first, I found an ATM and took out 300 euros to put in my money belt. I wasn’t sure where I’d see my next ATM, and I also knew that I’d want to keep my fees as low as possible, so I took out the maximum amount the ATM allowed. I was a little nervous for a minute or two about having that amount of money on my person, but that was the last time that kind of fear even occurred to me. Coming from New Orleans, it quickly became apparent to me that I’m used to a much higher level of threat and crime on a regular basis than is happening at any given time along the Camino. Once I started to get a good feel for the people along The Way, I stopped being afraid. Of course, I continued to keep my money in a safe spot and remain on the lookout for anything or anyone suspicious, but my anxiety level about personal attack was at a negative level in comparison to what I feel on a daily basis walking around in my home city.

After getting cash out of the ATM, I walked back towards the pilgrim office, where I’d told Lee and WooYung that I’d meet them in the morning. I waited around there for awhile in the dark, watching pilgrims straggle past me in small groups on their way out of town. There was a certain air of apprehension. The streets were still dark and quiet, and except for the sound of walking sticks clacking against the cobblestones, there wasn’t much to tell you that the pilgrims were all leaving town. I waited around for a few more minutes for my buddies, then decided to see if the little pilgrim gear store I’d seen the day before was open yet. I still needed to get walking sticks, and it was misting a bit, so I thought a raincoat might be in order.

While I was picking out my walking sticks, the talkative lady with the pretty knitted hat came in to buy a few things. We stood together at the register for a few minutes and chatted politely as the shopkeeper rang up my new raincoat, walking sticks, and headlamp, then I stayed near the shop to wait for my friends and the woman walked off. I realized I still hadn’t asked her name.

After another ten minutes or so, I decided my Korean pals must have left, so I started walking. I quickly caught up with small group of people, including a 50-ish Canadian man named Gary. We chatted on our way out of town and up the winding road that led up into the mountains.

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Gary took this pic of me right before we parted ways.

Things quickly got difficult for me. I’d known that the hike over the Pyrenees was going to be intense, but nothing had prepared me for how horribly out of shape I was when altitude was thrown into the mix. I’d been going to the gym daily, and doing a lot of running and weightlifting, but hadn’t had the opportunity to work on an incline. Walking up into the mountains on the way to Orisson was a very good lesson in what I wasn’t very prepared to do. I huffed and puffed along with Gary for awhile until I realized I wasn’t going to be able to keep walking all in one go. We hugged and bid each other Buen Camino, and my fourth Camino friend walked on without me.

I used my raincoat to make a waterproof seat and plopped down on the side of the road to take a breath. I tried not to get too scared about how much trouble I was having breathing, and how hard my heart was pounding. Instead, I took calm, steady breaths, and focused on enjoying the landscape around me. It was absolutely gorgeous. The day was cloudy and a little misty, but I’d worked up a good sweat on the walk up, so I was still warm despite the chill in the air. Now and then, small groups of pilgrims would pass me. Most asked how I was doing, and offered me a snack or a piece of chocolate. I declined the offers politely, but thanked everyone for their care.

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View from the roadside during one of my breaks.

After awhile, it was time to pick up and get started again, but to my dismay, about 20 minutes later I was again huffing and puffing and feeling dizzy. So I stopped again. And started again. And stopped again, and so on. It took me almost four hours to walk the 9 kilometers (just under 6 miles) from St. Jean Pied de Port to Orisson. Along the way, more people offered me chocolate, and I started to accept, lol. It was still a lovely trip, even though for awhile I was sure I’d die of a heart attack.

For a while, I watched a group of pilgrims playing fetch with a neighborhood dog. A little later, as I looked back over the route I’d just taken, I noticed two fast-moving hikers covering a lot of ground. They were way in the distance, I could barely tell they were people, but the way one of the little dots moved made me think of WooYung’s determined gait. From then on, every time I stopped to take a little break, I’d scan over the trail behind me and down the mountain to see if I could see those hikers, and as they got closer, I realized that I’d been right – they were Lee and WooYung, moving steadily closer. I remembered that they’d mentioned having been in the military, and it dawned on me that there was no way I’d ever keep up with these guys once they passed me on the way to Orisson. Sure enough, once they got close and saw me, they slowed down a little to walk with me, but eventually we said our goodbyes and they moved on.

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The rest of the morning is a bit of a blur. I was alone on the Camino Frances, but other than the persistent thought that I might keel over before I even got to my first albergue, I was having a pretty good time. The landscape was gorgeous, though misty. Every pilgrim I’d met thus far had been very kind and pretty interesting, so I was relatively sure I’d meet people I had something in common with. And there was another thing. I knew that I had 45 days in Europe, and the bulk of my trip was ahead of me. It was just starting to dawn on me that all I had to do was walk and eat and sleep. Luckily, I’d had the forethought to reserve a bunk at Orisson instead of deciding to walk all the way to Roncesvalles as many (stronger, hardier) pilgrims do. A lot of people decide to do a much longer trek from St. Jean Pied de Port all the way over the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles in one fell swoop, but I’d had a feeling that I wasn’t up to that kind of a hike on my first day. And I was right. By the time I saw Orisson on the ridge, around 11am in the morning of my first day’s walk, I was DONE. I wanted a shower, a bed, and a glass of wine, not necessarily in that order. Most of all, I didn’t want to walk another step.

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A prettier view of Refuge Orisson than I could have taken, via their website. If you’re not sure about walking all the way to Roncesvalles (or even if you are), I’d encourage you to try to get a room here for your first night. It’s a great place, and worth every penny.

The first thing I remember about Orisson is seeing that they had soup on the menu, and realizing I was absolutely starved from the day’s walk. The second thing I remember is seeing the woman in the knitted cap again. It wasn’t quite time to check into our bunks yet, so the pilgrims who’d chosen to stay overnight instead of walking on put their packs to the side and ordered lunch in Orisson’s sizeable communal dining area. Offerings were simple but hardy – ham and cheese on baguettes, a thick, creamy vegetable soup, coffee, and wine. I ordered food and sat next to the only person I knew, knitted cap girl, who turned out to be Natalie, from the Yukon. Within minutes, we were chowing down and talking like old friends. It turned out that this was Natalie’s second time on the Camino Frances.

Once we were allowed into our rooms, Natalie and I shared one of the three bunk beds available. The other beds were taken up by Phyllis and Terry, old friends from Seattle, Claire from South Africa, and Karen from Canada. Dreamy, yet pragmatic, Claire intrigued me from the start. I was also interested at the friendship dynamic between Terry and Phyllis, and gave them silent props for having the guts to do this kind of thing with a friend. Karen had a streak of “diva” to her, but once she and Claire got to talking about meditation techniques, I took it as a cue to remind myself to stop judging books by their covers.

All sorts of things were odd about that first night in an albergue. There was the shower, which operated with a token, and cut off after five minutes. That was eye-opening. Then there were the little hygienic disposable covers to put on the mattress and pillow. I was so scared of bed bugs, despite the precautions. Then there were the heaters, which we were informed wouldn’t be turned on until night time. Everyone had clothes that needed to be washed and dried, but with air-drying the only possibility, and so much dampness in the air, we resigned ourselves to wearing damp clothes the next day (which I quickly found to be the norm if I was hand washing my things, since I never ended up walking into town in time to catch a full afternoon’s dose of sunshine).

That night, after an afternoon of getting to know new people and figure out Camino routines, everyone met in the dining room for a lovely communal meal. We introduced ourselves, shared where we were from, and shared what we wanted to about why we’d each taken to the Camino. There were people from all over the world in that room, yet it felt like being surrounded by family.

That night, we found out that Terry snuffle-snores in her sleep (we all agreed afterwards that it was a very sweet sound). We also found out that Phyllis couldn’t sleep with any noise. After she firmly reprimanded the sleeping Terry for snoring – waking up all of the rest of us – I struggled to get back to sleep, but never quite accomplished the deep rest I was looking for. I was afraid this was to be a pattern for the next month, but my body quickly adjusted, and I slept better on the Camino than I typically do at home.

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One of the last things I saw before leaving Orisson was a statue of St. James greeting the sunrise. I felt invigorated, and ready to face the new day.

The next morning was my first real experience with what it was going to be like to wake, pack, and breakfast before a long day’s walk on the Camino. Luckily, I wasn’t the last out of bed, since that honor was reserved for Karen, who’d taken sleeping pills, was wearing ear plugs, and had to be firmly shaken to wake up!

After a quick breakfast with a bowl of coffee, I was off. I didn’t know whether to wait or walk on, given how slow I’d been the day before, so I walked on alone, leaving my new girlfriends behind. I figured if we were meant to walk together, we’d see each other during the day.

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My first Camino sunrise 🙂

Click here to read about Day 3.

Anna’s Camino: Day 1 – St. Jean Pied de Port

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.

I’ve struggled with posting photos of my Camino for a few reasons, foremost being that I miss it so much, and was afraid that going back through the photos would be too emotionally difficult. But the time has come to rehash my journey in more than just memory, and I guess I’ll start the process by sharing some photographs with you.

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The line to get into Notre Dame de Paris, where I got my pilgrim credential stamped for the first time. When I visited in 2005, I found the cathedral to be a spiritually uplifting place, but this time it felt too cramped and taken over by tourists. Then again, I didn’t get a lot of sleep the day before, so I might just have been in a crappy mood.

My journey to St. Jean Pied de Port was pretty arduous. I flew from New Orleans to Paris, spent a day in Paris doing a bit of sightseeing and getting my pilgrim’s credential stamped at Notre Dame de Paris, then took a night bus to Bayonne, from where I was to catch the first train out in the morning to St. Jean Pied de Port. This entire journey was more than 24 hours in the making, and since I don’t sleep well on planes or in automobiles, by the time I got to Bayonne at 4am, I was exhausted.

I was the first to arrive at the train station, and it wasn’t open yet. A couple of South Korean pilgrims, WooYung and Lee, arrived right after I did, and we spent an hour making the most of our limited shared vocabulary. The first train was supposed to leave for St. Jean Pied de Port around 8am, and we planned to grab the train, get to St. Jean, spend the day sightseeing, then start our respective Caminos the next morning. Unfortunately, none of us were particularly stellar with the French train ticketing system, and due to a series of miscommunications, we missed our train by about five minutes. The next wasn’t leaving for a few hours, so while we waited, we picked up a fourth pilgrim, a German teenager named Dennis. The Koreans suggested that we might as well get a beer in the train station bar, so we filed in to order breakfast and beers. I shocked the guys by ordering a shot of whiskey to go with my espresso, sealing my Camino cred from that point forward. The Koreans were amazed to see a lady drinking whiskey, and for the first time in the journey, I felt a little more relaxed.

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Poster of the Pope in Notre Dame de Paris, saying “Have the courage to swim against the tide. Have the courage to be happy.” It felt like a message from the Universe.

Eventually, we caught our train, but while we waited in the station, many more pilgrims started to file in, finding friends or making them, hanging around and looking awkward with their boots, packs, and walking sticks. Once we finally made it onto the train, I noticed that pretty much everyone heading to St. Jean was a pilgrim. One woman in a pretty knitted cap caught my eye (and my ear) as she quickly made friends with every stranger sitting near her. I didn’t talk to her, but noted she was friendly and a little louder than I tend to be, and made a mental note to catch up with her once I’d had some sleep and wasn’t feeling so overwhelmed.

The train tracks were being repaired further down the line, so at some point the train stopped and we were transferred to a bus. I marveled at the winding roads and the local flora. Several topiaries caught my eye, including one large bush that was cut to look like a basket. I made note to tell my mother. I also admired the local architecture, and found myself a bit peeved to not have a little more time to explore St. Jean before heading out in the morning.

The bus let us out at the train station, and our merry gaggle of pilgrims disembarked with no clue of where to go. We didn’t know it then, but it was the first of many days where most of us would just stop worrying and start following the guy ahead of us. Luckily, someone up there had a clue of where they were going, and we all made it to the Pilgrim Office, where we stood in the road and waited for someone to let us in. It started misting just a bit, and I got my first taste of “just dealing” – no umbrella, just my pack cover and a sense of humor.

We gave our names and countries of origin, listened to a spiel about how to leave town in the morning (which, it turns out, I really should have paid attention to), and got a very handy guide to distances between towns, available albergues, and elevation between St. Jean and the next town, Roncesvalles.

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The view from my hotel room in St. Jean Pied de Port.

After all of the pilgrim preparation had been taken care of, I said goodbye to my Koreans (Dennis had already found new friends) and headed off to find my hotel. Unlike most of the pilgrims I met, who opted to stay in albergues right off the bat, I’d rented a private room for the night. It was a great decision. I ended up with a beautiful, private room where I was able to hand wash my clothes, do a little journaling, and catch up on most of the sleep I’d lost on my way from New Orleans to St. Jean. I was nervous about the next morning, but excited. I was finally on the Camino Frances!

Click here to read about Day 2.

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.

Anna’s Camino Q&A’s

The more I talk to people about going on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the more interesting questions I’m getting. Talking to people about walking the Camino is a little like test prep. I’m realizing that many of the questions I asked myself when first starting to think about becoming a pilgrim are things that I almost never think about anymore. It’s been good to get reacquainted with the basics, since they’re going to be of utmost importance when it’s just me and a very long stretch of road. Below are a few of my favorite questions and answers thus far. I’ll be writing down more questions as they’re thrown my way, and answering them on here, so stay tuned!

In the mean time, if you haven’t seen my GoFundMe page yet, please check it out. I really appreciate your help, and you can get a free book out of the deal.

1) How long is the Camino?

There are many routes a pilgrim can take to reach Santiago de Compostela. Arguably, any route a pilgrim takes is his or her “Camino”. It’s also common spiritual practice to consider the pilgrimage to have started the moment the pilgrim steps out of their home. In fact, some particularly devout people walk all the way from their front door to Santiago de Compostela, which can take many months. The Camino Frances is the most popular route today, and many pilgrims consider the route to start at St. Jean Pied de Port in France. The distance from SJPP to Santiago de Compostela is around 790km (reports vary), or 490 miles.

The various routes you can take to get to Santiago de Compostela. If you’re interested in finding out more about the individual routes, visit Camino Ways.

2) Man, that’s a really long way! Do you get some kind of prize at the end?

Spiritually speaking, the journey is the “prize”. However, for those who need a physical gold star to feel like the trip has been worthwhile, there’s also the Compostela, a certificate that says the pilgrim has walked, biked, or rode a horse for at least the last 100km of the Camino.

The Compostela. Click through to read pilgrim blogger Erin’s Camino packing list at La Tortuga Viajera.

3) How do they know you’re telling the truth about walking the last 100km?

One of the most important things a pilgrim carries with them on the Camino is a pilgrim’s credencial. It’s a little booklet that works basically like a passport. Pilgrims get one from their local pilgrim organization (mine came from American Pilgrims on the Camino), but you can get one in SJPP or at various official spots along the route. It’s very important to keep the credencial safe and sound, because the stamps prove the distance you’ve traveled. You get the credencial stamped at least once a day before you hit the last 100km of the Camino, and twice a day thereafter until you hit Santiago de Compostela. You can have it stamped at your alburgue when you stop for the night, and various cathedrals, cafes, and popular pilgrim tourism spots also have stamps. I’ve even read that some people end up getting two credencials so they can get stamps at more than one place a day for the entire trip.

A pilgrim’s credencial (credential) filled with sellos (stamps). For more on this document, click through to visit Camino Buddies.

4) Will you be camping out? Where will you sleep?

It turns out that a lot of people equate any long hiking trip with being completely removed from modern life. This is not the case, and I won’t be camping at all on this trip. Over the years since the Camino grew to popularity in the Middle Ages, then again in modern times, towns and villages have sprung up all along the path. There are plenty of modern conveniences available for pilgrims, including hotels, bed and breakfasts, guest houses, and alburgues, which are a lot like hostels.

Each place I’ll stop for the night will have at least one, but probably a few, alburgues. Some of these are run by municipalities, some by pilgrim organizations, and some by private owners. The prices vary, but are generally quite affordable. Paying for a bed for the night will typically get me space on a bunk bed in a room of 6 to 8 people (sometimes in a dorm-style room with many people). We’ll have access to modern bathrooms with showers, as well as a shared kitchen. I’m also hoping to get a private room at a hotel at least once or twice during the trip, to have one good night in a comfy bed and some quiet time to recharge.

Alburgue in Roncesvalles, from The Yellow Arrow, a really great blog about one woman’s journey along the Camino.

5) What will you eat?

Spanish food. Lots and lots of Spanish food (here’s a great breakdown of some of the regional cuisines I’ll get to try). During the day I plan to try to keep to simple, healthy meals on a tight budget. I’ll carry boiled eggs, cured meats, and fruits and veggies. For dinner, I’ll either cook with other pilgrims or buy something. Some alburgues offer dinner in the price of getting a bed for the night, and lots of restaurants and cafes offer a specially priced pilgrim’s meal. From all accounts, this includes multiple courses and wine, often at around 10 euros. I love trying out the cuisine when I’m in other parts of the world, so while I intend to stay pretty healthy, I’ll definitely be trying as many new flavors as possible.

6) What are you carrying with you?

I haven’t decided yet, but the basic guideline is to carry no more than 10% of your weight, which includes the weight of your bag. Most people take two changes of clothes (one to wear, one in the bag), hiking shoes and socks, a pair of shoes to change into after walking each day, flip flops for the shower, a sleeping bag or sheet (depending on time of year), a towel, toiletries and medications, and whatever assorted electronics they need. Each pilgrim’s list is personalized, and everyone seems to have an opinion on what’s necessary and what’s extraneous. I’ve talked to women who wouldn’t dream of leaving home without some mascara and lip gloss, and others who didn’t even shave their armpits for the trip because the razor would have added too much weight. Some people have no problem packing a DSLR, while others are happy with taking pics on their cell phone. Still others don’t bring any electronics at all, saying that it’s not genuine to the spirit of the Camino.

My bag is 36 liters, and weighs around 3 lbs. My sleeping bag weighs another 1.5 lbs. I’m aiming for 15 lbs, max, though I know I can comfortably carry as much as 18 lbs. This gives me between 10 and 13.5 lbs to work with. I’ll be keeping my clothes very lightweight – athletic leggings instead of pants, trail runners instead of boots, the bare minimum in my toiletry bag – but I’m also going to be carrying a camera, my cell phone, and an iPad mini with a keyboard. I want to be able to write and photograph from the road, so I’ve made the decision to cull clothing options in exchange for keeping electronics. It’s definitely a far cry from those ancient pilgrims who left home with just the shirt on their backs.

Just found these used Athleta 2 in 1 capris on Ebay. I wanted to wear leggings, but be wearing something that showed a little less of my shape. I've heard good things, so crossing my fingers these will work!

Just found these used Athleta 2 in 1 capris on Ebay. I wanted to wear leggings, but also show a little less of my shape. I’ve heard good things, so crossing my fingers these will work!

7. Are you going with someone?

Short answer: no. Medium answer: not exactly. Long answer: not at first, but I expect to make friends pretty quickly. The Camino experience is an eye-opener for a lot of people, and I fully expect that it will work its magic on me, as well. There’s this great piece of advice that gets passed down in all of the books and forums out there: walk at your own pace. It might be the best advice I’ve ever read, even though I haven’t stepped foot on The Way yet. It’s certainly been helping me, spiritually speaking, in my everyday experiences for a couple of years now.

In physical terms, knowing your own pace is something every long distance runner understands. It’s bad news to start out hot right out of the gate. You’ll wear yourself out when all of the other people are just starting to find their stride and pull ahead. When running or walking, people who start with a loved one often find that their paces naturally differ. A 5’3″ person and a 6’1″ person are not going to have the same stride. The short person will have to speed up, or the tall person will have to slow down. When you’re walking 500 miles, going too fast day after day leads to physical injuries. Going too slowly day after day can lead to boredom, and maybe even a grudge. This being said, plenty of people with different paces find a way to walk this thing together, but many find it easiest to take off, walk their own pace, and reconnect at the end of the day at the next alburgue.

What most people seem to do on the Camino is start walking and see who they run into. The stages of the trail are similar. Most of the time if you start walking in SJPP, you’ll stop walking that night in either Orisson or Roncesvalles. When you leave Roncesvalles in the morning, you’ll most likely walk to Zubiri. Over time, you’ll end up leaving and arriving in time with the same group of pilgrims, and many people end up cultivating what they call a “Camino Family” – a group of pilgrims that end up walking together, sharing stories, sharing meals, and generally looking out for each other. I will meet people from all over the world, and probably have at least a couple of new, lifelong friends when I get back from Spain. So no, I’m not leaving the US with anyone, and I’m not starting my Camino with anyone, but I’ll almost definitely be finishing up in Santiago de Compostela with my Camino family.

Click through to read a fabulous post all about Camino Families over at See You Soon Mom.

In Search Of The Field Of Stars

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It’s been awhile since I talked about my soul’s calling to go on pilgrimage this year. But as much as I struggle with the weight of this journey, I do it mostly in my head these days. It’s such a huge dream, and some days it feels like the undertaking is going to break me before I even begin. Money is such a struggle right now, and my employment doesn’t feel very steady at all. I feel like if I go away in October, even though it’s totally within my rights as a freelancer, and even though social media can be automated to the point where I only need to check in weekly, I might just come back in November to no clients. And, frankly, I find that terrifying.

About two weeks ago, I was 99% sure that I’d have to scrap the whole thing. Maybe try again in a few years. Maybe just give up all together. But I took the time to write down my thoughts and fears in a comment in the American Pilgrims on the Camino FB page, and was comforted by the outpouring of support from the other members. As each new comment came in, I began to hope that maybe there was a way after all.

So many people had struggled with money, time, family obligations, fears, or some combination of any and all. All made a choice that worked for them, and there was no shortage of suggestions for alternatives that could help me. Some pilgrims suggested shorter trips, like starting closer to Santiago de Compostela and walking a shorter distance. Others suggested taking one of the alternate caminos, like the Camino Norte, which can be accomplished in 7 to 10 days. Some suggested walking as far as I could from St. Jean Pied de Port in whatever time I had allotted, and then coming back to finish another year. But many suggested that this was just a test. If there was absolutely no choice in the matter, yes, I should cut my trip short in order to keep my life in one piece. But if there was even the sliver of doubt, if I felt like my life wasn’t what I wanted, if I thought that maybe the Universe was just sending out a signal to make my choice (and to choose The Way), I should take that leap of faith.

So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to work really hard and save all the money I can between now and October. I’m going to finish putting together the proposal for the book that I want to research and start writing while I’m in Spain, and I’m going to start a GoFundMe fundraiser to help with the book and trip. Then I’m going to walk the 500 miles of the Camino Frances, and if I haven’t broken anything (bodily), after that I’ll walk the Camino di Assisi in Italy. Then I’ll come home and start life over. If my jobs and friendships were right for me, they’ll still be here. If they weren’t, they won’t. Easy, right?

I’m a little scared, but I feel like I’ve never been stronger, mentally or physically, than right now. This is the time to go. No more waiting for life to begin.

Machado Labyrinth, by Fitzgerald Letterpress ($70)

On the 4th of July, I was walking around by myself in the French Quarter, and walked down a little alley I seldom travel. In a shop window, a letterpress print of a labyrinth caught my eye. I visited Notre Dame de Chartres in 2005, specifically to view the labyrinth, and since then it’s been one of those symbols that tends to pop up when I need it most. I glanced at the print, then started to turn away, when I realized that the word “camino” had been written below it. I turned back to press my face against the shop window and examine the art fully, and saw that it said this:

“Se hace camino al andar.” (Antonio Machado)

Which translates to:

“We make the road by walking.”

I knew that. I know that. How could I possibly keep forgetting something that important? This is my life, RIGHT NOW. I work to have this life, not to have the “privilege” of working again tomorrow. Each of these breaths, these moments where my joints don’t hurt and my limbs move freely, this is all going to go away. And it’s going to go away much more quickly than I’d like, or than I could ever imagine. The time to enjoy my body, my health, and my freedom is right now. The time to seek my answers from the Universe is right now. It’s my turn to get out there and make my road, one foot at a time. I just needed these reminders from other pilgrims, and wayward pieces of art.

Over the coming months, maybe I’ll lose my reserve again, or maybe I’ll stay strong. I hope that you’ll all stick with me. I could use the encouragement. I’m trying not to be too scared of living more fully, but it’s going to be a really big change. Thanks for hearing me out, now and in the future. I really appreciate you all.

Finding My Way

I'll be traveling the Camino Frances.

I’ll be traveling the Camino Frances.

A few days ago, I bought an expensive plane ticket.

Wait, let me back up a bit.

A few weeks ago, my credit card limit was raised. I’ve been good about paying it off, so I guess they decided I was good for it. Ha! Anyway it was completely out of the blue. I hemmed and hawed, but eventually came to the decision that it was the Universe telling me to get off my ass and commit to my pilgrimage, already. So now we’re back at the beginning of the story – I bought an expensive plane ticket. The credit card gods laughed with glee.

I thought that after a day or two, I would have processed this information to the point where I could sit down and write a few words about it in my blog. What it means to me, what I’m scared about, what I’m happy about, how I plan to go about making the room in my life for this giant step, etc. Instead, there’s this big blank space in my mind where the worry/joy/excitement/trepidation should be. It kinda feels like I might be in shock, to tell you the truth. Except would I realize it if I were in shock? I don’t know.

Here’s a somewhat related “aside” for you: I realized today that when my brain thinks I’ll probably freak out about a fact, it just skims over it. For instance, every morning I wake up and look up the workout of the day on my gym’s website. Every class that day does the exact same workout, so it’s handy to take a look, get prepared, then go into class at some point and knock out those exercises. The WOD info is also written on a white board at the front of the gym, and the coaches give us a mini lecture before the workout begins, outlining exactly what the workout will entail. Easy, right? Last week, despite reading the website, listening to the instructors, and reading the whiteboard, I completely screwed up the workout. I missed three whole rounds of exercises (which I might have said was literally impossible, except now I know it’s definitely not).

This is what a WOD (workout of the day) looks like at my gym.

This is what a WOD (workout of the day) looks like at my gym.

I wrote it off as a strange day, and moved on…but then today I almost did it again. I read the workout online, talked about it with my coworker, read the whiteboard, listened to the coaches explain it, and then right before the workout started I realized that I’d somehow been thinking that we had 80 reps to do, when in fact we had about four times that amount of reps. I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s be clear that this is REALLY weird. It occurred to me during my coaches assessment today that I must be just letting my brain slide right over any unpleasantness, for fear of freaking myself out. Not exactly what I’d prefer, but interesting to note for the time being.

Anyway, so here I am, less than ten months til blastoff, proud holder of a round trip to Paris and a lot of random information about the pilgrimage. I feel prepared, intellectually, to choose the correct items for my pack (including said pack). I feel prepared, physically, to start training for the really, really long walk. But spiritually? And emotionally? And financially? Not so much.

That’s OK. I’ve got time. There’s also this great community of American pilgrims on Facebook who talk about stuff like this every day, and talking with them has been helpful. I even met someone who’s going to loan me her SPOT GPS so I can have a way of telling my friends and family where I am on the journey – pretty cool. I feel ready for the challenge, and ready for the change. I deserve it. My soul is hungry for it. This is exactly where I’m supposed to be. Maybe that’s what has me so scared.

You know that part in Interstellar where Matthew Mcconaughey’s character is trying to dock his little landing craft with a wildly spinning spacecraft, and you’re just watching, holding your breath, thinking “holy shit, dude!”? I feel like maybe that’s what my spirit and my body are doing right now. Like I’ve been so out of whack for so long, and everything’s finally getting aligned. So yeah, I’m in shock. It’s a shock. It’s completely necessary.

This is good.

 

One Foot In Front Of The Other

“It is no use walking anywhere to preach, unless our walking is our preaching.” – St. Francis of Assisi

When I first started seriously considering going on pilgrimage, I made this silent agreement with myself that I would only approach the concept of the journey from a place of positivity. I guess that might sound strange – after all, what’s there to be negative about when you’re considering a soul-shaking adventure that promises to completely change the way you encounter the world from that point forward? Positivity wasn’t part of my grand plan; it wasn’t something that I carefully decided on and then tried hard to fulfill – being positive was just something that happened, then continued to happen. And now that I’m writing this blog post, I’m finding that indeed, I’ve been used to thinking about this trip in such glowing terms that it’s hard for me to put words to any underlying worries.

(Side note: Yay for positive thinking! It actually works! This is especially important since I’m generally kind of a realist in the day-to-day, definitely not anything near to being a Pollyanna.)

There comes a time, however, when you must confront potential issues, if just to work through them and visualize what your solutions might be should problems arise. For me, my greatest concerns about this trip have been focused on either side of the Atlantic: my cats’ wellbeing while I’m gone, and my physical stamina on The Camino. 

If you’ve ever read my other blog, Compass & Quill, you’ve probably seen me mention my two cats, Izzy and Munky, at least a few times. Though I wouldn’t go as far as some cat ladies and say that they’re “my life,” they are definitely my fur babies, and I love them. When you decide to share your home with another living creature that depends on you, there are always going to be some sacrifices made for their wellbeing. For instance, though I don’t always have the money to go to the doctor, they always get a yearly vet visit, stay current on their shots, and get the healthiest food I can afford. They make a mockery of my upholstered furniture, despite constant claw clipping, double-sided tape, pheromone spray to keep them from being stressed, and a dozen other tries at possible deterrence, but that doesn’t mean that I’d ever consider declawing them. And now they’re going to cost me a pretty penny for a pet sitter while I’m gone.

But even though I’ll most likely have at least a couple of people looking in on them on a regular basis during my absence, I still worry. Izzy is high strung and only likes one human – me. The last time I left for a couple of weeks, even though she had constant care and companionship, she still meowed herself hoarse at the door, waiting for my return. What’s she going to do when I’m gone for a month and a half? Luckily, Munky loves everyone. I doubt he’ll even notice that I’m gone as long as he’s still getting back rubs on a daily basis. But I’m afraid to think of the stress I’ll be putting poor Isabel under by being gone for an extended period. There’s no real solution, so I guess it’s really not something I should think about too much more. I’ll shower her with love for as long as I’m here, and I’ll make sure that their cat sitter is the best possible choice for a loving surrogate while I’m out of town. After that, it’s out of my hands.

The other thing that worries me is the physical toll of walking 500 miles. Unlike the cat situation, this is something for which I can prepare myself. However, much like the cat situation, no matter how much preparation I undergo, it is inevitable that there will be a considerable amount of pain involved. If there’s anything I’ve learned from reading so many Camino autobiographies, it’s that I will think that I’ve thought of every eventuality, but I’ll miss something. But the best I can do is try to go with the flow. Put in as much work as I’m capable of, then take my chances.

Right now, I’m walking about seven miles a day on average, with a 15 lb. backpack. I’m going to try to keep upping that number (pack and distance), until I’m closer to walking 10 miles a day with a 25 lb. pack. Hopefully that will negate some of the shock to my system when I kick things off in St. Jean Pied-de-Port. I’m also going to need to start doing some thorough stretching on a daily basis to try to get my hip and back pain under control prior to leaving. If anything has a real chance of sidelining me, it’s going to be hip/back/knee pain or a major blister. Unfortunately, I’m really prone to blisters, so I’m not sure if there’s much I can do to avoid them, other than properly breaking in my hiking boots, wearing good socks, applying some sort of non-chafing cream/lotion my feet every day, and bringing along plenty of bandaids and moleskin patches for hot spots. One thing I should be much more worried about, but am not letting bother me just yet, is the fact that there are no hills or mountains anywhere near my home in New Orleans, yet much of the terrain I’ll be covering in Spain is hilly or mountainous. The best I’ll be able to do is start walking at steep inclines on the treadmill, and hope that helps a little bit. Other than that, all I can do is put my boots on and just put one foot in front of the other, and trust that they’ll get me where I want to go in the end!

Have you had any worries about walking The Camino, or about leaving your life behind to go on pilgrimage? How did you address them?

Return To The Road

Hello there, readers. It’s been awhile – sorry to keep you waiting so long for an update. In late March, I decided to take a little break from blogging here while I sorted out my life and considered whether walking The Camino was still in my cards. It actually didn’t take me too long to figure out that it was still what I wanted, but somewhere in the midst of my breakup, move, and life reshaping I ended up forgetting my WP password. Once I got that figured out, I started having technical difficulties with my Google Authenticator. From there, I just bumbled around, forgetting other passwords left and right and leaving a swath of abandoned social media accounts in my wake. Luckily, WP has these amazing Happiness Engineers that spend their days helping forgetful folks like yours truly, and the amazing David W. not only came to my rescue, but managed to not make me feel like an idiot while he went about getting me back into my WP account. Thanks again, David!!!

So now that I’m back in, what do I do? There’s so much to say to you all. Since my other blog, Compass & Quill, isn’t on the WP.com platform, I just kept writing over there. You can catch up with a selection of topics regarding my private life over there, if you’d like. I’ve been saving all talk of Santiago de Compostela for this page, though. Especially one specific thought that came to me at some point over the past couple of months, then was (strangely) reiterated by a friend the other day:

The Camino comes to you.

It makes sense, obviously, given that all pilgrimage routes are meant to be physical representations of journeys of the heart and mind towards some kind of spiritual Truth. When we walk, we’re looking to become part of something. We’re not just looking for the thing that will make us whole, that will complete us and give our lives meaning. We’re also looking to become part of the whole, to have our lives be meaningful to others.

When I first set upon the idea of walking to Santiago de Compostela, I looked at it from an academic standpoint. I was a wayward soul back then (and still today, but the film of time somehow makes me feel a little more tethered than I did at 22). I wasn’t looking at walking across the Pyrenees as a spiritual undertaking, but rather more as an adventure where I’d have the chance to visit and catalog a host of medieval religious sites over the course of a long period of exercising. After awhile, once it sunk in that I’d never be a medieval historian, I gave up on the idea of using the trip for research…which meant that I basically gave up on the idea.

The Camino had other intentions for me; it stuck around in my psyche, popping up every few years to remind me that it was waiting, to see if I was ready to take the plunge. Over the years, it also somehow boiled itself down into something more pure. The Camino would be a chance to walk, meet new friends, see things I’d never seen before, and most importantly, to start listening more closely to what the Universe was trying to tell me. It was going to be my time to find myself and become what I’d always been meant to be…whatever that was.

Over the last year or so, The Camino started meaning something else to me, something that I never realized clearly enough to be able to put it into words: escape. The act of becoming truer to myself and the Universe meant leaving behind what I knew and didn’t like about myself. Mostly, that was my relationship, and who I was within its confines. But I couldn’t say this out loud. I didn’t have the vocabulary for it. Instead, I’d think of going on the road, and how happy I’d be out there, alone. How maybe I’d meet people who’d get me, people with whom I’d be able to talk about religion, drink some wine, share some stories about traveling in Europe. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I realized all of these things were things I wasn’t getting in my relationship. My spirit was burdened by the now, and I was attempting to hide that from myself by daydreaming about a journey far in the future.

So the breakup came, after years of dawdling about on my part, but still not without a serious push from the Universe. Against my better judgment, I started to find feelings for someone else. Over the sound of a beloved band, conversation on the essence of St. Francis and how he will forever be part of my heart, musings on the meaning of The Camino…and a thousand other ideas and dreams that have passed their way between us in the last few months, my heart began to open back up in a way that had only been happening when I talked about my future plans to walk through Spain. I started to understand what it meant to feel genuine romantic love and concern for another human being, in a way I had only imagined I’d known anything about. And with that came this renewed sense of self-reliance, and a trust that I am actually walking in the right direction, after all.

All this time, I didn’t have faith. I lost it somewhere, years ago. But it’s back now. Yes, there’s so much farther to go. I’m just a child, blind to the wonders that are stretched out before me. But in the end, The Camino came to me…and now I know that I’m strong enough to go to it.

The only question now is where to find the funding.

A Prayer for Exhaustion

It’s funny how the Daily Post keeps giving us perfect prompts for a chat about The Camino. Today, for instance, we’re asked to discuss our sleep habits – something that has been particularly troubling me regarding this pilgrimage. You see, I have a great deal of trouble nodding off, and even more staying asleep. I sleep best alone, in a dark, quiet room, which is going to be an issue on the road.

Along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, peregrinos have a few different choices for accommodation. There are alburgues, which are basically hostels for pilgrims; guest houses or rented rooms; hotels;  or, for those rugged, outdoorsy types, tents. Most towns offer some variation on one or all of these (except for tents – that’s something you need to bring along), but when it comes down to money, most people agree that alburgues give you the best bang for your buck.

The typical alburgue gives you a bed to sleep in, a place to shower, a communal kitchen, a clothes line to hang up your washing, and if you’re lucky, you might even get a washing machine to do the washing for you. Talk about height of luxury, right? All of these things sound great for the price – between 8 and 15 euros a night –  but there’s a downside for light sleepers. Sure, you get a bed, but you also get roommates – lots of them. And anyone who’s shared a room with one snorer/sleep-talker should be able to imagine the hell that is MULTIPLE snorers/sleep-talkers in the same tiny space, night after night.

There are solutions, though. Kinda. One thing that I already do is wear a sleep mask. I can’t stand any amount of light when I’m trying to nest, and for years I didn’t know this – I just thought that waking up four or five times a night was something I’d have to live with. One day, on a whim, I bought a silk sleep mask, and from that point forward I’ve only woken up once a night. One problem solved.

Everything I’ve read thus far about loud sleepers on The Camino has mentioned that ear plugs are a great way to get some peace and quiet. Unfortunately, I have weirdly-shaped ears or something. I can only wear one kind of headphones – the flat, disc-like earbuds that are getting phased out by those stupid, long, rubbery ones that everyone seems to love. The latter pop out of my ears in no time flat, so I guess one day I’ll have to move on to huge, retro headphones that make my ears hot – blech. Anyway, this same issue translates to ear plugs, and I’ve never been able to make the plugs stay in my ears for any length of time, despite squeezing them into tiny little logs and shoving them all the way in. They just keep growing like Play Doh noodles and eventually pop out. So uncool.

But there’s another solution. An expensive one, but probably the one I’ll have to go with. I’ve heard that for people who have trouble with ear plugs, the silicone ones made for swimmers are a safe and comfortable bet. They’re much more pricey, but it seems worth a try. The other option is to have ear plugs specially made to fit your ears, which will be my last resort.

Do I need them, though? Will I be so exhausted after 15 to 20 miles’ walk each day that my traveling companions’ sleep habits won’t even phase me? Or will I be the culprit, annoying the shit out of would-be sleepers? As much as I’d love to pretend that I’m a petite flower, I’m SO not. If I’m having even a touch of sinus trouble – which happens every time I go to Europe, without fail – I’ll definitely be snoring. Even worse, the last time I was sick in Europe, I ended up moaning through the night every night. My two best friends were with me, and still laugh (woefully) about not getting to sleep since I was bitching in my dreams all night long.

There’s this really funny part in the The Way, My Way, where author Bill Bennett recounts his first night in an alburgue, and getting accustomed to all of the night sounds. After what he considers a sleepless night, he thinks it’s only fair to inform one of his roommates that she snores, so that she can warn others along the way. He tells her as politely as he can, only to have everyone in the room give him a dirty look – first, for being so forward about calling a fellow traveler out on a common issue, but more importantly, because HE was the one snoring loudest all night and keeping the rest awake! I have a not-so-secret fear that this will be me, so I guess the last thing to bring along (just in case) are some snore strips. I’d hate to alienate potential friends – or get smothered to death in my sleep by the roommate who loses it, lol.

A Fountain Full Of Wine

“Pilgrim, if you wish to arrive at Santiago full of strength and vitality, have a drink of this great wine and make a toast to happiness.” (For more great photos of the fountain and the winery, head over to Caitlin’s blog.)

Today’s Daily Post prompt asks us if we’ve ever thrown a coin in a fountain and had our wish come true. When I was small, there was a water feature at the local mall into which people used to toss their coins. My mom always had to restrain me from climbing in to fish out pennies; I just thought it was a waste of perfectly good change. But hey, maybe the custodian got something out of it on fountain clean up day! I haven’t read much about fountains full of change along The Camino, but one thing I’ve been obsessing over is the (free!) wine fountain.

The Fountain of Wine, or Fuente del Vino, is located just outside of Estella, around Day 7 or 8 of a pilgrim’s journey on the Camino Frances. The fountain is run by the Spanish winery Bodegas Irache, a 19th century institution whose vineyards have served the royal houses of Navarre since the 12th century. According to the Bodegas Irache website, an adjoining monastery was the first hospital for pilgrims on The Camino, so although the wine fountain itself is a fairly new development (1991), a sip of its wine is a link to the very roots of The Way of St. James. Along with enjoying a little refreshment, pilgrims are also invited to have their credencials stamped at the winery’s business office on week days, so keep that in mind if you’d like to have a record of your visit!

Here’s another fun shot of the fountain, by Roam Far And Wide. Click through to see a ton of other great images from The Camino.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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