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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 7 – Puente la Reina

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.

The walk from Pamplona to Puente la Reina was one of the most exhausting I’d yet to experience, but the road offered its own rewards that day. I’ve already mentioned my brightest memories from leaving Pamplona in my last Camino blog entry, but there’s one more I’d like to recount, just to keep it fresh. The night before we left, the three of us girls went upstairs to the albergue’s communal kitchen and pooled our resources to have wine and snacks. While we ate and chatted, I filled out 30 postcards to mail back home, and since Claire also had some things to mail, we decided to try to find the post office on the way out of town in the morning. In the morning, we wandered around a little bit as we tried to find the post office, and one of our wrong turns led us to a little square with a statue of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio. I took it as a sign, and as it turned out, it was to be the first of many that day.

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After visiting the post office successfully, we followed the yellow arrows back to the Camino. On our way out of town, we made a brief stop at the Church of San Cernin (click to learn more), a lovely 13th-century church possibly built over an old Roman temple. I was particularly taken with the church’s wooden floors, but still haven’t done the research to find out the reasoning behind the numbers. At the time, I assumed that the numbers coincided with tombs, but perhaps an expert can enlighten me in the comments!

As I recounted in the last entry, we stopped for coffee and a quick trip to the farmicia, then finally headed out of town a little later than planned. From Pamplona, the Camino takes pilgrims through a number of small towns, including Cizur Menur, where Natalie had memories from her earlier Camino of a wonderful hospitalera who was a foot expert. We had tentative plans to try to find the lady, just to say hi, but it didn’t work out. Instead, we kept walking, following the road uphill to the famous Alto de Perdon, “The Mount of Forgiveness.”

As we neared Alto de Perdon, even though we were walking up into the hills again, the landscape sort of stretched out all around us. The city had fallen away, and again it was easy to get lost in the greens and grays of the surrounding landscape. There were windmills everywhere! There had been a little rain to begin with in the morning, but as we climbed uphill, the wind began to whip, and the day started to get a little more gray than before.

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Gorgeous flowers – including my favorites, poppies.

I pulled the hood of my rain jacket tighter around my ears, and kept a close eye on my footing as we climbed up toward the famous metal statue that crowned the highest elevation of the day’s walk. Natalie walked ahead, and Claire was quite some way behind, and for some reason, I decided to just stop and look around. Ever since seeing Francis that morning, I’d had this feeling that I was missing something, but I couldn’t quite figure out what. Then I saw something I’d been looking for for days – my first poppies of the Camino. Ever since starting out, I’d kept an eye out for my favorite flowers, hoping to catch at least a couple of them in bloom, even though it was late in the season. Up until this point, I’d seen tons of crocuses, but not a single gorgeous red bloom. They’ve been important to me ever since visiting Assisi, Francis’ birthplace, and seeing them here, on this day, seemed particularly important.

Ever since seeing Alto de Perdon in the movie The Way, I’d expected it to be a very special and inspiring place, but in reality, the popular site wasn’t everything that I’d expected. Even at the time, it took a distant backseat to the poppies I’d seen just a few minutes earlier, and the rest of my walk that day was so beautiful and weird that afterwards, the hilltop sculpture was just a blip on my mental screen.

Walking downhill was a huge challenge for me that day. The ground was a little slick, but even worse, this portion of the Camino was just loose rocks. My knees were protesting the downhill climb, and I slipped often enough to start to be very nervous about the rocks. Natalie was much faster at this than I, so there ended up being at least a half-mile between us, maybe more. Claire and I passed each other throughout the afternoon, but for a good portion of the rest of the walk, I felt pretty isolated by the landscape. There were other pilgrims, but I don’t remember them. Mostly, I remember relishing the freedom, and singing at the top of my lungs for much of the afternoon.

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I particularly loved this welcoming roadside Madonna.

In Uterga, I caught up with Natalie at a great little albergue called the Albergue Camino del Perdon, where we had a seat, took off our shoes, and shared some food. We had a beautiful bowl of soup, and I ate one of my favorite slices of tortilla along the entire Camino. A sweet, well-loved neighbor dog came over to see if we needed any help clearing our plates.

Eventually, Claire ambled up, and we enjoyed sitting a little while longer. It was getting late, though, and we still had a ways to walk to get to Puente la Reina. The rest of the afternoon passed in a bit of a blur; my legs and feet were really starting to feel the strain of the day, and I got slower and slower as we walked through Muruzabal, then Obanos. At one point, I was right behind the girls, walking a suburban neighborhood. As we walked by house after house, they chatted ahead of me, and I just walked with my thoughts about 10 feet behind.

Suddenly, I heard an insistent whinny come from over a fence, and a beautiful white horse stuck her head out in my path. My companions kept walking on, immersed in their conversation. This gorgeous horse and I spent a good ten minutes communing over the fence, putting our foreheads together, me giving her ear scratches, her giving me little snuffles along my forehead. It was a beautiful little stretch of time, and if I could have visited for longer, I surely would have. But I didn’t know where I was supposed to meet up with the girls, so it was important to hurry on after awhile. It felt like a magical moment, though, and just another sign that Francis was walking beside me that day. Later, I asked the girls why they hadn’t stopped to say hi to the horse. “What horse?” they asked. Weird.

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My sweet horse companion.

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Sidewalk Camino marker. In cities and heavily-populated towns, there would normally be something a little more permanent than a spray-painted yellow arrow, though the arrows were often there, too.

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Political graffiti, though sometimes crass, can play an important role for getting newbies up-to-speed.

By the time we made it to Puente la Reina, it was already late afternoon. Luckily, we were just ahead of the last wave of pilgrims for the day, so there were still some open beds at the municipal albergue. I was so worn out! I barely had the energy to shuffle in the front door, then let Natalie and Claire talk with the hospitalero to see if there was any more room. I didn’t want to sit, in case I couldn’t manage to stand back up again, so I leaned against my pack, against the wall, and half-heartedly struggled to untie my shoes until it was my turn to show my ID and pay the guy. I believe it was five euros for a bed.

The albergue was pretty bare bones, with the same crappy metal bunk beds that they’d had at Zubiri, except that this time, it seemed like the bunk beds had been made for little kids, since there was barely enough room to sit up when you were on the bottom bunk. I didn’t really care, though. I was excited to have a bottom bunk, and once the late pilgrims came in, I was even more excited to just have gotten a bed. A few people were given sleeping mats to crash on the floor. One of the funny things that I remember from that particular albergue is that there was a group of pilgrims from Israel, all old men who played in an orchestra together, and spent the night bantering and telling jokes. They ended up irritating Claire the next day with their insistence that she stop walking and take their picture, but for the time being, they were an entertaining bunch.

After we’d showered, washed clothes, and had everything hanging out to dry (with not much hope in that department, since it had been a humid day, and promised to drizzle overnight), we decided to explore the town a little, and find something to eat. I don’t remember if we found a decent pilgrim meal or not, but I do remember how family-oriented the town was. It was the first of many towns that would impress me with how beloved, well-dressed, and well-behaved the children were, and how the family units all came out to eat and socialize together, mother, father and kids, or grandparents and kids. I didn’t take any pictures of the little ones, since that would be creepy, but I did take a couple of shots of the girls and myself on our way into town.

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Natalie and Claire (of the gorgeous hair), walking through Puente la Reina.

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Sunset in Puente la Reina. This picture marks the day that I first realized that my depression and anxiety were beginning to wane.

Click here to read about Day 8.

Anna’s Camino: Day 6 – Pamplona

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 scallop shell appeared everywhere on the Camino. After growing up on the Atlantic coast, I’ve never been much of a fan of nautical references, but this particular symbol really grew on me. This is the sign for the Albergue de Jesus y Maria, in Pamplona.

I’ve got mixed feelings about Pamplona. Before going on the Camino, I’d never aspired to visit the city before, and my experience there wasn’t exactly negative, but it wasn’t stellar, either. I wasn’t sad to leave, let’s put it that way. That being said, it was still an experience, and it deserves a mention. I did have some interesting interactions there, and met one of my Camino friends there in a very funny incident.

Not long after reluctantly leaving Zabaldika, we walked past a beautiful little farmyard, complete with turkeys, chickens, geese, and a cute little goat! I really wanted to pet the goat, but one of the geese flew to the top of the fence and made menacing noises at us after we’d stopped to admire the yard. Claire shooed the goose away with her umbrella, but the moment was over, and we moved on.

Once you get to Trinidad de Arre, from there to Pamplona grows to be more and more urban. It’s not exactly like walking through the suburbs the entire way, as you’re on a beautiful trail with nature all around, more like walking through a great park. We were all interested in checking out the mill museum in Trinidad de Arre, but it wasn’t open when we walked through. Instead, we visited first church when you walk over the bridge, then stopped to read a little bit about the mill processes on a sign down by the river. We hurried through, mostly because by that point, everyone had to pee, and there wasn’t a bathroom in sight. No one wanted to walk further into town if we we’d have to backtrack to get back on the Camino, so we just kept trucking along.

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The mill town of Trinidad de Arre. At the top are various shots of the Templo Santisma Trinidad, and below is the bridge leading into (and in our case, out of) town. At the back right of the bottom image, you can see a large sign and a small person. That’s the Camino – from there we headed to the right.

Luckily, at some point the park-like trail actually leads straight into a legitimate park, and Natalie spotted a public recreation center with an open sign. Bless her, she was brave enough to ask the lady at the front desk if we three could come in long enough to use the bathrooms, and we were allowed to pass through the little revolving gates that would typically take a token to enter. After that, the walk into Pamplona was pretty smooth sailing.

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This was the first time that I noticed that the word for “bathrooms” that I was seeing most often was “aseos,” (which translates to “restrooms”) not “banos” as typically taught in the U.S. Another common sight was “servicios.” It made me realize how confusing it must be for ESL students to have to distinguish between “bathroom,” “powder room,” “washroom,” “restroom,” etc. The word “komunak” is Basque, and means “common.” Just guessing, but since this was a unisex bathroom, I believe the English translation in this case would be something like “communal.”

One thing I noted was that a lot of people were out in the park with their dogs. At the beginning of the Camino, near Orisson and Roncesvalles, all of the dogs I saw were working dogs – border collies, mostly. Here in the city, I saw mostly border collies, schnauzers, King Charles spaniels, and a particular sort of dog I’d never seen before that looked kind of like a cross between a border collie and a Bermasco sheep dog. I later found out that this was the Spanish water dog. I didn’t take any pictures, but here’s what a Spanish water dog looks like:

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Via Photography on the Net‘s thread for Spanish Dog Lovers, as posted by briarlow in 2006. You should click through to see the puppies!

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Seeing the Pamplona city walls was almost surreal after having had our fill of nature for days. They were imposing, to say the least, and it was easy to see how walls like that could make enemies turn tail and run in less technologically advanced times. When we got to the walls, I was too tired to keep walking, so I just sprawled out in the grass and looked up at the way the sky met the structure for a while. A big dog came over to sniff me, and the girls started laughing as I narrowly avoided getting piddled on!

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At The Abbey, Neil had advised that we walk this particular route to get into the city so that we could enter through the French Gate (Portal de Francia), and though I hadn’t been around to hear this conversation, Claire was excited to get a photo there. We all took turns having the others take a photo, while we were at it, which took a little longer than expected since there was a fair amount of foot traffic entering the city that way. We hadn’t planned it, but we’d entered Pamplona on a local holiday. The streets were flooded with people, and there were lots of protestors, too. I was already tired, but the crowds overwhelmed me, wearing me out even more.

It took awhile to find our albergue, even though in hindsight it’s right in the middle of things. The Refugio Jesus y Maria was an abbey at one time, and now houses around 100 pilgrims in two large, multistory bays. We were some of the first to check in, and got bunks close to the front of the building, WAY on the other side of things from where the bathroom was located. I really wanted to wash clothes, though Natalie and Claire had sightseeing plans in mind. Since clean underwear were a priority, I gathered everyone’s things and offered to sit in the laundry room and wait for a washing machine to open up. While I was sitting in the laundry room, reading and waiting for a machine to open up, an Aussie pilgrim and his older friend (Ron?) came along and struck up a conversation. The Australian man taught me a couple of new leg stretches, since my calves were still seizing up daily after I’d stopped walking. I taught him a hip opening stretch that had helped me a lot. Then the friend (let’s call him Ron, shall we?) asked if I’d be kind enough to throw his socks in the wash with our clothes if he paid for the washer. I enthusiastically agreed, and the men went off to dinner, while I waited for my chance to do some washing.

Little did I know that what should have taken an hour or two was to become an all day affair. Long story short, since it turns out that writing this has made me angry, all over again – the washers at Jesus y Maria are awful, and laundry etiquette is not the same the world over. Since the washer instructions were rather strange, and the timers didn’t seem to work that well, I set my phone alarm for every ten minutes, and spent the afternoon walking back and forth to check out my washer. During that time, my laundry was removed from a washing machine that was still running not once, but twice. Both times, I found sopping wet laundry pulled out of the washing machine, with new laundry in the washer, using up my final minutes. Language barriers being what they were, and realizing after I complained that the people responsible thought I was being silly, I decided to just give up and do it the old fashioned way. I rinsed and wrung everything out in the sink, commandeered a drying rack, and hung it all up to dry.

I seem to remember there being a dryer, and that Claire very nobly took over looking after the clothes and making sure to snag the clothes dryer later that evening, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but I seem to remember looking down from my bunk at a triumphant Claire holding a bag full of dry clothing, and breathing an inner sigh of relief. If it’s a fake memory to make me feel good, so be it. I’ll take it. I was most concerned about Ron’s socks, and in the end, he wasn’t unhappy, so a few hours’ stress turned out to be pointless.

At some point, the three of us went to grab food, and wandered into – of all things – an American-style burger joint. I was tucking away a burger and cheese fries when Natalie suddenly exclaimed “I think I’ve been here!” It turned out that of all the random places we could have chosen, we’d happened to walk into a place where she’d eaten a meal a couple of years before, on her last Camino.

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Cool event poster.

Afterwards, the three of us did a bit of sightseeing. On our way back to the albergue, I suddenly got an uncharacteristic craving for a sugary soft drink. I didn’t care, I just needed sugar. It was weird, but I figured it had been a long week, and a treat was fine. We stopped into a little corner store and grabbed drinks, then meandered back towards the albergue. Just as we were getting to the front door, we saw a small crowd gathering, and walked up to see what was happening. A teenage pilgrim that we’d seen from time to time over the last day or so had fainted on the street, and her friends were trying to revive her. I’d only taken a sip of the soda, so I quickly handed it to her friend, to give her a little boost in case her blood sugar was low. A man caught my hand and said, “God bless you.” It was a strange moment. On one hand, I missed my soda. On the other, I wondered if it was supposed to be her soda, all along.

Even though everything on my body hurt, I still hadn’t found the right opportunity to visit the farmicia and stock up on pain meds. I had a few Tylenol PMs left that I was using for pain and sleep, but I was about to run out. Since we were now in the big city, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to find a pharmacy, but it was not to be. It was a holiday, so everything was closed. In my very limited Spanish, I asked the hospitalera at the front desk if there were any pharmacies that would be open. She asked what I was looking for, so I said the only thing that came to mind, “pain pills,” meaning Ibuprofen or something similar. Out of nowhere, this guy pops up beside me. “Pain pills?” I realized I’d seen him a little earlier in the day. He reminded me one of my best friends, down to the black eye, which looked like he’d been hit. My first thought, as uncharitable as it was, was that whatever happened, he probably deserved it (mostly because the friend that he reminded me of has got a mouth and a way of letting it get him into trouble). In short, I liked Nestor at first sight.

That first conversation was short, but funny. I clarified that I was just looking for some Ibuprofen, and he looked disappointed. Turned out that he had been searching for an open pharmacy, too, though I’m not sure what for, exactly, because as we parted to our opposite bays, he yelled to come by his bunk if I wanted anything stronger than Ibuprofen. I laughed and said he should come by mine if he wanted a Tylenol PM. There were about a hundred people in the albergue, and we didn’t meet again in Pamplona, though the girls and I saw him looking for a pharmacy the next morning and speculated on what had caused his facial injury. (I wouldn’t see him again for another week or so, at which point he told me that he’d been mugged in Barcelona before starting the Camino. I felt awful for my prior thought process, but took it as a reminder of my dad’s favorite saying: “To assume makes an ass out of [yo]u and me.”)

For the most part, I slept in a new town, in a different albergue, every night of my Camino. That’s 30 places, give or take. I can say without pause that Jesus y Maria was my least favorite. There are several small reasons – laundry, the guy in the bunk next to me having a terrible head cold which I then caught, the distance to the bathroom – but there’s one MASSIVE reason: it echoes. The building was once a church, and though walls have been built in new places to give it a shape suitable to be an albergue, it still has the marvelous acoustics that you’d expect a church to have. With two two-story, loft-style bays, each with over 50 pilgrims, the sounds can be maddening to a light-ish sleeper. As I’d mentioned before, I was doing pretty well at putting my ear plugs in, my sleep mask on, and calling it a night. But between the guy next to me gargling his own phlegm all night, the people on the floor above me having sex (or at least a round of noisy heavy petting), the hundred squeaky bunk beds, and at least three thunderous snorers on my bay, I slept poorly, and was glad to get on the road the next morning.

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One of the coolest things I saw in Pamplona was an advertisement.

We stopped at a couple of churches as we walked out of town, which put us off-kilter in a way that can only happen when you all have unspoken mental schedules and they don’t coincide. There was never an unfriendly moment between Natalie, Claire, and I, but as we left Pamplona, I felt a little more tension in the air than had been present in the days past. If I had to guess, I’d say that no one slept well, and since Pamplona had been something of a promised oasis earlier in the trip, it felt like a bit of a bust. Or maybe that’s just me. Who knows?

The one bright spot as we were leaving town was needing to pee (me – always) and seeing a beautiful little cafe right next to an open farmicia! Cafe con leches and gorgeous baked goods made everyone’s spirits rise, and afterwards, I hopped over to the pharmacy to ask about getting some pain killers and something to help me sleep, since I was about to be out of Tylenol. The pharmacist spoke English, listened to my requests, and brought a few things to the desk. I was soon the proud owner of a box of 600 milligram Ibuprofen, a tube of Voltaren cream, and a box of the best non-habit forming sleeping pills a girl could ask for (and forget the name of later). From that point on, I took my melatonin & tryptophan supplement every night, and slept the sleep of the people who walk way too far in one day.

That night we’d reach Puente la Reina, where the dwindling sunlight looked like burnished copper, and the church ladies pray to a Jesus with a heart of full of rainbows. For now, all we had to do was keep walking.

Click here to read about Day 7.

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!

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.