Anna’s Camino: Day 15 – Belorado to Villafranca Montes de Oca

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

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Follow the arrow. Maybe I don’t remember too much of the day’s walk because it was mostly all in shades of brown and gray…

Terry! Cats! Wet Laundry! Inclines! Cream Soup! Single Beds! Muddy Feet! What a weird, painful, memorable day. Well, kinda. I actually have very little memory of the day’s actual peregrination, just bits and pieces of before and after. There’s a vague impression of the albergue feeling cold and a touch damp when I woke up, and of waking to the sound of my alarm and quickly (very quickly – I got great at this) shutting it off before it could annoy anyone else.

On the whole, I was usually the very last pilgrim awake each morning, so for me, keeping the alarm noise down wasn’t so much about waking anyone else up as just not wanting to intrude on anyone’s need for morning quiet. I’m not a cheery, good-morning-y type of person (not grumpy or anything, just generally not at my best first thing in the day), and I’ve found that the more peaceful my first hour or so is, the better my entire day will go. I prefer to be woken gradually, with cuddles (not too many, not full body, not from the wrong person), soft music (not the wrong genre – which could be any genre, depending on how I feel coming out of whatever I was dreaming, so best that you watch carefully for cues that I’m hating your playlist), and/or cats (all cats are good cats, except Charlie, who’s just the worst). See – I’m totally easy going! Totally got this morning thing down. *Cue maniacal laughter as I set the last person to wake me up’s house on fire.* Nah, not really…I’d never do anything that unsubtle.

OK, you’ve got me, I’m painting a rather dramatic picture of myself. Ask anyone who’s woken up in the same room as me, and they’ll tell you that I’m an OK human being. My general setting is “even keel,” even first thing. In all seriousness, the only thing that is guaranteed to make me hunt you down and cause you bodily harm is unnecessary noise. Especially pointless and/or repetitive noises, like continued alarm noise (see above), TV sounds, music that I hate, dogs barking, or conversation that isn’t directly related to someone getting me coffee and/or bacon products posthaste.

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Mornings are tough – even on the Camino.

I don’t care how much of a morning person you are – people who talk at full volume first thing in the AM, within earshot of people who are trying to sleep and/or slowly wake up, are complete asshats. Yeah, you heard me, loud morning person – you suck. Stop it. No, I don’t care if you’re chipper and want to get going, or if you think that the sleeping person should have already been up minutes ago. You’re awful, and the fact that no one has told you this yet is most likely due to them endeavoring to get their seething morning hatred out of the way lest they cause you bodily injury while requesting you put a sock in it. Take your conversation elsewhere, heathen.

I’m not always successful at it, but I do try not to be a hypocrite in such matters, especially in public situations. Which leads me to a controversial statement: I packed my clothes in a giant (crinkly, loud) Ziploc space saver bag. Quelle horreur! Anyway, to keep this blog post to a minimum, I wrote a whole new post re: Ziploc bags vs. packing cubes. Check it out here, if you’re so inclined. Long story short: if you’re the last person awake, everyone else’s packing-up noise far outweighs the Ziploc bag in the room (but when it’s bedtime, you should make sure you’re the first to finish up with bedtime ritual stuff, so you aren’t crinkling when people are trying to pass out). Yes, you guessed it – I’m also very particular about people being noisy when I’m trying to fall asleep. I probably won’t say anything about it, if you’re being noisy. But I’ll hate you, silently, forever and ever. Sorry ’bout that. I’m a work in progress, much like New Orleans streets (if you’re from New Orleans, you’ll get the joke).

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Packs and poles, waiting for their owners outside of a cafe.

So back to the Camino – I woke up, got dressed, packed up, and walked to the town square with Natalie. We stopped at a little cafe for cafe con leche and zumo, accompanied by our own snacks from our pack – bread, meat, and cheese. I had a brief laugh at the pile of pilgrim backpacks outside the door. We met up with Terry again at the square, and left town together, but the rest of the morning is a haze.

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Natalie and Terry, walking ahead of me.

I walked faster than Terry, and Natalie walked faster than both of us, but just like most days, we ended up playing leapfrog over the course of the day. Sometimes we all walked together, sometimes we walked in pairs, and other times we walked alone. I was generally somewhere between the two of them (sometimes behind, as in the picture above), so I kept an eye out ahead of me for Natalie’s orange pants, and behind me for Terry’s bright green windbreaker. When Terry and I walked together, we talked about books (we’d both read our fair share of Camino-related titles), and I asked her questions about her life. She’s the wonderful sort of woman who thinks of herself as rather ordinary, but then can start a sentence with “Back when I was in the Peace Corps in Africa…” I loved getting to know her.

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Mud. So much mud.

We got into Villafranca Montes de Oca together in the early afternoon, too late for lunch, too early for dinner. Just before we got there, we had to walk down a long, terribly muddy hill. The mud was ankle-deep in places, and very slick, so it was a weird combination of trying to maintain balance while also trying not to get a shoe pulled off in the muck. That last stretch was a killer, so though it was a shorter walk than most days, in all, I was exhausted. As we entered the town and started the uphill walk to our albergue, my shins were screaming in pain. There was no doubt in my mind that I had shin splints in my left leg, and the muscles in my right calf were seizing up, too. I was terrified that this was it, the day I’d snap my Achilles tendon. Terry said she remembered reading something about massages available in town, so I kept my mind on that little snippet as we walked, to try to stay calm.

Terry and Natalie were both experienced peregrinas. This was Natalie’s second time on the Camino Frances, and Terry’s third, so I trusted their information more than any book or app. When we got close to town, Terry gleefully announced that there was an albergue in town that was attached to a very nice hotel, Hotel San Antón Abad, which was renowned for its hospitality. As we walked through the little town and up the hill towards the hotel, I was intrigued to see that we’d be entering the estate through a walled garden – basically the back door of the hotel. The garden was still lush, even at this late date, and to my delight, there were cats. They were a little more sleek and cared-for than seemed typical, and my estimation of the hotel was greatly improved when I saw that someone had even left bowls of cat food out on the back patio.

The hotel is a grand old building that has catered to pilgrims since the 14th century. The regular private guest rooms are inside the main structure, with the albergue segregated off into a separate wing in the back. Terry and Natalie entertained thoughts of the three of us sharing a posh hotel room for the night, and the staff were happy to let us take a look at our options. We all took our boots, by now covered in mud, off in the main hall, then padded upstairs in stockinged feet after the front desk attendant, who unlocked rooms and stood aside to let us inspect the digs. The rooms were ornate, with plush rugs and custom upholstery throughout, priced at about a third of what an American hotel room of the same quality would have fetched per night. It was almost a shame to decide against a night of luxury, but in the end, we decided as a trio to forgo the expense and bunk down with the other pilgrims for the night. As it turned out, this was a great decision, since the albergue had a whole room with single beds! The last time Natalie and I had slept in a place with single beds was nearly a week prior, at Zabaldika. Once you’ve been walking 15-mile days for a week or two, nothing can replicate the joy of knowing you don’t have to painfully clamber up metal ladder rungs to sleep in child-sized rickety top bunk.

Terry, Natalie, and I picked beds at the very end of the dorm, which was great in that I got an entire corner to myself (with my own electric plug – woot, woot!), and no one would be walking past the beds in the night. Unfortunately, this also meant that once the lights were out that night, I would be walking through a pitch-black room, past a long line of beds, to get out to go to the bathroom (and of course I had a couple of times that I needed to get up to pee that night – awesome). We chatted as we went through all of the motions of making ourselves at home. Everyone has something different that they do. I always liked to get my sleeping bag unrolled and laid out, my pillow inflated, and slip my sleeping mask and ear plugs under the pillow for easy access later that night. Natalie inspected every nook and cranny for bedbugs, flipping over her mattress and inspecting all of the joints of the wooden bed. Terry carefully spritzed down every available surface with a homemade lavender concoction to ward off insects and ensure a peaceful night’s sleep.

Once unpacked, I showered, put on new clothes, washed my dirty outfit in the bathroom sink, then went out to hang everything up on the line. It was cool and humid out, with low clouds hanging in the sky, so I had little hope that the laundry would actually dry by morning. This was a recurring theme for me over the course of the Camino, as it was always mid to late afternoon by the time I arrived. Between cool evenings and heavy morning dews, I got used to starting the day in cool, slightly damp duds.

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Hopes crushed. *Sigh.*

As soon as the laundry issue had been sorted, I hobbled back down the hill into town. The hotel’s regular masseuse wasn’t in that day, but the front desk attendant had told me I’d find another massage therapist just down the street, at the bottom of the hill. My descent into town was consumed with thoughts of how heavenly the massage would feel. I had somehow come to believe that I would be miraculously completely healed if someone else could just touch my shins. In retrospect, it’s most likely this faith that made the resulting experience a breaking point in my day.

I found the right house, then knocked on the door. A woman answered the door, and in limited English told me that the therapist was away, but I could call her and she’d come back if I wanted an appointment. I asked if the woman would call her for me, since I didn’t have a phone to use. The woman said no. I asked again in a different way, using my limited Spanish vocabulary to try to bridge the gap, but she said no again. Finally, I gave up and trudged back up the hill to the hotel. One leg was throbbing, the other was filled with a stabbing heat. Halfway up the hill, I had to take a break to sit on the sidewalk and cry. It seems so trivial now, but at the time, the combination of pain, fear that I’d surely be gravely injured if I didn’t receive professional attention, and just the general frustration of not being able to make myself understood all piled up and pushed me over my emotional limit for the day. I sat there in the middle of nowhere and cried for five minutes or so, then did a mental “suck it up, buttercup” and continued back to the hotel.

One of my favorite things in life is soup. I love cream-based soups, in particular. New England clam chowder is an ultimate favorite here in the states, but long ago, a friend who lived in Austria turned me on to Knorr powdered soup mixes. Cream of asparagus soup and cream of potato soup fill me me with a sparkling inner joy that just can’t be replicated by many other things. Maybe smoked salmon, really good triple cream brie, and freshly baked baguette. OK, I shouldn’t be writing this hungry. The point is that as soon as I got back to Europe, on my first grocery store run, I scoped out the soup section and happily scooped up a few packets of Knorr cream soups. For the remainder of the Camino, I traveled with at least one soup packet on me, in case of dinner emergencies. In this case, in the aftermath of my failed attempt at finding a massage, and the fact it would be hours until dinner, I decided to make a pot of cream soup to cheer myself up. The rest of the afternoon was spent enjoying soup and writing post cards to the folks back home, interspersed with a little time in the garden, trying to coax the cats close enough to be petted.

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This photo is from the next morning, but these are the cats from the garden. ❤

Pilgrims continued to arrive through the afternoon, and it was here that Ruth, an Anglican priest, first crossed our path. She would feature more heavily a day or two down the line. I also met a married couple who seemed a little standoffish with the other pilgrims, but something about them intrigued me. I’d meet them again a few days later, as well. Only one pilgrim out of the bunch stood out as someone I’d rather not meet again. I was lightly napping that afternoon when a gaggle of pilgrims walked into the dorm room and started to unpack and get settled. For the most part, everyone was doing their own thing and being quiet, but one older guy seemed intent on regaling everyone with his knowledge and experience. He spoke loudly, waking me up in his need to command the entire room’s attention. By now you will know how I feel about people who wake me up. I disliked him immediately, sight unseen, and as he continued to talk, I was further annoyed by his tone of voice, the way in which he sought to both ingratiate himself to his captive audience and place himself on a pedestal. He seemed like one of those people who define themselves as a “guru” or “thought leader” in their career field. Let’s call him Pilgrim Bob.

Pilgrim Bob proudly proclaimed that he’d retired from his job a few years back, and had been walking the Camino ever since. This was his umpteenth time walking the Camino Frances, though he’d walked other routes. He knew everything there was to know about every town on the route – just ask him. If anyone needed any help with anything at all, he was there to guide you to the right answer. But of course the Camino wasn’t what it once was. So many people, all year long. Just too many people, and everyone thinking they’re an expert, though of course most of them hadn’t walked anywhere before, and only found out about the Camino from watching The Way. Those folks weren’t REAL pilgrims. Not like Pilgrim Bob, who was now devoting his life to being a REAL pilgrim.

The conversation went on in this vein for some time, until someone actually did ask him a question. The answer was to unnerve me for the rest of my walk, and possibly forever. It’s seriously something that I still worry about. It was a question about bunk beds vs. single beds, and if we’d be seeing any other places with single beds. Of course, Pilgrim Bob couldn’t answer the question properly, but made up for this by telling an anecdote. It seemed that a few years before, Pilgrim Bob had stayed at another albergue, where they’d just gotten new wooden bunk beds. He was on the bottom bunk, and had been napping there for awhile, but decided to get up to get something out of his pack. Only seconds after getting up, the top bunk collapsed. Had he stayed a moment longer, he would have been peregrino mush. Bob went on to say that he heard of another pilgrim who was killed in this same manner, crushed by a falling top bunk. I already hated climbing to the top bunk, and feared rolling off at night. Now I also feared sleeping on the bottom bunk and being crushed in my sleep. Awesome. Thanks a lot, Pilgrim Bob, you jerk.

Terry and Natalie were out walking around town, and missed out on the Pilgrim Bob story, so I told them that night when we met up for dinner in the hotel dining room. The hotel offered an excellent pilgrim dinner. I had spaghetti as my first course, followed by steak and chips, and I remember that Natalie had cuajada for dessert, but no clue what I had. Probably creme brulee, my old standby.

I had a breakthrough moment during dinner, as well, possibly as a result of the emotional current of the day, maybe just because the wine was flowing, or perhaps it was all of this and more. Many days on the Camino seemed to just be powerful, in their own weird way. I learned so much, changed so much, came to appreciate my weirdness, my wildness, be it ever so elusive. As we sat there at our little dinner table, all three of us peregrinas, I looked at my friends’ faces and saw myself. I saw who I would become, and for the first time, I wasn’t scared. I was excited. I was 33, turning 34 in under a month. Natalie was about 15 years my senior, and Terry was around 20 years her senior. All of us were unmarried, a condition that had been lately filling me with fear and dread, even though I simultaneously felt like a total idiot for feeling that way. After all, I was dating, and I didn’t need a man to survive. Indeed, most of the time, flying solo seemed the most natural and only truly acceptable state.

Tonight, I looked at my new friends across the dinner table, both so strong and free and genuine. I already loved them, so soon into becoming acquainted. How could I not? We’d shared so much of ourselves, no games or posturing. Just honesty as we placed one foot in front of the other each day. They were amazing women, living interesting lives on their own terms. I’d spent the last few days coming to terms with my high esteem for them, and here at dinner, I was now suddenly connecting the dots and seeing that I could have just as much esteem for myself, if I chose. I didn’t need to be scared of being somehow broken and useless because I wasn’t married by some imaginary “sell-by” date. I didn’t need anyone else to make myself amazing. I just needed to keep on being me, and I’d be amazing all on my own, just like my friends were.

After dinner, we strolled back through the garden to our dormitory, happy and sleepy. It was cool and crisp out, and the air smelled of wood smoke from someone’s fireplace. We had all just started to get ready for bed when the hospitalero (rudely, we all agreed) popped into the dorm and turned off the lights about 20 minutes before 10pm. A low murmur of shock traveled down the room, and the room (even Pilgrim Bob) united in a general grumble-fest for about five minutes. No matter the albergue, the rules stayed the same, and we pilgrims got used to a certain routine: lights on at 6am, everyone out of the albergue at 8am, lights off at 10pm. Turning the lights off early was just not cool, man. Headlamps came on (not mine – I’d thrown it out a few days before, to save weight), there was a flurry of last-minute pack crinkling and sleeping bag rustling, and then, one by one, the tiny lights went out. Another day on the Camino had ended. Lucky for me, I slept well, with only a couple of awkward trips down the length of the dorm room to get to the bathroom in the dark. The next day was to be one of my hardest yet.

Click here to read about Day 16 (Part 1). 

Just When You Thought You Knew It All

Last night, I heard something beautiful. I was listening to a meditation on addiction, and the man on the recording was asking listeners to picture a person or creature in our lives that we love, that we count on, to whom we could open ourselves. It could be a family member, a lover, or even a beloved pet that is there for us in times of need. But in opening up this idea, the speaker said something like, “You might not be able to picture this person just yet, but they are there, still. Their love, though you haven’t met it yet, reaches across the divide of time and space – they are reaching for you even now, just as you reach for them.” The point being, not that there is a soulmate or love interest for everyone, but that we have counterparts in the world who need us as much as we need them. Friends. Family. Strangers who will count on us in moments we have yet to imagine. And yes, maybe lovers. Maybe just pets in the future. For me, at the moment, I’m picturing the next crop of pilgrims I’ll meet on the way to Santiago de Compostela.

I met a handful of truly magical human beings on my trek across Spain – and they’re still influencing my life in various ways. Natalie’s music, her superpower of listening with an open heart and mind, her easy-going nature. Claire’s resilience, her way of making a statement with such effortless grace, her dogged determination to see exactly whatever it was she sets out to see, in her own way, in her own time. Terry’s eye for adventure, and never-ending curiosity, her grit, and her way of walking the walk – I am truly inspired by the effort she puts into living humbly. Nestor’s joy and kindness, always giving to others, even when he was making his way through his own darkness, with a smile that lights up a room, and this effortless charm that’s utterly irresistible. Jakob’s fairness and strength, a protective presence with a streak of impishness, the improbable feeling of finding a long-lost sibling on the other side of the world. David’s inquisitiveness, the analytical mind of an engineer, the bemusement of world traveler who knows he has so much more to see, and too many odd things to explain already. And now that I’m back, I get to know others that I didn’t get know on the road – so many beautiful people, each on their own quest. We all walk the same Camino; it’s a matter of relaying the signs and symbols to each other, to get to know where the others are at at any given time.

In my darkest moments, I reach across the divide of time and space to my pilgrim friends. In particular, I spend time in one particular moment, no longer than 5 seconds maybe, but big enough to live a whole life in. I return, time and again, to the albergue where Jakob, David, and I slept the night before my birthday. It was a terrible town, like one big, awful strip mall. The name escapes me right now, but it was within the last 100 km before Santiago, and I disliked it intensely. We were just a few days away from the end of our pilgrimage. The albergue was cheap, but it had internet and hot showers, and a place to do laundry. The pillows were threadbare, the mattresses barely more than bags of springs. It was a huge place, enough room for at least 80 or so pilgrims, but there were only six of us there that night.

Even though we had all the room in the world to spread out, and had been living on top of each other for days, there was this unspoken agreement to stick together. At first, I wanted space, but to be honest, as soon as I’d put my things down by the bunk, I started worrying about how far away the boys would choose to be. As it turned out, I didn’t have to. We actually moved rooms and beds a couple of times, looking for the best mattresses and WiFi signal. Finally I settled on a particular bunk, and Jakob immediately posted up on the bottom bunk next to mine, with David on the top bunk of the bed on the other side. A couple of weeks before, it had felt a bit odd sleeping on a bed just a few feet away from a strange guy, like an intrusion of my privacy, but any oddness had ceased, leaving familiarity and an odd necessity. Jakob called himself my German Shepherd; maybe that had begun to wear off on me. I grew accustomed to having him near.

Before we went out to dinner, we washed clothes (Jakob had forgotten his headphones in the laundry for the second time, so I made sure to pick on him about it, enjoying the hell out of my favorite of all moments, schadenfreude). The guys took me out for a birthday feast of pulpo and Estrella Galicia at a local pulperia. We were the only folks in the bar, and the owner told us that any local knows you aren’t supposed to eat octopus at night, since it’s a heavy food. I didn’t care – it was exactly what I wanted for my birthday – friends and local food in a foreign country – how could you go wrong with that?

After dinner, we wandered around town, then went back to the albergue to get some shut eye. Sometime before bed, we played this terrible game where I laid on the floor and Jakob tried to drop Oreos into my mouth from a great height (NOT a success, since I was laughing hysterically and trying to avoid an Oreo to the eye). That was followed by a push-up contest that ended poorly, too. All three of us were playing and joking around a lot more than usual, I think because we could all feel the end approaching. But finally it was time for lights out…and this is the moment that I return to.

The albergue lights had been turned off, but you could still see by the dim orange light from the hallway. We’d all gone to bed, then one-by-one we’d gotten up to get one last sip of water, go to the bathroom, find forgotten sleep masks or earplugs, steal a second pillow off of an empty bunk, etc. – the last minute things that we get annoyed at little kids for doing at bedtime, but adults all do without thinking. Finally, everyone was settled. The albergue was quiet, and we’d whispered our goodnights to each other. Overhead and to the left, I heard David’s breathing shift as he fell asleep. Jakob, to my right, was still awake. I shifted, and found just the right position in my sleeping bag, clutching my stolen second pillow to my chest like a teddy bear, and began to drift off. As I did, in that delicious weighty time between waking and sleeping, I had one last thought. More of a feeling, really. I felt a deep, abiding gratitude. I felt safe, and completely at peace. I felt love, and knew it was reciprocated. I don’t think I’d ever felt exactly that level of (home? I don’t know what to call it) before. And whenever I’m scared that I won’t feel it again, I simply reach across the divide, back through time, and tap into that goodness where it still lives, WILL live, forever. My own little dose of life-giving elixir. Love.

 

Day 14: Anna’s Camino – Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Belorado

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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If you’ve been reading along, you might remember that I had my first “Camino moment” in Zabaldika, after reading some beautiful thoughts from the nuns there. My second Camino moment happened on Day 14, in Grañón, Spain. It’s not a pretty thing, but it was a raw, emotional occurrence that changed me in some mysterious way, so I’ll tell you.

I don’t remember much about leaving Santo Domingo de la Calzada, except that we met at the same little restaurant where we’d had dinner, and had one last coffee with Australian Mark, who would be staying behind for one more day on doctor’s orders, until they could make sure that he didn’t have any lasting damage from that blow to the head. English Mark met us there, as well, and that’s the last time Natalie remembers seeing him, though I ran into him once more later in the day. We had our coffees and juice, said our goodbyes, and got back on the road. Natalie was walking faster than I was that morning, and I trailed behind her, sometimes catching a glimpse on the road ahead, other times chatting with new pilgrims as we passed on the road.

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Along the way, we walked through a little hamlet and met up again for a mid-morning snack at a lovely little albergue. We met Ruth, a bubbly Anglican minister on holiday, and chatted briefly with her as she decided whether or not to call it a day and stay here in this town instead of moving on. The hospitalero was a woodcrafter, and had some beautiful simple jewelry on display. Before leaving, I bought what are still my favorite pair of earrings, little teal circles with tiny, yellow, applied wooden arrows, a reminder of the yellow arrows that mark the Camino. After a quick bathroom break, we walked on, and Natalie quickly pulled ahead again, heading towards Grañón.

I’d read about Grañón before, and had heard that it’s a magical place that pilgrims tend to love. I didn’t have the same experience, and for a long time, I thought that maybe people were wrong. Now that I know a little more about magic, especially in relation to totem animals, I’m inclined to believe with the original assessment. Just because something’s magical and life-changing doesn’t mean that it’s got to be all sunshine and lollipops while it’s happening. Anyway, as I walked into town, I encountered a small, starving dog on the street. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence, as heart-breaking as that might be. Animals aren’t put on a pedestal there like they are in the U.S., and I’m not in a place to pass judgment, but I did feel heartbroken quite often over it then. This dog came up to me, and I petted her and scratched her belly for a little while, until a dour-looking old man clomped down the street, waved his cane at me, and shouted at the dog. She cowered, then scampered away, he scowled at me, and I moved on, shocked.

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A few blocks farther down the street, I spotted a bunch of pilgrim packs outside the door to a cafe, and saw that Natalie’s bag was there, as well. I stopped, heaved off my bag, and started to walk into the cafe. At the threshold, I noticed two grown cats and two sets of kittens, all sick, eyes swollen shut and noses dripping. I wondered how many of the kittens would live through this. My brain stopped, and something else happened. It was like I was standing outside of myself, watching everything unfold. I watched myself grab a kitten, clutch it to my chest, then collapse on a nearby bench, sobbing uncontrollably.

It’s hard to explain what was going on, because I didn’t exactly know, myself. I was causing a scene, crying quite loudly. The kitten squirmed, trying to get away from the crazy lady holding it in her iron embrace. Pilgrims rushed out of the cafe, and suddenly I was surrounded by kindhearted souls who thought I must be seriously injured. People were asking me “what’s wrong? what’s wrong???” and all I could manage through the sobs was, “The kittens, LOOK!” After a minute or two, it was obvious that I wasn’t hurt, and was just having a little mental breakdown, and people left me to cry. The kitten wriggled out of my arms and ran back to its brothers and sisters. A couple of fellow cat ladies patted my hand and told me that they understood, but I could see that they were as mystified as I over this ridiculous outburst. I apologized, pulled myself together, picked up my bag, and decided to move on, with or without Natalie. To me at that moment, it seemed that the town was obviously full of negative energy, and I needed to get out.

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I had walked almost to the town border when I caught a glimpse of an adorable little terrier sitting on the bench at the bus stop. This little guy was exactly everything that I’d ever want if I were to adopt a dog – he was small, sandy-colored, shaggy, smiling, and his little body just quivered with excitement as I got closer. He looked so joyful compared to everything I’d just experienced, and I was drawn to him. I dropped my bag on the bench, took a seat, and spent the next 15 minutes getting a huge dose of much-needed love from the little mystery dude. I tried to take a photo of the two of us, but every time I’d push the button, he’d give me another kiss. It was incredibly restorative, especially since he was wearing a collar and was well-fed. It renewed my faith in humanity, at least for a few moments. Eventually, I’d been sitting long enough that Natalie happened along, and the little dog was very happy to offer her some love, as well. After a few minutes, we reluctantly said goodbye to the pup and walked on. Here’s a little slideshow of our meeting…

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The rest of the day is a blur. I remember walking through Redecillo del Camino, a town famous for its elaborate baptismal font. We stopped and took a look, and had a cup of coffee at a nearby cafe. At some point in the day, I also ran into English Mark for the last time, also at a cafe. Maybe this was the same one? I can’t remember, and Natalie doesn’t remember seeing him again after breakfast, but when I saw him for the last time, he called me over to the bar, almost giddy in his eagerness to tell me a story he’d just heard about a road marker we’d passed earlier in the day, called the Cross of the Brave:

In medieval times, Santo Domingo de la Calzada and Grañón were locked in a dispute about the land the lay between the two towns, particularly who had rights to the lumber there. The towns were constantly fighting, and finally someone thought it would be smarter to just pick a champion for each town, and have them fight it out. The winner would determine which town had land rights. On the day of the big fight, the champion from Santo Domingo arrived, covered in oil. The only way the champion from Grañón could best the oily bastard was to grab him by the only part that wasn’t greased up – his anus. The fighter from Santo Domingo was thus thrown out of the ring (some say off a cliff), and Grañón won rights to the land, though the winning fighter died only days after the battle. Soon after, the Cross of the Brave was erected in memory of the fight. Mark finished telling me this story with, “But which one was truly the ‘brave’ one?” followed by a deep belly laugh. I’m glad that’s my last memory of him.

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The baptismal font at Redecillo del Camino.

Natalie and I covered another 15km, but I don’t have many photos. That night we ended up at an albergue called the Cuatro Cantones, and it turned out to be a lovely spot, run by a very nice family. Our friend Terry from Seattle was in Belorado that day, so once we got settled into our room, she came over and we all went out for a late lunch at a nearby bar. I can’t remember if I took a nap or not, but for the first time, I did no sightseeing (despite the fact that the town looked really interesting, and I sincerely regretted not being able to see more). That night, Natalie and I had dinner at the albergue restaurant, and invited the other peregrina from our small room (only three of us there – yay!) to join us. She was not a native English speaker, but between the three of us, we got along famously and had a great dinner together. After dinner, I snuck away to an empty bedroom to call my parents, then it was lights out.

Click here to read about Day 15.

Anna’s Camino: Day 12 – Navarrete to Nájera

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Walking into Nájera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read about Day 13.

Anna’s Camino: Day 9 – Los Arcos

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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You may know this, and you may not, but we were running behind (much like me with these blog posts, lol). The fact that it took us nine days to get to Los Arcos means that, by Camino standards, we were walking a little slow. In the Brierley handbook that many Western pilgrims treat as gospel, you’re supposed to get to Los Arcos on Day 6. However, now that I’ve been there, done that, I can honestly say that unless you’re on a strict timeline, there’s really no need to push yourself that much.

I can’t imagine having walked any faster than I did, for many reasons. First off, I was in so much pain, even though I was pretty fit when I started. I never got a blister, but my muscles felt mangled by the end of each day, and my feet never really got used to all that walking. Secondly, there’s so much to see, and why not take the time to see it all? Granted, our pace was still too fast to get to see everything, but at least we had the time to visit the sites that caught our fancy along the way. For instance, this morning we happened upon a sweet little chapel about five minutes’ walk off of the Camino, and we gave ourselves time to take a little detour:

Last, and most important to me, a huge highlight of my walk was giving myself the luxury of sitting to have coffee and eat a snack whenever and wherever I pleased, and most days I stopped to eat three or four times during the course of the day’s walk, not counting breakfast and dinner. (No regrets – still lost 20 lbs and got to try every delicious morsel that struck my fancy.) Day 9 stands out to me for this, in fact, as it’s the day when I tried my first (and definitely not my last) real Spanish hot chocolate, during a long morning break in Estella.

Of all the towns that I walked through along the Camino Frances, Estella is the only one in which I truly regretted not getting to spend more time. Next time, I think I’ll plan to stay an extra day to check out the town’s architecture, museums, and shopping more thoroughly. We left Villatuerta just before dawn, with our new friend in tow. I feel awful, but I can’t remember her name at all, but I feel like it was Emily or Erica, something starting with an “E.” (Mind you, I’m probably completely off-base, but hey, I’m trying!) It turned out that the pilgrim she had been walking with the night before had been a little too cosy and assumed too much of their friendship, and she’d wanted to put some space between them, while walking with other women. We all walked together through the morning, chatting and laughing, and even though it was less than 5k to Estella, it seemed like we were all rather tired already by the time we arrived.

We spent awhile walking around; a couple of us were looking for an ATM, and I was desperate to find somewhere selling hats, gloves, and scarves, none of which I’d brought. Luckily, a few days earlier, Natalie had gifted me her extra scarf, which I still have hanging in my closet – a beautiful reminder of a beautiful friend. It was warm enough, but I’d started getting seriously chilly in the mornings, and couldn’t imagine many more days without a proper hat and gloves, and maybe even a thicker neck covering to keep me toasty. A lady in the tourist office told us that it was market day, and there would be lots of artists and farmers setting up stalls soon. I was interested in waiting around to see about finding the items, but also not that dedicated to the idea of wasting more time.

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What I *was* happy to waste more time on, however, was grabbing some coffee and something delicious for breakfast. Luckily, all of the ladies agreed, and we ducked into a lovely little cafe, not realizing that we had stumbled upon a proper little patisserie, complete with blue-haired matrons dressed to the nines, staring down their noses upon this rag-tag group of pilgrims! It was adorable in the shop, and the bakery case looked so inviting, so we did our best not to annoy the locals too much. I ordered a hot chocolate, thinking that it was going to be another one of those times where they give you steamed milk and a packet of hot cocoa mix, but to my surprise, I received the most beautiful cup of thick, traditional hot chocolate. It was a magical, life-changing moment for me. You probably think I’m joking, but I’m definitely not. Look at this thing of beauty:

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After dallying probably a little too long in Estella, we walked on towards Irache, home of the famous Bodegas Irache vineyards, and the even more famous (with pilgrims, anyway) wine fountain. That’s right – free wine! It took awhile to get there, and there was a bit of confusion just before we saw the fountain, and we somehow lost Claire. At the time, it sounded like she thought the winery was in a different direction, or perhaps we’d already passed it, so she went to check up on her hunch. I never did ask her what she found, but the fountain was up the road a little more, and eventually the rest of our group got there. (Claire did, too, just not with us. It’s so neat now, going back and thinking about how we could all be walking together, but experiencing such completely different adventures. It makes you think more about how much you think you know of your friends’ lives.)

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The new girl and I both had to use the bathroom, so we walked past the fountain and up the road a bit to the wine museum, where the shopkeeper was just closing up, but kindly let us in to use the bathroom. We bought little commemorative wine shot glasses while we were there, one for each woman, then went back to find Natalie by the fountain, where we each had a few shots of the very fresh (mouth-puckering, even) wine and took the requisite photographs. Nat filled up a little bottle with the wine, too. We had a little more from her bottle later, though I was pretty sure that wine was the reason for my intestinal unease over the next day or two. Claire still hadn’t shown up, though soon enough, the same busload of elderly tourists that we’d been dodging all morning along our walk appeared and descended upon the wine fountain. We decided to walk on, since we’d agreed in Estella on where we were bedding down for the night, and we were pretty sure she’d find us. As Natalie and I walked along the Camino a bit farther, we realized that not only had we lost Claire, we’d also lost the new girl. Knowing she’d catch up if she wanted, we walked on.

I remember three big things from that afternoon’s walk. First, I remember walking with Natalie, and coming upon this interesting structure that housed an old freshwater spring. I was intrigued by its location (seemingly the middle of nowhere) and the way the building was set up. I wondered briefly what it might look like inside the building during the summer, since it seemed like it would be easy for more adventurous peregrinos to climb down inside and enjoy the cool water.

The second thing that I remember is being behind Natalie and Claire a little later in the day, and hearing a sound coming from the ditch that ran alongside the road. There were farm fields on either side of the path we were walking, and they looked to have been recently harvested. The remaining vegetation lay flat around the sides of the field, and covered the ditch, so that you could tell there was a depression, but couldn’t tell what might be in it. From this cover of vegetation, I heard the most delicious crunching noises. The entire scene brought me back to my childhood. I grew up on a dirt road, and we had a large property, a few wild acres of forest, perfect for a little girl to explore on long summer days. It formed my appreciation for outdoors, and the wild things that inhabit it. I love animals, big and small, and as a child I spent many hours just studying how the wild things lived. That afternoon on the Camino, I took the time to be a little kid again, and stopped to sit and listen at the ditch bank for longer than most adults would deem prudent. Whatever the creature was (I didn’t brush up on Spanish wildlife, but I was guessing some sort of amphibious mammal), it was enjoying a leisurely lunch there under the ditch bank canopy, and I watched as one long piece of freshly mown vegetation after another was slowly drawn into the animal’s hiding spot. Eventually I gave up on seeing who was under there, and continued my peregrination.

The third, and final thing, that I remember from my afternoon was the distinct suspicion (as insane as it sounded) that Los Arcos was moving farther away from me as I walked. At one point in the late afternoon, I could see the town. But the next time I saw it, it seemed farther away. The next, it was even farther. The girls were way ahead of me, and there was no one to whom to voice my growing concern, but a day or two later, I was telling another pilgrim about how weird it had seemed that it felt like Los Arcos kept moving, and they said they had felt the same way! It was hot and sunny out that day, so who knows, maybe I was experiencing the onset of heat stroke. Either way, it was really strange.

I wasn’t as far behind Natalie and Claire as I’d thought, and they had just signed in at the albergue (Casa de la Abuela) when I arrived. We checked in, washed some laundry, took our showers, then went to see the Church of Santa Maria. English Mark and his walking buddy Tom (we’d all met on the way to Roncesvalles, and I talk more about Mark here) were in our room that night. It was the first time I remember Mark really complaining about his poor, battered feet. He was asking for advice on what to do about his blisters, which were to get worse over the next few days.

One thing that I particularly liked about La Casa de la Abuela was breakfast in the morning. Many albergues will feed you a simple breakfast for an extra couple of euros, and though we didn’t always sign up, for some reason it seemed like a good idea in Los Arcos. In the morning, one of the offerings was fresh baked bread and Nutella. The concept of Nutella as a breakfast food was mind-blowingly awesome for me, since at home, Nutella is firmly in the “junk food” list. They might as well have given me a bag of potato chips for breakfast. Note that I did not turn down that glorious chocolate hazelnut spread of the gods. A peregrina’s got to eat, right?

Click here to read about Day 10.

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.

Anna’s Camino: Day 5 (continued) – Zabaldika

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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Hanging by the front desk at Albergue Parroquial de Zabaldika.

It’s a long walk from Zubiri to Zabaldika, and that last kilometer or so made the walk seem interminable, as we wound up, up, up a steep, rocky hill. One of my realizations from the early days of the Camino is that I particularly dislike being introduced to new elevations at the end of the day. That being the case, I bitched my way up that hill like a champ. I’m not sure anymore if the moaning and groaning was all in my head, or if I was being verbal, but I’m guessing by that time of day I was letting my discontent be known to anyone within earshot.

It might just have been my mood at the time, but the hardy weeds and bushes clinging to life here and there made the hill seem like an area where only the strong would survive. The detour path from the Camino up to the albergue leads straight into a lush, green church garden, which seems a veritable oasis at the end of the arduous climb. The garden isn’t visible from downhill, though, so on the way up, I didn’t even have the promise of a beautiful place to take my mind off of the climb. Instead, I concentrated on what had quickly become my main goals: a nice, hot shower, a place – any place would do – to sit down, and taking off my shoes. It’s amazing how simple life can be, if you let it.

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The church garden, via the albergue’s FB page.

Claire was trailing behind us for the last part of the walk, but as Natalie and I got close to the abbey garden, we saw a cyclist mount his bike and take a path parallel to ours that went DOWN the hill. I stared after him with a mix of awe and trepidation. “Now there’s a sense of adventure,” I thought to myself.

No, wait, I’m lying. What I really thought was something closer to, “Is that dude insane?!?”

The garden was small, but nicely tended. Green grass, flowering plants, and trees made it an inviting spot to rest, even in early October. At that point, though, I couldn’t see that beauty. I didn’t have the energy to do more than wonder where I’d be able to put my pack down. Claire had caught up by this point, and the three of us walked through the garden, past the door of the 13th century church, and towards what looked to be the front door of the albergue, in a little building attached to the church. Just as we got there, an older gentleman with a wizened face stepped out. He addressed us in Spanish, so Natalie, the polyglot of the group, spoke back. After a second or two of confused back-and-forth, he broke into English with a very strong Gaelic lilt, and we all relaxed.

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The church, with the albergue connected at the left side of the photograph.

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This is the albergue (photo also from their FB page). The church is on the backside of the building, hidden by the trees to the right of the photograph.

Michael and Kathleen (pronounced lovingly by Michael as “Kat-lin”), a married couple from Ireland, were the last volunteer hospitaleros of the year at the albergue. It turned out we’d arrived just in time to ring the church bell and take advantage of the nuns’ hospitality before the albergue was officially shut down for the season. Michael was quite surprised to see us, as the night before there’d only been a couple of pilgrims, and it seemed like the pilgrim traffic was dying down for the season. He was about to be even more surprised, because before the afternoon was out, it was a full house!

As we signed in and took off our boots off, I noticed a handwritten Spanish translation of the traditional Irish blessing (“May the road rise to meet you…”) taped up to the wall. I’m getting teary now, just thinking about that amazing couple who cared for us like their own children during our stay in Zabaldika. They truly were the face of hospitality, and as I write this from the hotel front desk where I now work, I realize that my conversations with Michael and Kathleen started a little chain reaction in my life that is still coming to fruition today. One might even say that my journey into hospitality has a great deal to do with the love that they showered on the weary travelers who came to their door that day.

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The best was yet to come. After boots were off, Michael led us up to the sleeping quarters. It was up two short flights of stairs, so my quads and calves, which were seizing up by then, were definitely not happy with me. However, to everyone’s great joy, there were NO BUNK BEDS. If you’ve walked the Camino before, you’ll understand how something like this might make your heart leap in your chest, might fill you with woozy relief and make you overly emotional. If you haven’t walked the Camino yet, make sure to plan ahead and get a spot at Zabaldika, because the no bunk bed thing is HUGE, I promise.

Beds chosen, showers taken, and fresh outfits donned, it was time to explore. My nose led me downstairs to the kitchen, where Kathleen was cooking up something that smelled amazing for our dinner. We still had a while before dinner, so Michael suggested stopping by the chapel to admire the artwork and have our credentials stamped. The church was still locked, so a few of us sat in the garden to wait, and along came a gorgeous, very friendly little tortoise shell cat. It broke my heart to see that she was limping, as though she’d recently been injured. I sat down to give her an available lap, and she sat with me for a few minutes before rushing off to chase a bug.

Eventually, an elderly, yet spry, nun in a smart outfit of slacks and sweater arrived with a key to the chapel. She didn’t speak any English, so I wasn’t able to talk with her, but she had a very kind demeanor, and as each pilgrim filed in to have their credential stamped, she gave them a little laminated sheet in their language with information about the church, as well as a couple of printed handouts to keep. The church was tiny, and quite charming. It was the handouts that really got to the heart of me, though.

I should interject here to mention that there’s a thing called the Camino moment. It’s unique to each person. Some might have just one moment, others might have a couple, or even many. It’s something like an epiphany, a time when you are touched to the core by something you experience on your Camino. I learned so much on my walk, and had a bunch of great experiences, but only three that I would call legitimate Camino moments. My first was in Zabaldika, reading the handouts the nun had given me:

El Camino

The journey makes you a pilgrim. Because the way to Santiago is not only a track to be walked in order to get somewhere, nor is it a test to reach any reward. El Camino de Santiago is a parable and a reality at once because it is done both within and outside in the specific time that takes to walk each stage, and along the entire life if only you allow the Camino to get into you, to transform you and to make you a pilgrim.

The Camino makes you simpler, because the lighter the backpack the less strain to your back and the more you will experience how little you need to be alive.

The Camino makes you brother/sister. Whatever you have you must be ready to share because even if you started on your own, you will meet companions. The Camino breeds community, community that greets the other, that takes interest in how the walk is going for the other, that talks and shares with the other.

The Camino makes demands on you. You must get up even before the sun in spite of tiredness or blisters; you must walk in the darkness of night while dawn is growing, you must get the rest that will keep you going.

The Camino calls you to contemplate, to be amazed, to welcome, to interiorize, to stop, to be quiet, to listen to, to admire, to bless…Nature, our companions on the journey, our own selves, God.

The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim

  1. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “camino” opens your eyes to what is not seen.
  2. Blessed are you pilgrim, if what concerns you most is not to arrive, as to arrive with others.
  3. Blessed are you pilgrim, when you contemplate the “camino” and you discover it is full of names and dawns.
  4. Blessed are you pilgrim, because you have discovered the the authentic “camino” begins when it is completed.
  5. Blessed are you pilgrim, if your knapsack is emptying of things and your heart does not know where to hang up so many feelings and emotions.
  6. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that one step back to help another is more valuable than a hundred forward without seeing what is at your side.
  7. Blessed are you pilgrim, when you don’t have words to give thanks for everything that surprises you at every twist and turn of the way.
  8. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you search for the truth and make of the “camino” a life and of your life a “way,” in search of the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
  9. Blessed are you pilgrim if on the way you meet yourself and gift yourself with time, without rushing, so as not to disregard the image in your heart.
  10. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “camino” holds a lot of silence; and the silence of prayer; and the prayer of meeting with the Father who is waiting for you.

I got to #5 and started sobbing uncontrollably. I sat down in a pew and cried for the next five minutes or so. Then I went up to ring the bell, because the nun said we could (not the bell on the right – it was cracked and the townspeople hated to hear it – but the one on the left was fine), and, feeling like everything was right with the world after a good cry and bell ringing, not that that made much sense to me at the time, I went inside to see if it was time for dinner yet.

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Still looking a little glossy-eyed from my pre-bell-ringing cry. This picture was taken as the bell was ringing; it wasn’t as jarring as I’d have imagined beforehand.

Kathleen was a miracle worker. She laid out a feast for us that night, most made from scratch, and all made with short notice, as almost all of the pilgrims had shown up late in the afternoon. She’d changed her plans from a simple dinner to feed Michael and a few pilgrims to a lovely multi-dish affair that allowed around 15 of us to all have seconds (and a few had thirds!) She and Michael were vegetarian, so she made an effort to cook some dishes for omnivores, like bangers and mash (with chorizo, of course) and shepherd’s pie, and some for vegetarians, including an amazing bean casserole and a veggie shepherd’s pie. Bread, sliced meats and cheeses, and plenty of wine and water kept us all very happy, too.

The best part, however, was the conversation. It was the first time since Orisson that I’d been lucky enough to be part of a communal dinner. I was sitting next to Michael and Kathleen, and chatted with Michael about music (as soon as he’d heard I was from New Orleans, he’d chortled with glee and proceeded to interrogate me about local music – turned out that he was a huge folk and blues fan). To my right sat a young Frenchwoman who, it turned out, was a singer. I can’t remember everyone sitting at the table, but the conversations flew fast and thick, and the strands of growing connection between people who had been strangers just hours ago seemed to me to be almost visible. The Frenchwoman (I want to say that her name was also Natalie) was walking with two brothers from Denmark, who had started walking from their front door and had been on the road for months. There was also a father and his teenage daughter from the US, Mark from Australia, a Polish man with whom no one could speak (he had limited English and no Spanish or French), at least one Spanish man, one or two guys that I’m forgetting, and of course myself, Natalie, and Claire.

One of the pilgrims noted that Kathleen’s command of French and Spanish were both very good, and she told us that she’d been a languages teacher before she retired. She and Michael spoke a few words to us in Gaelic, which they speak in exclusively when talking to each other. I found that particularly touching, as it’s a beautiful language and it seemed like a lovely representation of their devotion to each other. Towards the end of the meal, I remember just looking around, watching everyone as they shared stories of home, and feeling completely at ease with my life for what felt like the first time in a great while. That’s probably the moment when I realized that no matter what, even if Natalie and Claire were to walk on without me the next day, I would never be alone here unless I wanted to be.

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Our Savior of the Sticky Notes. Actually, I’m not certain why Jesus is surrounded by post-its, but at the time I assumed that these were prayers from visiting pilgrims. I loved how modern and accessible the nuns were; it made Zabaldika feel more homey.

It was Sunday, and the priest who would typically give mass was doing so in another village. Instead, the nuns invited us to come back to the chapel for singing and a group meditation. However, after dinner, I could barely keep my eyes open, so I decided to call it an early night while the others went to hang out with the nuns. Although I did what was right for my body, it turns out that the group meditation was quite impactful, and Natalie and Mark were still talking about it weeks later. If you end up in Zabaldika and the nuns invite you to come hang out, don’t miss it!

Kathleen and Michael met us back downstairs in the kitchen in the morning, where once again the lovely Kathleen had laid out an amazing spread. At some point in the night it had occurred to me that Michael might enjoy listening to one of my favorite American folk artists, Greg Brown, so I asked if he’d heard of Greg before. Michael’s eyes lit up, and Kathleen started laughing, “Now you’ve done it!” It turned out that Greg Brown was also one of Michael’s top folk singers, and he enthusiastically told me about the time they’d traveled to see him play at a jazz festival in the US. Before leaving, I wrote down a few local New Orleans bands that I thought he’d get a kick out of. I wish I’d thought to get their contact information, just to keep in touch and send a postcard from New Orleans.

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This “burrometer” was hanging by the front door of the albergue. Good to know that silliness exists in every culture!

 

It’s not easy being a hospitalero, sending away new family every morning, and welcoming another wave of soon-to-be family every afternoon. I thought that Michael and Kathleen were doing a bang up job of it, though. Leaving hurt a little more that day than it normally did. What made it worse, though, was another encounter with the sweet little local cat, whom I’d mentally named Encanta. After we’d formally left the building, boots on, packs and sticks in tow, there were still a few matters that Claire needed to catch up on via email, so we all sat just outside the front door, where we wouldn’t be in anyone’s way as the albergue got cleaned and readied for a new day.

Very soon, Encanta came limping up, and after a minute or two, she hopped onto my lap. I held her for close to a half an hour, and realized that, except for our brief meeting the day before, this was the first decent dose of animal time that I’d gotten since leaving home almost a week before. It hit me then how much I missed my cats, and how necessary pets were to my wellbeing. I soaked up all the love I could, and gave Encanta all the scratches and kisses I could before we had to leave. From that morning until the day I left Spain, I entertained thoughts of finding a way to adopt her and bring her back to the states. I’m sure she’s just fine with the nuns, but next time I’m heading through Zabaldika, I intend to check up on her.

 

Click here to read about Day 6.

Anna’s Camino: Day 5 – Zubiri to The Abbey

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 Abbey, located in Ilarratz, Spain. Image via their FB Page. Visit them and click “Like.” They’re always in need of volunteers and donations, so consider helping them restore this gem!

A funny thing happened on the day we left Zubiri, but it’s hard to find a way to put it in words, since the change was literally all in my head.

At the end of my last blog post, Natalie, Claire, and I were at the municipal albergue in Zubiri, Spain. The next morning, I awoke in a manner that would become pretty much the norm for the rest of my Camino: people started to stir and pack up around 6, and I stubbornly stayed in bed until around 6:30. Eventually I took my earplugs out and wrapped them in my eye mask, deflated my pillow, and sat up to see where my girls were at. Claire was also on a top bunk, and she and I made grumpy little morning grins to each other as we tried to pack up as best we could without crawling down from our bunks just yet. I had a momentary thought that I was SO lucky to have ended up with two other non-morning people.

I was still getting my packing routine down to a science, but it went something like this: tuck earplugs into special pouch, tuck pouch in sleep mask flaps, deflate pillow, wrap sleep mask (with earplugs) in pillow, stuff pillow in its own bag. Next step is to change pants in sleeping bag if at all possible (pants were stored under pillow all night, along with pillow bag and sleeping bag bag). Slide out of the sleeping bag, shift over just enough to pull it out from under me, zip it up and roll it up, then stuff it in its bag (which was under the pillow all night, with the pillow bag). Get out of bed, pack PJs, pillow and sleeping bag in backpack, change shirt (typically wore sports bra to bed to make it possible to change out in the open in the morning, since bathrooms could be touch-and-go first thing), off with the hiking socks, on with foot treatment stuff (Un-Petroleum Jelly from Alba, moleskin, toe tubes for little toes), on with socks. Pack everything else into pack, and roll out with pack and walking sticks, either towards breakfast area if there was one, or to boot storage if I needed shoes on first. From waking up to walking out, the entire routine took about 15 to 20 minutes, giving me plenty of time to get out before they kicked us out, but still stay in bed for as long as possible.

We three met up in the communal kitchen/dining area to eat breakfast. I can’t remember what we had, other than cafe con leche from the kitchen’s vending machine. It wasn’t that great, but it was much better than anything you’d get out of a vending machine in the US. That was the morning that I started getting into the habit of texting my boyfriend “good morning,” since I knew that I was waking up just around the time that he was going to bed each night, and it was fun to have a few minutes to say hi before hitting the road. Claire was trying to get a few things settled via email before leaving for the day, so we dragged breakfast and chatting time out a bit, and were the last to leave the albergue. As we were leaving, Claire noticed that Natalie had decided to leave her Keen walking sandals behind in the donation area. Natalie had decided that they weren’t useful for showering, she didn’t need them for walking, and they were just weighing her pack down. It turned out that they were the perfect fit for Claire, so voila! she had a new pair of sandals. We shuffled off together, the slowest of the pack, but happy to be walking together for another day.

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A bridge somewhere between Zabaldika and Ilarratz.

Natalie had already walked the Camino Frances a couple of years before, and was walking this time with the intention of stopping at places she hadn’t stopped at before. Other than that, she had time, and didn’t mind if she walked a shorter or longer day than other pilgrims. Claire had a shorter amount of time alotted to walk the Camino, and was concerned with schedule and budget. She was particularly interested in visiting all of the churches she could along the Way, and no matter how “in a hurry” things got, she’d still stop to check if the churches we passed were locked or not. My biggest goal on the Camino was to relax and stop worrying so much about making other people happy. I wanted to use the walk to step out of myself for awhile and find a way to be more content with myself. My only concerns at this point of the Camino were to get to know my new friends, to walk as far as I was comfortable, and to make sure to try tortilla as many times as possible.

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Exactly how I was feeling by Day 5.

We had talked a little bit the night before about our itineraries. We were all looking forward to getting to Pamplona, and many peregrinos were going to be walking straight from Zubiri to Pamplona. However, we all walked a little slower, and our friend Terry had suggested that Zabaldika was actually the perfect place to stop for the day. The abbey there dated from the 13th century, and in recent years had been abandoned until a small order of nuns moved there to reopen the place and turn it into a warm and welcoming albergue for passing pilgrims. She said we might even get to ring the church bell if we behaved ourselves! So we talked it over, and set a course for Zabaldika and the nuns.

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Gotta love a good industrial area.

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Photo taken before I realized how much I detested the paved portions of the Camino. If you look carefully, you can see that on each side of the pavement in the distance, there’s a well-worn path where smart pilgrims have elected not to kill their feet.

It turned out that Claire had a close friend, Neil, whom she said owned an old abbey between Zubiri and Zabaldika, so we decided to stop in and see him along the way. As we got closer to what I was thinking of as Neil’s hangout, I realized that I hadn’t quite understood what Claire had meant by “old abbey.” La Abadia de Eskirotz y Ilarratz, known simply as The Abbey, is rather unassuming, compared to many other Spanish religious structures. It’s presumed to be a 12th century fortress that was converted into a church sometime in the mid 13th century. Neil and his partner purchased the property from the diocese and began restoring it, but have been met with some unfriendliness from the local community during the course of restoration, presumably because the couple are outsiders and locals fear that the building will be put to bad use. However, as we three pilgrims saw during our private tour of the building and chat with Neil, the church was forgotten and unloved for quite some time. It was looted, the ceiling was falling in, there was water damage and settling, and it was in danger of becoming a ruin before it came into private possession. Furthermore, Neil and the team of volunteers who have been working for years to bring this beauty back to life have pledged to never use it for financial gain or in any way that would damage the building, grounds, or local community. They simply want to restore a gem back to its original state – and they’re doing a damn good job.

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These rosettes in the front portico are said to have been created to capture the exact spots where holy water fell when the priest was blessing the door of the church at its opening.

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Inside, looking at the main altar. This altar would have been hidden for centuries behind the type of altar one typically sees in churches throughout Spain – a giant, elaborately carved and heavily gilded/painted wooden structure that probably concealed much of the back wall of the church. Amazingly, this mostly intact painted altar is so rare that it’s worth more, culturally, than the altar that once hid its presence.

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That skull and crossbones is an original lectern from the middle ages or early renaissance, found tucked away in the attic when Neil and his crew moved in.

 

Neil and Jacobie, his volunteer, met us at the door of the building, and Neil and Claire quickly got to catching up. Several more pilgrims walked up as we did, and the volunteer gave us a quick tour of the place, explaining the architectural details that remained intact, including several very important and unique touches, like rosettes laid in stone at the front door, stars carved in the door lintel, a remarkable painted altar which was in spectacular shape due to being covered by a later altarpiece (now missing, presumed looted), and a small medieval lectern that was found tucked away in the attic when the team started renovations. After the other pilgrims had left, Natalie and I sat down with Jacobie over a wonderful cup of homemade cafe con leche, and asked her story. It turned out that she had grown up in South Africa, like Neil and Claire. She moved to London for work, but had taken time off recently to walk the Camino Frances. During her walk, she visited The Abbey and met Neil, and the project stayed on her mind after she finished the walk and went home to London. After a month or so, she called Neil to see if he could use any help, quit her job, and took off for a couple of months of volunteer work at The Abbey!

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This photo is also via The Abbey’s FB page, taken from the Camino as you come up alongside the church. The gravel path you can see in the mid-ground leads down from the Camino, by the graveyard, to the front door of the church. You can just see the built-in benches on the portico where Natalie, Jacobie, and I sat to have coffee and a chat.

At one point, I asked to use the bathroom, and I was pointed upstairs to the staff toilet, typically off limits. The tour we’d taken had only led us into the large, open main floor, so I was excited to get to go up where the choir would have been. I didn’t realize that there was a whole second section to the building beyond the church, itself. (I should have, since it’s an abbey, and that means there had to be some form of living quarters, but that’s what you get for turning your brain off and going on a long walk.) Up the stairs into the choir, then through a doorway, into a dark, spooky hallway, down another set of stairs, and you’re in the other half of the building. It was a sturdy enough space, but one that’s not exactly confidence-inspiring if you’ve always had the secret fear of dying by falling through a floor. The ceilings were low, and the beams were quite hefty. Some looked to have been touched by fire, but it might just have been centuries of fireplace smoke. The bathroom was absolutely charming, though. It was flooded with light, covered in old floral linoleum, and the plumbing didn’t work, so you had to use a couple of buckets of water to make the toilet flush. I was weirdly happy over the entire experience, especially knowing that not many people got to see the bones of the building the way I had.

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Behind the scenes. The floor is obviously strong enough to camp out on, but I’m a coward.

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Beams. Much more impressive in real life.

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Probably my favorite bathroom experience on the Camino, just for the novelty. Note that the door is missing a window pane, so when you’re on the toilet you’re just staring out at the big open room with the tent in it 🙂

After the bathroom, I walked back outside to find that Claire was getting a tour of the grounds. Natalie and I tried to let them have their distance, since it’s not often that two old friends get to have a private conversation when one has moved to a different country, and they only had an hour or so to catch up before we’d have to move on. While Nat and I were looking around the building, she pointed out that you could see exactly where the old Camino had been in relation to the building. It has moved slightly over the years, as the path was widened and improved by the local government, but the old path is still there to see, running right beside The Abbey, like two old friends, still close enough to talk.

Eventually, we bid The Abbey farewell and walked on. Zabaldika was another two hours’ walk away, and it was already getting on towards afternoon. As is the way on The Way, our paces varied. Sometimes we’d all be walking together, other times one of us would fall behind or move ahead, and sometimes we’d all be walking alone, lost in our own thoughts. When we walked together or in pairs, we’d typically talk about our lives back home. For my purposes here, I won’t ever share anything deeply personal that a Camino friend shared with me, because the Camino is a place where many people go to figure themselves out, free of judgment, with the help of other people who are in something of the same spot. As I quickly learned, almost everyone I met had an issue or two that they were trying to work out by walking, and some days were heavier than others. You never had to talk with anyone if you didn’t want to, but often people were surprisingly open about their lives and what they were hoping to achieve, so it could feel a bit like a big walking group therapy.

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Follow the arrow.

That day, I remember a specific conversation that Natalie and I had. It means a lot to me, because it was the beginning of a shift in my perception. One of the big problems that I was dealing with for a year or two before the Camino was a feeling of being left behind by my best girlfriends. For much of my youth, I just assumed that I’d be the first married, with kids, and a house/picket fence/etc. My biological clock ticked for about a year in my early 20s, and by my late 20s I was starting to secretly dislike the idea of ever having children. By the time I hit my early 30s, I was getting out of an eight year relationship and realizing that I really, really didn’t want children – and I didn’t have too much faith in ever getting married, either. Nor did my finances look like they’d ever be right to own a house, or a car, or even have a dog, for that matter. In short, the traditional “American Dream” was not where I was headed, even under the best of circumstances. Without any of those things in my future, where did that leave me? What would my life be? Was it worth living? I didn’t know. And while I was sorting through all of these weird questions, one by one, almost every one of my best girlfriends got married and started having children. I was happy for all of them – they’d found good partners, professions, homes, and had moved on to the next step that worked for them. But as they became wives, then mothers, they shifted into new life perspectives, becoming subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) different people. They were still my friends, but our friendship had changed. I felt alone, left behind, and like it was horrible of me to ever talk about how hurt I was out loud, because I was the freak who couldn’t get her shit together, not them. At the same time that I was thinking that I was a loser with no life to look forward to, I was also thinking, “Hey, look at this amazing life I get to live now that I’ve figured out I don’t want to get tied down to other people!” But that was the smaller thought, being buried under all the “Gee, what a loser, might as well just die” thoughts. That’s where I was hanging out, mentally, on the day Natalie and I had our first heavy talk.

As we walked the path, Natalie and I got to talking about life as a single woman without kids. First, a little about Nat. She’s cool with a capital C. She’s about 15 years older than I am, but looks a little younger than me. She advocates for the disadvantaged and abused for a living, plays banjo in a folk band and guitar in a rock band, and splits her time between small homes in the Yukon and Mexico. When you’re talking with her, she’s truly seeing you, and she brings joy with her into a room. She’s just got this amazing inner light that attracts people to her, and her genuine goodness is evident as soon as you have a conversation with her. In retrospect, it’s no wonder that she was one of the first people that I noticed on the Camino; how could I not?

As is my wont, I started rambling on about the sorrow and anger that I’d been harboring, and once I got started, I laid everything out on the table: how I was lost and lonely, but had no way of peeling that away from the anger and sadness, so I couldn’t talk to the people I needed most in my life anymore. She listened to everything, interjecting here and there to clarify something I’d said. Then she gave me a truth. She said that she’d been through a similar thing, but it had passed. And yes, her friends had become different people, and she’d been forced to make some changes to adapt, but in the end, the kids grew up, and most of the friendships remained and grew strong again. There was more detail, of course, but these were the basics that allowed me to accept that I was allowed to grieve for old times and old feelings, without feeling guilty. I was allowed to be frustrated that things change, but it was also time to realize that while my friends were building their own life stories, I had time and space to do other things with mine. You know, things like spend a month walking across Spain, or hours writing blog posts about architecture and emotions.

It was a good talk. Afterwards, we caught up with Claire and took a short break by a beautiful, fast-moving river. We drank tea and had some snacks, and I took off my boots and laid back on a makeshift bench while Claire and Natalie described their homes to each other. It was a beautiful afternoon.

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Claire, sorting out a few things. I believe she has the tea canteen in her hands. Also, check out Natalie’s amazing orange pants. A few days later, I was able to describe her to an innkeeper by her pantalones naranjas (and it worked).

 

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The first time I saw this font, but certainly not the last. Claire’s beloved umbrella hangs on the fence, too.

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The river where we stopped to rest and have snacks.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you about Zabaldika. It was one of my favorite spots on the Camino, so I want to spend a whole post just about that night.

Click here to read Part 2 of Day 5. 

Anna’s Camino: Day 3 – Orisson to Roncesvalles

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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For much of the morning’s walk, all I could hear was the wind and the chiming of the tiny bells the sheep wore.

The trek from Orisson to Roncesvalles was, without a doubt, the most beautiful and emotionally-jarring leg of my Camino. That isn’t to say that there weren’t some stunning vistas to come, but this little slice of the world is shockingly beautiful on a good day, and it was the perfect day to cross the Pyrenees on foot.

I walked away from Orisson alone, and was on my own for about an hour before I heard a pair of pilgrims walking up behind me. I’d met the two the night before at Orisson, and remembered that they were from Chicago. Andy was in his mid-20s, and had just finished up a teaching gig in Asia. He wanted to walk the Camino before moving back to the States, and his dad, Peter, had decided to join him for a portion of the walk. The three of us chatted a bit as our paces allowed, and walked together for small times throughout the day.

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The first of many beautiful horses I was to see along the Camino.

I got the feeling that Peter thought I was unprepared (which was fair – I was). The father-son duo were very outdoorsy, and, along with Andy’s brother, had traveled quite a bit when the boys were younger. Learning from my experiences the day before, I decided that since the day was gorgeous and I didn’t have any set time to be in Roncesvalles, I’d take my time to sit and take my shoes off whenever I felt like it. There were sheep EVERYWHERE, and the trail was often littered with sheep and horse dung, but every now and then you’d find a rock that was just perfect for sitting on to take a break.

It was also perfectly quiet out. The wind was blowing, but you could hear the bells the sheep wore tinkling from a mile away across the mountains. That first day, my ears were actually ringing from the silence! But as I sat there on this particular rock, admiring the landscape, letting my feet breathe, I heard Peter mention me. He and Andy were far down the mountain. He couldn’t have known I’d be able to hear him, and I know he wouldn’t have wished to hurt my feelings. He was criticizing my shoes (New Balance trail runners – perfect choice for the Camino if you have hot feet and you’re prone to ankle blisters from high ankle choices like hiking boots). I heard Andy shushing him in what I was to learn was his characteristically kind and easy-going manner. A minute or two later, I saw them approaching from around the bend and down the mountain. As the song says, voices carry.

Everyday Anna would have been deeply hurt at the thought of being criticized. Camino Anna took into account the cold, damp feel of the stone beneath her tech-fiber covered butt, the amazing breeze wafting across her sweaty toes, the rich smell of grass, mingled with sheep dung, the sound of those bells tinkling across the mountainside, and the sincere tone in Andy’s voice as he had asked his father to stop being so critical of a stranger…and I let it go. Of course, not enough that I’d forget it, but that moment seems set apart from many others, in that it was one of the first major learning moments of my Camino. It was a time when I had a choice – confront someone for being (unintentionally) jerky, or refuse to escalate a stupid conversation and go back to enjoying the hell out of this little slice of heaven. I made the right choice. I hope that I can continue to reflect on that for the rest of my life, and let it guide me into continuing to reject unnecessary drama.

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A hint at the mud that was to come later that afternoon!

Two or three hours into the day’s walk, there was a special treat waiting for us on the mountain – a little food truck with the last credential stamp in France! There was also hot coffee, tea, and chocolate, juice, boiled eggs (to become a favorite on the Camino), fruit, and this amazing local sheeps’ cheese that was made by the farmer/food truck owner. I ended up sharing some cheese with Andy and Peter, then buying my own wedge for later.

As we happily drank coffee and ate our revitalizing snacks, Natalie and Claire walked up. We chatted briefly, then I walked on.

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The Virgin of Orisson (Verge d’Orisson)

Most of the rest of the day was walked alone and with various people. Andy and Peter and I crossed paths a few more times, and I walked a while with Natalie and Claire, but once we got into Spain, the path got muddier and more difficult, and I found myself growing weary and retreating into myself a bit more. I took frequent breaks to nibble on the sandwich that I’d brought with me from Orisson and catch my breath.

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Taking a break. I could hear the waterfall, just couldn’t see it!

At one point in the day, I was sitting close to a waterfall that I could hear but not see, letting my feet dangle over an embankment, eating the end of my sandwich. The trail in that area is a popular walking trail for nature enthusiasts, so every now and then a biker or walker would pass me going the opposite way. To amuse myself, I’d say “Hey, you’re heading the wrong way! Santiago’s that way!” Most of the time, the hikers would laugh, but one time, a couple of middle-aged Brits laughed, then stopped and asked me what everyone was doing. They’d seen all the pilgrims, but didn’t know anything about the Camino. They asked me how much farther I had to go, and when I told them, “Oh, about 30 more days or so,” the man shook my hand and wished me luck, lol!

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Only 765 more kilometers to go – piece of cake!

 

Heading down toward Roncesvalles, you walk through a dimly lit forest that seems almost magical if you’ve been living in the city too long. Along with all the trees, there was also ankle-deep mud that threatened to suck off your shoes, and a thick covering of slick leaves, just to add a little extra excitement. I saw a few people slip and fall, and if not for my trusty walking sticks, would have surely met the same fate. One thing I found out about mud of this type is that my innate reaction to squelching through mud is to get the uncontrollable giggles. A fair number of pilgrims must have thought I was absolutely insane as they passed me on the trail, because I laughed uncontrollably for at least an hour of muddy trail, squelching all the way!

Claire and I caught up just before Roncesvalles, and I asked where Natalie was. It turned out that she’d hurt her knee before starting the Camino, and was nursing the injury still. The pain had come back in the afternoon, so she was taking it slow on the descent into Roncesvalles. There was a waymarker noting directions to the albergues and town center when you first leave the trail and enter Roncesvalles, so I offered to stay there with our packs and wait for Natalie while Claire walked to find the main albergue. A few minutes after Claire walked off, Natalie appeared at the woods’ edge. She was pleasantly surprised to see me, and I felt proud to have made a helpful decision. It seemed like Natalie, Claire and I were becoming an item, which was both a surprise and a relief. Even though it had been really easy to meet new people thus far, much easier than I’d anticipated, I couldn’t believe I’d had the good luck to meet these two kind strangers at the very outset of my journey. Without even meaning to, I’d found my first Camino family.

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Thank goodness for Scotch (and the kindness of bartenders).

Claire was eager to get a bunk and get her affairs in order, but Natalie and I were both much more eager to find a drink and let a day on the Camino roll off our backs. We walked together down to the nearest pub, where Natalie got the closest thing they had to a brandy, a Spanish liqueur called Pacharan, and the bartender gave me a double Ballentines on the rocks with an espresso chaser. We sat in the sun, sipping our drinks and getting to know each other a little more, stopping to say hi to various pilgrims we knew from Orisson and the day’s walk. Andy came along and pulled up a chair. Terry and Phyllis soon straggled over. Claire found her way to us, along with a couple of women she’d met earlier. It was a gorgeous afternoon on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, and we were all quite content with the task that life had offered us – enjoying the company of our fellow pilgrims.

The main albergue at Roncesvalles is quite impressive. It’s a huge old monastery that’s been repurposed to give pilgrims a place to bed down for the night. I loved the sturdy, well-made bunks, each with its own private locker, and thought it was particularly nice that each set of four bunks makes its own semi-private pod. In many of the other albergues I was to experience on the Camino, you can see most of the room from your bunk. Here, each set of four beds had a modicum of privacy, which is nice when you’re getting eased into the idea of sharing a room with a hundred other people. Natalie, Claire and I were sharing one pod, with the fourth bed belonging to an Irish cyclist who was traveling the Camino with his brother.

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Statue of the dying Roland, as Roncesvalles (Roncevaux) is where Charlemagne’s nephew, hero of “La Chanson de Roland” took his last stand against the Basques.

After we moved into our bunks and got things settled, I took our laundry down to get washed and dried by the nuns in real washers and dryers, since hand washing the night before hadn’t gone splendidly for any of us, and we were all feeling in need of sparkling new duds. Claire decided to go on a tour, while Natalie and I went to dinner (my first pilgrim meal – spaghetti, fried fish and french fries, rice pudding, and lots of wine). Midway through the meal, the table launched into a half-English, half-Spanish conversation about current Spanish politics, which I found very interesting and enlightening. What really got me was that of three Spanish pilgrims at the table, each had a strikingly different opinion on the current political climate, but they all got along quite well (they were best friends taking just a few days to walk on the Camino) and managed to keep their political ideals separate from their personal interactions. In other words, they were much more civilized than Americans fighting over politics.

Dinner over, we went to the pilgrim mass at the local church, where the priest blessed all of the pilgrims and wished us a good journey. After such a long, tiring day, I was touched by the ceremony, but also just exhausted and ready to hit the hay. I went to sleep feeling very thankful for everything that had befallen me thus far, though a little scared of bed bugs, as Natalie had told me earlier that they typically live in the wooden bunks. Still, I was asleep within minutes and slept soundly until the lights went on the next morning.

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The moon from the albergue window when we woke up the next morning and prepared to leave for Zubiri.

Click here to read about Day 4.