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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A Weekend’s Worth Of Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great week!

These Choices

Today’s Daily Post prompt asks us to consider what we would do if we knew we couldn’t fail. It’s an appropriate question for this day, and is closely aligned with something my therapist asked me a couple of days ago and that I’ve been mulling over ever since. After listening to several days of stress-filled rants regarding my career (aspirations vs. actuality), the therapist remarked that I didn’t sound like I liked what I did very much. Would I consider changing careers?

I have this little nagging suspicion that after I return from Spain in November, I might be forced into this choice. Of course, I can hope that both of my jobs decide not to can me for leaving them high and dry for 45 days, but let’s face it – America does not believe in taking a break. Vacation days are for wusses. If we’re lucky, we get two weeks of paid vacation, but even then, we’re subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) made to feel guilty for desiring to use all of them. And that’s why people like me are slowly losing their minds. We need a break, and what’s more, we need a long one.

Working in America vs. Working in Other Countries. Click the image to read more.

Working in America vs. Working in Other Countries. Click the image to read more.

So I made this decision to love myself enough to give myself the break I so desire and deserve, even if it means that my employers can’t get along without me. I’d rather have to find new jobs than continue to put off this pilgrimage for another year. When I’m old and gray and too old to travel outside of my retirement home, I don’t want to have any regrets about missed opportunities to explore the world. I’ve told my New Orleans job that I plan to leave, and to be quite fair, my officemates are really supportive of my choice, even if they’re apprehensive at where this will leave them when I’m gone. I haven’t told the Chicago job yet, because I think it will lodge in my boss’s mind like a piece of grit in an oyster, slowly turning and growing into a giant pearl of contention. It’s not worth it right now to upset her. Maybe in a few months.

The other part of the equation is this sneaking suspicion that nothing I do really matters. I look around me, at my job, at my friends’, and it seems that we waste our lives sitting in cubicles, performing mundane tasks that ultimately don’t matter. I really enjoy marketing, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not helping the world in any way. And it’s no question that the continued exposure to technology is destroying my brain. I’m frequently too sad to leave the house, and have the attention span of an ADHD goldfish. My memory is measurably worse. It’s no real stretch to imagine dementia setting in sooner rather than later, and that’s terrifying to me.

Is this who I want to be? From a physical and spiritual standpoint, how can I afford to continue this trajectory? But from a financial standpoint, how can I not? It’s a conundrum. I wish that I could tell my 18-year-old self not to lose that full scholarship, or my 23-year-old self not to go to school for historic preservation. But killing those butterflies would destroy this world as I know it, and I’ll take the crushing student loan debt in exchange for the handsome writer who makes me coffee and laughs at my stupid jokes, thanks. I still have hope that some small changes will help me keep my sanity and figure out how to live a fulfilling life within the boundaries I’ve created for myself.

Still, what would I do if I knew I couldn’t lose? If I knew I could keep him AND achieve success in a fulfilling career? I don’t even know how to turn the hopeful part of my brain back on to contemplate that question at full capacity. Maybe when my feet meet the Camino, those gears will start to turn. Maybe I’ll be able to figure it out. I guess I’d cast my net wide. I’d look to new cities for opportunities. I’d look to new countries, even. I’d try to get into the film industry. I’d take this idea of writing a book and make it central to the way I live my life. I’d fold so many origami flowers that my apartment would be the envy of gardeners everywhere. I’d find a museum that wanted a ragtag history like mine, and would take a chance on me as a curator. I’d sing, sing, sing every day.

Sometimes I hate being both a dreamer and a realist. I hate how I crush my own spirit so much more efficiently than anyone else could. These choices seem so simple when I see them in writing. Why are they monumental in my imagination? Please, Santiago, help me walk back to my life, the real one, the one without fear.