Coming Home Requires Patience

Coming home requires patience. I’m three weeks out from my trip and I still find myself retreating into the solitary part of my mind that shielded me from a world of little red notification flags at the top of a screen.

What’s odd is that I am having trouble recounting each hiking day in my mind, despite their vivid differences and difficulty.

I could sort through my photos, look at my hiking app or read my journal, but I don’t even have any interest yet. The hardest part is not having the words to express the trip around those I love. Yet again, the Camino took me into its arms and let me go without a way to package up my story into any understandable form.

I was my other self for 12 days.

The two selves do not compete, they are equal, they help one another, but they are different people. The goal, of course, is to meld the two into one persona no matter where I am. How many more Caminos will that take?

The thing that confuses me the most is the frequency of two questions: How long did you walk? And, did you go alone?

The first makes sense to me. It is the most relatable stat if you know little else about the trip. It’s a way of wrapping your head around the basic logistics of what I’m telling you.

It is hard, however, to feel that the other question is not rooted in inadvertent sexism, no matter how well-intentioned everyone is. We all say these things by accident; I know I do. We just don’t realize that we, on some level, distrust a woman’s overall competence or her ability to remain aware of an unsafe world. One of my favorite Outside Magazine articles talks about how, statistically speaking, the most dangerous place for a woman is her own home, not the hiking trail.

My favorite quote:

“…being solo in the backcountry is one of the only times in my life that I’ve been able to exist as a body and a person without worrying about how other people might try to claim my body as their own. Crossing frozen rivers on my hands and knees, curling up in my sleeping bag, waking at dawn in a bed of dew—these are the moments when the shadow of that vulnerability fades, and the only thing that exists is the beautiful, indifferent landscape and my own strength and skills. Going alone into the wilderness is one of the ways I reclaim myself. It is an act of joy and an act of self-defense.”

But the moment a woman travels abroad, sound the alarms! She’s a wild one just asking for trouble.

After the hike, I rode a bus from Santiago to Porto next to a man about my dad’s age. He was a kind, quiet guy who had just walked from Leon on the Frances route for the first time.

“I have to ask you something,” I blurted out before we parted ways, “Do people act surprised that you are hiking alone?”

He looked confused as he thought back on it, “Not even once. People have never commented on it.”

*****

Back to the first confusing question, regarding the distance. The NY marathon finish line is just a few blocks from our new apartment.

This past Sunday, on the day of the big race, I wandered over to 80th and Columbus to get a cup of coffee and see if I could spot some racers finishing up. What I found was something incredibly similar to Santiago de Compostela. Fazed, bleary-eyed runners wrapped in blue emergency blankets walking on their hardening leg muscles as if they were slowly turning into petrified stilts.

Cozy, scarf-bundled onlookers greeted them all with a “Congratulations!” with a small yet appreciative nod in return.

This is the closest thing I’ve seen to finishing a pilgrimage. When I literally stumbled (I was a bit under the weather from some questionable squid) into Santiago this time, I had to brace myself on the stone wall before turning the corner into the final plaza in front of the cathedral. The earth seemed to spin around in the wrong direction for a moment, it shifted and shook like I was waking up from a dream. I nearly sat down to get my bearings.

But around me, music played. The touristy city went on with its sightseeing—one of the sights being me, a pilgrim for which the city is built. The visitors, grasping damp ponchos and curled up city maps, watched me with concern and curiosity. Not exactly the same energy as the marathon, but the separation between worlds feels the same.

When you reach the end, I’ve never thought about the mileage. I don’t mean this to sound profound or mysterious, the mileage is all relative, and at times, irrelevant.

What does hit me are how many mornings I awoke to a room of pilgrims slowly rolling out of their bunk beds, muscles aching from the day before, to dig out their hiking pants from their pack in the pitch black.

I think of slipping my shoes over delicately wrapped feet and ankles padded only by slightly damp socks that didn’t quite dry on the line overnight because of the dew the crept in after the sun went down.

The dinners around a large, loving table mix with the nights spent eating Galician soup alone or with a group I share no common language. I think about the scraps of hoarded food still tucked into the pockets of my backpack in case I got caught on the trail without a place to stop.

I measure my trip in the real challenges: counting out the kilometers to make it to your destination on time, fussing with your headlamp in the pitch black of the forest before the sun comes up, struggling through Portuguese and Spanish to explain to a pharmacist that your skin is breaking out in a confusing heat rash and you have no idea why. I think of all the nights lying awake as the orchestra of snores begin their song around you while all you can do is think about your husband commuting home from work at that exact moment.

I think of all the spaces in between, filled with the layers up layers of saturated eucalyptus forests, conversations with a pack of horses by the side of the road, laughing until you can’t take another sip of your drink because of a joke you’ll never be able to retell once you’re home.

As for the mileage? A marathoner and a hiker can tell you that one mile on a beautiful morning after a fresh breakfast is no comparison to one mile on a sore ankle in the rain. There are days when your backpack feels like a load of rocks stretching your shoulders closer to the ground and others when it’s a warm koala giving you a soft squeeze. There is even the great phenomenon that the final 4 kilometers of a hiking day is always more painful than the rest, no matter how far you’ve gone.

****

I was recently asked about my career endeavors, to which I surprised myself by answering, “I don’t have any right now.” Where does that leave me? I want to complete my Camino book, but I want to write it so people know about the possibility of a life focused around a constant journey. As for the business side of it? Nothing fires off in my brain, nothing sparks. As for theatre, I’ve enjoyed auditioning lately, but the thought of marketing my body and artistic interests the same way one would market a jar of pickles does nothing for me.

I am not sad, I am not unmotivated, I just want to be. Was this the point of all of it?

I just left a world where people don’t need anything beyond their basic needs. If someone needs help, you give it to them – you don’t make assumptions about why they don’t have it or if you’ll need it more later. What you packed at home was just as much for you as the people you pass.

Perhaps you can never 100% come home once you’ve lived that way. Like Narnia or Hogwarts. You’re always aware that the other world exists at this very moment, even if you can’t or don’t want to live there all the time.

I am happy to be home. This is the space I need to let that world settle and gain worth in my bones. But like I said, coming home requires patience. I will keep moving slowly, as I did before.

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