A Year Ago Today I Got On An Airplane

I haven’t written a blog post since March 21st.

I write for myself in my journal and I have a job where I write for companies that want to sell something or help people sell something. I’m thankful for both of those outlets.

But, what do I write to you? I don’t have a clue what to tell you about the past six months. I don’t have advice yet, I don’t have hindsight. I’m still scared.

Still, a year ago today, I got on an airplane at Newark Airport bound for Porto. I know about that at least.

I’ve fallen back on my Camino writing many times in the past, and so, here we are. I’ll write about that because I have nothing else to say. I’ll write about that because I could use a reminder of a great adventure when there was a road in front of me that made sense and hope for what came at the end of it.

And I can hope that next year I will write about my fourth Camino–this time with Ben.

Day 1: EWR to OPO, September 29, 2019

In case you’ve stumbled upon this blog for the first time (hi!), I’ve walked the Camino de Santiago–an ancient pilgrimage-turned-spiritual hiking trail–three times since 2009. My previous two trips began in a small French town called St. Jean Pied de Port, climbed over the Pyrenees Mountains, and headed across Northern Spain to a city called Santiago de Compostela. Both trips were about 500 miles and took five weeks to complete.

This time, I was set to walk about 150 miles from Porto, Portugal, to Santiago, Spain. The other major difference–much to the shock of nearly every man I encountered–is that I was going along. I craved the solo trip, especially on a trail that had so deeply defined who I’ve become. I needed the silence, I needed to go at my own pace, I needed not to be needed.

That’s not to say that my first two trips with dear friends were not life-changing. They’re the whole reason I went on this one. This time, I just craved something different.

Outside of professional settings like jobs and writing gigs, I couldn’t remember that last time I’d been introduced as just me. I’m usually Ben’s wife, my parents’ daughter, a friend-of-a-friend, the new girl in the office. When’s the last time I met someone and not been seen through the lens of someone else? I couldn’t remember.

Screaming inside my heart.

The Moment Before You Check Out

When you’re about to attempt a large physical feat, onlookers often focus on the difficulty of the journey. They’ll comment on how impressed they are that you don’t get lost, that you can walk so many hours in a day with a pack, or that you don’t pitch off a cliff somewhere.

I’m here to tell you that the distance and the directions have little to do with the difficulty of the whole adventure, at least for me. It’s incredibly hard to walk that far, sure. Your feet blister, your knees ache, and your hips never quite connect to your thigh bones the same way again. But it is far harder to fight what’s going on inside your head than the pain growing in your body.

Leaving for something like the Camino is like getting ready to step through the wardrobe. You know you have to go alone and you know no one will understand the weight of what you’ll see there. You also know you have the power to just turn around and go home, to not get on the plane, to cancel your flight and lose the money in exchange for two much-more-comfortable weeks in your own bed.

But you don’t. Because you made the decision a long time ago–when you were in a much braver state. If you hadn’t made it then, you may never have had the courage to go when the time comes. Your prior self had the courage that your current self lacks, and thank heavens for that.

Pizza in a Functional City

Hours before heading to the airport, Ben and I went to a pizza place across the street, appropriately and comically named Made in NY Pizza. It’s surprisingly good in spite of its tourist-focused name. The place was packed with confused visitors looking wiped out from the non-stop energy of New York–an energy I so desperately miss this year.

I knew I had to eat before I got too nervous on the flight–I hate flying. Every time the plane shakes my imagination runs wild. I look at the flight attendants to see if they’re also spiraling into an existential crisis. They never are.

I also knew that every minute that ticked by was a minute closer to saying goodbye to Ben for two-and-a-half weeks. I’ve always hated saying goodbye to loved ones in airports. My left brain needs to focus but my right brain wants to crumple up on the floor and have a good cry. So I bought two slices of pizza and ate them slowly, taking in every heightened final moment with the person who knew me best.

I felt safe going on the trip–it is far safer to travel, even as a woman, than people seem to believe. This is also pre-COVID, of course; my biggest threat was other people. But I’d done my research, I knew the risks, and I’d done this all before on a much larger scale. I also carried a really loud whistle! You know, for scaring away wild dogs or signaling lifeboats. Maybe it was a pointless accessory, but it made me feel a little better.

At the same time, you never truly know that it will all be okay. As we’ve learned all too well this year, everyone has a different level of risk aversion. But with my level of obsessive planning–literally down to where the bathrooms were in the Porto airport–I felt comforted.

On the other hand, I also knew that time worked differently on the Camino. My 12 days of hiking would feel like centuries. I would be an old lady when I got home. I would see so much before I’d get to sit in a pizza place with Ben again. Still, I kept my tears back, ate my pizza, and held onto his hand desperately.

The EWR Airport Tram

After I hugged the cats goodbye, I tightened the backpack strap around my waist, and we headed for the subway. Ben sweetly planned to go all the way to security with me. We took a busy 2 train down to Penn Station, a NJ transit train to the airport, and a Disney-like tram across the scenic EWR parking lot to the terminal.

I felt muted and terrified. As someone who brings up the Camino in 9 out of 10 conversations, I didn’t want to go. What if I walked the entire trip without meeting a single soul that wanted to know me? What if I was simply incapable of doing it this time? What if something major happened back in NY and I couldn’t get home?

I tearfully said goodbye to Ben just before the security line and tried to pull myself together as I balanced my passport, boarding pass, and toiletries bag in one arm and my phone in the other. Nothing imbues confidence in a TSA agent like a sobbing passenger.

Was Ben still standing back there? Was he walking to the train? Was he lonely and panicked too? I turned around one more time and saw his familiar gait walking away and the back of his Yankees hat headed toward the exit.

Deep breaths. I wanted this. I’d practiced my Portuguese, planned out every single detail to get from the plane to the starting point of the Camino (I even memorized restaurant names to get to the trail through Porto), and had my money budgeted down to the Euro.

But all the planning in the world doesn’t fight the loneliness of boarding a plane before a great journey. I felt like I was kidding myself, running toward something that didn’t exist. Before, I was with friends. Now, I was throwing myself into a world alone with no explanation as to why.

My flight was at 10pm and the airport was nearly empty. I bought an overpriced turkey sandwich and sat in the boarding area, which was filled with flashing TV screens at each seat. When did Newark Airport start looking like a Black Mirror episode?

When I eventually boarded, I sat next to an older Spanish couple–the man of which quickly fell asleep on my shoulder. I didn’t mind. He seemed tired. At least one of us would sleep.

Six hours to transition to the new world. Six hours to let go of the old. I was in the hands of something a past self had set in motion. As expected, I never slept–turbulence from a storm over the Azores kept us all awake (except for the man next to me). I panicked and became a temporary Catholic again. I looked at the flight attendants–no panic.

At least I knew we were flying quickly into the sunrise, and the fear of the airport, the storm, and the anxiety leading up to the trip would soon be behind me.

At some ungodly hour on the flight, when the plane was undoubtedly being tossed around in pockets of air, I wrote in my journal, “I am ready to see the stars again.”

Until tomorrow, my friends.

9 thoughts on “A Year Ago Today I Got On An Airplane

  1. This is so wonderful, Ginny! I have only heard bits and pieces about your travels, it’s lovely to hear your step by step. And I share your travel worries – no matter how much I know I want to be where I’m going! Thanks so much for sharing this 🙂

    Like

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