I have a tattoo on my left arm of a poppy and the word, ultreïa. This word was first seen in a 12th-century guide about how to walk the Camino, and it is believed to mean, “Go further!”
The poppy, however, has a double meaning. To start, there are poppies all over the Camino Frances in the spring, fields and fields of them. But the flower itself also holds the meaning of death, rebirth, and recovery through tragedy. I’ve walked each of my Camino’s in memory of someone dear to me–the first for my theatre professor and the second for my grandmother.
This Camino was for Michael. Michael was the musical director of my summer camp growing up. I was not a very skilled musical theatre kid–though heaven knows I tried–so Michael and I didn’t even work together back then. He was for the super-Broadwyy-bound kids, but we all looked up to him from afar.
When I was in my late 20s, I spotted a familiar face playing the piano at a reading of a new musical in NYC. He was introduced as Michael Larsen. Very long story short, I timidly walked up to him to say hello and to explain that I was one of his campers many years ago. “Be my student!” he said immediately. We became great friends.
Michael coached me for the next three years until he left New York City when his heart problems worsened. He could live with family there and thought it would be more likely to receive a transplant in the state. The week before he left, we sat on his piano bench and cried. Ben sat in on the end of the lesson and got to hear me sing the song we’d worked on. My mini recital.
He passed away a day before my birthday, October 26th, 2017. I made peace with a part of my artistic self because Michael believed in me. He never let me beat myself up or tell myself that I wasn’t capable of belting a certain high note. He was so dear to me. I carried some of our music in the back of my Camino journal and planned to leave it somewhere scenic and beautiful along the way. I wish I had asked him to take a picture with me the day before we left, but it didn’t feel right. Instead, I have all his notes and breath marks on our music.
October 7, 2019: Ponte de Lima to Rubias
On the sixth day of our Camino, I woke up grouchy. I hadn’t slept well. In the middle of the night, when I walked to the bathroom, my knee ached so badly that I could barely straighten it fully. I worried I’d wake up and have to stop not even halfway through or worse, lose track of my friends. It t was a bit better in the morning, but the pain was going to make climbing the mountain much harder.
I walked out into the foggy morning before the sun rose, frustrated and worried.
I crossed the ancient bridge of Ponte de Lima, memory intact, and turned around the look at the beautiful city one more time. I’d be back someday, I hoped.
I could tell that we were entering the part of the Camino with the old magic I’d missed. The foliage got richer, the greens deeper, the spider webs thicker. I walked along the Via Romana, where signs explained that this was an ancient Roman road before the Camino. Waterfalls wove past a hand-laid stone walkway and 2000-year old sign posts dotted the transitions. Despite my aching knee, the cold morning was stunning.
When I rounded the corner, up through a lush field of grapevines, a highway overpass cut through the scenery a little unexpectedly. I could see a small village sitting just beyond it at the top of a hill, but it would be at least 10 minutes of walking until I reached it.
Passing under the bridge, something caught my eye off to the right–nowhere near the Camino. It was a man and his car, parked in a strange spot. He got out of his car and started walking toward me. He was maybe 40 or 45, unassuming, but still, alone. Why?
A burst of adrenaline went off behind my lungs. I had a friend once asked me where I felt danger in my body when a threatening person was nearby. For her it was her neck. For me, it’s the middle of my back.
“Hola!” he yelled. I gave a polite nod and picked up the pace, trying to make it look like I was in a hurry or deep in thought. He caught up with me and started to make small talk in Spanish. He asked where I was headed and tried to give tips about the hike that day. He said there was a big mountain coming up. He asked where I’d walked from that day, and so on and so on, question after question, and still, I walked.
The conversation was normal but the circumstances were wrong. I made it clear I didn’t want to talk to a man alone in a field of grapevines, especially when his empty car sat nearby. I looked ahead, making it obvious I had friends nearby. He wouldn’t let up and I started to feel panicked. Had all the people who had warned me been right?
At last, I rounded the corner to the road and saw two recognizable faces–a couple that I secretly called my “Canadian parents.” I had a pair on each Camino. “Hello!” I yelled. I made a big point to say goodbye to the strange man and ran to meet my friends, who could tell I was spooked. When I turned around, he was gone, quickly.
Still startled, I walked up to the town’s cafe with my Canadians and found Sophie and Julian sitting having a hearty breakfast. I told them about the encounter and went inside to comfort myself with coffee. It was one of those all-too-familiar scenarios where you don’t have proof that something was off but you know in your gut that it was.
I sat down with good friends and a cat jumped on my lap. The Camino is good at sending cats when you need them.
For the rest of the morning, I walked in the comfort of Sophie’s company and we talked about life and all the things that make it hard and beautiful. The uphill climb slowly began, but we were nowhere near the shard incline of the day.
Deep in conversation, just after I’d relaxed from the man in the field, we spotted a dog up ahead that was barking furiously. And it hit me, he wasn’t tied down. He wasn’t behind a fence. And he was pissed.
“Don’t look him in the eye,” I told Sophie. We purposely stared away and he growled, but for some reason, appeared already worn out. And then we saw why. Just over another small bridge sat a young German woman, holding her leg and smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.
“Are you okay?” I yelled. The dog–the wild dog we’d just passed–had bitten her, badly on the leg. I couldn’t believe it. How could this morning get any stranger?
I took out my first-aid kit like the good Girl Scout I am and handed her some disinfectant and bandages. We begged her to call a doctor when she got to the next town. The poor thing was understandably terrified at what had happened. We messaged our friends behind us to warn them. I knew things like this happened in the old days on the Camino, but now? I’m glad I had my whistle after all.
We helped her up and walked with the girl for a short while until she stopped at a cafe and promised us she was alright. We’d see her later that week in one piece, luckily.
The path continued and Sophie and I eventually took on different paces. I reached the foot of Labruja, a mountain I originally thought translated into “the witch” but it apparently means “laborious.” And yes, it sure was laborious.
The next hour involved finding the perfect footing and branches to pull you and your backpack up a nearly vertical incline. With all my dread the night before and the strange morning, I thought I’d be miserable. But it felt like the Camino Frances, strenuous and persistent. The mental feat of crossing a mountain is powerful, especially knowing that once you cross it, you won’t be able to look back on how far you’ve come. Crossing a mountain is crossing a threshold. The day has purpose and it breaks you open in ways easy roads can’t.
Halfway up the hill, I realized something. I was climbing out of Portugal. Tomorrow, we’d head into Spain. I stopped and looked back. Wasn’t I just in Porto, tired and terrified to leave the city? Now I’m giving first aid to a stranger on the side of the road and climbing a mountain above a Roman city.
I reached a stone cross at the peak of the mountain, the place where I originally intended to leave Michael’s music. But it wasn’t the right time. I was distracted and starving. I wasn’t ready to let go. I wanted him to see the rest of the trip.
After cresting the mountain, I found my group eating at a picnic table next to a food truck that seemed to appear out of nowhere. I had a hamburger and a beer in celebration of making it through the first half of the wild day.
We walked together as a mass of people for the last hour. I told them about Michael and about my past Caminos. Our friend Maria told us about living through the revolution in Georgia. I keep remembering her words in regards to our situation in the US. “You will wake up one day and realize the nightmare is behind you.”
Just before our albergue, we stopped in a small store to stock up on wine and snacks and headed over to check in. I watched the host give the last bed to someone in our group and I started to get worried.
“This way!” he nicely guided me. A separate room, with about six beds and every type of Frida Kahlo decor you can imagine (amazing), awaited me. “Any bed you like!”
I picked the one by the window and wondered when roommates would arrive.
We spent the rest of the night sitting at a table outside, sipping warm red wine and eating a collection of chips and crackers and sausage and cheese.
The albergue sat on the side of a road looking over a breathtaking view of endless rolling mountains. The sun began to dip into the distance and their autumn colors turned to a dark blue. As the wine poured and new bottles were opened, laughter and music grew louder, but I was tired. Happy tired, but tired.
I tiptoed back into my room in case someone else was settling in, but there was no one. It was 9pm and I had no roommates. It was a Camino miracle, I thought. Just me and Frida!
I bid goodnight to my dear ones outside and went to enjoy the rare moment of solitude in bed. But when I switched off the light, the weight of the day–and the past six days–sunk in. I felt panicked without the familiar sounds of my friends rolling on the rubber mattresses and talking in their sleep. I felt the adrenaline from the man in the field and the dog waiting in the woods.
Just as I began to reach for the light switch to turn it back on, I heard the deep belly laugh of Barbara and the gang outside. I was safe. I was surrounded by deep blue mountains and people who had become my family in less than a week.
Tomorrow, we’d say goodbye to Portugal together and start the second half of our walk through Galicia, the northwestern province of Spain that just so happens to be my favorite place in the world.
When I laid back down, a memory flashed back to me. I’m standing in a field outside an albergue in Uterga in 2009. It’s my fourth day of hiking my first Camino. I’m 22 and filled with wine looking up at an open star-filled sky. Claire and Courtney, two of my Camino family members from that trip, sit behind me at a bar table finishing a bottle and telling stories. In my drunken mind, I decide that there is a deep blue energy on the Camino–a healing energy present throughout the whole trail that I’ve never felt anywhere else. I can’t describe it, I just know it’s blue. Yes it was a loopy thought, and yes I know the wine helped me get there, but that thought has never left me. I closed my eyes and felt wonderfully small and filled with color.
I look out my window of my empty room and can see a small corner of the mountains in the distance. I’m glad I didn’t put Michael’s music down yet, it wasn’t time. Perhaps I’ll sing more now that I’ve found a rhythm. This road has cared for me for so long, even when I’m afraid. I feel overwhelming gratitude for its love and I sleep better than I have in days.