The Fourth Camino: Part One

I ironed a hole in my hiking pants three days before we left for Spain. We’d canceled and rescheduled this trip so many times. And now that it was so painfully close, I obsessed over every detail—down to ironing pants I’d spend the next three weeks washing in a bucket. As you’d suspect, my polyester zip-off hiking pants weren’t made for ironing, something I would have realized if I’d taken even 30 seconds to think about what I was doing.

The hot metal merely kissed the thin fabric before the knee of my $80 pants shriveled up and melted before my eyes. I froze, and looked up at Ben, who was typing at his Covid-work-from-home spot on the bedroom dresser.

We both froze in disbelief. He blurted out “We can buy you new ones online right now!”

Ben had been watching me slowly crumble from anxiety for months now, and I cannot stress enough what an incredible Camino partner, pandemic partner, and life partner this man is. “No,” I said, trying not to cry and laugh simultaneously at my own absurdity. “I’m going to sew it and it’s going to be fine.”

The ironing incident was, almost comically, a signal to calm the hell down. There was too much pressure on this trip. It was my fourth Camino, my final one for all I knew. Walking with Ben after all these years felt like finally closing a door on something that had such a hand in shaping who I am today. We needed to share this language. Telling stories wasn’t enough anymore. We both knew that.

The idea of walking together seems inexplicable when it first came up casually back in 2017. Not only was he not religious (though nor am I, technically), but the idea of even participating in a Catholic pilgrimage inspired a “hard pass” from him for most of our relationship. And I respected that.

But a one-off comment of “Sure, I could walk from Leon someday,” turned into late-night conversations about if this was for him, why, and if I was somehow accidentally forcing him to go. In the end, I will never know exactly why Ben decided he suddenly wanted to walk it, or whether he even knows. That’s for him to say, or not say.

We spent months discussing the Camino’s Celtic past, how there are theories around it being a Roman pilgrimage for the god Janus, and how so many people walk it today without any “spiritual” goals. Most importantly, I told him that most people aren’t quite sure why they need to go. You just know you’re going to, and that’s that.

We developed the first iteration of the trip back in 2018. But then we moved to a new apartment, so we bumped it to 2019. Then, Ben changed jobs and we moved back to NYC, so we bumped it to May 2020. I even walked a Camino myself in the time it took to plan this Camino. But then—well, 2020 arrived.

Covid-speaking, this was our third attempt, and I’d spent that past six months waiting for the final shoe to drop—down to a hole in my hiking pants—that would get in the way of this trip happening. Would it be the sudden leaks in our apartment from the summer hurricanes? I couldn’t imagine leaving our cat-sitting friend to deal with water pouring in through the living room ceiling. Would one of us get Covid? Would the EU shut its borders last minute? I joked that I wouldn’t believe we were actually going until the airplane tires touched down in Madrid.

The shoe, somehow, never quite dropped. Not in the way we thought it would at least.

In the late afternoon on Friday, October 1, the rest of the neighborhood packed up their laptops and headed out for a beer like it was a normal day. It was warm, but you could feel that NYC was just about to slip into its most stunning autumn state. We hugged our cats goodbye, and walked out the door with our lives strapped to our backs. We’d spent months training, walking up and down the west side of Manhattan together getting ice cream, beer, and brunch. We’d gotten blisters, sunburn, and sore knees. We were ready.

As we walked across 80th, Ben looked genuinely terrified for the first time, but my mood soared. I knew how to do this part and it was my time to show him it would all be okay. We saw a friend bartending in the nearby beer bar and he gave us a hug goodbye to mark the start of the journey.

At each stage of our trip to JFK—the C train to the A train to the airport shuttle to the airport—I documented our trip in an Instagram story. Celebratory messages flooded in about a trip we’d talked about for years—for Ben finally making this leap.

And then we reached the Iberia check-in counter. “There’s a change in your reservation,” the uniformed woman said with dread. My stomach cramped. “They chose a different plane so there are no upgraded seats.” Ben and I had spent an extra $100 a head for some silly upgrade so we could sleep better on the way there. “That’s totally fine!” I blurted out, assuming she was going to tell us we didn’t have a seat at all.

Turns out, she was so shocked by our happy response, that she gave us a pass to the United lounge to sip champagne and have free dinner before our flight.

Things were looking up for ol’ Ben and Ginny as we finally boarded the plane with a slight champagne buzz around 9:30 pm. The intricately scheduled chain of events was meant to go like this: The flight would land a little after 10 am in Madrid. We’d have four whole hours to get through customs, take a direct subway to our train station, and then make a commuter rail train to Astorga, the starting point of our 150-ish-mile hike west.

With our backpacks snuggly shoved into the overhead compartment and our hands gripped together in disbelief, the plane backed away from the gate.

And then, we heard the pilot. “Ladies and gentlemen, we need to return to the gate for mechanical problems, we will update you shortly.” No. Please no.

An hour passed. I thought, three hours between landing and getting to the train. A group of technicians pulled up next to the engine. I had a window seat and a full view of their arrival. One man climbed into the engine to take a look. I got Ben’s attention and we watched. A debate ensued. Flailing arms. Yelling. Clearly a disagreement about what the technician saw in the engine. Did I even want this plane to take off?

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are waiting for more information, we will be at least one more hour.” Two hours between landing and the train. The passengers groaned. My heart sank. I texted my friends who were still awake following my drama. Christina—who walked the Camino with me in 2017—pulled up our rights as passengers if we hit three hours on the tarmac.

At the three-hour mark, now past midnight, I gave up on us making the train to Astorga. Tears that I’d been holding back for months poured down my face. The technicians outside still yelled and looked hopeless about fixing the issue.

You see, this Camino was different for many reasons. In a normal year, you’d go with the flow. You can book hostels ahead if you like, but in most cases, it’s not necessary. There are often enough beds to go around.

But this year was anything but normal. Hostels were restricted to 30% capacity for Covid. I recognize that we were lucky (and a little insane) to be going at all. Booking a bed ahead of time—in some cases weeks ahead of time—was the only way to ensure you’d sleep anywhere near the trail each night. We booked the first five nights of our 11-night walk. Losing a day was not an option. One of my favorite Camino bloggers described it as “the Hunger Games of finding a bed.”

And then, the final announcement, “We do not know if we are taking off, but we will be at least one more hour.” Yells broke out across the plane. Cursing, some people stood up. Ben and I, discussing the best course of action, decided it was far better to get out of the hands of Iberia airlines, even if it cost us more money. This trip was going to happen, and not with them.

We went against every accommodating bone in our body and calmly approached a flight attendant. I said, in the most level-headed tone I could muster, “We would like to get off the plane, is that possible?” Through her exhaustion, she barked back, “If you leave, you’re not coming back.”

I tried not to sound sarcastic in the growing tension of the plane, “Oh no, we don’t ever want to come back.” Two people behind us, one in tears, joined our convoy. The attendant called the pilot and requested the doors be opened. I nearly collapsed in relief when we stepped back into the terminal. Now there was hope to save the situation.

I remember thinking “I should take a photo of this terrible moment.”

The JFK terminal was fully deserted at 1 am as the bleary-eyed attendants checked us—and the 50-some people behind us—off the plane. I sat down in one of the waiting-area chairs and told Ben, “Give me 10 minutes, I’m gonna fix this.”

I looked at his weary face and how his shoulders slumped in exhaustion. It had been a year of non-stop “no,” “not now,” “be patient,” “stop hoping.” We learned to stop believing that good things could happen, that looking forward to anything was dangerous.

And I’d spent so much time focusing on what walking this Camino meant to me that I didn’t take even a moment to think what he was losing. After the year he had, we were going to get on a flight to the Iberian mother-effing peninsula in the next 24 hours no matter what we had to do.

I didn’t trust Iberia to actually cancel the flight, or if they did, to properly rebook us. So I pulled up Kayak, found two tickets the next day to Madrid on an American Airlines flight and purchased them on the spot. My credit card shuddered in fear.

Now, the train. Through a miracle sent by various Roman, Celtic, and Christian Camino gods, there were two tickets available the next day, eight hours after we landed. Okay. What would we do for eight hours in Madrid with no sleep? I’d already researched an app that let you book a hotel by the hour for a different iteration of the trip, so I pulled it up and booked a spot to nap between the flight and the train. Then I emailed our hotel in Astorga to tell them we wouldn’t be arriving that first night as planned but we didn’t expect a refund at this point.

“Done!” I announced to Ben. It was time to get home, somehow. Leaving JFK airport in the middle of the night from the departures terminal is a trippy adventure, my friend. We swung open door after door with no one to direct us on how to get out. It was like being lost in the depths of a closed Ikea. Janitors stared at us in confusion as we skirted past the closed-up security machines. At last, we found the air train platform. We moved backward, piece by piece, through the trip I’d instagrammed nearly nine hours before.

The A train came in 20 minutes and we lined up with a few other lost passengers from the infamous Iberia flight. If you’ve never been on the A train in the depths of Brooklyn and Queens at 3 am on a Friday during a pandemic, I do not recommend it. Why didn’t we take a cab home? Because it was $90 and I’d just dropped $450 on new flights to Spain.

The A runs local at that hour. We skulked through Brooklyn, half-mile by half-mile, each time picked up a not-so-sober or not-so-mentally-stable passenger. One man—who was in some special state—sat across from Ben and I and yelled, “What’s this game? I want to play what you’re playing!” and began to imitate our sad faces. We changed cars and kept our heads down through the 30-some stops all the way back home. I tried not to cry or fall asleep. Neither was a good idea at this point.

We reached 81st street at 3:30 am and retraced our steps to the apartment. The cats welcomed us as if nothing had happened and we collapsed into bed. We were due back to JFK in 10 hours.

15 responses to “The Fourth Camino: Part One”

  1. I had to look up what a camino was, but i want to do one now. The way you write and your story telling is amazing, i was stressed for you, to the point of getting up and leaving my lap for a minute to calm. I need more of this

    Liked by 1 person

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