We packed up before sunrise. It was my 90th day walking the Camino.
The tiled hallway reverberated every swish of our backpack straps and squeak of our hiking boots, so we moved slowly. The last thing I wanted to do was wake anyone up after making the wrong impression the day before.
Without the sun, it was nearly pitch black in the hallway. “I’ll find the switch,” Ben whispered, “There’s gotta be one here somewhere.” He snuck his hand along the wall of the stairway, found the switch, and then, DING-DONG.
It was not a light switch. It was the loudest indoor doorbell I have ever encountered. It was the only indoor doorbell I’ve ever encountered.
The same thought went through our minds at the same time: that someone was going to come and answer that bell, and that they were gonna be pissed that it was 6am.
“Run!” I yelled. We speed-hobbled down the steps, our packs knocking us back and forth like a couple of bowling pins. By the bottom of the third floor, we were quietly cackling, making our escape moments after I heard a door click open upstairs.
“What the hell?” Ben said to be out of breath outside. “Why?! Who puts a doorbell at the top of a staircase?”
“I think they’re messing with us on purpose now,” I responded. “Let’s get out of here.” There’s nothing like a few moments—or at this point, a few weeks—of shared absurdity to make you feel like you’re on the same adventure.
The morning path took us back into the woods and an already-strong sun sent colors filtering through the trees. It was the penultimate day, which I’ve always found to be more emotional than the last one. It’s the last albergue, the last day you’ll start and end as an official pilgrim, the last day you won’t be arriving in Santiago.
We saw some familiar faces on our walk that morning, including a sprightly and kind father-daughter pair from Denmark. I’ll call them John and Cindy. It turns out we were stopping in the same small town that night and made plans to meet up for dinner. On my last night in 2017, I somehow ended up eating alone and quite upset, so I was excited that we already had a sendoff meal on the books for the final dinner of the road.
We spent the morning feeling a bit lighter emotionally and physically, and took in the final hours of what seemed like it would finally be a complete and uninterrupted journey.
At one point, two men walked ahead of us, moving slowly. The older man had his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. When we passed, the younger one had an oxygen tube in his nose that attached to his backpack. They both smiled and said, “Buen Camino!” I yelled it back with a big smile and carried on. I’d heard several stories of people walking the Camino after barely surviving Covid and I wondered if this man was one of them. A far-too-powerful wave of tears gathered behind my eyes, but I gulped them down in fear I wouldn’t be able to stop.
A small wooden fruit stand sat around the corner to welcome pilgrims. I bought a small vial of bright pink raspberry liqueur to celebrate the special milestone later in the day.
You could have convinced me it was the middle of July with that heat. A blanket of thick sun, dense humidity, and a cool breeze that made you want to lay down in a field and cancel your last 20 kilometers of walking.
Our hunger grew as the hot hours carried on and as much as I wanted to keep my spirits up, my blood sugar was dropping. I wasn’t going to miss the constant hunt for food and water once we were back home, especially with the unpredictable schedules of the pandemic.
And yet at the same time, I started to wonder how was I going to go back to the intensity of NYC life. Despite the unseasonably warm weather, another Covid winter was around the corner.
The winter the year before was full of so much pain and solitude. I once left the house for the first time in three days to buy myself a hot chocolate to celebrate a meeting about the Pfizer vaccine. That was the thrill of my week. They weren’t happy times for anyone. How do you choose to go back to that? Where else can you go?
I redirected my brain and focused on finding lunch. I have a theory that on each Camino, an imaginary café or restaurant appears when you need it most, and the moment you walk away, poof! It was never there. Rounding the bend into a stretch of what looked like an empty cornfield, Ben and I saw a restaurant on the horizon that didn’t show up on my app. Its stone-stacked walls and exposed wooden beams blended it right into the edge of the farm, and yet it looked so artistically carved and constructed that it was clearly the prized creation of a caring owner.
We ducked inside to find a bar that looked right out of small-town Vermont or New Hampshire. Locally handmade crafts, a case of fresh baked goods, and a chalkboard with the day’s specials of local meats and cheeses. We told the man behind the bar in so many Spanish and English sentences that we felt like we’d stumbled upon an oasis.
We landed on cups of Caldo Gallego—the Galician soup I love—and mini chorizo sausages stuffed with cheese and olives and sitting in a light tomato sauce. It was as incredible as it sounds. If we didn’t have 10k to go, it would have balanced perfectly with a tall yellow beer and a snooze on the nearby hammock tucked in the back of the patio where we ate.
When we graciously finished this life-altering meal, John and Cindy caught up and we announced wholeheartedly that they were required to stop and eat.
The final three hours moved steadily. It was that part of the trek when I truly hit my stride—my sacred pace, as they call it. When you can take one step and then another and another and you’re no longer counting the steps like you were in the beginning. You’re just moving.
I saw a pilgrim stopped up ahead, directing all his attention to something on the stone wall that ran beside a garden. As we got closer, a furry ball of orange fur slipped and flopped on the stones, reveling in his brilliance to get free pets from every passing hiker. The pilgrim moved on and the kitty latched onto us. What a life. Day after day of snuggles from passing pilgrims. We sat with the buddy for 10 minutes before we spotted someone else on the horizon to pass him off to.
With the final 100k being as packed with people as they often are, we had a bit of trouble finding a bed for the final night.
What we did find was nothing short of superfluous luxury. Now, I’ve spent nights on the Camino in an ancient cathedral surrounded by 400 metal bunk beds. I’ve dodged bird-sized mosquitoes hiding behind shower heads. I’ve lied awake wondering if that sleeping spider in the center of the bed frame was going to decide to snuggle up next to me.
So, I made peace with the fact that this was one of the most beautiful homes and bedrooms I’ve ever stayed in, and that it was very far from what’s necessary on the Camino. It was someone’s summer home that they opened up to pilgrims when they weren’t there. There was a pool in the back and we were welcome to help ourselves to anything in the fridge as long as we paid for it. The woman who welcomed us said someone would be back in the morning to set up breakfast and collect any money.
I posted a picture of the bedroom and received an influx of “Looks really difficult today, huh?” messages from family and friends. I debated sending them a picture of the rash on my neck or the cement-like callous on my foot to see if I lived up to their adventure standards.
We spent the afternoon decompressing by the pool and chatting with an older couple from Mexico that was staying there for the night as well. When the sun started to settle, we walked down the road to the one other restaurant in town to meet John and Cindy.
It was a perfect last dinner. They’d walked all the way from St. Jean and had incredible stories to share from everything they’d seen. We shared what it was like to live in NYC during Covid and heard their versions of the all-too-familiar tale of lockdowns and waves and vaccines from across the world.
We bid them goodnight and decided to meet up in the morning for breakfast at the same café. “They open at 7,” Cindy told us.
With the sun fully set, Ben and I nervously crossed the street and back into the rather forested path that led to our house. But halfway up the road, we saw two small shadows. And then heard furious barking. “Shit,” Ben and I both said.
Two angry dogs—previously locked behind a fence–were now in the middle of the road, blocking our way. Back home, Ben and I love dogs. We sit outside of dog parks and watch other people’s dogs. But there was nothing happy about these creatures. They were in fight mode and we were passing their property. It was also too dark to tell if they were still chained up. And much to our confusion, there wasn’t a single light or sound coming from any of the surrounding homes. Where was everyone?
Just as I started to get genuinely scared that there was no safe way out of this situation, I remembered a weird path we’d taken earlier that day. In the final moment of our hike, we’d taken a shortcut around a garden and directly into the driveway of our house.
“We just have to quietly backtrack and sneak through the garden again,” I whispered to Ben. We moved slowly, not looking the dogs in the eye but also making it very clear we were not turning our backs on them. The path took us around the other side of the dogs’ territory, and we heard them bolt through the bushes toward the sound of our steps. Luckily, that side had a fence. But at this point, we booked it. BOOKED. IT.
We scooted past the gate of the driveway and into the house. Ben and I didn’t even have words. Then we heard the dogs again—howling and shouting. We realized that the sweet Mexican couple was coming up the road as well. “Do we go save them?” I asked, not kidding.
Minutes later, they also bolted into the door half-laughing, half-panting. We decided to lock all the doors and head to bed with a plan to go the secret route in the morning.
It’s always hard to sleep the night before you walk into Santiago, and this time was no different. I lied awake confused about the past nine days of bizarre struggles that I’d never encountered here before. Canceled flights, a desperate search for beds, deserted villages and restaurants, angry dogs, and that still-lingering feeling that we were in the way.
And while I knew that all these things balanced out with all the kindnesses and beauty we’d seen every day, I wasn’t ready to make peace with the rest of it. That was for later. It’s easy to package up the trip into nice, simple memories from the comfort of your couch.
I often think of the quote, “The only Zen you find at the top of mountains is the Zen you bring there.” And what Zen could we have possibly brought with us? To put it bluntly, Ben and I had spent nearly two years terrified of this virus, of seeing family, of accidentally killing one our closest loved ones. And so did nearly everyone else around us, especially in Spain.
But here we were, so far from 80th street, so far from our little one-bedroom, virus-free hideaway, the place we knew we were safe. We were doing an incredibly difficult thing—perhaps much more difficult than any of my Caminos before this. The very thing that makes the Camino so wonderful was its biggest threat. We didn’t bring Zen to the mountains, we brought fear. And our fear was totally justified.
So I decided to embrace my frustration. Not just with the misunderstandings we had with people here, but also with the pushback I got from home for not constantly having a lighthearted and magical time. Ben and I were the ones here doing this, no one else.
It’s easy to vicariously live through other people’s travel and risk-taking when we stay at home, but it doesn’t mean that anyone owes us a perfect story. And I sure as heck didn’t owe anyone proof that I rose above my fear every moment of the trek. This was hard. And in less than 24 hours, we were going to be able to say that we survived it.