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.

My Heart is Still in Porto

Marcie–the South Carolinan sitting to my right–held my hand during the entire, hair-raising, hour-and-fifteen-minute descent into Newark airport. She saw me panicking during our last bout of turbulence that sent even the flight attendants rushing to their jump seats, and gripped my hand without even looking up from her book. As life would have it, she’d also walked a part of the Camino the year prior. A pilgrim by my side until the final moments of my trip.

Three loud and generally uncomfortable Portuguese people in the 70s in the row ahead of us spent the flight annoyed by everything and everyone. I can’t blame them; I’ve always been more of a “feet on the ground” person myself. Flying is a necessary evil of travel for me. During the descent, however, they audibly prayed to each saint, one by one. My Portuguese may have been confined to “obrigada,” “você fala ingles?” and, “Um cerveja, por favor,” but the rhythmic chanting of the litany of the saints was pretty recognizable.

“I think the rest of us are praying to St. Seagram’s,” Marcie’s husband dad-joked as the plane slanted uncomfortably for the umpteenth time.

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If “Acting is Doing” Then What is Everything Else?

Oh hey, it’s 21-year-old me, getting a B in historical dance because I never “stepped out of my comfort zone” (I’M NOT BITTER, YOU’RE BITTER.) Okay, on with the blog post.

My acting teacher in London was never a huge fan of me. Though I like to believe I’m a rather agreeable human, I consistently clash with a very specific personality. We’re like two liquids that simply cannot occupy the same space. In one of our first classes, she asked us in a raspy tone, “What IS acting?!” She then buried her head in her hands and waited for us to respond.

Oh brother, I thought.

We made our educated guesses — quite prolifically may I add — for a solid five minutes until her frustration peaked. If I’d known she just wanted us to quote Stella Adler then we could have gotten on with the class. But our school was of the “break them down until they think they’re morons so we can provide them with new confidence” mentality. Kind of like a cult.

“Acting…is DOING,” she yelled at the eight of us.

Hoo boy.

As an adult who misses acting with every fiber of her being, I have a better appreciation for diving into the different philosophies of how to build a character. At the time, however, I didn’t want to start from scratch and I didn’t want to waste our quick four months together getting barked at for not winning the “expert acting teacher” guessing game.

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The World Opens Up to You When You’re Not a Douche

Yay not being a douche!

I realize that the title of this post is a bit off-brand for me, but I couldn’t think of anything sugar-coated to really sum up my morning.

Around 11am, I headed off to my usual coffee spot to get some work done. On my walk, I greeted the guy who owns the antique store, the waiters at the local outdoor diner and the man who owns the men’s clothing store. We talked about how we both have bad knees and I asked how his is holding up with the storm coming.

When I walked into the cafe, there was one man in front of me — 30’s hipster type, not particularly off-putting or daunting, just standard Montclair Freelancer Man. And then I heard him say something odd but couldn’t make out what it was. All I knew is that it was rude — no, beyond rude, it was some sort of attack. Everyone around him stopped and stared. He puffed up his chest and locked eyes with one of my favorite baristas. She stood dumfounded at what to stay. A few moments later, he stormed out.

“Whhaaaat was that about?” I asked. She looked startled.

“He stared into my eyes for a really long time in silence and then asked why I was charging him for a refill. Then he wouldn’t stop staring. I didn’t know what to do. It freaked me out.”

The other baristas and I helped her shake off his weirdness. Meanwhile, that a-hole went on about his day.

I headed home later, the weirdness of the guy behind me and, it seemed, behind the barista as well. I crossed the street and found myself in the pathway of a woman about my age hurrying somewhere. We did that awkward which-way-are-you going dance and when I smiled and said, “Excuse me,” she rolled her eyes and made a childish huffing sound past me. Something in the air today, I thought.

On the rest of my walk, I pondered what life must be like to carry anger and fear around on the surface that way. No matter where it comes from — pride, righteousness, exhaustion — that behavior must all go back to anger and fear. And however it appears, it’s rarely about the person receiving it, if ever. Still, do these people even know how much they’re missing out on by projecting their anger everywhere?

Quick note: Please know I am talking about people who have the ability to seek help for mental health issues. I’ve struggled with problems for years — in some phases of my life, serious ones. If my anger or anxiety gets out of control, I seek help and I realize I have that I privilege to do so. It is within my power, and therefore if my responsibility, to not redirect it toward the rest of the world. In this post, I’m speaking about the regular schmo carrying their rudeness about like a badge of honor.

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Well, I Just Booked a Ticket to Portugal

Camino photo from 2017 after a stupidly hot day.

Eleven years ago, I laid on my back across a bus seat on my way into Santiago de Compostela for the first time. As many of you know, I took a course about the Camino in college and spent three weeks flitting around Spain from the comfort of a coach bus with about 15 of my classmates. I was worn out by this part of the trip — tired of bus travel and shared hotel rooms, tired of guided tours and taking notes, and simply tired of being away from the familiar. I was 21 and not a very good traveler.

Things felt different as we headed toward Santiago. I decided to give in to the trip, to stop griping about my discomfort and exhaustion. I switched on some Simon and Garfunkel and laid upside down across the seat so I could watch the clouds go by. I distinctly remember feeling an unexplainable anticipation about finally seeing the end of the pilgrimage we’d been studying for the past six months, but it wasn’t for the historical sites or even for the people arriving at the end of their journey. I’m still not sure what it was. I had this West Side Story-esque feeling in my bones that I was about to meet someone or something important.

I walked 500 miles from France to Santiago a year later without fully understanding the spell the city had placed on me. Eight years later, I did it again. I still can’t really tell you why, but I do honestly believe that the roads leading up the city have a power to them. After thousands of years and millions of travelers walking to the coast or to the city, how could it not?

I booked my flight for my third Camino today. The airline tickets set it all in stone for some reason, even though I made the real decision months ago. I’m going by myself for the first time. This trip will be both shorter — and cheaper — on purpose.

For full transparency, and for those thinking of doing the same, here’s the rundown of my upcoming Camino Portugues from Porto:

  • I’ll be gone from September 29-October 16. This include 12 walking days — many of which quite short — and several buffer days on either end. The walk can easily be done in 10.
  • Porto to Santiago on the Central Route (the route I’m choosing), is about 240 kilometers. You can start in Lisbon to do the “whole” walk, though many like me start in Porto when they need to shorten the trip.
  • The roundtrip flight to Porto cost $497. When I get to Santiago, I’ll take a (very disorienting) bus ride back down to Porto for about $50
  • I aim to stay simple and frugal on this trip, and am budgeting between 20 and 25 euros a day for food and lodging (pilgrims stay in donation-based or low-cost hostels)
  • I’ll walk anywhere between 12 and 30 kilometers a day. I’ve built in very short days when there are high elevations to climb or descend for the sake of my bad knee.
  • I’m going to take my time more than I did on the first two trips.
  • I’m going to sit too long at second-breakfast and stay out too late with a glass of port.
  • I’m going to pet all the Camino cats and moo at all the Camino cows.

And lastly, the book. I’ve been writing a book about how the Camino worked itself into my life for years now. I’ve never found a groove or a large piece of work that really sums up the experience. I have a new approach, however, one that must be written in the moments leading up the Camino and over this year’s and the one Ben and I have planned next summer. Not gonna talk about the format until I’m ready, but for once, it feels right.

When I get back, Ben and I will throw a party in our new apartment. I will make patatas bravas and paella and make you try orujo gallego. I will hobble over to you and give you a hug and make you look at my uneven sunburn from walking north for 2 weeks.

It’s been a hard week, both in the country and for me personally. The camino always brings me back. Thank you for reading and all the loving enthusiasm for this bizarre hobby of mine.

Much love. Have a great weekend, all.

 

Master of Two Worlds

Muscle memory can sneak up on you. It’s been raining off and on all morning, so I headed out to my usual coffee shop with our big umbrella, tapping it on the ground as I walked. Halfway through my trip, I caught myself hitting the umbrella on the grass beside the sidewalk instead of the concrete.

This is a Camino habit of mine. On my second trip, I walked with a wooden hiking stick that I bought in the town before crossing the Pyrenees. After several weeks of “thwack, thwack, thwack” for six hours a day, I started naturally moving the metal spike at the bottom of the pole to anything other than the hard trail. If I didn’t have that option, I lifted it off the ground behind me.

I love when these little signs of my alternate self pop up at home. I know that my personality and priorities significantly changed after both trips, but seeing these hints of my other persona are somehow just as comforting. I miss that “me.” As much as I tried to bring her back from Spain, there’s only so much you can hold onto when you return to normal life.

There is no question the Camino shaped my writing career. Even without a finished manuscript, attempting to write something developed into the full-time work I now do every day. My Camino self is kept alive through my writing, which is both a blessing and a curse.

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It’s More Fun to Believe in the Magic of Coincidence

 

I’ve decided to make peace with living in emotional technicolor. Hear me out. I know that sounds like a bad hipster band name. But I’ve had a lot of coffee, so I’m rolling with it.

Several months after my second Camino, I started having these wildly vivid dreams. The dreams themselves are pretty trippy. They usually involve me walking down a weird road and meeting Dr. Seuss-like creatures. I once called Ben on a bird that turned into a phone. In another reoccurring dream, I reach the top of a hill and sit in a circle with a group of “old friends” that ask me how I’m doing and tell me to come visit more often. All these dreams are incredibly vibrant. They’re in a color that I’ve never seen in real life. Everything kind of glows. Whenever I have them, I feel peaceful for the rest of the day.

It turns out I’m not alone in having these post-Camino dreams. Someone posted a question on my Camino Facebook forum several months ago asking if anyone else had experienced this. Is it something that comes along with extreme exercise? (I really think a psychologist needs to jump on this study.)

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A Quick Rant About Socks and Toxic Masculinity

I stopped off at a gift shop on my way home this afternoon to look at something small for Ben. We don’t really make a huge deal out of Valentine’s Day, but I thought I’d grab a card or something else silly.

There’s a company that makes these comedic socks — something Ben often wears with fancy suits. The women’s sized socks all said things like “I’m a girl, what’s your super power?” and “Busy making a F***ing Difference” (the one I wanted for Ben). Yay female empowerment and comedy! All good there.

The MEN’S sized socks, however, all said stuff like “Adult in training” and “Selective Hearing Specialist” and “Olympic Sleeper.”

I literally do not have one close male friend or family member that falls into the stereotype of “lazy man who doesn’t care about anything but cooking meat and playing video games.” Of course I know those people exist. But why again are we encouraging this? Can we add “expecting nothing but the bare minimum from the male race” to the list of toxic BS?

Yes, they’re just socks and I need to pick my battles, but hear me out.

About a year ago, Ben and I were sitting at a small local distillery when we started chatting with a very corporate-looking dude at a bachelor party. We somehow got on the topic of travel and the guy said, “I’ve always want to go there, but my wife doesn’t let me do anything.”

…..I cannot stand this mindset. Not only does it say, “I’m incapable of making an educated decision by myself because it would require effort,” but also, “I haven’t taken the time to think about why my wife might be making that request.” Most importantly, it is lazy and resentful toward your partner. Regardless of gender, no one should be light-heartedly declaring that they are overly controlled by their partner to strangers.

So much to his surprise, I took him seriously. “Why not?” I said with a worried face. “Like anything? Does she know you’re here?” He was a deer in the headlights. Conversing with his wife about the subject hadn’t crossed his mind. Complaining about his wife controlling him was all he saw as an answer.

I hear this stuff constantly and the fact that it’s everywhere, even silly socks, is lazy. Stop it.

 

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Why I Walk

Pilgrim X is a nickname Claire and I gave a muscle-bound, chain-smoking hiker that we met on our Camino in 2009. She walked quickly, rarely stopped for lunch, and trekked ahead of the group with an angry, fevered gait of someone being chased.

The last time we crossed her path, our current Camino family had gathered around an outdoor patio, walking back and forth throughout the night to the local bodega for refills on homemade wine.

Stories fueled by the beauty of the night came pouring out, the impending “gates-lock-at-10pm” hour still a few hours away. In a small town like Azofra, there isn’t much to do after 6 hours of hiking but eat, drink and exchange stories. Continue reading

My First Full Year of Freelancing

This is more of a practical post for a change. I’ve had a few people reach out to see how freelance writing was going, so I’ve written a a rundown of my experience in the first full year.

Also, if you’re one of the many people who found this blog over the holiday season by Googling “Barbie Dream House” because of my old post from 2017, welcome! I hope you found the gift you were looking for.

Whenever I head into the holiday party season, I try to think of a succinct way to sum up the past 12 months of my life. This way, I can quickly answer the “so, how you’ve been?” small-talk question that often makes me freeze up, forget my name, and make the other person wonder what they possibly said to deserve the look I’m giving them. I had a particularly hard time figuring out what to say this year. The past 12 months have been a strange blur. We moved apartments, we saved our sick cat, I broke my toe. I dealt with one of my longest and darkest dips of depression I’ve dealt with in a while–hence the lack of blog posts. Honestly, it was a really weird, hard year, and I’m incredibly relieved to head into a new calendar with new exciting projects ahead.

Despite all the garbage, one reason the year was such a hot mess is that I was finding my footing in a freelancing life. And you know? I think I may have temporarily found it. I’ve had a few people contact me about how to become a freelance writer, and up until now, I’ve really just wanted to yell, “RUN! DON’T DO IT! IT’S NOT WHAT YOU THINK!” But I can chat with a clear head now. So I’ve been meaning to put everything I’ve learned in a post, just in case it helps anyone move in the same direction.

Here are the common questions I get about being a freelance writer:

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