45 Days

It’s been a real minute since I last posted. So, hello.

The only writing I’ve been doing since the start of the summer is the kind I get paid to do, which mostly involves explaining how to hire a moving truck (ironically, as you will soon read) and how much it costs to renovate your house (also ironically since I do not, and probably never will, own a home).

As for my own writing–the one driven by the hectic voice that comments on everything as the world goes by–has been painfully and suspiciously tight-lipped. The issue goes back to the spring. I started writing a book proposal and made it much further than I ever have. Chapter outline, chapter samples, the whole shebang. But the tricky thing is that my book is about some real dark-and-stormy stuff and when real life got extra dark-and-stormy, I couldn’t look at my proposal anymore.

In reality, I couldn’t attempt any writing that hinted at expressing emotion, and honestly, I’m still tipping my toe in the water, so bear with me if this post is a bit clunkier than usual.

But here I am after five months without a peep. So why the big return? What freed my poor little panicked writing voice hiding out in my amygdala? A failed NYC apartment hunt! Ben and I were supposed to move apartments in three weeks and after encountering the absurdity of the current NYC real estate market, we have thrown in the towel.

With the help of a miraculous clerical error (our landlord’s office never confirmed our move), we’re allowed to stay–knock on wood. Our signature is not currently on the lease so I will continuously knock on wood for the rest of this post.

Anyway, how did this happen. After six dark months of scouting apartments “available immediately” on Streeteasy, the big day finally came when September 1 apartments made it on the docket. Lo and behold, prices had gone through the roof. They may have been dirt cheap last winter, but decided to somehow swing for the rafters the moment the city needed to actually move.

I held out hope, I really did. Even after the mysteriously priced three-bedroom that looked like something out of a documentary about “what NYC was like in the 70s.” Even after the 300 or 400 square-foot two-bedroom (how?! great question) where the current tenants were drying their dishes next to the TV went for $500 a month above asking. And even after the one-bedroom that we NEARLY signed on woke me up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because I couldn’t stop thinking about the gray water stain seeping down the side bedroom of the wall.

As of yesterday afternoon, we’ve decided to stay in our little treehouse on 80th street and something deep in my soul took a long deep breath. After 17 months of soul-crumbling instability, I caught an unexpeted break and found some solid ground.

Suddenly a few thousands bucks, a whole bunch of time, and a warehouse of mental energy is back. You see, the original (cockamamie) plan was this. We would sign on a place for 9/1, move around 9/10, our lease was up here on 9/14 and then a cool two and half weeks later, LEAVE FOR SPAIN FOR TWO WEEKS TO HIKE A 170-MILE PILGRIMAGE.

So now, instead of packing up all our belongings, exchanging my first-born for the cost of the moving truck, and then unpacking enough for whoever is watching the cats for those weeks, I get to do what I like best: think–and write–about the Camino de Santiago.

We leave–in theory (still knocking)–in 45 days. I will believe that this Camino is happening when we get past customs in Spain. Not even when the plane takes off. Not even when it lands. With the Covid-restrictions and numbers changing every time the wind blows, I will believe the darn thing is happening when we have been officially admitted to the country and told we can go on our merry way.

Writing about the prep and emotional aftermath of my three Caminos is now the vast majority of this blog. That consistency is, unsurprisingly, what finally brought me back to put some words on a page. And as always, I’m grateful for its power to do so. If you feel creatively shut down, do I have a long walk for you.

I broke into tears of relief for the first time in months last night when looking up Camino stuff. Most of my research has been waking up to read El Pais in English–a translated site of one of the major Spain news outlets–for any signs of new changes in the state of restrictions. I follow online forums about the rush to find last-minute covid tests after finishing the hike to get back on a plane to the US. I’ve stalked the booking websites for the camino hostels to see which ones have reopened–and which ones tragically had to close their doors for good.

But last night was different. Without the piles and piles of moving logistic madness blocking the door to October, I could actually picture Ben and I in Spain–together for the first time. We were sitting on the edge of a stream with blistered feet in the water, a glass of cold Estrella in one hand, and a friendly local sheep looking for scratches from the other.

I have no idea what this Camino will look like. I’ve walked an accumulative 81 days on the camino and over 1,200 miles on three different walks. In 2009, my friend and I barely planned a thing. We walked, we lined up outside a public hostel or church, we slept and ate, and we walked again. In 2017 and 2019, I booked hostels the day before if I felt like it–usually to nab a spot in a unique family-run place with only a few beds.

But this time? I have no idea what we’re getting into. Like NYC, Spain has seen a horrific year-and-a-half. We want to research as much as possible to both respect local Covid laws and return with enough cash to support the hostels, restaurants, and shops that somehow survived without the flow of pilgrims for so long.

There are some bars along the Camino that I have been to more than spots a block from me in Manhattan. I want to return to the hotel where I stayed in Santiago in 2019, right before it all went wrong, and check in on the kind woman running the place by herself. I wanted to get my traditional celebratory popsicle from the bar in Monte de Gozo, the town right before the end. I want to sit on the wall of O Cebreiro and see that it’s all still there.

I’m not sure how long my writing voice will stick around for this visit, hopefully longer this time. And if it does, I hope to keep you posted about how one plans a pilgrimage during a pandemic in their right minds. Maybe this time it will all be too much to write about, but I sure hope not.

No matter what happens, I can’t stop thinking that we are some lucky people to still be here. I’ve had many sleepless, frustrated nights on the Camino–snoring, sore knees, good old fashioned insomnia. The thing that always does the trick in getting me to sleep is realizing how much of a rare adventure it all is. I may be awake at 2am. But I’m awake at 2am in on an ancient pilgrimage across the world.

That’s helped me a lot recently. The failed apartment hunt, the changing travel restrictions, the relentless waves of anger at the past 15 months that keep me up at night. There will be no great internal search about what this Camino is all about because this time, it’s too obvious. We are really lucky people to still be here.

The Journey Back

I’ve written a lot about coming home from the Camino and how the process can be harder than the walk itself. After three of these crazy journeys, I’ve found that it takes almost exactly a year for me to suddenly realize how I’ve changed. The year leading up to it is wildly confusing, especially the first few months at home. I often feel like someone playing the role of a regular human while my heart is still out in the middle of the woods somewhere.

Of course, I had no idea I was flying home to a pre-pandemic world or that I would not actually return in 2020 as planned. For that reason, I am so grateful I went when I did. It would have been easy to find an excuse not to go, and I was very lucky that I was in position to make that choice. I fully realize this is not common.

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Rewinding 12 Days of Hiking in 3 Hours

I ripped off the bandaid rather early on my last morning in Santiago. I shoved all my things into my backpack one more time and said goodbye to my comfortable hotel haven, to the cathedral, and to the people at Pilgrim House. I exited the city the way I came in, past the restaurant where I’d seen the pilgrims sitting when I was so lost.

My adventure was coming to a close, and now it was time to get myself home. After my first Camino in 2009, my hiking partner Claire and I went to stay with some friends studying abroad in London. Sparing you the details, I was an emotional wreck when I left a few days later for Heathrow airport.

Everything built up from my 35 days of hiking came crashing down on me the moment I realized I needed to get myself back to reality. No one understood what we’d just gone through. The rest of the world seemed so gray, so angry, so flippant. I still woke up at 6am with a burst of energy but people around me seemed put out by the morning hours.

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One Day Without Motion

Waking up in Santiago feels pretty darn good. It takes a moment to realize, however, that you’re in a room by yourself and you have nowhere to walk.

My body shifts into healing mode the moment I arrive. I typically feel sorer on the first day in Santiago than I do the whole trip.

I set my alarm for 7am, not because I had to walk any further, but because it was time to get my Compostela. This is the ancient document that proves you completed the pilgrimage. The stamps you collected along the way act as proof that you didn’t skip 100 miles by bus.

In the old days, Catholics believed that walking the Camino cut your time in purgatory by half. It even used to take the place of prison time in some circumstances. In those days, you’d receive a scallop shell to prove you walked the Camino, and then, you’d walk home. Because how else would you get there?

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How to Walk 15 Miles When You Feel Like Hell

It’s raining and chilly in NYC today. This morning, I went on a walk to honor the end of my Camino in my hiking boots, raincoat, and hiking pants. I came back to a warm apartment with a fridge full of food and a cozy cup of coffee topped off with nutmeg. Life back home is far easier than on the Camino. But that’s not why you go on a pilgrimage.

I’ll never know how I got through that last day of hiking the Camino Portuguese, especially when I’m still chilled from my brief walk outside for 20 minutes. While I’d like to tell you I arrived in Santiago with my head held high, in reality I nearly crawled, and it’s a shock I made it at all.

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“But I Did it My Way”

I woke up to a rainy morning in Briallos and was ready to hit the road with a renewed sense of energy despite my aching knee. A sense of great accomplishment after the 28k day and the nearing finish line provided a decent amount of adrenaline for the penultimate day of hiking.

And anyway, the world now looked and felt like my old memories of the Camino. We were finally back in peak Galician nature. Deep, glowing greens, gnarled trees, and fuzzy chestnuts. I looked forward to another long day in these colors, despite the pain.

Neha and I walked at our own pace once again, though crossed paths throughout the morning several times. It was clear that 28k days were beyond what my body could handle. I could do it, but I ran the risk of hurting myself. Everything ached and threatened to turn into an injury if I didn’t take frequent rests. It also completely explains why I suffered so many injuries and blisters in 2009 and 2017.

Caldas de Reis was the first city of the day. Meandering through the foggy mist of the city reminded me I was by the coast. Lush palm trees poked up between crumbling stone cathedrals and an endless criss-cross of bridges led us through the town busy with their mid-morning routine.

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Santiago Sneaks Up on You

The funny thing about a trip of this length is that the end feels impossibly far away until suddenly, it isn’t. I woke up on the 9th day of walking with the realization that I only had three more days to be a pilgrim. I love this identity. I may not be religious, but the identity of pilgrim–someone constantly seeking something–has always aligned with who I am.

The New York Times has a long list honoring those who have passed away from COVID. Each person in the digital list has a photo, an obituary, and a small subtitle about who they were. I came across one woman in her 90s who was simply listed as “Adventurer and Writer.” I haven’t stopped thinking about her since. I didn’t realize one could still be an adventurer. I hope somewhere she knows that she inspired me to try.

Though I didn’t sleep well in the hostel that night, the sun coming through the curtains was a great reminder that time does pass. I was ready to get moving. Neha and I headed up the first steep hill together but decided to walk at our own paces and meet up when we naturally crossed paths. Continue reading

When the Modern Road Returns

A terrifying carousel in O Porrino. I occasionally send this to Neha for a good scare. Sorry, girl.

It’s easy to look back on a life-altering trip and color the whole experience with a rosy lens. Wrapped up neatly, I was quite content most of the trip, much more so than I managed to be in 2009 or 2017. Then again, staying upbeat for 12 days is different than staying upbeat for 35.

Also, I was far more financially and psychologically stable on this trip. I knew why I was there and I made choices that were mine every step of the way. At one point, I ran into my Canadian parents who told me that I always looked like I was in my groove. They could not have given me a nicer compliment.

However, not every day was romantic and packed with great revelations. Much like life back home, there are some days you’re just happy to reach the end of.

Gratefully, I woke up in Tui feeling healthier than when I’d gone to bed–which pointed to an obvious issue that I had far too much experience with.

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The Third Time I Walked Into Spain

When I woke up in Portugal for the last time as a hiker, the aroma of brewing coffee wafted in from the common room. Someone out there is my true hero, I thought. The rest of the albergue was starting to roll out of bed and the familiar sound of backpacks being packed and teeth being brushed commenced.

My body hurt. I may have slept better, but things were really starting to ache. Your body waits for a weekend on the Camino, but it doesn’t come. My old ailments–a sore ankle, plantar fasciitis, a funky swollen knee, and hip that doesn’t feel screwed on the right way–began to complain.

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