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.

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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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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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

A Note on Belonging

I had a pretty difficult time returning from both of my Caminos. The noise of American televisions, the lack of connection with people in your neighborhood as you walk down the street, the speed of everyday life. The biggest shock driving home from the airport was the rigid geometry of the streets in our suburban town. Everything was a square: the yards, the houses, the intersections.

My left brain, which found some sweet rest while hiking across Spain, grumbled out of hibernation as I tried to adapt back to a regular, monotonous town and schedule. The sound of English was jarring–I missed being forced to find the overlaps in our shared languages to interact.

On the other hand, the Camino opened a social doorway for me. On at least five or six occasions, I’ve had the chance to sit down with other Camino pilgrims and long-distance hikers right after they’ve returned from their own trips. No matter what we talk about, I always ask them the same question: how have you been adjusting to coming home?

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Viana to Burgos: 6 days of hiking and a glimpse into my journal

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Been a bit of a crazy week over here, and unfortunately, that means my Camino writing has been swept aside in the busyness of it all. But it’s still on my mind, and I still want to share. The details may just have to wait until I really get things sorted out with what this Camino’s story really is–if it has one. Until then, on we go.

As much as I’d hate to jump over some beautiful stories, I can’t dive too deeply into six days of hiking without writing for the next three hours. So instead, I will give you a glimpse into a portion of my journal where I wrote single words or phrases about each day so I’d remember the gist of what went down for later writing. I’ll explain some things and leave room for your imagination to do the rest…

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Villatuerta to Los Arcos y Los Arcos to Viana

Sunset over Viana, 2009

I’m off on a trip for the weekend, so I’m gonna keep this short and leave it at a little Camino hindsight.

Many people have asked me why I feel the need to return–and keep returning–to the same trail. With some so many other places, other trails even, to explore all over the world–why this one? Doesn’t it get old? Aren’t I wasting my time? I’ve learned to stop incessantly questioning myself about this. Walking the Camino is like visiting thirty countries at once where everyone from each place actually has the time to talk to you. It’s as if this massive group of humans collectively hit the pause button on their lives so they could finally see and truly hear one another.

On the two days that followed my sleepless night in Villatuerta, we crossed a shadeless 12 kilometers of desert-like scrubland, sat in a plaza for an inspiring dinner packed with beautiful stories, and ended our two days 50k further, right on the edge of La Rioja, the land of the wine. I drank wine from a wine fountain on the side of a wall, bought a hand-carved pilgrims cross from a woodworker in the middle of the forest, and learned what it was like to feel like you’re sweating ice water.

The “girls in the hats” at the wine fountain

I continuously lost faith that our day would ever end the moment our village’s steeple appeared on the horizon. I sewed more blisters, sent more sunburned selfies to Ben and fortified myself with even more popsicles, cafe con leches, and lemon Kas mixed with beer–the Spanish shandy.

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Uterga to Villatuerta

I am still one day behind after splitting up the Pyrenees day, but I will find a chance to catch up soon.

We left Uterga before the sun came up, buying a few snacks and a small cup of surprisingly acceptable coffee from a machine outside the albergue. I nostalgically nodded goodbye to the memory-packed hostel, somehow feeling like it wouldn’t be the last time I’d sit at those beloved patio tables.

There’s something sacred about hitting a stride after such a challenging beginning. The body and the brain adjust to a shift in living; little changes eventually build up to an unspoken system. We wake up to the sound of a low-toned cell phone alarm, slowly remember where we are, and wiggle and stretch the all necessary muscles to see how things held up from the day before. The first steps onto the albergue floor are the hardest, pins and needles shooting through to your ankles, sensitive from weeks without rest.

After switching from my pajama pants to my hiking pants (I often switched my shirts at the end of every hike), and slipping on my socks, I shuffle to the bathroom, pop in my contact lenses and brush my teeth. Silently, I gather my things, delicately fold my sleeping back into my arms and take it all into the hallway as to not to wake anyone still in bed.

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