St. Jean to Roncesvalles: Part 1

This post would be over 3,000 words if I wrote out the whole day, and that still only dips into my “book” version of this telling currently in progress. So I will make it halfway.

(Also, I do not currently have time to proof it, so–sorry for the mess!)

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07/07/17

I experienced all five stages of grief while crossing the Pyrenees. Denial, anger, bargaining, and for a fleeting moment, acceptance. I then looped back around to a few just for good measure. I suppose I was mourning the passing of my normal life for the next five weeks or even the life before and after this particular Camino.

Even though this was my second hike from France to Santiago de Compostela–799 kilometers west of where I stood–this one, as they all are and will be–was different. I entered the first Camino with the weight of unexplained sadness. The five weeks opened my eyes a story I’d been suppressing since I was a little kid (more on that later), but I did go into it with something precious–enthusiasm.

Somewhere between 2009 and 2017, I’d lost enthusiasm for things. I hadn’t lost love, curiosity, or even gratitude. But that extra energy required to feel enthusiastic about something? Well I’d grown too angry, tired and practical to remember what that felt like. And so I knew I carried a different weight heading into this trip, and the Pyrenees is damn crazy way to kick things off.

Denial

I felt surprisingly okay rising after my fourth night of not-so-great-sleep. At least I’d slept more than the first time I crossed in 2009, and also, the weather looked like it would be stunning today. Eight years earlier, we crossed in dangerous fog and sleep, missing most of the beauty that the Pyrenees offers, and also probably risking our lives.

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Bordeaux to St. Jean Pied de Port

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Arriving in St. Jean in 2009

Leading up to the trip, I often dreamt of a group of hikers walking up a hill from the train station in St. Jean Pied de Port–a common starting point of the Camino Frances. It was such a distinct memory from my first Camino–a moment when the weight of my decision really set in, when I realized that I was now a part of a different group of people separate from my group back home.

When I woke up the next morning, after about four hours of very rocky sleep, I realized that I’d finally get to see that exact image later in the day.

Despite my exhaustion and not wanting to say goodbye to my friends, I was relieved to finally start heading in the direction of the Camino. So much hype for so many years. The original idea of coming back started to grow as early as 2012, just after moving to Jersey City with Ben. I believe I drunkenly shouted it outside of Barcade. Then, when I walked into Journal Square a year later and saw the horrific news on the TV screens about the train crash in Santiago, something in my head shifted fully into place.  It was time to stop putting it off. I am still one of them, and I have to be back there.

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Photo Cred: Claire Higgins

Christina and I suited up, took a clean and bright-eyed “before picture” and said goodbye to Claire and Helen. Still connected to Wifi, I took a screenshot of the map leading us to the Bordeaux train station, the first of two trains that would take us to St. Jean. Without the yellow arrows yet to guide us, I was still dependant on this thing.

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Bordeaux to St. Émilion

July 5th, 2017

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Leave it to me to have a panic attack on a wine tour. I’ve had panic attacks on and off since I was little, and they’re infrequently triggered by anything obvious. I’m fine one hour, and the next, I notice a slowly growing discomfort, usually in my throat, getting worse and worse–like I can’t fully swallow all the way. Once the nausea comes on, I usually know what’s up. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve been in therapy since I was 19.  But I’ve never quite gotten rid of these waves.

I thought the heat of the city was making me feel woozy–it was over 90 degrees that day and we’d walked through the streets to make it to the tour bus. We were set to head out into the countryside for some sightseeing and wine tasting. Anything involving a bus and a tour guide is really not my jam, but I didn’t want to be a killjoy, and my friends were right–we’d see more of the area this way.

Still, by the time I took my seat next to Helen on the bus, Mr. Panic was there, acting out in full swing. I told Helen what was up and she said what any friend of 10 years would say. “It’s cool, I’m right here next to you, girl. No one on this bus needs to know but me.”

With the pressure of ruining the day off my chest and trusty Helen by my side, I tried to figure out what was causing my shaking hands and the feeling like everyone around me was yelling.

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EWR to LIS to BOD

Been struggling a whole bunch with my Camino writing. With the year anniversary of the trip, I’m going to try and touch on each day just for memory’s sake. Some may be long,lofty posts, others just a picture with a sentence about blisters. But here we go.

Lisbon to Bordeaux

July 4, 2017

Before our journey, Bordeaux made me think of two things: wine (clearly) and a very strange scene we’d performed in my London acting conservatory. I couldn’t tell you a darn thing about what happened in the scene, except that a character said “Bordeaux” all drawn out and with a thick, Southern-American accent. Who can say why. Theatre is strange.

Anyway, luckily for us, Bordeaux was an obvious place to rest our heads before Christina and I started our hike across Spain on the 7th. If you’re planning your own pilgrimage, work in nap time. Seriously, don’t hike while jet-lagged if you can help it.

I usually can’t sleep on planes, and our red-eye from Newark to Lisbon and then Lisbon to France was no exception.

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My anxiety likes to rear its ugly head when I haven’t slept well, making the particularly small plane we packed into that flew over Northern Spain extra stressful. Yay for me. Not only was I seated alone, but reality really flooded in as we flew in the opposite direction of our upcoming pilgrimage.

Crossing the Pyrenees struck an extra rough chord in me. In just three days, we’d be heading over them in the other direction, on foot. The last time I’d crossed, we hit terrible weather–rain that turned into sleet. And though it’s a great story now, it wasn’t so grand at the time. What had I done? I’ve been here, I’ve done this, why did I convince myself to come back? I could be sitting by a lake with Ben’s family in Western Pennsylvania, drinking craft beer and planning out my next nap.

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A Book Without a Story

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I’ve found that writing a book about an incredibly long hike often mirrors the metaphors of hiking the darn thing itself. Look back too often at where you came from, and you get wrapped up in premature editing. But an occasional healthy glance at where you started reminds you of your progress.

Last fall, I trudged through 85 pages of what essentially became free writing. It’s not all unusable but I did find that I ended up with a whole lot of boring writing that didn’t come from an honest place. Now, with new structure, I’m trying to hike my way through the pages themselves—starting with St. Jean Pied du Port and straight on to Santiago. I’m not allowing myself to veer off to discuss childhood memories or side stories no matter how tempting it may be. I will write what happened, as much as I can remember, and that will be that. Then, after reaching the end, I’ll weave in the stories that make the book about me, about why I went. That should work, right?

So far, not so much. I’m on page 14 of single-spaced writing and I’m only about 2 hours into my first day of hiking. Unlike a day at the office or even a day on vacation, time slows to a snail’s pace when hiking. So much happens over a period of 24 hours. And without a clear story of WHY I’m writing about all this yet, how do I know what to include and what to skip over? 14 pages on one day is too much to do to a reader. Continue reading

A Story About a Bee and a Hug

On the second-to-last day of our hike to Santiago, Christina and I weren’t exactly on the top of our game. While Christina’s physical health was wavering, my mental stability and patience with the trip fell more and more each minute. I was growing weary of the whole ordeal, which is not where you want to be at the end of a spiritual pilgrimage.

After failing to find a bed in the cozy private hostel nearby, we ran across the speedy highway to a small “village,” made up of one bar, the public hostel, and a gazebo with a Jesus-looking man selling books (if the historically inaccurate white Jesus from your American Catholic School textbook aged a few years and sold books on the side of a dirt road).

He waved with kind eyes and his yellow lab came out to greet us. This made me laugh a bit, as I had been making a “joke” in my head for about a week of wanting to find Jesus. Not in the sense that many Christians mean–though I deeply respect their beliefs, I do not share them. Instead, this Buddhist on a Catholic pilgrimage was slowly turning into a grouchy insomniac with a bruised bone on the top of her foot that just wanted to go home. And so, I had spent the past week desperately longing to rediscover the human connection millions had found in these little Camino villages, churches, and roads, but had somehow eluded me the closer we got to our destination.

We waved back and walked down the road to a bench outside the albergue (Camino word for hostel), as it did not open until 1. It was noon. As Christina tried to prop herself up and sleep a bit, her obvious fever growing, giant Mack trucks flew by us approximately every 10 seconds. Hoards of happy, energized pilgrims that had only just started their walk a week prior, bounced on to the next city, waving as they passed and looking with an air of “You alright?” each time.

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5 Elements of the Camino Our Country Could Really Use Right Now

On many hiking days, hiding in the safety of the Camino de Santiago often offset the incessant pain of walking 15-18 miles a day, though it was hard not to feel guilty about turning a blind eye to the news back home. With spotty wifi connections and a goal to, you know, focus on the spiritual pilgrimage, we usually allowed ourselves the privilege to only check in about the news with family, opposed to falling down the Facebook rabbit hole every afternoon. Having family members as a filter was a gift, but there is only so long one can run to the mountains and ignore what’s going on.

Adjusting back to real life has been odd, to say the least, as it was after my first Camino in 2009. Not only does your body go into walking-withdrawal, but the mental transformation of a 500-mile hike comes in strange and often-confusing waves of mood swings and the urge to hide under the covers and never come out.

The biggest shock, however, is the urge to try and spread what you see and experience when a group of strangers embarks on an ancient pilgrimage together. It is the “great adventure” we dream of as kids, the outlet for that nervous energy you feeling sitting at a desk as an adult. There are few words for it. What happens between a group with the same common goal–a goal to understand themselves better through a ridiculous physical feat–is a part of human nature we’ve suppressed. But the world needs the lessons of the Camino right now. So, I will do my best.

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How to Return

The past two nights, I’ve stumbled through NYC pretending that I fit in, ignoring–or hiding–that I still feel like an outsider.  I stop extra long at busy intersections–at one point so long that a feisty West Village pedestrian smacks into the back of me without a word of “Oops” or apology.  I’m in the way.  But I can’t explain to them that I recently spent five weeks with traffic as one of my biggest contenders.  Before you leave, you avoid telling your parents or husband that car accidents are the biggest–and pretty frequent–cause of pilgrim injuries, or worse (Hi dad!).  I scuttered across a few too many highways with a heavy backpack because the yellow arrows told me to.  But alas, here I am, a safer New Yorker.

I am also used to being the “other” in a city. I see women walking toward me with makeup and fashionable clothing, and my brain still tells me that I am an outsider in hand-washed hiking pants, a faded blue shirt, and a nylon headband covering the heat rash on my neck.  I know I’m not, I’m one of the normals now.  But that’s the issue, I don’t feel like it.  I don’t feel like them and I know I’m not like them.

The true issue is figuring out what the hell you do with this confused energy right after you get back from a trip of this sort.  This happened to me last time as well, and honestly, I thought it had to do more with life events at the time, and not a pilgrim-reintegration syndrome, an issue I just made up all on my own.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m not a total mess by any means. In reality, I’m sitting at my new homemade desk (because I now write from home for a living, yay!)–with some calming folk music, a hot mug of freshly made coffee, and even a small oil diffuser that calmly changes colors every few seconds.  I could not be in more of a comfortable, introvert-friendly, privileged scenario than right now.  So why am I such an emotionally stunted grouch half the day?

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Post-Camino Zombie Phase

I have officially entered post-Camino-zombie phase.  After Camino number one in 2009, I had one full day at home with my family before boarding a southbound airplane and launching into a “getting to know you”-new-job situation. So as strange as I feel now, I am grateful for the silence of my living room, the promise of at-home work (which will hopefully be more than “promise” soon), and the freedom to be a zombie.

There is one part of my mind that is still seeing the rolling hills and endless wheat fields, and another part of my brain that is desperately trying to remember the details of everything that happened there.  I attributed my last post-Camino crash to a pretty lousy break up that commenced two days after reaching Santiago, but now I wonder if this feeling happens either way.  I just feel lost, confused by the silence around me while I’m home and confused by the chatter when I go out.  I’m used to heading into a town square and knowing half the people around me–if not by name, then by nickname–like “the twins with the hats” or “Irish guy with rolling backpack.”  We were known as a variety of things as well–Jersey girls, academic girls, and who knows what else.

On the Camino, you can learn the deepest, most intimate details of someone’s life before knowing their name.

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Aaaaand We’re Back

Man.  Well that was something.

In a nutshell, we did indeed walk from St. Jean Pied du Port to Santiago de Compostella.  After a pesky foot injury, I came very, very close to skipping a stage by bus, but somehow it just never happened.  I’m not sure I’m proud of ignoring my body’s message, but my foot does seem to be healing, so there’s that.  It took 34 days, spanned 799 kilometers, and required one roll of kinesthetic tape, several boxes of bandaids, one container of compede, almost a full container of an ancient salve for pilgrim joints and skin problems, an unknown number of bottles of wine and plates of patatas bravas, several midday beers, approximately four emotional meltdowns, and a lot of pep talks.  Compared to my last Camino?  The word that keeps coming to mind is: harder.  My body, mind, and life is significantly different.  Processing all the moments of beauty and all the days of endless difficulties is something I am only, slowing beginning to tackle.  And writing it down feels a bit farther away. I can say for certain that the miraculous world of the Camino still provides all the love, protection, and support that anyone needs to get through the mountains of self-doubt and endlessly developing blisters the morning hours bring.  But more on that later. For now, my emotional brain needs a snooze.

After many years of waiting, obsessive planning, and borderline-neurotic budgeting, I am finally a freelancer.  On my first morning over here, I am currently one- for-one with showering, eating a proper breakfast, and putting on real-people clothing.  Ben bought me a sweet little bird statue and I have decided that he is my freelancing mascot.  I have yet to name him/her.  Perhaps Carmella II–after my Camino walking stick that I had to leave behind in Santiago. She will be missed.  Anyway, though I’m handling my panic quite well, this is all a bit terrifying–this whole “getting what you want and hoping it works out” thing. Three nights ago, I landed at JFK, bleary-eyed, confused, and crotchety after a full 24 hours of travel to get from a hotel room in Santiago de Compostella to the apartment I have dreamed of laying my eyes on for the past six weeks.

At the moment, I still feel odd even adjusting my eyes to the look of a computer screen. My brain has not required this type of focus since late June, and I’m shocked at how strange it feels to stare at one white square while trying to type this out.

So instead of totally freaking out at the freelancing task ahead of me, I’m starting with small, controllable steps.  And when I reach the day (hopefully very soon) when I can genuinely begin to piece together the stories from my second Camino, this will be its immediate home.

Until then, this is where I’m at logistically:

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