“I’ll tell you where the real road lies.”

My confidence has been knocked down a few pegs this evening. I tried an aerial yoga class, and though the teacher was very supportive, I felt a bit like my chonky cat tangled up in the shower curtain while the rest of the class flipped around like trapeze artists.

So as I ice my bruised armpits, I’m going to write a story about the hardest day on my Portuguese Camino. I haven’t been writing many blog posts on my recent hike. But I am happy to report that I am finally moving along with my book! It’s slow, but it feels structured and real this time. One can hope.

Arcade to Briallos, 28 Kilometers (17.3 miles): Day 10 of 12

I pulled out my hiking playlist for the hardest parts of the day, especially if I needed to be in my own head. The recent musical Hadestown makes several appearances on it, including the climactic song at the end of the second act. Hermes, the narrator, yells out the following lyrics as he sings to a traveling Orpheus and Eurydice:

You got a lonesome road to walk.
It ain’t along the railroad track.
It ain’t along the black-top tar
You’ve walked a hundred times before.
I’ll tell you where the real road lies:
Between your ears, behind your eyes.
That is the path to paradise,
And, likewise, the road to ruin.

*********

With only 12 days to get from Porto to Santiago de Compostela, I’d have to get through some longer days to balance out the shorter ones. These eight-hour treks seemed more reasonable toward the end of the trip — I’d have more muscle mass, more awareness of how to walk alone, and an overall greater sense of bravery. Day 10 was set to be my longest and I prepared my head for it the day before.

Up until this point, I remained in step with my tight-knit Camino family. We’d leave within an hour or so of one another, meet at the first cafe for a croissant, and message each other about any wild dogs (yes, this was a legit issue), confusing arrows, or in one case, a very tasty fig tree at arms length on the edge of town. Though I planned to meet my friend Neha at the hostel in Briallos, I knew my slow pace required a lot of time, and so I left significantly ahead of the pack. I was also worried that the public hostel in Briallos–the only option for a good deal of time–could fill up quickly if I didn’t hop to it.

The day would probably take about 7 hours of walking time, 8 when you factor in breaks and other random hold ups. I’d leave at 6:30am and hope to get there before 3.

The night before, I packed my bag as far as I could and folded up my clothing by the foot of my bed. My eyes shot open 15 minutes before my alarm went off at 6. Despite my fear of walking alone in the dark, I was ready for a day that felt like those on the Camino Frances–unpredictable and long with a mighty reward at the end.

(Not from the day I’m writing about, but a solid Camino sunrise shot.)

When I headed out the door of the hostel all suited up, it was still pitch black. Forty-five minutes until the sun was set to rise. We’d spent the night in a small village on the edge of a river. A man leaned against one of the buildings smoking a cigarette and I fumbled with my headlamp to show I wasn’t in the mood to have a chat with a man on a dark street. I also pulled out my emergency whistle, wrapped it around my wrist and held it at the ready.

Friends, word of advice. If you want to save money on hiking equipment: do so on a t-shirt or a hat. Do not save money on a headlamp. When you need your hand lamp to work, it needs to quickly. My clearance lamp activated with a very confusing series of swipes across the top, not with a button like any reasonable human would invent. After about 15 failed attempts, it lit up across the path in front of me. I pointed it down slightly so it wouldn’t pick up the thick mist, and closed my mouth from fear of dive-bombing buggies.

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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.

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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Villava to Uterga

Last night, I went to the Shambala Center in NYC, a Buddhist school with meditation instruction and mindfulness talks open to the public. Robert Chender, a senior meditation teacher of this lineage, lead the evening, centering his lesson around the “stories we tell ourselves” in order to deal with difficult emotion. He explained that one of the aims of meditation is to quiet the voice in the logical part of our brain that either placate or encourages the amygdala–the fear center of our brain. Instead, we’re meant to simply feel what we’re feeling and then let it go.

“Imagine how incredible our lives could be if we stopped believing our own story.” This struck me more than anything else throughout the night. As a writer, my story is my identity–honing and shaping it is my livelihood, my mission. But on the other hand, he’s right–even the story I now use to guide my writing has often acted as a barrier to living my life. When I first thought about going on the Camino, my brain told me that I wasn’t athletic enough to do it. Many people outside my brain said this to me as well. My brain–and my neighbors–also told me that it’s dangerous for a woman to travel alone.

These stories all come from somewhere, but they skew or shroud important facts. They build false bias, encourage unnecessary fear, and can even develop into disgust for yourself or someone else.  No, I wasn’t athletic, but I could train. Yes, it can be dangerous, but I could take precautions. Both Caminos for me became about listening to my natural emotions as they arise without judgment, instead of the long-winded, overly structured story that I’ve written for myself inside my mind. In the regular world, we get too busy to even realize this is happening. On the Camino, it’s impossible not to hear and see our BS stories for what they are–BS.

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Zubiri to Villava

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Photo cred: Christina (I didn’t take photos on really bad days)

My therapist recently told me that the Camino was easy living–an escape from it all–and that reality back home presents the true challenges. I’d like to disagree.

As my roommates’ alarm clocks activated one by one, I delicately tested out my ankle which had spent the night throbbing and occasionally spasming depending on my position. Nope, can’t move it.  I knew that I’d finally hit my limit. Without a solid night of sleep in seven days, I had to make a call, something needed to change.

I let everyone else trickle out to gather their stuff before I attempted to get down from my bunk, but the moment I hit the ground I burst into tears. I’d never had pain like that before. I immediately crawled back up into bed.

When the twins came in to tell me about breakfast, I turned around and they saw the state of my red and tear-soaked face. I explained to the two of them–and then to Christina–that I wouldn’t be able to walk for at least an hour, if at all. Christina was willing to wait until 8am, and if I wasn’t in good shape by then, I’d call a cab. I was too afraid to get stuck somewhere on my own without a phone signal.

I am a stubborn human, especially when I tell myself that I’m going to complete something. A few minutes after 8, against all logic, I slipped my swollen foot into my boot and flipped on my backpack.

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Roncesvalles to Zubiri

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Photo cred: Christina Kosyla

The tired mind is an unruly mind. This day–of which I have very few photographs, zero of the actual hike (though Christina snapped a few)–sparked only a handful notable memories before we reached our destination. They all got covered by an insomnia-driven frustration and anxiety.

I never saw the culprit who snored his way ’til dawn, for I finally fell asleep two hours or so before our scheduled departure. He left before I could catch a glimpse of him.

My knee and the back of my ankle was a mess, sending me yelping in pain every time I straightened or bent either in the wrong direction. And outside, a thick mist made it hard to see even a few feet ahead.

We took our time getting out the door, hoping the rain would pass. The body goes through a rough transition the day after the Pyrenees. In any other situation, you’d rest, let you muscle develop. But here, no, you just keep moving. After a rather slow breakfast, we took off, Christina immediately far ahead, understandably not wishing to stick with someone hobbling at my pace for so long. Besides, I wasn’t much company.

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St. Jean to Roncesvalles: Part 2

Part 1 can be found here.

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Toward the middle of every Camino hiking day, you hit a silent, steady stride. With so much land behind you and so much ahead, there isn’t much to think about other than the current trail. The forest eventually returned, reminding us how much easier it is to breathe when protected by a thick canopy of trees.

I distinctly remember passing a giant stone that read “España” on my first trip. Either we missed it in the haze of the day, or it never existed in the first place. Either way, you do simply walk into Spain. They stamp your passport at the albergue when you arrive and that’s it. No ceremony, no checkpoint.

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The heat, humidity and knee pain really began to wear on me in the final several hours. Once you know the end is near, it requires much more discipline not to fall apart. As we crested one of what felt like a hundred hills, we spotted a path of pilgrims way up ahead, ascending yet another incline. How could we possibly still be going up?

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