The Road to Fernanda’s

Wanted to say a quick hello to all the sweet new (and not-so-new) followers of my blog. It’s meant so much to see your views, messages, likes, and follows. I haven’t been able to write for myself since March, so I deeply appreciate all of it.

October 5, 2019

Once you get past the many months of Camino preparations, you have to face the decision you made. The fourth day of walking–I’ve often found–is the moment you realize that it’s time to simply walk. No more airplanes, organizing, saving money. Just walking.

You wake up each morning, stretch damp socks over your tired, swollen feet, and walk back onto the road, hoping to spot the first arrow.

Why? And why does everyone else around you do the same? On the fourth day, I start to truly question why on earth I keep coming back. Maybe none of us fit in with the rhythms of the rest of the world. Maybe something has always felt off to all of us, but here, things feel right.

Some people plan a Camino all their lives, others make a rash decision a few weeks before. One of my Camino friends never even planned to walk it in the first place. She was several months into her travels around the world, learned about the Camino while in Portugal, and just decided to start.

This doesn’t happen with the Appalachian Trail, does it? You just pick up and go because you see the trail, do you? Something bigger, that I will never put my finger on, is afoot here.

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Trapped in an Elevator in the City of Roosters

I’m feeling pretty drained today, my friends, so I’m gonna keep this a short chapter in my Camino story. But, here we go.

Day 3: October 4, 2019

During my first and second Caminos, the third day of hiking was rough on both my body and mind. VERY rough. On both occasions, I injured a muscle in my ankle (yes, the same ankle) and hit my limit of insomnia. In 2017, I could barely straighten my left foot or put pressure on it during the day. I still walked, but you better believe I yelled the whole way.

So, on this trip, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The shoe, somehow, did not drop. I wouldn’t say I slept soundly, however. The metal bunk beds were the old-school public hostel type, much more like the Camino I knew in 2009. They clanged when you shifted in the slightest direction and the rubber mattresses squeaked against your sleeping bag.

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Saudade and the Day I Fell in Love With Porto

This post is part of a series. Day one of my trip lives here!

September 30, 2019: Part 1

When our plane finally coasted into Monday’s sunrise, my shoulder mate rose from his sweet slumber and thanked me in Spanish for not waking him up. I helped him and his wife order breakfast from the flight attendant that only spoke English and Portuguese–which was only possible because we were using all the basic phrases on learns one Duolingo in the first three months. “He wants coffee without sugar please.” “Do you have a bottle of water?” High five, persistent little green bird.

With a jolt of caffeine in my system, there was now a better chance I would get to my hotel in one piece. I desperately hoped they’d let me check in early. I was becoming a bit cross-eyed and it was supposed to be a particularly hot day. If they didn’t, I had four sweaty hours ahead of me until I could lay my head on a pillow, and my body could not fathom that many hours in the standing position with my pack.

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A Year Ago Today I Got On An Airplane

I haven’t written a blog post since March 21st.

I write for myself in my journal and I have a job where I write for companies that want to sell something or help people sell something. I’m thankful for both of those outlets.

But, what do I write to you? I don’t have a clue what to tell you about the past six months. I don’t have advice yet, I don’t have hindsight. I’m still scared.

Still, a year ago today, I got on an airplane at Newark Airport bound for Porto. I know about that at least.

I’ve fallen back on my Camino writing many times in the past, and so, here we are. I’ll write about that because I have nothing else to say. I’ll write about that because I could use a reminder of a great adventure when there was a road in front of me that made sense and hope for what came at the end of it.

And I can hope that next year I will write about my fourth Camino–this time with Ben.

Day 1: EWR to OPO, September 29, 2019

In case you’ve stumbled upon this blog for the first time (hi!), I’ve walked the Camino de Santiago–an ancient pilgrimage-turned-spiritual hiking trail–three times since 2009. My previous two trips began in a small French town called St. Jean Pied de Port, climbed over the Pyrenees Mountains, and headed across Northern Spain to a city called Santiago de Compostela. Both trips were about 500 miles and took five weeks to complete.

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13 Sensible Reasons to Walk Across a Country

I spend most hiking conversations doing one of two things: 50% secretly convincing the other person that they should also walk across a country and 50% defending why I don’t go on “normal vacations.”

I’m very aware that I’ve spent a perhaps-unhealthy amount of time talking about the Camino de Santiago on this blog, but as I said, I am either defending my strange choices or slowly convincing you to join me.

I’ve already listed the lofty reasons to walk for a really long time. It can reorganize your brain, connect you with people on a genuine level, and shatter the way you see the world. Great.

I’m not here to talk about all that stuff. I’m here to talk about all the reasons I grasp onto when I can’t fathom all the lofty business. The I-don’t-want-to-make-dinner reasons. The I-don’t-want-to-answer-another-email reasons. So if you’re not convinced because of all the out-there stuff, think smaller.

Without further ado, here are:

13 Sensible Reasons to Walk Across a Country

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“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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