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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
If you’re interested in hiking the Camino de Santiago, head on over to my sister site, The Native Navigator, for a basic FAQ!