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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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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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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