The Journey Back

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.

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Rewinding 12 Days of Hiking in 3 Hours

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.

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One Day Without Motion

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?

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How to Walk 15 Miles When You Feel Like Hell

It’s raining and chilly in NYC today. This morning, I went on a walk to honor the end of my Camino in my hiking boots, raincoat, and hiking pants. I came back to a warm apartment with a fridge full of food and a cozy cup of coffee topped off with nutmeg. Life back home is far easier than on the Camino. But that’s not why you go on a pilgrimage.

I’ll never know how I got through that last day of hiking the Camino Portuguese, especially when I’m still chilled from my brief walk outside for 20 minutes. While I’d like to tell you I arrived in Santiago with my head held high, in reality I nearly crawled, and it’s a shock I made it at all.

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“But I Did it My Way”

I woke up to a rainy morning in Briallos and was ready to hit the road with a renewed sense of energy despite my aching knee. A sense of great accomplishment after the 28k day and the nearing finish line provided a decent amount of adrenaline for the penultimate day of hiking.

And anyway, the world now looked and felt like my old memories of the Camino. We were finally back in peak Galician nature. Deep, glowing greens, gnarled trees, and fuzzy chestnuts. I looked forward to another long day in these colors, despite the pain.

Neha and I walked at our own pace once again, though crossed paths throughout the morning several times. It was clear that 28k days were beyond what my body could handle. I could do it, but I ran the risk of hurting myself. Everything ached and threatened to turn into an injury if I didn’t take frequent rests. It also completely explains why I suffered so many injuries and blisters in 2009 and 2017.

Caldas de Reis was the first city of the day. Meandering through the foggy mist of the city reminded me I was by the coast. Lush palm trees poked up between crumbling stone cathedrals and an endless criss-cross of bridges led us through the town busy with their mid-morning routine.

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Santiago Sneaks Up on You

The funny thing about a trip of this length is that the end feels impossibly far away until suddenly, it isn’t. I woke up on the 9th day of walking with the realization that I only had three more days to be a pilgrim. I love this identity. I may not be religious, but the identity of pilgrim–someone constantly seeking something–has always aligned with who I am.

The New York Times has a long list honoring those who have passed away from COVID. Each person in the digital list has a photo, an obituary, and a small subtitle about who they were. I came across one woman in her 90s who was simply listed as “Adventurer and Writer.” I haven’t stopped thinking about her since. I didn’t realize one could still be an adventurer. I hope somewhere she knows that she inspired me to try.

Though I didn’t sleep well in the hostel that night, the sun coming through the curtains was a great reminder that time does pass. I was ready to get moving. Neha and I headed up the first steep hill together but decided to walk at our own paces and meet up when we naturally crossed paths. Continue reading

When the Modern Road Returns

A terrifying carousel in O Porrino. I occasionally send this to Neha for a good scare. Sorry, girl.

It’s easy to look back on a life-altering trip and color the whole experience with a rosy lens. Wrapped up neatly, I was quite content most of the trip, much more so than I managed to be in 2009 or 2017. Then again, staying upbeat for 12 days is different than staying upbeat for 35.

Also, I was far more financially and psychologically stable on this trip. I knew why I was there and I made choices that were mine every step of the way. At one point, I ran into my Canadian parents who told me that I always looked like I was in my groove. They could not have given me a nicer compliment.

However, not every day was romantic and packed with great revelations. Much like life back home, there are some days you’re just happy to reach the end of.

Gratefully, I woke up in Tui feeling healthier than when I’d gone to bed–which pointed to an obvious issue that I had far too much experience with.

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Frida Kahlo and the Land of Deep Blue

I have a tattoo on my left arm of a poppy and the word, ultre├»a. This word was first seen in a 12th-century guide about how to walk the Camino, and it is believed to mean, “Go further!”

The poppy, however, has a double meaning. To start, there are poppies all over the Camino Frances in the spring, fields and fields of them. But the flower itself also holds the meaning of death, rebirth, and recovery through tragedy. I’ve walked each of my Camino’s in memory of someone dear to me–the first for my theatre professor and the second for my grandmother.

This Camino was for Michael. Michael was the musical director of my summer camp growing up. I was not a very skilled musical theatre kid–though heaven knows I tried–so Michael and I didn’t even work together back then. He was for the super-Broadwyy-bound kids, but we all looked up to him from afar.

When I was in my late 20s, I spotted a familiar face playing the piano at a reading of a new musical in NYC. He was introduced as Michael Larsen. Very long story short, I timidly walked up to him to say hello and to explain that I was one of his campers many years ago. “Be my student!” he said immediately. We became great friends.

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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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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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