St. Jean to Roncesvalles: Part 1

This post would be over 3,000 words if I wrote out the whole day, and that still only dips into my “book” version of this telling currently in progress. So I will make it halfway.

(Also, I do not currently have time to proof it, so–sorry for the mess!)

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07/07/17

I experienced all five stages of grief while crossing the Pyrenees. Denial, anger, bargaining, and for a fleeting moment, acceptance. I then looped back around to a few just for good measure. I suppose I was mourning the passing of my normal life for the next five weeks or even the life before and after this particular Camino.

Even though this was my second hike from France to Santiago de Compostela–799 kilometers west of where I stood–this one, as they all are and will be–was different. I entered the first Camino with the weight of unexplained sadness. The five weeks opened my eyes a story I’d been suppressing since I was a little kid (more on that later), but I did go into it with something precious–enthusiasm.

Somewhere between 2009 and 2017, I’d lost enthusiasm for things. I hadn’t lost love, curiosity, or even gratitude. But that extra energy required to feel enthusiastic about something? Well I’d grown too angry, tired and practical to remember what that felt like. And so I knew I carried a different weight heading into this trip, and the Pyrenees is damn crazy way to kick things off.

Denial

I felt surprisingly okay rising after my fourth night of not-so-great-sleep. At least I’d slept more than the first time I crossed in 2009, and also, the weather looked like it would be stunning today. Eight years earlier, we crossed in dangerous fog and sleep, missing most of the beauty that the Pyrenees offers, and also probably risking our lives.

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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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Bordeaux to St. Émilion

July 5th, 2017

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Leave it to me to have a panic attack on a wine tour. I’ve had panic attacks on and off since I was little, and they’re infrequently triggered by anything obvious. I’m fine one hour, and the next, I notice a slowly growing discomfort, usually in my throat, getting worse and worse–like I can’t fully swallow all the way. Once the nausea comes on, I usually know what’s up. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve been in therapy since I was 19.  But I’ve never quite gotten rid of these waves.

I thought the heat of the city was making me feel woozy–it was over 90 degrees that day and we’d walked through the streets to make it to the tour bus. We were set to head out into the countryside for some sightseeing and wine tasting. Anything involving a bus and a tour guide is really not my jam, but I didn’t want to be a killjoy, and my friends were right–we’d see more of the area this way.

Still, by the time I took my seat next to Helen on the bus, Mr. Panic was there, acting out in full swing. I told Helen what was up and she said what any friend of 10 years would say. “It’s cool, I’m right here next to you, girl. No one on this bus needs to know but me.”

With the pressure of ruining the day off my chest and trusty Helen by my side, I tried to figure out what was causing my shaking hands and the feeling like everyone around me was yelling.

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EWR to LIS to BOD

Been struggling a whole bunch with my Camino writing. With the year anniversary of the trip, I’m going to try and touch on each day just for memory’s sake. Some may be long,lofty posts, others just a picture with a sentence about blisters. But here we go.

Lisbon to Bordeaux

July 4, 2017

Before our journey, Bordeaux made me think of two things: wine (clearly) and a very strange scene we’d performed in my London acting conservatory. I couldn’t tell you a darn thing about what happened in the scene, except that a character said “Bordeaux” all drawn out and with a thick, Southern-American accent. Who can say why. Theatre is strange.

Anyway, luckily for us, Bordeaux was an obvious place to rest our heads before Christina and I started our hike across Spain on the 7th. If you’re planning your own pilgrimage, work in nap time. Seriously, don’t hike while jet-lagged if you can help it.

I usually can’t sleep on planes, and our red-eye from Newark to Lisbon and then Lisbon to France was no exception.

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My anxiety likes to rear its ugly head when I haven’t slept well, making the particularly small plane we packed into that flew over Northern Spain extra stressful. Yay for me. Not only was I seated alone, but reality really flooded in as we flew in the opposite direction of our upcoming pilgrimage.

Crossing the Pyrenees struck an extra rough chord in me. In just three days, we’d be heading over them in the other direction, on foot. The last time I’d crossed, we hit terrible weather–rain that turned into sleet. And though it’s a great story now, it wasn’t so grand at the time. What had I done? I’ve been here, I’ve done this, why did I convince myself to come back? I could be sitting by a lake with Ben’s family in Western Pennsylvania, drinking craft beer and planning out my next nap.

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A Story About a Bee and a Hug

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.

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How to Return

The past two nights, I’ve stumbled through NYC pretending that I fit in, ignoring–or hiding–that I still feel like an outsider.  I stop extra long at busy intersections–at one point so long that a feisty West Village pedestrian smacks into the back of me without a word of “Oops” or apology.  I’m in the way.  But I can’t explain to them that I recently spent five weeks with traffic as one of my biggest contenders.  Before you leave, you avoid telling your parents or husband that car accidents are the biggest–and pretty frequent–cause of pilgrim injuries, or worse (Hi dad!).  I scuttered across a few too many highways with a heavy backpack because the yellow arrows told me to.  But alas, here I am, a safer New Yorker.

I am also used to being the “other” in a city. I see women walking toward me with makeup and fashionable clothing, and my brain still tells me that I am an outsider in hand-washed hiking pants, a faded blue shirt, and a nylon headband covering the heat rash on my neck.  I know I’m not, I’m one of the normals now.  But that’s the issue, I don’t feel like it.  I don’t feel like them and I know I’m not like them.

The true issue is figuring out what the hell you do with this confused energy right after you get back from a trip of this sort.  This happened to me last time as well, and honestly, I thought it had to do more with life events at the time, and not a pilgrim-reintegration syndrome, an issue I just made up all on my own.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m not a total mess by any means. In reality, I’m sitting at my new homemade desk (because I now write from home for a living, yay!)–with some calming folk music, a hot mug of freshly made coffee, and even a small oil diffuser that calmly changes colors every few seconds.  I could not be in more of a comfortable, introvert-friendly, privileged scenario than right now.  So why am I such an emotionally stunted grouch half the day?

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Post-Camino Zombie Phase

I have officially entered post-Camino-zombie phase.  After Camino number one in 2009, I had one full day at home with my family before boarding a southbound airplane and launching into a “getting to know you”-new-job situation. So as strange as I feel now, I am grateful for the silence of my living room, the promise of at-home work (which will hopefully be more than “promise” soon), and the freedom to be a zombie.

There is one part of my mind that is still seeing the rolling hills and endless wheat fields, and another part of my brain that is desperately trying to remember the details of everything that happened there.  I attributed my last post-Camino crash to a pretty lousy break up that commenced two days after reaching Santiago, but now I wonder if this feeling happens either way.  I just feel lost, confused by the silence around me while I’m home and confused by the chatter when I go out.  I’m used to heading into a town square and knowing half the people around me–if not by name, then by nickname–like “the twins with the hats” or “Irish guy with rolling backpack.”  We were known as a variety of things as well–Jersey girls, academic girls, and who knows what else.

On the Camino, you can learn the deepest, most intimate details of someone’s life before knowing their name.

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The Camino List!

I woke up this morning with a new sense of hope. It is the first time I’ve slept soundly through the night since last weekend, and I’m sure it was partially due to the fact that I was finally able to eat somewhat normally yesterday.  I’m still unable to get back to hiking training, but I feel less like the room is spinning every time I exert myself.

I am also beginning to fully process that I indeed only have two more weeks in a full-time, traditional office setting.  I’ve been counting down my return to the trail for nearly six years, and more recently, obsessively counting down the months and weeks.  This trip represents far more than a career change and “vacation.” It is the end of a three-year push to pay off a mountain of debt, to figure out a new lucrative, freelance career and lifestyle, and most importantly–to learn how speak up for decisions and ideas that truly make me a better, more complete person.

But with joy and realization, comes the inevitable travel anticipation–the total “holy crap moment” that accompanies leaving your comfortable bubble and doing something rather terrifying.

And so to both celebrate this morning’s new-found sense of hope, and to recognize my underlying terror of returning to this physical undertaking of hiking 500 miles, I have begun mentally making the “Camino List of Awesome Stuff”–a list that will keep me going through my final 15 days.

Things I’m looking forward to on the Camino

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So I was on a podcast…

Amidst the absolute madness of the past several weeks, I received an early light at the end of the tunnel in the form of an email from Dan Mullins.  Dan hosts a podcast based in Australia that interviews pilgrims from the Camino, and he found my xoJane article from last year on the experience.

I’ll be honest, I haven’t had the guts to listen to the full episode yet because the sound of my own voice makes me want to hide under a rock, but I’m making progress!  Dan did such a beautiful job with the interview, and the experience itself was not only a bucket list item, but also generally exhilarating.  After I finished the interview, I may have jumped up and down around my house and couldn’t go to sleep for a while.  Wine helped though.

My main hope is that the episode will inspire more people to go on the trek themselves. Buen Camino, all!  And if you’ve found your way to my blog via the podcast or Camino forum, WELCOME! And thank you so much for visiting!

Also, a huge thank you to John DeSilvestri for selling me his excellent mic that saved the day!

Feel free to have a listen, and definitely go check out Dan’s past episodes on Facebook!

My Podcast Episode!

 

54 days!

Two Months Before the Camino

I’ve always had travel anxiety.  I dream about going on trips, and save up for years for these types of things, just to feel horribly anxious before I actually leave.  And the moment I decided on a date to return to the Camino de Santiago, I knew that this happy/terrified anticipation would begin even earlier than it did the last time.

Because this time around, I know exactly what I’m getting into.  I know how hard it will be on my muscles and joints, I know how long the days can feel, and I know how hard it is to let go of the dependable day-to-day life that you’ve been used to for the past several years.  But I also know that this is the whole reason I’m going.  My brain is like a dusty closet, filled more and more everyday by the little, persistent needs of my house, my job, my career. With too much dust, I forget what it’s like to sit down and think clearly for more than a few minutes at a time.  Even when I take a break in the middle of the day or go on a weekend trip, I see the impending end to that break on the horizon.  And this is exactly why I did not choose to go on a traditional vacation with my saved pennies.  This is why I need to spend this time moving as slowly as possible across a great distance. I haven’t found anything else that breaks up the cobwebs in my head like a challenge of this sort.

So with my building anxiety–and the countdown dwindling–I want to use this blog as a place to write where I stand, literally and mentally leading up to my second pilgrimage.  So I’m writing for three purposes:

  1. Help people who are considering/leaving soon for the Camino themselves.
  2. Vent about my feelings and pre-trip anxieties to make myself feel better.
  3. Prepare for the writing I hope to do on the trip itself.

So here’s where I stand…

Hiking during San Fermin.  Yikes.

Logistically, I have learned that hiking the Camino overtop of the running of the bull is a bit of a nightmare.  Pamplona, the fourth-or-so town on the Camino Frances (when starting in St. Jean Pied de Port), fills up for a week with revelers for the San Fermin festival.  So here comes a vegetarian and a girl that fears large crowds hiking right in the middle of the bull run.  Yeesh.  The hardest part is finding a hostel in or around Pamplona.  I know there are ways around the city, but I am worried these roads will not be well marked, and the last thing I want to do is get lost. Luckily, this morning we booked a room.  It was about four times the amount we will normally pay for a hostel, but alas, better than getting lost in the hillsides of Spain.  Hit me up in the contact section if you need suggestions of where to stay, we saw a few additional options in our journeys.

I’m losing patience with emails

My work email has a little notification feature that pops up on the top right part of my screen whenever a new message comes in.  As someone who needs to get into a zone when they work, I have been less immune to frustration as each one pops up.  I’m having real-world senioritis.  One of the best things about the Camino is a disconnect from technology, from usual rhythms and patterns of your day, and from a constantly shifting focus.  I feel the most resentful when I am pulled in several directions and incapable of finishing one specific task because of it.  I realize these are all “first-world” problems, and one of my whole purposes for returning to the hike is to reorganize my brain and not become instantly frustrated when several people need things from me at once.

A Week of Happy Crying

I have a suspicion that I’m going to happy-cry my way through the first few days of this trip.  Yes, I know I’m anxious as all hell now, but once I get my butt on the airplane and fall asleep, I will actually be able to say that I can truly rest. It’s strange to think that walking for five weeks is “truly resting,” but this is my sort of freedom.  I look forward to days and days of being out in the sun, opposed to looking at it through an office window. And I look forward to a community of people that find little reason to fall into the trap of negativity–a great listen for my own brain.  All that matters on the Camino is safely getting from one place to the next while looking out for the people around you.

So much support!

As I mentioned in one of my past posts, I’ve had such a different reaction to my trip announcement this time around. In 2009, the Camino was not as well known and the world was simply in a different mindset. I said that I wanted to drop everything and disappear for a few weeks, and everyone assumed I was doing a drunken jaunt through Europe to be wild and crazy. I was also told that it was too dangerous for a young woman to take on. This time though–nothing but positive thoughts from everyone.  I’ve even received a whole bunch of phone calls and emails from people asking about how to plan their own trips.  The world may feel like shit right now on the whole, but I applaud everyone’s newly opened mind to the idea of personal and spiritual pilgrimages.  You don’t get a big golden award at the end or some giant recognition on the news.  You do it for you, and you go home.  The fact that something of this sort if gaining popularity is a good sign for society.

 

We’re at 61 days.  And counting.