Archives for the month of: August, 2011

(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

The Camino de Santiago literally means The Way of Saint James. The trail was traditionally begun from the pilgrim’s home and ended at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia where the body of St. James is supposedly buried. There’s some debate about that—and legend, of course. The legend is that James, a disciple of Jesus, was killed in Jerusalem, and his body was shipped off to be buried in Spain. The ship hit a storm, and the body was lost at sea… only to wash up on the shore near what is now Santiago. But oddly, when the body was discovered, it was covered in scallop shells.

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

It’s that last part that’s important. For centuries, the scallop shell, which is found on the shores of Galicia, has been a symbol and a metaphor for the Camino. The grooves in the shell, which come together at a single point, represent the various routes pilgrims travel to arrive at the same destination: Santiago de Compostela. And, just as the waves of the ocean carry the shells to the shores, the shell then serves as a symbol of God’s hand guiding the pilgrims to Santiago.

In short, it’s tradition to have a shell. And I didn’t have one. Not because I hadn’t searched high and low for one, but because no matter where I looked, I came up empty.
(more…)

(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

I woke up early on the morning of my departure, February 27, 2005. I’d already laid out my clothes for the journey and tucked everything else into my backpack. Back at home, so long ago, I’d made up daily packets of vitamins for the trek but I couldn’t find them anywhere, and I was a bit panicked about it. I searched my suitcase a dozen times but came up with nothing. I couldn’t believe it. I thought I’d had every detail covered. And already it seemed like things were drifting afoul. I don’t need no stinkin’ vitamins, I told myself.

I tucked my suitcase with most everything I’d been traveling with into Karen’s closet, and I picked up my pack, which seemed miniscule in comparison. I walked downstairs to my final breakfast dressed in the only clothes I would have for the next month. Karen had hot coffee waiting. She picked up my pack, impressed by it’s size. I met her eyes sheepishly. I wondered if she was thinking what I was thinking—will this be enough? Neither of us said anything.

This was the plan. From Exeter, I would take a train to London. In London, I would switch trains and arrive at the Stansted airport where I would hop on a flight to Biarritz in southwestern France. In Biarritz, I was hoping to find a taxi that would escort me about 30 miles to St. Jean Pied de Port, my starting point. Otherwise, I’d have to take a train.

Karen dropped me off at the train station in Exeter just before 10 AM. I hugged her for a long time imaging hers would be the last friendly face I’d see for a very long time. And hers would also be the first recognizable face I’d see upon my return. She’d been so welcoming, so accommodating, so protective, so motherly, so loving, so perfect.

I stood at the entrance to the train station and watched her drive away. When I could no longer see her car, I took a very big breath and turned, moving forward into the station… and into the great beyond.
(more…)

(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

February 28
Day 1: St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles, 31km/19m

I burrowed all night and managed to not just stay warm, but also get some restful sleep. Most of the pilgrims had departed by the time I was up and alert and ready to go. I was lingering, waiting for my PA (Polish Angel) to get ready. The idea of starting alone was daunting to me so I asked if he wanted to walk together.

He struggled to hoist his bag onto his back. Not wanting to lift it from the floor, he heaved it onto his bed, put his arms through the straps and stumbled like a weightlifter to straighten his knees. How much did it weigh? I wondered. Sixty pounds? Eighty pounds?

More than three feet of snow had fallen on the mountain, and to walk the preferred path was to risk your life, we were told. Instead of crossing the mountain, we would be forced to walk around it (at least the peak of it). I quickly decided that what I most needed was a view OF the mountain rather than a view FROM the mountain.

We left the refuge together in the light of early morning, and I saw St. Jean Pied de Port for the first time. So beautiful. So European. The trickling water, the crisp air, the ancient stone buildings at the edge of the river Nive. A bridge arched over the water. The white-capped mountain towered beyond. Snow had piled up in doorways and blanketed the pathways. It was hard to be in such a postcard-perfect locale without taking any time to explore it. It was the sort of place that was meant to be discovered, and yet I had merely crashed there for the night.

My PA and I passed quickly through the city and began, at first, to follow the road. We had 2 km of pavement before we could veer off onto the pathway that traversed alongside it. I knew that the pounding would accumulate quickly and begin to take its toll on my feet and body, so I pulled out my trekking poles, something I’d never used before. I’d read that they could absorb 25% or more of the impact of walking. The metal tips struck the pavement, tapping out a rhythm and marking each footstep. It was odd using them like this—on flat ground—but I was willing to accept any help I could get.

It wasn’t long before we saw the way markings—shells and arrows—leading us off the road and into the countryside. The way markings would be, that first day and for the next month, the sight of happiness.
(more…)

(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

March 1, 2005
Day 2: Roncesvalles to Larrasoana, 31km/19.5m

I woke up at 5 AM but didn’t want to start walking at that hour. It was still dark outside, and most of the others in the refuge were still sleeping. I lay for a long time thinking about the day before. And I checked in with my body. It felt rested and ready for more. Even my feet had stopped throbbing. My bag was lying on the floor under my bed. I stuck my hand in and felt around for Brenda’s packet of letters: after all, it was officially “Week 1.” I pulled out the corresponding envelope and opened it.


I stared at the image on the front of the card for a long time, smiling. The colors. The blood red. The beautiful woman with the golden halo. The pomegranate, held out to me. I turned the card over before opening it, hoping there would be something written on the back. There was:

Eve, The Mother of All

…She holds in her hands an opened pomegranate, whose Hebrew name, rimmon, comes from the word rim, to bear a child. The pomegranate is an ancient middle-eastern symbol of the womb because of its red juice and its numerous seed or offspring. It was carved on the pillars of Solomon’s Temple as a symbol of fertility. In this icon it represents all the descendents of Eve, the human race, and our debt to her and all our foremothers.

Inside, Brenda wrote:

Dear Tess—

Help yourself to those seeds being offered. I look forward to your return and your descriptions of their taste, their texture, their nourishings.

xo Brenda

Wisdom is bright and does not grow dim. By those who love her she is readily seen, and found by those who look for her. Quick to anticipate those who deride her, she makes herself known to them.

Watch for her early and you will have no trouble; you will find her sitting at your gates.

Even to think about her is understanding fully grown; be on the alert for her and anxiety will quickly leave you.

She herself walks about looking for those who are worthy of her and graciously shows herself to them as they go, in every thought of theirs coming to meet them.

—Wisdom 6:7-12

By 7 AM, I was ready to depart. As I laced up my shoes, I glanced over at my PA. He was awake but had not made any moves to prepare himself for the day ahead. His eyes were filled with defeat. I was relieved to be leaving before him so I would not have to endure his energy. In fact, I wanted to not travel with anyone else’s energy at all, but the Italian seemed to want my companionship. He was waiting for me. And when I reached for my jacket and my pack, he did too.
(more…)

(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

March 2, 2005
Day 3: Larrasoana to Cizur Menor, 22 km/13.7 m

In the morning, the Italian sat on his bunk watching my every move. I got dressed and went into the kitchen, and he was there handing me a mug for my coffee. I struggled with what to say to him. Can I tell him of my need to walk alone without hurting him? I thought. And can I separate myself from hurting him? I didn’t want to hurt him, but this was a great test for me: I needed to get better at not feeling responsible for someone else’s emotions. Unless I was responsible, of course. It was a theme that had revisited me again and again, and so it came as no surprise that it would catch up with me on the Camino.

I told him not to wait for me, to start without me. He shook his head, no. I expressed, in the simplest of English, that I wanted to walk by myself, that I needed to be alone.

“No, no,” he said. “I wait. Wherever you want to go, I wait for you, is no trouble.”

Strike one.

He was so earnest in his desire to shepherd me. It was both adorable and awful. But since I didn’t know what else to say, I would spend another day with his silence and his footsteps and his ever-present energy pulling at me… even though I was determined to have MY Camino anyway.

When I left the refuge, my Italian Shepherd (IS) was behind me. Meanwhile, my PA was raising the white flag. He stood at the side of the road waiting for a bus to Pamplona where he would mail some of his belongings back home and reassess his journey. I wished him good luck with his travels.

It was another bitterly cold day on the Camino but every time I walked out into it and was met with a landscape of snow, its beauty took my breath away.
(more…)