(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.

My guidebook had recommended the refuge just past Pamplona. At slightly less than 14 miles away, the day seemed like a cakewalk. If I covered less ground, I could spend the extra time in Pamplona, eat a decent meal, find an internet café, enjoy the bustle of an inhabited city and possibly get a few provisions. But for some reason, I kept wanting to speed the process—go farther, faster. Was it the Italian who pushed me? Or was it the cold?

Walking the Camino was like meditating: first you notice the incessant nature and of your insane thoughts, and then you try to let them go. Are these the unseen things that we carry? And is that what we do here—leave things behind? Do we all get what we need and are forced to find a way to release the rest? Here and everywhere?

On the pathway behind me, the Camino was littered with my thoughts. And I was ever conscious that I was being asked to live in the present moment. I did not have my next meal but it always came. I did not know if the refuge ahead would be open, if it would have an available bed and if there was hot running water or heat. There was no planning ahead. There was no future. There was only the present, and I tried hard to be in it.

What does it mean to be cold? In the cold. Struggling for heat. Perhaps my body is readjusting, learning to burn hotter. Or more efficiently. I don’t know. I don’t know why I am met with winter.

What are the things we carry? Do our bags symbolize our need for comfort? Does their size reflect the amount of our fears? The PA has a gargantuan bag, and he is consumed with fear. He’s packed the thing with every conceivable item he might need, and now he’s berating himself for bringing too much. The others speak of how heavy their bags are. But I feel good so far. How ironic that for the entirety of my adult life, I have carried extra weight, but here, I am not. All the extra weight I’ve carried has guarded my second chakra. Whatever’s left now, only a few pounds, I will lose across the miles—there’s no way not to. The second chakra is represented by orange. I think about the gates in New York and their orange theme, the orange shell I carry on my bag, and the unburdening of myself as I enter the next phase of my life: physical healing, sexual healing.

I must give up, more and more, my need to be understood.

I feel the sunshine on my face. The beautiful snow—it’s spectacular. My legs are holding up so well. I’m doing this thing. It’s day three but I’m doing this thing!

And then finally, after walking about fifty miles over two and a half days: a city. Pamplona. We entered seemingly through the back entrance—it was quieter and slower than I thought it would be. The roads were narrow and cobbled. I imagined bulls running through them. The old center, its cathedral and stone buildings, had been placed right up to the edge of the road. In fact, all of Spain had been constructed with roads as an afterthought. There were no curbs, no sidewalks and virtually no space between one side of the street and the other. It was both claustrophobic and lovely. And quintessentially, idyllically European.

We wound through the streets looking for way markers—yellow arrows keeping us on the path. Most of the way markers in remote areas were hand painted on rocks lying at the side of dirt roadways. Closer to inhabited towns, they were handmade tiles with scallop shells inserted into stone columns. In Pamplona, markings were a combination of both, on sidewalks, lampposts and even on the edges of the buildings. It was fun trying to find them and then marveling at their differences.

The historic center of Pamplona soon gave way to a more modern, industrial metropolis with traffic, the smell of petroleum, billboards I hadn’t seen in days and noise. Advertisements, combustion and busy-ness invaded my senses. My thoughts could no longer reverberate through me unchallenged—I had a host of distractions all competing for my attention. But I loved getting to a city; I felt like I needed people and cars and shops and services. It suddenly felt absurd to be walking though. Cars zoomed by, and it seemed easy enough, and practical, to just hitch a ride. I didn’t, of course.

And then my eyes lit up upon seeing the two most comforting words to date: internet café.

I told my IS to go ahead without me but he refused. He pointed to the park across the street. While I went inside to reconnect with the world, my world, he would be in the park waiting.

I entered the shop and sat down in front of a computer. Ahhh. Just to sit down felt invigorating. But then, when I clicked on the icon for Internet Explorer and typed in my URL, the world came to life.

I wanted first to get word to Lauren whom I’d promised to call or email at my first available moment. I quickly began typing about my first days of walking, the bitter cold, the blizzard of snow, the people.

Subject: I am here!
Date: Wed Mar 2 15:12:25 2005

So many thoughts it’s impossible to log them all. I’m giving up my need to log them. Some of them. I am going to covet getting emails from friends as a way of feeling like I haven’t totally fallen off the planet, but I do have this sense that I am taking it all. I am still smiling. I can’t quite believe that I’m going to log 500 miles or so on these two feet in the next month, but here I am. I feel very full so far, despite bouts with hunger. I have not felt alone since I got here, not because of the guys traveling but because of the people thinking of me. This idea of community gets stronger as I go. For so much of my life I have felt so alone. And here I am, feeling full.

I look forward to more sunshine. I look forward to stopping the bleeding. I look forward to the end. But I am doing my best to stay present.

You are here with me, in my bag, wrapped around my shoulders, keeping me warm.

Tell me what you’re doing and how you are, so I can feel like there is more than snow on the countryside, and small people in tiny houses made of stone.

I love you,

PS—Who the hell won the Academy Awards? It’s been three days since they were presented, and I feel like the only person in the world who doesn’t know!

Then I read the mail I’d received. Among them:

Subject: Hola!
Date: Tue Mar 1 05:24:02 2005

I am thinking of you daily, hourly almost.
I am stunned by your purity of intent and commitment.
Life goes on…I grow…I put one foot fronting t’other, just as you are doing now…regardless of the weather that surrounds me.
Be at peace. Enjoy the freedom.
You are missed and loved.

Once I’d finished, I felt on top of the world. And I didn’t want to explore Pamplona. I had my fill of civilization, and I wanted the silence of the Camino again. I collected my IS, or rather, he collected me, and we stopped briefly in a sprawling, well-lit grocery store for a few provisions. I wanted to make my own dinner as well as breakfast the next morning. Since both of the refuges I’d stayed in had modest kitchens with supplies, I was able to buy two eggs, a baguette, one apple, a can of tuna, a small hunk of cheese and pasta. By the time I left in the morning, all of it would be gone except for the apple and tuna—those would be the only items I’d carry.

Cizur Menor was only 5 km/3 miles past Pamplona, which took a little over an hour or, according to my legs, year. I was so tired I felt like collapsing. But the oasis I’d come to help perk me up. It seemed like the most beautiful place in the world. When we arrived it was nearly 6:00, and the warden, a small woman of about 60, was berating two Canadian women in their 50s about the size of the bags. When I walked in, she burst into applause, pulled my pack off my back and held it up to them. She also informed us that the next week of weather would be bad. “It’s just a cold winter,” she said, shrugging.

The refuge wasn’t just the most plush of any so far—with a full kitchen and garden—but it also had INTERNET! The rooms were beautiful, filled with bunk beds made of oak instead of metal. And it was almost warm. Almost. The sun was still out and tucked into the belly of the mountains. The wind had subsided. I looked up to the peak of Alto del Perdon where the windmills spun. I’d be crossing through them in the morning. I smiled looking at them. They reminded me of home—the windmills in both Palm Springs and San Francisco.

I showered for as long as the hot water lasted (not very), quickly made my meal and jumped back online as I ate it. Lauren had already written me back.

Subject: Re: I am here!
Date: Wed Mar 2 18:28:19 2005


I was giving you a couple of extra days to contact me since I knew there might be circumstances that prevented you from a phone, etc. Don’t worry about writing me if you don’t have the time or are in a certain zone!! I know you are safe and taking it all in as you progress.

By the way: Best Actress Hillary Swank…..Best Actor, Jamie Foxx…..Best Director, Clint Eastwood……Best Movie, Million Dollar Baby!!

Love you,

I fired off a response.

Subject: Re: I am here!
Date: Wed Mar 2 19:45:23 2005


Thanks for the Oscar news. Million Dollar Baby?! No.

Who knew that over the hill from Pamplona, in a tiny town with the best refuge so far, one that is truly a refuge, there would be internet access. It’s more expensive, but I have showered, and I don’t feel rushed. Don’t really care how much I spend.

Oh, what can I tell you? Can I say that I have acquired a companion, he wants very much to be with me, to open my doors, to help me with my pack, to wait for me endlessly… and I can’t do it. Just him walking beside me or behind me keeps me from my internal thoughts. He drags on me like a burden. But it is early yet, and I am just noticing still, and in some ways I have needed him too, for translation, for some illusion of safety. I’m sure he would like to be with me all across Spain. That won’t happen.

The countryside is filled with churches and yet I have not been to one at all. It’s been too cold. After the first two days of arduous conditions, all I wanted to do was burrow. I don’t feel like I need the churches, just the walking.

This is a remote place. Buildings in stone, beautiful old doors. Tiny cars. It feels very far away. But I felt comforted by all the people who care about me and have come with me. It feels very big, bringing everyone with me. I have not felt alone or isolated or scared or angry. I am only just starting, after 50 miles, to sink into what I am doing.

And so what else is there? Why have I come?

Just a few thoughts for now…


Next, I responded to Brenda’s note.

Subject: Re: Hola!
Date: Wed Mar 2 19:56:47 2005

Oh Brenda:

Your words are so coveted, so welcome. Thank you for thinking of me and worrying. I have finally gotten to a computer, and I am able to reach out. It has been an experience already.

Conditions have been fierce. More than I imagined. Today, the little woman who runs this beautiful refuge applauded how small my bag is. It is the smallest of anyone’s, and yet I have so much. I am saying that like a mantra: I have so much. I have so much. So much love.

You are here, Brenda. I opened your first note on the second day. The first day it was simply all about crossing the snow. The mountain pass was impossible, and even the alternate proved horrendous. Finally, I had to take the road, much longer but more clear. I hadn’t imagined it would be so cold.

That’s all for now, dear friend. I love you.

As I kept madly sending emails all over the globe, Lauren had written me back. We were almost speaking in real time.

Subject: Re: I am here!
Date: Wed Mar 2 21:50:43 2005

Hey there,

I am so happy to have the update. I am both pleased and sorry that you have a traveling companion! I’m sure you will find a way to ditch him at some point. But, for those first few days, I like the feeling that someone is aware of you. Keeping an eye out.

I suspect the rest of the journey will be effortless. Effortless effort, that is. How many hours a day are you walking? What is the general routine? Do you have one yet? What time of day do you stop walking? Sleep? Rise? Eat?

Many questions to be answered when you return or when you are in the mood.

Interesting, but I feel that I am going on some emotional journey of my own that parallels yours, yet is a world away.

I am thinking of you every day and longing for all the details, which I know I will get all in good time.

Loving you,

The clock was ticking on my computer and my body was fading, but I simply had to respond.

Subject: Re: I am here!
Date: Wed Mar 2 22:45:20 2005


So many questions. I’ll see if the machine will let me answer before kicking me off.

Routine. Well, in general, I’d say that I hit the road at 7 or 8. Sometimes 9. The walking continues until 3 or 4 or 5 or 6, depending. I may do a long day tomorrow as today was so short. It’s dictated by where there are places to stay. The first two days were 20 miles, today was 14 but felt like 20. Tomorrow the option is for 13 or 20. I’ll see how I feel at 13.

Usually I find something on the road for lunch so I can keep walking. An apple, a banana. Those can be rare as the towns so far have been pretty desolate. I hope there’s more civilization ahead. No routine on dinner yet. The first night was a pretty great pilgrim’s meal that I had to wait for 7 for. That was agony after the first day’s walk/climb. The second night there was no restaurant but spaghetti for sale at the refuge. And tuna. Today in Pamplona, I picked up more pasta, tortellini with cheese, and made a big pot of it. I wanted to eat at “home” tonight. The road is beginning to be home, for sure. I’d much rather eat at a restaurant and get wine and be well fed but that’s been spotty so far. Just so remote.

Last night I was in bed at 8, couldn’t keep myself awake. So far, since the options for staying are so limited, all of the same people show up at the refuges. That’s actually really nice. I could do that the rest of the trip but the Italian is obsessed with me now. Last night he picked the bed above mine, the bunk, and tossed and turned all night. He breaths like he’s angry. Or holding his breath and then letting it out. I don’t know that much about him since we don’t really talk. His English is spotty. I told him this morning that I appreciated his company but that I needed to walk alone. I guess he didn’t understand. He said we could stop whenever I wanted to and he would wait, it’s no problem for him. Of course I felt bad all day. What’s great is that everything I need to look at in myself is coming up, and this taking on of other people’s emotions is a big one. So he, too, is an angel. I’ll try again tomorrow. I thought about just going with him but that’s not why I’m here. I don’t get to walk the way I would. I don’t sing. I don’t talk into the mini tape recorder that Brenda gave me. I don’t stop and sit when I feel like it. Mostly I am conscious of him and of keeping the pace and of keeping to myself. It’s good thinking time but I don’t sink into myself as much as I’d like. I like what I notice, especially how the energy of another changes me. It’s all good stuff. I must be alone tomorrow.

I have a small blister on the top of my big toes. My shoe seems to bend there and it has rubbed. That’s so minor. I’m happy that my feet are holding up. The only soreness I’ve had is today. My calves. Also minor. I’m thrilled that my ankle is feeling good. Very little pain. I have certain pains come up on the trail. My left shoulder seems to get tired early. My right hip flexor is tight.

All mundane details that don’t mean much. Don’t know when next I’ll get to say hello.

That’s all for now, dear Lauren. I’m not dwelling on it but I believe I’ll be the thinnest I’ve ever been when I return. I’m not eating much, not because I don’t want to but because it isn’t available. I hope that my legs will be gorgeous by the end of the road! I do believe that my 40s are going to be about loving my body and living in it. I look forward to that. I can feel the shifts happening.

Hugs. Big ones.


I spent part of the night talking to the Canadians. They had started their Camino in Pamplona so they’d only walked a few miles, and the warden already had them stirred up. Their bags were indeed over-packed. They pulled out reference books they thought they’d need. Bags of freeze-dried food. Lots of changes of clothes. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d reached in and pulled out the kitchen sink. They were not just ill prepared but they were also not in good shape—which they said they’d combat by taking busses and cabs and trains as much as they wanted. They were, however, sunny and cheerful. I adored being with them but I needed sleep. I was aware that fatigue was beginning.

My IS was waiting for me in the room. He’d once again chosen the bunk above me. He lit up upon seeing me and pulled photos from his wallet to show me. He was carrying photos of a friend’s children across the Camino, but I couldn’t understand why. The woman from Argentina had arrived and the young German was there again, too. We laughed at our meeting up again and again. He introduced himself as Simon. His English was impressive.

I tucked myself into my sleeping bag and wrote in my journal.

Simon is a delight, open and friendly and cute and interested in everyone. He’s diligent about learning Spanish and is having dinner with the Argentina girl and his Spanish dictionary. He’s getting quite good. I should have done the same but, alas, they had INTERNET, and so I got sucked into it.

I now know who won the Oscars. Am I better for it? Doubtful.