(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.

On my last day in England, as coincidence would have it, Karen announced that she was taking me to a little coastal town on the English Channel called Lyme Regis, otherwise known at the Jurassic Coast. Karen was on a mission herself: she was on the trail of the story of Mary Anning, who was born in 1799, struck by lightning when she was 15 months old and given great powers as a result. The girl was considered odd her whole life. She began to collect bones from the hillside in Lyme Regis, which was prone to landslides. Once the land would shift, fossils and bones would be exposed. Anning collected the bones and constructed some of the first dinosaurs on record. Of course, because of her gender and her social class, Anning wasn’t taken seriously in the scientific community, and yet her work contributed to fundamental changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.

It was a great story to get wrapped up in, for sure, but what I knew about Lyme Regis was that the area contained rock formations that spanned 185 million years of history. And I wanted a piece of it to take with me on my journey.

Karen and I left early and headed due east, past the lush landscape, the vibrant greenery, the segmented plots of land, the thatched roofs and all the sheep—let’s not forget the sheep! An hour later we were in the unbearably cute town of Lyme Regis. We clomped through the streets first (quaint and small and meandering) and explored the museum off Bridge Street built on the site of Mary Anning’s birthplace (unimpressive). It was cold and windy, but the sun was out. We stopped at a pub, and I couldn’t resist the fish and chips. They were appropriately greasy, and I regretted the decision as soon as they were put in front of me.

I looked out toward the beach, certain beyond certainty that my shell was out there, and I confessed to Karen that I couldn’t leave without it. As soon as the grease and a few beers had been consumed, we headed to the beach to begin the great search. After an hour of walking the shoreline, we found not a stone, a rock, a bone or a shell of any merit in sight. Hope was fading with the sun.

I stopped and closed my eyes, turning my face to the wind. Then I proclaimed, “If I could find a shell, it would be over there.” I pointed toward the seawall and down the cliff beyond. Karen, bless her, was game for anything. As we neared this more exclusive area, we could see sparkles of light reflecting off a million sea shells that littered the sand. Natives could not have kept me from that beach. We clambered along the wall and down the cliff on thin, rickety stone steps. The sun danced across the tide pools and seemed to be pointing out the most beautiful, orange, glowing shell laying in the wet sand.

Orange, I thought, just like the Gates in New York. How perfect!

I slopped through the quicksand in my waterproof shoes, and when I pulled it from the muck, I marveled at it like I’d given birth to it myself. And I scarcely think I’d be more proud of it if I had.

I held it in my hands, turning it over and over, certain of its gifts to me. Orange is the color of the second chakra. Sexuality. I knew that I was beginning to process of inhabiting my body more fully.

Back at Karen’s, I carefully bore a small hole into it so I could attach a string, and I tied it to the back of my pack like a proper pilgrim. It was official: I could now begin the journey.

Karen had invited friends and neighbors over for a festive farewell. I drank too much wine and stayed up late emailing my friend Lauren:

I have felt so loved everywhere I’ve gone that I’m bursting with enthusiasm. I have felt so big with my tiny bald head. And once again, the very thing that I want is right there for me when I need it, and more beautiful than I’d imagined.

Karen has been paying for everything, has INSISTED on it. I’ve had guilt as I struggle to simply receive. She helped me by saying that when she visits another friend of hers, the friend insists on paying so this is Karen’s way of giving back. I do understand that. I give plenty. This is going to be the journey of receiving, something I do need to learn: receiving with grace.

If Karen weren’t so damn entertaining, I might be freaked at this point. But I am well sated, well nourished and quite ready for the next part of this particular journey. I just don’t know what that is, but I can tell you that I am afraid and eager at the same time. As much as I look forward to staring into emptiness, coldness, weather, fatigue and despair, I also wonder if I’m crazy.

It’s my last day of any sort of home. Tomorrow I become a turtle.

Next stop, the Camino.