(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 6, 2005
Day 7: Torres del Rio to Navarette, 34.7 km/ 21.5 m

When I awakened, Martin was still on his bed, and I was on mine. We smiled at each other and said good morning. We went down to the kitchen and made breakfast with the Canadians. The meal was slightly less festive if only because we knew it would be our last together.

I was certain that when I hugged them goodbye, I would never see them again.

Martin and I left the refuge together. We were greeted by Torres del Rio in the sun, and it was a paradise. Tiny cobbled streets formed a maze around the town’s most prominent feature—an octagonal church from the days of the Knights Templar. And the views surrounding were simply breathtaking.

We both stood for a long moment in awe. And then Martin asked the most beautiful question. “Is it okay if I walk with you?”

I met his eyes and smiled. “Thank you for asking,” I said. “I would love that.”

And so I walked with tall, handsome, sweet, 24-year-old Martin, from Cologne, in school studying economics, my German Knight. I told him about my Italian Shepherd—how I was trying not to be annoyed, but I didn’t understand his interest in me.

Martin looked at me sweetly, cocked his head and said, “Well, it’s obvious. You are beautiful!”

I was stunned by that. I certainly didn’t feel beautiful. I had yesterday’s mud on my pants. I’d slept in the shirt I was wearing. And let’s not forget about my hair, or lack thereof. Perhaps it’s been a long time since Martin’s seen a woman, I thought.

As we moved onward, a perfect day unfolded. The sun came out, the clouds were full and beautiful, the view was spectacular and the path was amazing. Martin studied the clouds and told me where the rain was and when it was coming. “Not today,” he said.

It certainly looked like rain to me. The wind was kicking up, and mist was collecting on my jacket, but Martin explained that as a glider pilot, he’d become adept at reading the clouds. A glider pilot? Really? I was fascinated.

Perhaps the rain would hold off but it was another full day of mud. About an hour into our day, I slipped in a puddle and wrenched my ankle—my GOOD ankle. Martin reached for me and pulled me up as I swore. Then he sat down on a rock next to me and began removing the gaiters that covered his boots. “I’m not the Italian,” he said, “but I want you to wear these mud protectors.”

There was something about Martin that made me want to be protected. I happily accepted, and he expertly slid them on over my shoes. I proceeded to limp for the next few miles. The gaiters didn’t help my ankle at all, but they did keep the mud out. And the conversation was a nice distraction.

When he found out I was a writer, he had a lot of questions. I told him I’d just finished writing a screenplay for a movie, called Crew—based on the true story of the 1987 University of Minnesota rowing team. I’d also just finished writing a book called Playing With Fire, which was harder to describe. “It’s about things that produce heat,” I told him. “Men and God and war and love.” I could tell that these things about me fascinated him, too. It felt good to be the object of fascination.

“I notice you have pepper spray attached to your bag,” he said. “I’m curious about what made you bring it.”

I smiled. I liked his observation, and I wondered if he knew already why it was so prominently displayed. “I had a bad experience in Spain once,” I responded. “And I was a little afraid of coming back.” I tried to shake the memory from my mind. “Well, I was a lot afraid of coming back. So I needed something that might make me feel more comfortable.”

He nodded, taking that in. We walked in silence for a very long time. Probably a half hour passed as we monitored our muddy steps—me stabbing at the soft ground with my poles, Martin with his arms folded like a counterbalance to his pack. Finally, Martin said quietly, “I hope you kicked his ass.”

I laughed as the tears came. They were tears of such gratitude. This sweet, sweet man was also intuitive. And that’s when I started thinking about kissing him. I thought about kissing him a lot. I imagined that he would let me. In fact, I imagined that he was thinking the same thing. But I’d long since abandoned making the first move with men. I’d determined, through uncomfortable years of trial and error, that if I had to initiate romance I was with the wrong man. I needed a man who was stronger than me. I hadn’t found him yet. But Martin was certainly giving me hope. I couldn’t keep the passionate images from my mind, and they excited me—not for 24-year-old Martin, necessarily, but for the place I was opening that would allow the next man his space in me. Oh how I long for that man, I thought, that tender man who cherishes me.

And that was the day. All day. Rolling hills, beautiful scenery and a man walking beside me. When we reached Logroño, the capital of La Rioja wine region, Martin walked on the street side, sheltering me.

Logroño was enormous and perhaps the first place in which I felt I could actually live. It was bustling but still charming. We wound through the busy, European streets that were loaded with energy and excitement. They were also loaded with storks, of all things. Flying overhead, nesting in the trees and rooftops and church spires.

It had been days since my last internet fix, and I was certain that Logroño would not disappoint. I put Martin, who spoke impressive Spanish, on the hunt. He stopped two young men coming toward us who were soon pointing and gesturing as Martin nodded and looked ahead hopefully. I stood by reading their expressions but understanding little else. Until Martin laughed and said, “She’s from America, too.”

The young men were American exchange students at the university: Trevor from Idaho and Dawson from upstate New York. White teeth, bright smiles and oh so cute. All I could think, surrounded by three delicious boys in their twenties, was, Goodness, I’m old!

The internet café was closed, but on the boys’ recommendation we ate at The Drunken Duck, which was the Spanish equivalent of TGI Fridays. The menu came with photos. I pointed to the best-looking sandwich on the laminated page. When it arrived, I discovered I’d ordered a ham sandwich, something I’d never eat back home. But I inhaled it regardless. It wouldn’t have been the first mysterious and disappointing meal I’d had on the Camino. And it wouldn’t be the last!

After Logroño, we pushed on for another twelve and a half kilometers (nearly eight miles!). If it had been half that, I would have been happier. Oh, the distance was killing me, and my ankle, the one I’d twisted, had throbbed all day. In fact, everything ached. When we got to Navarette, the refuge was closed. I sat down on the cold pavement, defeated. The thought of walking another three and a half miles to the next town was an impossibility.

Concerned, Martin jumped into action. “I will find us a place to stay.”

Ten minutes later he returned announcing that a new refuge had just opened right around the corner. I was more than relieved; I was nearly brought back to life. The refuge was run by an adorable couple and their children. It was connected to their house. The bunk beds were clean and well made. They had good supplies—wine and food and heat and hot showers! I could no longer stand so I sat down on the floor of the shower and let the hot water fall on me for a very long time. Afterward, Martin and I sat in the kitchen wolfing down pasta and drinking wine. The television was on in the background. When the weather report came on, a graphic appeared with a big word under it, lluvia… rain!

When we finally fell onto our bunks, Martin smiled at me and said, “I would like to read your book. I would like to know your thoughts about men and God and war and love and other things that produce heat.”

If I’d had it with me, I would have read it to him, at least the beginning…


Excerpt from Playing With Fire:

Earth is the only planet in our solar system to contain fire. Lightning strikes somewhere along the Earth’s surface about a hundred times every second, and I’m tired of being struck by it. I’ve had enough of romances that ignite with a flash only to burn out quickly and disappear in the sky.

Fire is both a menace and a necessity. It can be unpredictable, it can be undiscriminating, it can be unkind, but without exception, fire transforms what it touches. So the trick is, it seems to me, that once you’ve got a good fire going, you’ve got to keep it going—without it going out of control. And that’s quite a delicate trick.

I’m a heat-monger. I seek the comfort of warmth but unfortunately I don’t yet know how to keep from getting burned. So I have begun to research the history of fire on our planet in the hope that it might teach me something about myself. And men. And God. And love. And war. I wonder, for instance, how it is that we humans are, like fire, simultaneously the most constructive force on the planet and the most destructive. And I wonder how to make peace with this duality: what to let burn and what to keep from burning.

Apparently it wasn’t until humans learned to control fire and harness its energy that civilization began to make significant progress.

Control the fire. Harness the energy.

I, too, am trying to make progress. But being a woman is hard. There are those of us who have surrendered to it and love it, and then there are those of us who are just putting up with it. I’m putting up with it. When I was a child, I fought it off with every passing year. Tomboys are encouraged and celebrated in childhood, and I couldn’t quite let go of mine.

I grew up in Mason, Michigan, with a Dairy Queen on one end of the street and a Catholic Church on the other. In the first one, I would shove too many pieces of Bazooka bubblegum into my mouth and blow a pink globe big enough to reach the brim of my baseball cap. In the other, I would sit impatiently in the hard, wooden pew, a freckle-faced, long-haired, blond girl in her finest dress, craning to look up at pictures of Jesus forever dying on the cross. And I would pray in earnest, “Dear God, when I wake up please let me be a boy.” But since that never happened, I felt ignored and betrayed.

What good is a God who doesn’t answer your prayers?

My father didn’t really help the process. When I was nine, my father called me to come in from the river after a long day of swimming. I curled up into his lap, cold and shivering, and he tugged at the front of my one-piece bathing suit. “You’re getting bumples,” he said.

I drew the towel around me to barricade his leering eyes from my developing breasts, and he laughed. It was a menacing laugh that burned into me and left an impression so deep that now, decades later, I still hate him for it.

Despite my lengthy and vehement protests aimed at some divine being who clearly wasn’t listening, I continued to develop all the outward signs of being a woman, and those things gained the attentions of men. I don’t recall the exact moment I decided to use them, these womanly pieces of myself, but use them I did. Eventually. Since then I am reluctant to count the lovers I’ve had, I can only confess that I did not see a year with any of them. Now, in retrospect, it seems to me that I attract men because of my intellect, my wit, my independence and my fiery world perspective. Then I drive them away with my intellect, my wit, my independence and my fiery world perspective. In the midst of those two events, I have offered up my body as a sacrifice: like me for how I seduce you rather than for who I am.

Following each break up, it would generally take at least a year for the tears to stop and for me to take back possession of my Self. But Marc has helped me set a New World Record: six months. Marc is the one who told me he didn’t want a relationship that consumed him as much as ours did. He said that he thought about me too much, that I was interrupting his work and his sleep and his ability to function productively. Six months later I received a postcard in the mail with a beautiful woman lifting herself out of the pool, all breast and teeth. On the back of the card in Marc’s messy scrawl was written, “Meet my new wife.”

Control the fire. Harness the energy.

The truth is, I’m disappointed in men. It seems to me that my most nourishing moments of communication and love and partnership and intimacy have not been with men but with women. One woman in particular. If it’s true that our friends mirror aspects of ourselves then I am not at all who I think I am. I’m better.

Lauren is the kind of woman I hated on sight for being everything I am not: gorgeous, elegant, sexy and every inch of her graced with a femininity that overwhelms a room. Maybe we became friends because I wanted to be just like her. When we first met, I would sit next to her and study her clothing, the way she moved, how she used her hands in conversation. The trouble was that sitting next to her only highlighted my inadequacies at being a woman. Thankfully, it didn’t impact our friendship. Now, more than ten years into it, Lauren has become the embodiment of the divine feminine, and in moments of indecision I ask myself, What would Lauren do? It’s become such an overriding mantra that I want to wear its symbol as a proclamation, a red woven bracelet with the letters WWLD in white.

Over the six months that I had grieved the loss of Marc, Lauren never once lost patience with me. She never rolled her eyes at my incessant flood of tears and the nonsensical spinning of my thoughts. She never let a phone call go unreturned. And she never judged how slowly and clumsily I pulled myself back together. When Marc’s postcard arrived, I sent out the signal flare once again and phoned her immediately. I crammed the glossy postcard into my purse and rocketed over to our favorite Santa Monica restaurant, the 17th Street Café. The waitress showed us to our regular table near the wall, and as I pulled out my chair, I announced, “I’m not crying in here tonight.”

I didn’t make it a habit of crying in restaurants but as a result of Marc I had shed tears in uncomfortably public places.

“Is that a new shirt?” she asked.

“Yeah. I was looking for something for my brother’s birthday. This was in the sales rack, and you know how I love a nice, big, sloppy man’s shirt to hide behind.” I was swimming in the thing, all the while taking note of how Lauren’s top accentuated her shape.

“It’s a good color for you,” she said.

“I thought so, too. I’m just a little concerned that if I ever go out again, I’m afraid I’ll show up wearing better men’s clothing than my date.” And with that, I burst into tears. I sat there at the table near the wall and I cried.

Lauren smiled and touched my arm. “You are so beautiful when you cry.”

I rolled my eyes, self-conscious. “I hope everyone else in the restaurant thinks so, too.”

“No one’s even noticing.”

I wanted to blow my nose, but the napkins were cloth. “Oh God, I hate this. I hate him!” I pulled out the damn postcard. “This! This is what he married? And here’s the best part: I’m still fantasizing about getting back together because I don’t believe it. Here it is, this is his handwriting, and I don’t believe it for a second. Ahhh. How could all these opposite thoughts exist at the same time? Yesterday I was totally over him and today I want to have his children.”

With no more fuel for my tirade, I wilted into the chair, shoulders stooped, hands limp, head hanging lifeless. “I’m pathetic. I pretend I’m such a strong person but I have no control over my emotions.”

Lauren took a long drink of water and set the glass down carefully. Bubbles of condensation raced for the tablecloth. “I used to have a button that said, ‘It comes from tolerating contradictions,'” she said. “It’s head-spinning allowing two emotional extremes to sit next to each other. But I have to believe that one is serving the other. We can’t accept only the light and turn away from the darkness. We don’t get to say, ‘I’m not going to be like this.’ Because it won’t go away.”

She moved her glass to the side of the table and smoothed the water-ringed cloth underneath it. “And so the only choice is to sit here and feel it all.” Her fingers tapped out each beat: “All the chaos, all the confusion and all the contradictions.” Then she turned her palms upward, cupped into a receptive bowl, a womb. “Maybe if we give ourselves permission to be all these things at once, then we’re more available to be fully conscious.”

I stared at the reservoir of her beautiful hands. Still, I bit my lip and shook my head. “You know, at a certain point, all this spiritual ideology is just bullshit. Look, I’d love to be able to get totally one with God and be in a state of divine peace all the time. But God doesn’t curl up with me at night. I’ve already heard it all. My pain comes from the fact that I’m resisting this. If I could just accept it, I wouldn’t hurt so much. Well, I don’t really want to be a meditating monk on the mountaintop. So the question is, do I want God or do I want Marc? And today, as ludicrous and illogical as this clearly is, I want the guy.” I swallowed hard. “And being unable to stop makes me feel so ashamed.”

Lauren’s warm eyes embraced me. “How could loving someone to the degree that you love Marc ever make you feel ashamed?”

I wiped my face on the napkin and stared at the surrounding tables, all of them filled with people who were engaged in their own lives and not noticing the pain in mine. I couldn’t meet Lauren’s eyes.

“Because loving someone this stupid makes me feel needy and pathetic.”

“And so closing your heart and being invulnerable makes you feel strong?” she asked rhetorically.

I finally looked at her. I knew what she was getting at but wisdom goes out the window when your heart is broken. “Yes,” I said. “Strength to me feels like I ought to be able to shut it all off. Being so vulnerable, it makes me feel powerless and out of control. And I don’t like it.” I scraped my tears off on the sleeve of my new shirt. “I don’t think I know who I am anymore. Talk about contradictions, I’ve got these two sides that don’t link up at all. There’s the confident, aggressive, masculine part of myself—and you know what? The truth is, I feel so much more comfortable there, being a boy, wearing boy’s clothes and conquering the world. Because what’s the girl in me doing? She’s bleeding emotionally all over the place, and I can’t believe I haven’t stopped yet. It’s embarrassing. Wanting to be desired makes me feel weak and stupid.”

Lauren smiled. “Oh, sweetheart, don’t you see? It’s not that you’re not feminine, it’s that you don’t ever honor your femininity.”

My chest began to burn with an overwhelming shame. I dropped my head and covered my face.

“I don’t care if you were a tomboy when you were a kid,” she continued. “I don’t care how you dress or that you’re good at sports or that you wear comfortable shoes. The truth is, your emotional process and everything else about you is inherently feminine. And you’ve been protecting it so ferociously for so long that you don’t even know it’s there.”

My body heaved as I tried desperately to catch my breath. I kept taking in air but couldn’t get it to go back out.

My God, could she be right? How could I have never known this?

I don’t think I realized until just that moment how much I had resented and rejected everything feminine about myself. In fact, if she was right, I had been ignoring my very essence. Suddenly it seemed clear that in order to feel truly whole it would be necessary to reconcile my internal fragments. The boy in me would have to make room for the girl, and the girl would have to finally claim her space.

Lauren reached over and touched my cheek. I couldn’t bear to meet her beautiful, loving eyes. “And I know, with every cell in my body,” she said softly, “that some day very soon you’re going to be attracted to a man who wants to protect you and cherish you and make love to you instead of diminish you.”