(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 9, 2005
Day 10: Belorado to Ages, 30.2 km/18.8 m

Martin woke me in the morning. Somehow I had slept through the sound of the entire refuge clearing out for the day. Martin hovered above me nervously and touched my shoulder. Everyone else had left already, he told me, and he wanted to catch up with them. I stared at him for a long, cold moment. “That’s youth talking,” I said, and I wasn’t nice about it.

On the one hand, I adored the idea that he and Simon wanted to travel with me; on the other hand I thought, Whose time schedule are we on?

I crammed my swollen feet into my shoes, and when I stood up they didn’t feel any better than they had the night before. I threw my things into my bag as the boys waited, eyeing me. I moved toward the door as if I was trudging through wet cement. Everything was an effort.

Outside, the sun was blinding but at least it was sun. As we walked away from the refuge, I thought I might be in real trouble. My muscles felt like they would snap at any moment. My legs were as useful as stumps. Every step felt like I consciously had to tell my brain how to lift my foot and thrust it forward. Perhaps the boys shouldn’t have waited for me, I thought, but I kept throwing myself onward and, miraculously, a half hour into the day, I was fine.

In fact, I was more than fine; I was spectacular. The walk was simply gorgeous, and nearly all of it uphill—in the snow. But oddly, it was probably the warmest day yet. The sun sparkled gloriously from every facet of the melting landscape, and I walked on the edge of ecstasy knowing my boys were so close by.



I learned that Simon is from East Germany while Martin is from West Germany. They explained to me a bit about what happened when the Berlin wall came down. In my understanding, after the initial celebrations, fear set in. The unification of Germany threatened Westerners most of all who were afraid that jobs and money would flow to their Eastern counterparts with no benefit to them.

As we spoke, Simon revealed that his father is a Protestant priest, and he and his family had suffered discrimination from the Secret Service because of it. Interestingly enough, Martin’s parents were refugees in the war and had never gone to college. But Martin and his sister are both attending college and determined to make a good life for themselves. Simon is also in college. He’s studying computer technology and has three more years of classes.

I told the boys about the rabbi I had met on the plane and about getting my period and burying my tampon. I told them that I’d explained to the rabbi that the Bible was not something that engaged me. I hoped that didn’t offend Simon who sat quietly every night reading his Bible in silent reflection. I adored his dedication and passion.

I listened as the boys talked, and after a while they wandered ahead of me. I could hear them in conversation, though I could not understand their words. They had switched their dialogue to their native language, of course, and it was so sweet watching them engage. It made me happy to imagine that they were learning something from each other, something positive, something I hoped was special to them both.

At one point on the trail, we came upon a Camino sign over which someone had painted a swastika, and I could see the pain register on Simon’s face. I could feel in him a kindred spirit of sorts, a sensitive, passionate, gentle soul who was open to the world and therefore affected by its cruelties. And moment by moment, he captured me with his depth of heart. There was a man emerging in him, the new model of man, one unafraid of his own vulnerabilities. He was breathtaking to me, and I began to cherish every aspect of him—his legs and the way they moved across the countryside, his eyes and what they tuned into, his smile and how it enveloped the world around him, his adorable pink cheeks that glowed in response to the sunlight.

Martin, handsome Martin, was not yet a man either, and I suspected it would take him longer to become one. Outwardly, Martin exhibited all the textbook qualities of masculinity—he watched out for me with his genuine desire to keep me safe, he was attentive to my needs, even giving me distance when I needed it, but he was ashamed of his vulnerabilities and combative as a result of them. It seemed that as soon as he felt some measure of attraction for me, he became angry with me for having penetrated his walls. He hid his flirtation and playfulness behind belittling jokes and unexpected snowballs all aimed at deflecting his depth of heart. I hoped he would learn to succumb but I couldn’t be certain that he would.


Regardless, I was bursting with such love for these two gentle men. And I began to think about the walls we erect, not just the physical walls like the one that divided Germany, but about the barriers, seen and unseen, erected by governments and religions and class systems—walls erected by fears that are so penetrating they lead us to create boundaries, borders and separation. It seemed to me that if I was learning something on the Camino, it was how much we were all the same. Despite our ages, our incomes, our lifestyles or languages, we were all simply walkers, moving onward one step at a time. And despite the fears we carried, we were all tremendously giving and loving and worthy and generous and beautiful. The Camino literally cut a path right through the blood and battles, so many of them marked and commemorated, and though I still didn’t know why I was traversing it, it felt more and more like I was uniting with something—perhaps it was the heart of all the people who had ever walked it. I hoped I could go home and see the world as I had seen the Camino—as a path we each walk, and at the core of which we were all the same.


I began to think about Fran and what she had told me so long ago, things that have reverberated through me ever since. Fran is a psychic I’d met more than ten years before when I went to her home for a reading just to prove to myself that psychics are quacks. Nothing in my logical, rational mind supported their validity. But after little more than an hour, she was able to sum me up with the sort of pinpoint accuracy no therapist had ever managed. And curiosity soon won out over logic. Now, Fran was my friend and mentor, pulling me ever closer to residing in Quackville myself.

When I’d met her, she wasn’t at all as I’d imagined her to be. She didn’t wear flashy clothes or jewelry, and her home didn’t stink of incense. There were no alien rock formations, no altars with sacrificial adornments and no placards with goofy symbols that implied entrance into some mystical club for the certifiably inane and insane. Instead, she had only a simple presence, a warm hug and a loving tone of voice that easily permeated my layers of jaded skepticism. She closed her eyes and settled in for what would become my first meeting with someone who claimed to have access to the world of the unseen.

“I’m noticing the light energy you’re doing around people,” she said. “It’s pretty strange. I just see shapes, colors. I don’t mean you’re strange, I just mean the process is strange, so if you get weirded out just say, ‘Fran, it’s too weird.'”

I shifted uncomfortably in her padded, vinyl kitchen chair and watched her pupils dance behind her eyelids. She reacted to things I could not see. She smiled. Unsure of where to look, I stared at her closed eyes in anticipation.

“You’ve been a man, like, forever. In this life it’s as if your spirit is saying, ‘You’re kidding? I’m a woman and I’m in America?'”

I laughed at that. I’ve never been quite comfortable in my body. I thought it was just the extra weight.

“You’ve always been a tremendous leader and really powerful,” she continued. “And you still are. But you’re frustrated because you feel trapped in this system and this body.” She paused, searching through images before her.

“There’s a little bit of tightness that I pick up around your eyes. You’re very intellectual. I don’t mean intellectual like you’re reading at the library, but it’s more like you have to figure everything out: it’s got to be logical, rational and justified. Now this is going to be tricky because you’re extremely creative—your whole right side is lit up, that’s the artist. So, you’ve got the best of both worlds, and it will also drive you nuts because when the creative artist is trying to justify things, it’s like going into the enemy camp. See, art and creation are not logical. At all. They’re not even in the same school.”

I felt myself begin to relax in some strange way. A tight fist within was unhinging and opening for the first time ever.

“Boy, you were really an adult when you were young,” she continued. “And you have a lot of old rage coming out of early family stuff.”

I braced myself, certain she was about to delve into my sexual abuse. But her face softened, and she smiled.

“The good news is that the other side of the rage is the passion and the creation. The real high transformational people in history—the Gandhi, the Martin Luther King, the Jesus—they had rage in them because if we don’t, we go into a sort of apathy. You have that same rage, too. And it doesn’t mean you’re not loving and obviously of humor and everything, but you look like a pressure cooker to me; you’re really ready to explode. The trick is to direct the explosion into the creative, to put your heart so much into a project that you do not take no for an answer, and you push through every wall and every door. The mind says, ‘That seems too hard. Why should I have to?’ It can be easy but there’s some karma you have, some process you’re working out that has to do with integrating all of it in the female body and realizing that real power comes from the heart. You have always had power before in your other lives. You have been the heads of armies, the heads of state, the guy that says, ‘Thumbs down, kill all these people.’ Those are the pictures I get around you. But now, in this life, you don’t get to have power through the ego. In this life, you only get to have is courage.” She held up a finger. “Courage is a French word that means ‘full of heart.'”

I took a moment to digest that. I’d never thought of courage in that way before. But if those words had given me pause, the next ones halted me.

“In this life,” she said slowly, “your soul purpose is to help everybody else win. And incidentally, you’re going to win, too.”

My session with Fran was an hour and a half long, but the impact of it resonated for years. I hated a lot of what she said, and I struggled against it. It’s difficult to disarm the ego. And ten plus years of diligent study seemed to have resulted in very little progress. But I saw myself in Simon and Martin—the heart and the ego—and I could finally recognize the difference, nearly on sight. I was not going to be seduced by the ego anymore, not in men and not in my life; all I could do was succumb to the heart.


I prayed for my life ahead—that I would always appreciate simplicity, that I would remember I have everything I need. Always. I teared up at the thought that I had discovered something new in me, that when I dig past the surface and get down to what might be deeply within me, it seemed to be happiness and gratitude and a vibrant, flourishing sense of self love. I took a moment to drop to my knees and thank God for providing me the recognition, for allowing me the experience of the Camino, for leading me to it, for giving me snow and cold and trekking poles and all of my many guides who were so gently pointing the way.

People who had walked ahead of us on that particular day had written messages in the snow. We couldn’t read all of them but when the boys started howling with laughter, I raced to join in their amusement. “Toilet” had been written in yellow, and that gave us all a good laugh. It was perhaps the greatest elevation of the Camino, with snow all around, but I became aware that I felt more warmth from the sunshine than I had since arriving. And it was the first day I’d taken off my gloves. I smiled at the metaphor.

The sun, however, did more than warm; it was beginning to burn us, Simon in particular. I hauled out my sunscreen and its 44 SPF, and we passed it around every few hours. I was concerned about Simon’s nose, which had seen too many days of sun unprotected. I was alarmed by its rawness until we sat down on a hillside for lunch, and Simon took off his boots. The state of his feet was far more troubling; they were a mass of blisters that were bulbous and filled with pus. As soon as we started walking, I would be on the lookout for signs of civilization with shops that might carry proper insoles for his boots. Until then, each of us reached into our bags and pulled out the food we carried, modest offerings that we would all share. Simon had cookies! I couldn’t believe that I had been walking ten days without cookies, and as we polished off the bag of them I doubted that another day would pass without them.

We had another couple of hours of walking to reach the refuge in San Juan. On the way, Simon asked a lot of questions about how movies and television shows were made. I explained to him the difference between a sitcom and a movie. A television comedy is filmed in a studio in front of an audience with four cameras swirling around the actors as they perform the script in sequence from beginning to end. A movie, on the other hand, is shot with one camera, in small pieces out of sequence, in locations that can vary all over the world.

The day had started precariously but it had become my favorite on the Camino so far, even as fatigue was setting in. Simon’s blisters were really beginning to bother him. He was walking on the outside edges of his boots, clearly in pain. He had drifted ahead of Martin and I, and suddenly he started shouting, jumping up and down. When we could make out what he was saying, we learned that we were much farther ahead than we had thought. After only an hour’s walk, we were already arriving in San Juan. Our fatigue melted knowing that we were only steps away from our night’s lodging… Except that our night’s lodging, we soon discovered, was closed. It was another 6.2 km (nearly 4 miles) to the next refuge. We still had those couple of hours of walking that we thought we’d been spared, but it was all downhill and somehow we were invigorated.

An hour later we entered a small town called Ages. It was tiny and took all of about three minutes to pass through. But oddly, as we were just leaving, we came upon the Italian walking back into town toward us. He’d been to the next refuge, the one we were going to, and found that it was closed. He was told that he could either walk another 13 miles on to Burgos or return to Ages, which had a new refuge that had just opened. I could barely believe it. Once again, my Italian Shepherd was guiding me. He’d been given directions to this new place, and we all went together to find it. When we arrived, two ladies greeted us warmly, telling us we were among the first pilgrims to be welcomed to their beautiful refuge. They showed us to our room and promptly went off to the kitchen to prepare our dinner. I went immediately to the white, clean showers and took my time in the abundance of hot water shaving my legs. Then the four of us sat down and ate dinner together. I smiled at Massimo more than I had since I’d met him. And I knew he could feel my warmth.

When we finished eating, I poured myself one last glass of wine and slipped off to the internet in the front room of new refuge in Ages.

My first email was from my friend Jeanette, who was writing a play about her experiences recovering from a brutal assault. The play was opening in Washington, DC, the first week of April. I hadn’t promised her I would be there but I desperately wanted to celebrate this latest milestone in her life. (You can read about Jeanette’s assault from my perspective in a series of blogs that begins here.)

Subject: Hola. Que’ tal?
Date: Tue Mar 8 21:17:12 2005

Dear Tess,
I feel so honored to hear from you. I know that internet time doesn’t come easily and that you are exhausted but I love reading your emails. It’s thrilling to know that you are there. Walking away. I imagine your feet and legs after a long day. I wonder how your ankle is holding up. I’m moved by your acceptance and your investigation into the places that you hold pain or tension.

When I told Leah about your journey she immediately said — I want to do that — so some Jews don’t hold the same prejudice against Spain as your airplane rabbi friend. Actually, Leah and I spent some time talking about making the journey together — walking separately and meeting up in the evenings and mornings. I think it would be a bonding experience for her and I — particularly since we’ve been friends for so long — over half my life — we’ll talk and see how real that is. I wonder if it’s necessary to go to Spain or if a walking spiritual journey can happen along the Appalachian Trail.

I wrote a new final page for the play. I think it’s lovely. I don’t think the experience or the journey is finished, but it is what I can say right now. I try to define what is sacred and then I claim the assault as sacred in my life. As something that was a challenge, a mystery, full of suffering, yet also offered me so much in terms of the love that I received. That love helps to change the message of all the tapes in my head that have said that I am unlovable. It’s been difficult to finish, to put an end to the piece. It does feel like I am still so in process, still learning and digesting what happened.

I had this experience today that I wanted to share with you. I walked into the women’s restroom at work and one of my co-workers was standing in the corner sobbing. I went over to her and hugged her and she just sobbed, big raking, chest heaving sobs. This went on for several minutes. I thought someone must have died.

Finally she told me that a man that she had been dating is a con artist. She had just found out a few days before and broken off her relationship with him. Now he was harassing her, calling her constantly and emailing. She was worried that he might show up at any minute and hurt her and her sister — they share an apartment. At the moment I was hugging her I felt that everything that I had ever experienced had brought me to that moment to be present for that person. I didn’t really have to talk, although I reassured her that she had done nothing wrong by letting someone into her life and loving him, but just being there was enough. It was amazing, and I new that the attack and my experiences because of it had made me available for that person.

Thinking of you on your journey, my strong, amazing friend. Sending love, and warmth and strength.

jeanette

Ironically, my next email was from my friend Rob who had lived in the duplex next to me with his wife Amy during Jeanette’s assault.

Subject: Howdy Pilgrim!
Date: Wed Mar 9 01:37:23 2005

Dear Tess,

Pardon the subject heading—I just had to do it.

I am so thankful for your emails! I read them to Amy every night and it makes us feel so close to you. We’re really grateful to be included in this journey just by knowing you. It’s very cool.

It snowed a blizzard here yesterday and we thought of you, trudging through the snow there in Spain. It really makes one appreciate LA weather—

These lyrics came to mind as I read your March 8th entry:

The moment I let go of it was
The moment I got more than I could handle
The moment I jumped off of it was
The moment I touched down

It’s from Alanis Morissette’s song ‘Thank U’

I’m off to St. John’s tomorrow to keep your light burning!
Love & Peace & all good things,

Rob and the Ladies

And finally, before bed, I had to send one last word to my dear Lauren.

Subject: Re: Got hair?
Date: Wed Mar 9 07:07:44 2005

Lauren:

Where was I last? On the trail with my boys, Simon and Martin, no doubt. I am tending to Simon as best I can. I cannot believe the size and amount of his blisters. I came well prepared for blisters but I’ve had only one very small one, days ago. So tonight I gave him all my stuff. What is so beautiful is that we all have so little and we share it so freely. Whatever we are carrying, all of us, whomever I meet, we just share what we have. When the boys and I sat down at the side of the trail today, we pulled out our offerings and gave it away to each other. It is heaven being here. I think every day I say, this is my favorite day. I repeat over and over again, all day, I’m so happy right now. The boys just laugh at me.

Today we headed up in elevation, ready for cold, and it was the warmest, most beautiful day yet. There was snow all along the trail, but the sky was blue and the sun was out. I was able to take my gloves off and even in moments I took off my hat. The sun sparkling on the snow, up, up, up to the highest point so far, was ecstasy. I let the boys walk ahead of me so that I could be alone. I love that they are connecting. Simon is from East Germany and Martin is from West Germany. They often speak in German, about futbol sometimes, religion, the government. On the mountain I thought so much about the things that separate us — governments and religions and skin colors. I loved walking that mountain and feeling one with everyone who has ever been there. I grieve for my country, our politics, this war we have ignited. I have apologized on more than one occasion for the actions of my government. It makes me sad. Martin spoke the other day of having to serve 10 months in the military and how good it is for everyone to have to do that so that “you just don’t send the poor boys off to war.”

We got to the top of the mountain and sat down in the snow and had a picnic. Me and the boys. I am loving them, being with them, feeling cared by them, even having snowball fights with them. Soon we will part but I can’t think about that.

The refuge in the last town was closed so we moved onto a small village called Ages, accent over the g. There was a brand new refuge with hot water, all you can take. I sat down on the floor of the shower and let the water fall over me. I shaved my legs sitting there. I laughed. I sang. I felt so happy. Did I mention that the Italian Shepherd has returned again? He was ahead of us today but returned to lead us to the new refuge here. I was actually happy to see him again and even happier that I could be tender with him. We all enjoyed a hot meal, toasted our good fortune and laughed.

More. Anon.

Tess

——

As I post this entry on October 7, 2011, I would like to announce that my dear, sweet Simon, the “heart” of my Camino, is getting married tomorrow. A very smart and beautiful woman named Franzi will be his wife. If you’d like to send them your well wishes, please log your comment below and I will put up a photo of their celebration as soon as I can.