(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 10, 2005
Day 11: Ages to Burgos, 24.5 km/15.2 m

As I was making eggs for Martin, Simon and I, my Italian Shepherd popped into the kitchen to say goodbye. He was leaving ahead of me with no discomfort or fanfare. He no longer needed something from me, and I no longer guarded myself from him. We were finally able to share a sweet smile and a friendly hug.

The morning was a visual feast. We were greeted with spectacular views and a layer of frost blanketing them. The grass, the fence, the trees, the stones—everything was coated with a shield of ice. It was cold, of course, but I didn’t mind it.

The top of the first hill in Atapuerca was shrouded in a fog so dense we couldn’t see 100 feet in front of us. The thickness of the haze made everything appear in black and white, and walking through it was like entering an Ansel Adams photograph.

I lagged behind, letting the boys go ahead. I needed some time of silence and internal discussion. I was still thinking about the change in Martin’s behavior. He was hardening. His jabs at me had an edge, an unkind one. I knew he was sensing rejection and reacting to it, but it still surprised me. At times he acted as if he’d laid claim to me and could therefore be cruel. He’d become a fighter, and he was fighting me. Any time I got close to complimenting him, he’d reject my words, sometimes with a harsh, “Liar!” He was clearly pushing me away, and it saddened me.

I watched Martin and Simon in the fog ahead, and I saw myself in each of them. In Simon, I saw my serenity, or at least my quiet contemplation. In Martin, I saw so much more. I saw the part of me that opened so eagerly and closed so quickly. I saw my fear of rejection in the face of desire. I saw the fighter in me—fighting attraction, fighting being known, fighting tenderness and vulnerability. I was growing farther and farther past all that, and I trusted that Martin would, too, but I probably wasn’t going to see it. In ten years, I suspected he’d be quite a catch, and some lovely young woman would reap the rewards of him.

I thought about my initial attraction to him, and how much I’d thought about kissing him. In the real world, I would have likely slept with him too soon. In fact, all of my past relationships had been shaped by a race to the bedroom. Yes, I was an active participant, sometimes an eager one, caught up in the frenzy of enticement, giving in to expectation. But that was not my real desire. I had never once gone to bed with a man when I was entirely comfortable, open and ready. I kept attracting men who assumed I knew exactly what I was doing, that I was completely in control, that I could take care of myself. I never gave them the impression that I could be hurt. I had traded sexuality for intimacy. If I hadn’t, maybe I could have discovered sooner the ones who weren’t yet capable of intimacy. And maybe I could have spared myself some heartache.

In the real world, I figured that once I’d slept with Martin I would have tolerated his distance and cruelty because I would have been too fully invested. On the Camino, I thought about all those things I have tolerated in men, and I made a promise to myself to not to do it again. I also decided that I would not harden to Martin. Instead, I would allow him his edge and remain tender in spite of it because I knew there was a softness inside him that wanted only to be loved and accepted, just like me.

When I rejoined the boys, Martin was adding a stone to one of the way markers on the trail. He said he’d decided that every day we were to add a stone and receive a wish. I waited for Martin and Simon to make theirs, and as I watched them I felt overwhelmed with happiness. I picked up a stone and wished that I would allow myself to feel that level of happiness again and again and again for the rest of my life. I wished that I would always seek awareness, entertain an inner dialogue, be present, and find bliss and gratitude and magic in every day. It continued to amaze me how much gratitude was linked to happiness. I was blown away by how grateful I felt for every little thing—when the trail was not muddy, when a spot of sun appeared, when a small shop had fresh fruit, when there were heaters and hot water in the refuges. I loved noticing the simple pleasures. I loved carrying everything I needed and nothing more. I loved that the journey was so taxing. But I especially loved that I felt so much happiness so much of the time. I’d been doing that sort of thing my whole life—braving the elements, putting myself into extreme situations—but suddenly I realized that my most extreme journey had revealed a depth of happiness that filled me to the brim.

We entered Burgos through what appeared to be a landfill, and the sight of trash, particularly on the Camino, was heartbreaking. We found a mall and ordered a late lunch from the food court. As we ate, we discussed our options. Simon was staying the night in Burgos in the refuge at the far edge of town; Martin didn’t want to be in a city so he was pushing onward. I was straddling the continental divide between them, uncertain. I didn’t much want to be in a city either but continuing on meant walking another seven miles. After the fifteen miles we’d just logged, I wasn’t sure I had any more left in my feet. I didn’t want to say goodbye to either of the guys, but I knew it was time.

It was a slow, thoughtful walk the rest of the way into Burgos, past the billboards and the traffic and the people and the noise. All of it felt so unnatural after a day of frost on the mountain, and the peace of an uncluttered skyline. There was a calmness and beauty to Burgos, to the ring of ancient architecture that surrounded the cathedral, but I’d already decided I wouldn’t stay.

I hugged Simon, long and hard, and sent him off toward the refuge with all of my medical tape and half of my sunscreen. His sweet cherub cheeks smiling goodbye filled my eyes with tears. I turned back toward Martin, and he pointed. Across the street was an internet café.

“Can you keep it to ten minutes?” he asked.

I smiled and nodded.

I sat down at the computer to find an email from my friend Rob in New York.

Subject: Kisses to the Camino!
Date: Fri Mar 10 12:51:44 2005

Hi Tess!
This is what I wrote on the candle at St. John’s Cathedral:

To Tess on the Camino

I turned it around so it looked like all the others…

Keep on keepin’ on!
You are in our thoughts and prayers.
The Roys

I sat staring at the screen, imaging that candle so far away in my cathedral in New York. I thought about my Poet’s Corner. I thought about my little chair, the one in which I always cry. And I burst into tears. I was tired, and I didn’t want to walk anymore. I wanted to sit in the cathedral in Burgos and cry—all night if I felt like it. I needed down time. And that meant, of course, that I would be saying goodbye to Martin.

I walked outside and met his eyes. “I have to stay,” I blurted out awkwardly.

He already knew it from the look on my face. He smiled. “It was nice,” he said simply and gave me a quick hug. And then he turned and walked off without looking back.

I sunk. A sense of utter and complete loneliness wrapped itself around me like a heavy, confining coat. I wandered around the cathedral looking for yellow arrows. I wanted to find a bed, dump my bag and let go. Simon was staying the night at the refuge just outside the city, but my guidebook said there was another in town. I was torn. I kept walking around and around, looking at my guidebook, trying to find the street signs.

“Are you lost?”

I turned to find a beautiful Spanish woman standing behind me. “Yes,” I said defeated.

She smiled warmly. “Where are you from?”

My coat of loneliness and confusion was loosening in the kindness of a stranger. “Los Angeles.”

“Fantastic!” she exclaimed.

“I’m looking for the refuge,” I told her.

“The one near the cathedral is the nicest,” she said. “Come on. I’ll show you where it is. It can be a little hard to find.”

As we weaved through the streets talking, I realized that I’d been afraid of saying goodbye to Martin because he was more than a friend and companion; he was a guide and a translator as well. But as soon as I had let him go, there was somebody else filling the void. Duly noted.

The Spanish woman led me to the arched doorway of a small chapel. The refuge was three flights up, she said. I thanked her and wound my way up the stairwell. The farther I climbed, the more voices I heard. And they were in English. I opened the door to the refuge and felt at home. Home. Maria, the refuge maiden, jumped up and wrapped herself around me in a comforting, familial embrace. And right behind her was Simon’s beaming smile. I hadn’t expected him to be there, but he said he decided to be near the cathedral. He also told me he’d discovered that the refuge Martin was heading toward was closed and there wasn’t another for more than fifteen miles. I was relieved to have made the right choice.

I dropped my bag on one of the beds and accompanied Simon to the cathedral. It was beautiful, and inside its cavernous stillness I sunk into myself even more. I found a wooden chair in a dark corner, closed my eyes, transported myself to St. John’s in New York City, held Rob’s candle in my hands, and cried—big, cleansing tears of gratitude. For everything.

Back at the refuge, I did some laundry, took a shower and as I was arranging my wet clothes on the wall heaters, in walked Jaime—a local, a friend of Maria’s—tall, handsome and ever so manly. I watched him hold Maria in the fullest, most loving embrace. And I wanted one of those for myself. I met his eyes, and he walked over to greet me.

“Can I have one of those?” I asked.

“Give me your hand,” he said.

I held out my hand to him, slightly disappointed. He cupped his hands around mine for a long moment as he held my eyes. Then he nodded and pulled me toward him. I melted in his arms.

Martin who?

A group of us spent much of the night in a circle together, talking and laughing for hours on end. It was, without a doubt, my best night yet.

As I lay in bed writing in my journal, Jaime came and sat down beside me. “I have something for you,” he said. He held out his hand in the palm of which was a Camino lapel pin. I gasped. After I’d left the cathedral, I wandered into a few shops looking for a pin, but I didn’t find one I liked. And now I had one! It was another reminder that I was right where I should have been. That saying goodbye to Martin was perfect timing. And that there was more for me on the Camino.