(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 14, 2005
Day 15: Carrion to Sahagun, 40.8 km/25.4 m

It was my third night in a row without heat but I’d long since learned the art of burrowing into my sleep sack. As a result, I awoke well rested. I was also still feeling full by an evening of friendly nourishment. Fela, Tanya, Andreas and I rose and began packing to leave. I lathered my feet with Vaseline, my morning routine, and they all gathered around me to marvel at their condition. It seemed that everyone was having problems with their feet—except me. They were as amazed as I. Tanya had to invest in a new pair of shoes, and she and Andreas had resorted to traveling a few days by bus and taxi to give themselves a break. I was relying on gratitude, prayer and luck.

As I tied my shoes, Fela said, “Boy it’s nice getting up in the morning and not having to wonder what you’re going to do today.” We laughed and laughed and then said our goodbyes. I suspected I’d never see any of them again.

I left Carrion only to discover that it was another perfect day on the Camino—not too windy and, lo and behold, sun that tried its best to break through the gray rain clouds. It looked as though the rain might hold off, so I was contemplating walking another epic day. I’d scanned my guidebook to find the next town with a hotel since I’d been longing for an evening of hot baths and a bed big enough to stretch out in. Unfortunately, if I was intent on making that dream a reality, I’d have to walk a marathon. Literally. I decided that it was worth a shot.

As I walked, I easily slipped into another daily habit—thinking about the richness that all the people in my life brought me. And a few of the disappointments. After two weeks of walking, I was taking note of the striking difference between the depth of love I was receiving from my friends and the absolute absence of any communication from my family. I was feeling increasingly hurt by the disparity and working hard to release my sense of abandonment. I was questioning how to let go without it being the resounding disappointment it felt like. At the same time, I was looking at my own responsibility in the nature of our many misfires. I’d not been able to talk about the trip with my family much before I left. I wasn’t able to really explain why I wanted to do it or what it meant to me. I was horribly withholding, not because I’d intended to be but because I felt misunderstood so much of the time. As a result of all the silence within my family, I felt as though they weren’t much interested in my thoughts and plans and dreams. When I’d told my father years ago that I wanted to go to film school, he brought home articles and statistics on how difficult and impractical that career path would be. Rather than having a discussion about any concern he might have for my wellbeing, rather than feeling his love and concern, I felt shot down. It’s how I felt about a lot of the choices I’d made in my life. As I walked the Camino, I wondered if I’d made bold decisions and was drawn to extreme experiences just to have something register on the familial Richter scale. I realized that in some ways, being loud and radical and offbeat was the only statement I ever made.

I had the best relationship with my brother, a musician, a fellow artist, but it meant that my disappointment was greater with him, and that was a feeling that was gaining momentum with every step across Spain. My bother had told me when I left that he was going to read a book about the Camino as I walked so that he could experience it with me. I was certain he’d meant what he said. I was also certain that he’d completely forgotten, and I was crushed by that thought at times. I knew that I was insulating myself from further hurt by not emailing my family; I didn’t want to hope for a response, a gesture of support, a significant connection. I wanted to be surprised by an unexpected contact rather than hurt by the expectation of one, but that was patently absurd since hurt was seeping through the fissures like lava in volcanic vents. Silence and distance were the only things I was capable of. It was clear to me that I was carrying my family with me, and the weight of them was bringing me down.

Since I’d decided not to eat the pilgrim’s meals, and I’d avoided restaurants along the way, carrying extra food was also weighing me down, so I slipped my sandals through the straps of my bag to keep them from digging into my waist. It worked like a charm. I also took off my jacket, which was cause for celebration. It was the first day I hadn’t worn a jacket of any kind, and I skipped, elated, toward the tiny town of Bustillos del Rio Camino. In my ecstasy it occurred to me that for two weeks I hadn’t heard a car horn or even a car alarm. I hadn’t heard a police siren. I hadn’t heard anyone yelling. Or complaining. Or badmouthing anyone else. Day after blessed day. I just watched the sky and the pattern of clouds move across it. Sometimes I turned around to amaze myself by the distances I’d traveled. Sometimes I just watched my own shadow moving—in front of me, beside me, behind me.

I pushed on to Terradillos de Templarios, which was eight miles from my hotel in Sahagun and the last real town before reaching it. I decided to stop and rest my feet and gear up for the last push onward. As I approached the town’s center, I was overwhelmed by the smell of manure. Then I noticed that all the structures were made of mud and straw attached to chicken wire. Stucco went on top of that, but in the places where the stucco had fallen away, I could see the building materials, and I was stunned by the utter poverty. I’d noticed before that the houses were so old all the electrical wiring ran on the outside of the walls. And I was certain by now that there was not a clothes dryer to be had in the entire country. It was town after town of wet laundry blowing in the winter air. Little clothes-pinned socks all marching along the lines. It was charming but it was also sad. Threadbare aprons. Jeans that had patches on top of patches. Workman’s clothes. And yet, all the people in these nowhere towns instantly curled their leathery faces into smiles as I passed. Everyone was happy to see the pilgrims stream through. I loved greeting their waves and their blessings—Buen Camino, Buen viaje, they all seemed to say. I began to realize that there wasn’t more corruption of the way markers because those towns relied on us getting to them. Without our pilgrim dollars, the natives struggled even more. I found it all so lovely, heartbreaking in its beauty.

The town had little in the way of comfort. I imagined a café where I might sip coffee and rest. I popped my head into the refuge, and I was met by a roaring fire. The refuge maiden smiled and offered me coffee. I tucked myself into a table, took off my shoes, propped my tired feet up by the fire and wrote in my journal.

My guidebook says that Terradillos de Templarios is not just a former stronghold of the Knights Templar, but it is officially the halfway point of the Camino—considering the elevation changes. It’s day 15. This should be my longest day so far. The girl gets stronger. Or dumber. The refuge maiden has just delivered me coffee. It’s truly terrible. And I am so happy to have it.

Today I’ve thought about the people in my life and the depth of connection I share with them. I am still working on releasing my disappointment of my family, and taking responsibility for not communicating more, better. It’s tough, but made less significant by my amazing friends.

I have felt so present on the Camino today. I’m really loving being here. I have admired the landscape all day today. And the sunshine. It’s a perfect day.

When I had my fill of fire, rest and writing, I went outside ready for my last eight miles, and my little Simon was sitting on the picnic table with his shoes off gearing up for the same trek. My heart leapt at the sight of him. There he was again—my Simon. We joined forces and dragged our weary bodies to Sahagun, arriving at 7 pm. Simon veered off toward the refuge while I made a quick stop at the market for a bottle of wine and a package of votive candles. Then I willed myself to the hotel where I filled the bathtub to the rim, lined the edge with flickering candles and dove into the scalding water, a glass of wine in hand. It was absolutely, without question, the definition of heaven on earth!

I opened Brenda’s envelope number 3. The outside of the card said:

You don’t have to be here
for me to be there for you.

Inside, she wrote:

God is the hardest taskmaster I have known on Earth, and God tries you through and through. And when you find your faith is failing or your body is failing you, and you are sinking, God comes to your assistance somehow or other, and proves to you that you must not lose your faith and that God is always at your beck and call, but on God’s terms, not on your terms.
—Mohandas Gandhi

Sending you a constant stream of love and prayers.
Your friend,

I lay for a long time in the tub. When the water cooled a bit, I drained it and refilled it with hot. I washed my clothes and hung then around the room to dry. Then I poured myself another glass of wine and wrote in my journal.

I’m sitting naked on my bed in a hotel in Sahagun. 40 km today, 25+ miles, my longest. I’m drinking wine. I’ve had a bath. I ate the same damn thing—a sandwich with tuna and tomato and cheese—but I couldn’t be happier. It’s been three nights without heat in the refuges. I needed some comfort. My feet ache but they are holding up. My ankles throb on occasion but they are carrying me with great strength. My body is changing—I’m losing weight. When I stand naked I can still see the extra flesh but I don’t care. Chocolate and cookies have been my treats.

I’m getting too much sun on my face. I’m trying not to.

I caught up with Simon on the trail today. He was sitting outside with his shoes off reading the Bible. I just love that I’m walking this with him. It’s very, very special. I hope it’s a lifetime friendship that develops; he’s so sweet. I bought him cookies and was able to give them to him. I told him I want to adopt him. We walked the last 13K to Sahagun. He asked me a lot of questions about writing. He calls me his Camino mother. I hardly feel like anyone’s mother but I do want to adopt this boy, bring him to America.

He’s at the refuge. Most likely we’ll meet up in Mansilla, which is another 36, 37 km day tomorrow.

I think about Martin. It would be good to see him again but I don’t miss him.

It’s been the most perfect night. Candles in the bathtub. Soothing water. Shaving my legs. Soon I will be asleep. Naked.