(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 16, 2005
Day 17: Mansilla to Leon, 19.1 km/12 m

The night was my most challenging on the Camino so far. The refuge was full, and it was the first time I had to sleep on a top bunk. The worst part, however, was that two German elephants, unaware of their size and their noise, made sleeping spotty. Earthquakes and tidal waves thundered through the room. I crammed in earplugs and managed some winks, but I awakened with a headache from the pressure of having foam in my ears. I still managed to reach the REM stage, but unfortunately, I had one of those inane dreams that made the night seem to stretch on forever.

I dreamed that I was part of an Apprentice-type competition against two other teams. Our job was to produce an infomercial, and my team’s product was a magic pen that got stains out of everything. Jim Carrey was on my team. He was the host, and I was the director. Unlike the other teams, our product was easy to demonstrate, however, my team was the most inexperienced. In the frenzy of the competition, I neglected to prepare a good price point for our magic pen, which I suspected was going to be our downfall. I woke up before discovering who won the competition.

My first thought was, I’m on the Camino and this is what I’m dreaming about!?

The morning was filled with the chaos of dozens of people showering, packing, dressing and finding a place to make breakfast. I expected that the closer I got to Santiago, the more full and frantic the refuges would be.

I left before Simon. It was a short day’s walk to Leon, the largest city on the Camino, and I wanted to get there and spend some real time in one place. Simon was planning on staying an extra day there. He wanted to sight see, and he also wanted to slow down his pace so that he didn’t arrive in Santiago on Easter weekend. I felt the same. Symbolically it seemed interesting to get to Santiago on Easter, but the crowds of people I expected to flood the place didn’t interest me at all.

The walk to Leon was mostly flat with a small hill at Alto del Portillo. Much of the route was along busy highways, and the terrain wasn’t very attractive. I just wanted to get there and be done with it so, for me, it was a bit of a sprint as I covered the 12 miles in about three and a half hours. I thought about Martin much of the way, and I debated how I would respond to his email.

When I arrived in Leon, I dropped my bag at the refuge and sat at an outside café nearby sipping fantastically strong coffee in a tiny glass. I was hoping it would prop me up since I felt more drained than I’d expected. My body ached, and I longed for sleep. I threw down some thoughts in my journal and began drafting a response to Martin. Then I holed myself up at the internet café. When I logged on, I had a lot of mail to tend to.

I clicked on Lauren’s note first.

Subject: Tuesday
Date: Tue 15 Mar 21:29:58 2005

Hi there,

It’s Tuesday night. Not sure what day it is where you are??

When I think about your experience, I can’t imagine what it’s like. I try to imagine, but I just end up feeling anxious for it to be over. That’s the selfish part of me that wants you back and telling me all about it. I expect the gifts of the trip will be presenting themselves to you for many years to come.

I keep wanting to know how long your hair is????

I’m really happy at the moment. Things seem to be falling into place. There will be much to fill you in on when you return.

I’ll go for now, but I’ll email you more later this week! I’m off to the theater.

Pray for my mom.

Love you,

I responded immediately.

Subject: Re: Tuesday
Date: Wed Mar 16 12:41:20 2005

Honey, honey:

You make me nervous when you say things like, “pray for my Mom.” I will definitely pray for her. Tell me more.

I’m in Leon now. Big city. A half million people. Traffic. Construction. A very short walk in at 12 miles. Funny how that seems like nothing.

I’m staying at a convent! I got an email love letter from my young admirer yesterday so there I was, outside the convent, trying to write a response. How funny, the whole thing. I continue to be amazed by this journey, by what’s inside me, by how my body is holding up. Simply astounded. I’ve not whined for a moment, and let me tell you, if there were ever something to bring out the whine in a person, this would be it. It’s no cakewalk, this trek. I imagine it’s hell with pain. Is it the prayer? Is it the conditioning? Is it just my good luck? I have such little pain. Oh sure, the walking is arduous, and by the end of the day I ache. Nothing like ten hours on your feet to make ya ache a bit. But I’m so damn full of joy that it hardly ranks. Who knew I’d be having so much fun!? I mean, I can’t believe how good I feel, and I’ve been walking upwards of 25 miles a day! Lauren, I’ve walked 315 miles by my latest calculation. Hard to imagine!

Despite the mere 12 miles today, I was so tired when I got here. Just wanted to lie under a tree and fall asleep. I tried to find the park near the river, as indicated in my guidebook, but couldn’t. Maybe it was farther but when you walk so much, the last thing you want is more walking. In general, I am ever so happy. And in the moments when I, too, want it to be over, I pull myself back to the present. This is so much like writing—one sentence at a time, enjoy the process, stay with it. Today almost felt like a vacation. I laugh at the thought. It’s arduous, but it’s so beautiful, the constant walking and progress.

I got into Leon early, just after noon, and I have the whole day to enjoy the sunshine. Yes, the sun is shining. Yesterday and today I actually got to walk without a jacket. The sun is following on my left side and so only half of me is getting sun. I am trying to avoid getting color but color comes anyway. My glass face will need repairing upon my return. Did I mention that I’m about to turn 40? I need to preserve as best I can.

Once I get my fill of the internet, I’ll head back to the convent. There is heat! Not much warm water but heat. I have no idea how far I’ll walk tomorrow, how much my feet will take. I have 200 miles to go. The thought of that is just damn funny. 200 MILES! For fuck’s sake. Who does this!?

Missing you. Loving you. Appreciating you in my life. I can’t wait to open a bottle of wine with you. And laugh. And cry. More to say but I long for conversation.

I love you,

Tess, the walker

Oh, I found a tarot card on the bridge leaving Mansilla. The six of cups. Could you look that up for me and tell me what it means?

Oh number 2! My hair is still amazingly short. I don’t think I’ve reached a quarter inch yet. I’m not sure why or how I’ve attracted these boys/men. I look like a boy myself. This could be a long year of ugliness!

The next email was from Brenda.

Subject: Re: intrepid trekker
Date: Wed, 16 Mar 09:23:59 2005

You’re moving fast ‘cross the countryside. Anything I should begin to prepare for your arrival stateside?

One foot front ‘t’other is the way to gooooooooeeewheeee!!!

I dashed off my response as I dreamed of getting home.

Subject: Re: intrepid trekker
Date: Wed Mar 16 13:33:29 2005


It’s so nice to feel connected with you not just in spirit but online as well.

I keep thinking about my birthday celebration and what it might entail. I actually think I’ll get back to NY earlier than I’d planned. I’d actually like to be there or on my way there by my birthday. I should be able to finish this walk of mine by month’s end, spend a couple days in London decompressing, and get into NY the first week of April. I’ll give you more of a head’s up as I continue on. If my body holds out, and I think it will, I’ll be coming back, grinning big, a bit thinner, and ready to celebrate my next decade with some dear friends. I actually am thinking of either cooking a few really great things, or not bothering at all and having it catered. I’d like to pay for it, have people bring only wine or something to drink, and no presents. I have about ten people in mind to invite, we’ll do it at Henry’s at Spring and Lafayette. Those are my thoughts for now.

You’ll be in town then, yes? You’re required.

Oh, honey, I have found the most glorious things for you on my trek. Two things so far. Small things, of course, that pack easily and don’t weigh a lot.

I so love your notecards to me. They have been so special. I take them out every other day or so just to remember. I saved your last one for the bathtub at the hotel, and it was glorious. I sat on the bed, butt nekid, and just read them all, drank wine, lapped up the heat, then took another bath.

So much. So, so much.


And then I decided to write to my parents. I’d been thinking so much about them. And my mother’s birthday was four days away.

Subject: Hello from the great beyond!
Date: Wed Mar 16 14:07:20 2005

Mi madre and mi padre:


I’m still in Spain. I’ve walked over 300 miles. I’m astonished I’m still in one piece. I’m astonished I still have 200 miles to go. Hard to believe that I’m having a grand time, despite pain and fatigue. It’s all an amazing discovery.

I’m surprised I haven’t heard from you. Have you fallen off the planet or have I?

Mom, your birthday is Sunday. I don’t quite know where I’ll be, if it’s a remote town not found on any map or something more significant. I can tell you that I have no idea how to work the phone system. I’ll try to call you, I’ll do my best. If you don’t hear from me, put your birthday on hold till the end of the month. I should be done with this insanity by then and heading back to London where I know how to make a phone call and it’s cheap!

I hope you are both well. I look forward to hearing your voices. Or reading your typing.

I love you!
The world traveler

And then I plunged to the depths of me for my response to Martin. I’d decided to go with full disclosure, which I prayed would be well received.

Subject: Re: santiago connection
Date: Wed Mar 16 14:43:07 2005

Dear sweet, tender, handsome Martin:

I’m in Leon now where the sun is warm and the breeze is refreshing and the civilization is a welcome, energizing relief. I actually feel like I’m on vacation today having walked only 19 km to get here.

I wanted to thank you for your lovely email. It was so nice to get. We did not have much of a goodbye in Burgos, it certainly was not the sort of parting I’d anticipated, so I’m happy to continue the connection with you as I follow your footsteps across Spain, this time a day or so behind.

You were such a delight to be with for those few days serving as companion, protector, translator, gentleman, guide and flirtatious friend. I debated on my amble into Leon how I might respond to your email. Your lovely expression to me has opened the door to a more honest communication, and I’m happy to take full advantage of it. I hope that what I say here is received in the same spirit in which it is given, from a place of great, great love and affection.

When I shaved my head I certainly didn’t expect to be found attractive by any man, let alone one nearly half my age. In fact, as I prepared for my Camino I had wanted to eliminate sexuality from the experience, and I thought that my appearance – no hair, athletic clothes, big jacket – would help ensure that I would not get any attention from men on my trek across Spain. I didn’t actually expect to see that many people at all with whom I would be able to communicate in English. I thought that this was going to be a solitary, somewhat lonely, and even emptying experience where I would be confronted with a sense of despair and fatigue. Yet it hasn’t been anything of the sort.

I don’t mind admitting that I considered kissing you more than once. It was fascinating to me observing my thoughts and feelings as they moved through me. What kept me from it at first was a desire not to change the sweet innocence of our time together and create any sort of emotional dependency. Instead, what I did, what you helped me to do, was reevaluate all of my relationships with men and reconsider who I might be in the next one.

You have written about my passion and how much you’d like to find more in your life. That’s what I want to address now, your passion. What I want to say to you, I hope does not come as criticism since half of our friendship is my responsibility. But there’s something I want you to know that I couldn’t find the words to say to you and hadn’t expected to until you opened this door. As you move forward in your romances, as you reconnect with your ex-girlfriend, I want you to consider not protecting your heart so much. I want you to consider that being vulnerable takes great courage and that it’s worth the risk, even when it turns out badly. I want you to consider that in moments when I tried to be tender with you, you couldn’t fully receive it. You rarely accepted a compliment without responding with, “liar.” Your teasing had a layer of rejection that came with it, which kept me from being open with you. I don’t say this because I felt bad or because I want you to feel bad. I want you to read this with the most tender tone of voice, as if I’m speaking softly from this place of love that I feel for you. You are so generous, so adorable, so funny, so much fun, and of such sweet intentions that I want to encourage you to allow for the possibility of having even more – more depth, more heart, more intimacy. You are so close. My wish for you is that you find a way to increase the passion in your life by not rejecting, even in joking, the tiny moments of love being offered to you, even if it’s from an older woman you may never see again.

I do hope I see you again, either here or there. And in the meantime, please know how many smiles and how much beautiful healing you have brought to this old, bald girl’s life!

With great, great, great love,

And then, just as I was about to log off, I thought about the Six of Cups. Instead of waiting for Lauren to look it up, I still had the internet at my fingertips.

The Six of Cups

Gone are the fears about what others may think of us. This card marks a time in our lives when we give of ourselves, our talents and skills freely without concern. We are undaunted in our efforts to shine our inner light into the world. We fear no retribution. We work in cooperation of a universal flow, and we know that nothing but goodness and kindness rises to meet our endeavors.

In a reading, this card represents a green light to share our special talents with the world. Do so without looking back. Take no notice of what others might say or do in response to your gift. Simply know you are brilliant, and that light which you offer is equally brilliant.

The six of cups in a reading also indicates trust and forgiveness in partnerships, relationships, or family ties. Reunions are on the horizons, as are new understandings from other points of view.

This card also asks us to take time to smell the roses, be keenly aware of the blessings that saturate every inch of our lives, and take a moment to thank the people around us for simply being who they are.

I smiled as I logged off after nearly two hours online. I felt full as I ventured through the city center looking for the cathedral to no avail. Instead, I went back to my convent and found Simon there. He was writing in his journal. I sat down next to him and wrote in mine, too. Simon said that the cathedral was worth finding. He also told me that he’d decided not to spend an extra day in Leon; he’d be leaving tomorrow as well. I couldn’t hide my happiness. It felt so nice to have him chugging along with me. I was so relying on his companionship. I watched him for a while, next to me, writing. I already knew how badly I would miss his sweet cheeks when he was gone. I didn’t want to think about it. I simply wanted to sit next to him and adore him.