(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 22, 2005
Day 23: O’Cebreiro to Sarria, 47.7 km/29.6 m

I awoke to the early morning beauty of O’Cebreiro and a stunning river of fog that trickled through the mountains. The town had marked my entrance into Galicia, and it was clear that it shared the Gaelic traditions of Ireland and Scotland. Despite being surrounded by the cutest round, stone houses with their straw rooftops and the endless shop windows advertising delightful wares, I was eager to hit the road and take advantage of what promised to be a dry day. I had a quick and nearly flat 6-mile jaunt that rose slightly to the second highest peak on the Camino, and then it was all downhill for another 20 miles or so.

RiverOfFog
My body had once again miraculously repaired itself during my 10 hours of deadened, uninterrupted sleep. I certainly hadn’t expected to put in another long day after the beating of yesterday, but the views that floated along with the river were so amazing that I couldn’t stop myself from ambling across the uncluttered countryside. The biting, bitter cold pressed into me, aided by a ferocious wind, but the absence of rain felt like a blessing. I burrowed into my coat but kept my head up, delighted.

pilgrim

It’s funny that walking up the mountain the day before, despite the hail, seemed easier than going down. If yesterday was an all-out effort to push against the earth in order to rise above it, then today felt like I was keeping myself from falling into it, swallowed whole. It was clear that I was tired of working hard—physically and mentally. I’d spent weeks consciously shaping my thoughts into a probe, using them like a pick ax on an archeological dig, and uncovering nothing particularly new—no bone fragments that pieced together into skeletons, no jagged shards with testable blood residue. So I let them scatter like dust, blowing along the surface of the earth, jumping from one mundane boulder to the next, bending and turning in the wind. Mile after endless mile, and the recurrent theme was simply how much I wanted to be done, how much I wanted to get home, how much I wanted to begin the next chapter of my life.

My guidebook said it best, quoting from A Course in Miracles. “All your past, except its beauty, is gone and nothing is left but a blessing.”

Perhaps I had walked with the storm in order to be stripped bare. What seemed to remain were just the steps through this particular patchwork of beautiful countryside. I had no more inclination to dissect myself. It was just going to be another day of watching my footsteps mark a path along the Camino and watching the sun reflect its rays on this, my current slice of heaven.

LeavingO
Somehow I managed to walk almost 30 miles. After three weeks, I suppose my body had become so accustomed to the long days and distances that they kept lengthening without being nearly so foreign. They were still taxing, yes, but by now, normal. I counted the miles and the days ahead. It now seemed certain I would make it to Santiago by Easter.

I hadn’t seen Simon all day. I sensed he’d spent the night in the refuge in O’Cebreiro and, if I knew my boy, he’d probably pushed through to Sarria like me. When I got to town, I looked for him around every corner, hopeful.

PilgrimRest
Sarria was far bigger than I expected it would be, and I walked all over the city in search of a hotel, passing the refuge twice. Finally, frustrated by the forever winding and confusing streets, I came to the refuge a third time and I relented, going in to claim my bed. The place was nearly full. My Camino was changing quickly, and I knew that finding solace would continue to get harder.

Sarria was the 100 km marker from Santiago, and it was the point at which most people start their Camino. For some reason, a traveler could claim that they’d walked the Camino, and get an official certificate as proof, by merely covering the last 100 km. For most people, I suppose, it’s what they could afford to spend—a week’s travel. But here I was ending 425 miles over the course of 23 days and only now reaching the start! There would certainly be more people to compete for space, but since my Camino passport carried stamps all the way from St. Jean Pied de Port, I would have priority in the refuges over the slouches who started in Sarria. I hoped, however, to avoid them all together from here on out.

After 30 miles my body ached for rest, but I’d seen an internet café nearby and I was hoping for a little contact with the world. My world. I prayed for the communication gods to bless me, and when I logged on I discovered that my email was working! Thank God! TessClark dot com was alive and well. Yeeeeeehah! TessClark sans dot com was alive and well, too.

I scanned my inbox. There were two notes from Martin.

Subject: el coto
Date: Fri 18 Mar 09:41:30 2005

Tess,

Well, I guess now it’s on me to tell you that I will write you back tomorrow. It’s not that I do not have the time. I do have plenty of it but I feel like I want to take your words with me on my next stage of tomorrow. To be honest I am surprised to read what you wrote. Don’t get me wrong I knew that you enjoyed the time as I did. It’s just that I really wished to had kissed you – just one time. That’s why I thought it was really nice to read your lines. I am kinda confused to feel attracted to two girls at the same time. This never happened to me before – I did not know it was possible.

I thank you for what you wrote about passion. It is true that I was hurt before and maybe tried to keep emotions aside just to ensure not to be hurt again. I know you have been hurt before and that’s why I appreciate your open words so much and know it is true what you wrote.

I thought a lot about you, not in a desperate way but in a very lighthearted way, how we would laugh and everything. Yesterday I went to a supermarket in Astorga to buy another wine for my red bottle. I took Coto because it is a nice memory about you. There is still some left. I am in Ponferrada now, just half a day ahead. I would not mind to share this wine either on the Camino or in Santiago. Carry on!

un beso muy fuerte!

martin

Martin. He seemed very far away. My experience of him felt far away as well. In the real world, perhaps only a few days had passed. But on the Camino, days can take a month to unfold, step by step. I opened the last email I’d sent to him and scanned it trying to refresh my memory.

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

Dear sweet, tender, handsome Martin:

You were such a delight to be with for those few days serving as companion, protector, translator, gentleman, guide and flirtatious friend…

When I shaved my head I certainly didn’t expect to be found attractive by any man, let alone one nearly half my age… 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…

…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 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 that kept me from being open with 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…

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,
Tess

His response came a day after his first email.

Subject: Re: santiago connection
Date: Sat 19 Mar 09:55:07 2005

Querida Tess,

I stopped in Villafranca today and had one of the easiest but also one of the most beautiful days. I really enjoyed walking through all the wine regions. I kinda had a déjà vu because we passed a wine factory. A guy came out of the door and this time I had learned from my experience in Rioja. I took the chance and we got in to try some wine. Later I sat down under a cherry tree in the middle of the wine landscape and enjoyed the sun, thinking…

I felt kinda sad this morning as I start to realize that there is only a few days left. The break through to the 200k mark therefore was not a relief for me. I kept on thinking what you wrote me in your email. The days after we parted in Burgos I truly felt released – at least I thought I felt like that. Well, now with a little distance and after what you wrote me I must confess that it might have felt like that but I certainly was not realizing how much I like you. I think I started realizing today. So, I guess you were right telling me about my layer of rejection. Now I think that it was so thick that not even I could have had a look under it to understand my real feelings – good therapy though 😉

I actually never received such a nice letter before as yours. Thank you for that. Tomorrow I will stop in O’Cebreiro and later in Samos. Maybe we will run into each other. Tell your friend from London to arrive some days later as I would like to take you to Finistierre.

un beso muy fuerte,

martin

Well, I was glad he’d taken my words to heart and used them as a means of exploration. I feared, however, that now sweet Martin was intent on getting that kiss. In some ways I had intended my note to him to be a very nice way of saying that time had passed and the moment, the same moment in which I initially held back, even that was now gone. There was a time and a place for those feelings. We shared such a lovely, healing connection. But I had not wanted to include sexuality into my Camino, not then and not now, and I was a bit put off by the possibility that it would come back around. In fact, because it was the last week of my Camino, I was certain that it would, and I was already resisting.

I didn’t have the energy to respond in any meaningful way. I could only manage an acknowledgement, which I felt he deserved.

Subject: Re: santiago connection
Date: Tue 22 Mar 18:16:41 2005

Martin:

My email has been down since I left Leon last week, and I have only just now read your two notes. I am in Sarria. Just got in after what is, I think, my longest day of walking. It is already late. When I get situated, and have more time, I’ll be able to respond properly.

More. Soon.
Tess

I happily left the subject of Martin in a holding tank and moved on, delighted to see a note from Brenda.

Subject: keep Going!!!!
Date: Sun, 20 Mar 2005 07:55:41 2005

Tess,
I am thinking of you moment to moment. I am off to Death Valley with Jennifer Catherine this morning… bag and basket all packed… a whole new dish I’m calling “Veggie-risotto,” along with cheeses and crackers, nuts, chocolates, drinks and camera. Also chairs for the desert, blankets, candles, matches, hiking boots, pillows (all in case we can find a place to stay…they are all so booked!!!)

I did not pack light… but then we’re driving! Remember what that’s like?

I fully plan to write a long missive when I return and speak to you of much and many.

I know this is an extraordinary time for you. I wish you continued “Delight” because whatever the risk(?), why, you’ve already done that.

The sun is out here today. I hope it is shining gently on you, warming you to just shy of sweating… and may many gentle breezes whisper cross your face leaving traces of soft b r a v i s s i m a s round your ears.

A piece-o-poetry for today… from Seamus Heaney:

Believe that the far shore is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing
The utter self-revealing.
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
It means once in a lifetime
That justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme

xoxobrenda

I wrote back immediately.

Subject: Re: keep Going!!!!
Date: Tue 22 Mar 18:19:58 2005

Brenda:

My email has been down for a week, so I’m only now just getting your note. Oh, how I love you. I have saved your envelopes for bathtub experiences, and last night was number four. They are so right. Helping me so much. Going inward. All of it, fantastic.

I’m glad you have gone to the desert. Can’t wait to hear about it.

I write to you after traveling 425 miles. Can you even believe it!? I certainly can’t. I’ve had only the most natural of pain, the kind that your feet take note of at the end of a long day. But otherwise, my body has carried me in ways that astound me. I feel so good, so strong, so crazy even. 75 miles to go. It seems like buttah at this point. I plan to arrive just outside Santiago on Saturday night, get up on Sunday for a very short jaunt into the craziness. I’m sure it will be crazy. The Catholics on Easter.

My hair is dark and growing slowly. I haven’t had much chance to expose it to the sun. And God, perhaps God is speaking to me from the sky. Hard to tell his voice from mine sometimes!

I’ll be returning to NY via London. Don’t have a date yet but I am itching to get home, and I’m doing this thing faster than I expected.

See you very soon.

Tess

PS – My Spanish is no better than when I started!

Finally well sated by the internet, I was off to find food, which I ate like a wolf hovering over fresh kill. On my meandering stumble on ever-wobbly legs back to the refuge, I saw an ad for a phone card and bought one. Good grief, it was a lot easier to figure out than I thought it would be. And for God’s sake, had I known I could get 300 minutes for less than ten bucks, I would have been calling everyone! Now I can’t imagine what I’m going to do with all these minutes! I immediately dialed my parents but no one was home. Hah. Then I tried calling Lauren, twice. I kept getting some English woman even though I was certain I was dialing correctly. Oh, well. I dragged myself back to the refuge, tucked myself into my sack, tucked earplugs into my ears and prayed for continued sunshine.

Sarria