(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.)

Twenty-nine days before, a train pulled into St. Jean Pied de Port, France, and I stepped from it filled with fear and anticipation. The crisp air and the late night blizzard welcomed me with the hint of what was to come. Now, with more than 525 miles on my feet, it was hard to imagine that my journey was over, and I was heading home. Outside my hotel, I stared at the cobblestones winding their pathways through Santiago. I nodded in gratitude to the power and history, to my safe arrival, to my accomplishment; then I turned and walked away, perhaps never to return.

SantiagoIn the bus depot, I bought an English-language Newsweek thinking it might help pass the time—8 hours to Madrid. I flipped through pages that were filled with glossy photos, the likes of which I’d not seen for one long, otherworldly month. And the nature of them, at once so normal and commonplace, was now oddly pornographic. There was an in-your-face, desire-building aspect to them that repelled me—sickened me even—and made me long for the boring vistas of the Camino I’d been so eager to leave.

I flipped to an article on new ways to pamper yourself: taking sleeping pills to help with jet lag and sending luggage through a service to avoid airport baggage. Slam. Suddenly, here was the world in all its glorious absurdity. Here were lines of people and all of their energies and personalities; here were sounds blasting from all directions; and here was pollution, both mental and environmental. No wonder I’d found bliss on the Camino. I didn’t have to contend with any of this. I didn’t compare myself to anyone. There was no emphasis on appearance. There was no sense of lack, at least for things outside of basic necessities. It was so simple. It was freedom—unencumbered freedom—a letting go that was more powerful and more profound than I had even realized.

As the bus pulled out of Santiago, I wondered. I wondered if, in my dreams, I’d be walking and looking for yellow arrows. I wondered if, as I fell asleep, I’d re-experience flashes of Camino sensations. Round, orange propane tanks ready to power dangerous portable heaters. Old, threadbare clothes hanging on frayed string, slapping in the breeze against stone buildings. Enormous modern tractors moving through tiny, cobbled streets. Footprints of my guides on the trail, imprinted in mud and snow and dirt. Backpacks of all shapes and sizes. The painful nighttime pilgrim walk that necessitated avoiding the balls of my feet. Simon’s cherub cheeks. Sleeping bags being squashed into their coverings. Wet clothes dripping on the radiators. The delight of finding fresh fruit in an open tienda. A hail of voices, smiling, uttering “Buen Camino.” A pack of sheep and their slow walk across mountain pathways. A trail of tiny sheep pellets left behind. The sound of my trekking poles gripping the dirt trail, the pavement, the mud. Nothing but wind and rain, and my shoes, forever moving forward. Bales of hay and rolls of straw lining the fields like dead soldiers. Mastering the art of peeing in the grass without splashing the back of my pantlegs. Barking dogs. Cackling roosters. Fresh burning firewood and strong coffee. A small pueblo growing out of the countryside. Abandoned villages. Flowing fountains with clean, fresh water. Stone slabs worn by a thousand years of footsteps. The echo of church bells. The smell of my socks in those shoes after 27 days of walking. Rolling green hills and a carpet of red-tiled rooftops. Clouds of cigarette smoke behind every door marked Bar/Restaurante. The machine-like patter of Spanish dialogue. The sound of silence, broken only by my thoughts and my footfalls.

I wondered if, in my dreams, I’d eat white bread and canned tuna—with tomato and cheese if I was lucky. I’d look for the internet before I’d look for food. I’d lie down on a thin, lumpy mattress and pull a dirty blanket over my sleeping bag and feel like I was in heaven. I’d find canned corn with a pull-top tin and eat it cold like it was all I ever wanted. Men would tell me I’m beautiful in the shirt I slept in and my one pair of pants, forever muddy at the ankles. Sunshine would feel better after a solid week of rain than it’s ever felt before. My feet would ache and throb all night but be ready to go by morning. I would sleep without moving for ten hours straight. A car would seem like the most unnatural thing in the world. And laughter would sound like music in every language.

In the Newsweek magazine, the cover story was about how Jesus became seen as Christ, the only begotten son. It said that 78% of Americans believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead. Once again, I found myself in the minority. I don’t believe Jesus died on that cross. I believe he was injured and then nursed back to health—which is a form of rising from the dead, to be sure. The article also said that 75% of Americans believe that Jesus was the Messiah, sent to Earth to absolve mankind of its sins. It elaborated that the Messiah had to have military prowess. “The Prince of Peace must first be a man of war: his duty is to inflict final defeat on the forces of evil.” Perhaps that is what I am so opposed to in organized religion: that murder and killing and suffering are not just celebrated but deemed necessary, and that the forces of evil are up to the judgments of Christians to make. No wonder I could only bring myself to go inside two churches and two cathedrals on the entire Camino, a path littered with hundreds of these monuments to war. For me, not visiting those structures may have been my unconscious protest—to walk the path of the ancients and be dedicated to the journey, the inward journey brought forth by the changing landscape. I don’t know. I wonder if the dying villages and their crumbling buildings is a positive sign. Does it mean that the Camino is shifting? And if so, is that the forward movement of humanity? What do we worship, and who? What did I worship on my journey?

Oddly, I see now that I worshipped every aspect of myself: my thoughts, my fears, my body, my needs. What to keep and what to let go of. That, to me, is Holiness.

I scanned the Newsweek pages and fell into a sense of numbness. I tried to sleep. I wrote in my journal. I watched the landscape rush past me outside the window. I studied my reflection. I fogged a corner of the bus window and scrawled my initials into it. I stared at the people around me. Hour after endless hour. And then, I was slapped with the return of stress in my life. Fifty miles outside of Madrid, the traffic mounted, and as we inched along the highway making very little progress, time slipped through the pavement so quickly it seemed increasingly more likely that I would miss my plane. I scrambled, trying to think of options. Once I got to Madrid, was the Metro faster than a taxi? And how could I find out? Without language, things are infinitely more difficult.

I did not want to spend another night in Spain, yet I was well aware that I could not fight it. The more I fought, the more anxiety I experienced. I was simply at the mercy of forces outside myself, and since I had already prayed, I could only be patient and hope. My flight was due to leave in two hours. I kept telling myself that if I was not on the plane then it wasn’t my plane. That was my best effort at putting my last month into practice.

As it happened, I jumped onto the Metro in the direction of what I hoped was the airport. Once there, I scaled small walls like a secret agent in a Bond film. I arrived at the counter, breathless and sweaty, only to discover that I’d missed my plane by five minutes. It was already late and there were no more flights out for the night. The woman behind the counter saw the panic in my eyes, hailed me a cab and directed it to some hotel. I simply fell into the back of the vehicle and stared up through the window at the night sky: I would spend another night in Spain. I was disappointed, tired and numb. The driver delivered me to some place with an elaborate entrance and clean carpets and a smiling uniformed desk clerk. I traded the information on my credit card for a plastic key, and as I walked through absolutely silent, empty hallways, I felt a surge of gratitude to have the means to get a hotel room when I needed one.

Even though it was late, I was too cranked to sleep. Instead, I circled the deadened hallways that were like the cobblestones in Santiago in only one way: they seemed to lead nowhere. I arrived at a conference area where there had been some sort of party, long abandoned, but whose remains of decorated dessert tables still held a smattering of uneaten delicacies. Chocolate balls. Macaroons. Layered cake. Brownies. It was a little like walking into an eerie version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. I waited for someone to arrive, scold me and push me out the door. No one did. So I sat down and started eating. Party for one. I hadn’t eaten much all day, and this was a fantasy of indulgence. What I did couldn’t be classified so much as eating; it was more like pushing food into my face. I scooped things up like a cave dweller experiencing discernable texture and flavor for the first time. And oh my, it was heavenly. I had a piece of everything without finishing anything at all, at least one bite for every day on the Camino. I filled up quickly, of course, and promptly went into a food coma, stumbling a bit drunkenly back to my room. Then I used my remaining phone-card minutes to fall into a very long, detailed and well-deserved catch-up with Lauren.

More than anything, it was surreal knowing that the Camino was part of my history now, part of my story, part of who I am. I couldn’t believe it was over, and I was so happy it was. It was a radical thing to do. And even more radical to me was knowing that until the very last day, I never had a moment of really wanting out, of hating where I was before quickly succumbing to its embrace. To this day, I continue to be astonished by my level of happiness, my ability to take what comes and just decide that it’s all a gift. To find joy in the most remote places where I had nothing and everything at the same time. It’s a state of being I hope never leaves me. Or at least not for long.

I returned to London and decompressed with my friend Karen for two days where I kept looking in the mirror after not really seeing myself—except from the inside—for an entire month. I bought some bleaching hair dye hoping to tint my half-inch locks a nice shade of platinum. What I managed was an interesting gingery-red. Karen’s bathroom scale measured English stone instead of American pounds, but when I did the math, I discovered that I’d lost 15 pounds in 27 days. It joked that I could write a book: How to Lose A Half Pound a Day Eating White Bread, Cheese, Pasta, Cookies, Chocolate and French Fries.

I boarded a plane for the US on April 1st, and just as I’d settled into my coach seat, the flight attendant informed me that there was an open seat in business class and invited me to upgrade. She guided me toward it and when I flopped down into it, the woman next to me looked over and smiled. She held my eyes for a moment before saying, “You look like such a fascinating person.” I smiled back unable to respond. What could I possibly say about my experience? What could I ever say?

When I touched down on American soil, the Camino felt so distant it was as if I dreamed it. I arrived in Washington, DC, where I was off to see my friend Jeanette’s play, one she had courageously written about being attacked several years earlier. (My version of that story can be read here.) I turned on my cell phone for the first time in a month as I dropped into a rental car. And it was just that easy slipping back into my life, one filled with cars and traffic and cell phones and so much noise. I started the engine and turned on the radio. Wow, music sounded so good. I pulled out of the lot and onto the highway. The road moved under me so quickly. Here it was: my life. That other thing I’d done was so out of time, so out of place.

When I saw Jeanette, she said that light just poured out of me. And she posited this idea: that the Camino would be with me for the rest of my life; that it will come up in moments and inform me. Forever. I could already see why people walk the Camino again and again. It’s just something that is so different from anything. And the remoteness makes it different. The utter lack of resources. That’s what it is. I hadn’t thought about it before, but being away from resources is what makes the experience so special.

JeanetteAndTess
As I became surrounded by Jeanette’s friends I tried to explain what I’d just done, and it hit me hard. Oh. My. God. I’d done this thing. I’d walked 525 miles. And I’d found bliss doing it. I had connected with people, all of us rendered the same. Primitive. On the Camino, we weren’t people who had other lives and jobs and cell phones and homes. We were all pilgrims. Naked. Turtle-like.

After Jeanette’s play, I walked out into the well-lit street. America: where everything is open all the time. We have such ready access to everything in every moment that it is so much harder to get to ourselves from here. I felt so conflicted. I was incredibly happy to be home. And I felt myself slipping away.

Where would I go? And could I summon myself again so easily?