Stories by category: Travels

(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.)

I woke up early on the morning of my departure, February 27, 2005. I’d already laid out my clothes for the journey and tucked everything else into my backpack. Back at home, so long ago, I’d made up daily packets of vitamins for the trek but I couldn’t find them anywhere, and I was a bit panicked about it. I searched my suitcase a dozen times but came up with nothing. I couldn’t believe it. I thought I’d had every detail covered. And already it seemed like things were drifting afoul. I don’t need no stinkin’ vitamins, I told myself.

I tucked my suitcase with most everything I’d been traveling with into Karen’s closet, and I picked up my pack, which seemed miniscule in comparison. I walked downstairs to my final breakfast dressed in the only clothes I would have for the next month. Karen had hot coffee waiting. She picked up my pack, impressed by it’s size. I met her eyes sheepishly. I wondered if she was thinking what I was thinking—will this be enough? Neither of us said anything.

This was the plan. From Exeter, I would take a train to London. In London, I would switch trains and arrive at the Stansted airport where I would hop on a flight to Biarritz in southwestern France. In Biarritz, I was hoping to find a taxi that would escort me about 30 miles to St. Jean Pied de Port, my starting point. Otherwise, I’d have to take a train.

Karen dropped me off at the train station in Exeter just before 10 AM. I hugged her for a long time imaging hers would be the last friendly face I’d see for a very long time. And hers would also be the first recognizable face I’d see upon my return. She’d been so welcoming, so accommodating, so protective, so motherly, so loving, so perfect.

I stood at the entrance to the train station and watched her drive away. When I could no longer see her car, I took a very big breath and turned, moving forward into the station… and into the great beyond.
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(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.)

February 28
Day 1: St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles, 31km/19m

I burrowed all night and managed to not just stay warm, but also get some restful sleep. Most of the pilgrims had departed by the time I was up and alert and ready to go. I was lingering, waiting for my PA (Polish Angel) to get ready. The idea of starting alone was daunting to me so I asked if he wanted to walk together.

He struggled to hoist his bag onto his back. Not wanting to lift it from the floor, he heaved it onto his bed, put his arms through the straps and stumbled like a weightlifter to straighten his knees. How much did it weigh? I wondered. Sixty pounds? Eighty pounds?

More than three feet of snow had fallen on the mountain, and to walk the preferred path was to risk your life, we were told. Instead of crossing the mountain, we would be forced to walk around it (at least the peak of it). I quickly decided that what I most needed was a view OF the mountain rather than a view FROM the mountain.

We left the refuge together in the light of early morning, and I saw St. Jean Pied de Port for the first time. So beautiful. So European. The trickling water, the crisp air, the ancient stone buildings at the edge of the river Nive. A bridge arched over the water. The white-capped mountain towered beyond. Snow had piled up in doorways and blanketed the pathways. It was hard to be in such a postcard-perfect locale without taking any time to explore it. It was the sort of place that was meant to be discovered, and yet I had merely crashed there for the night.

My PA and I passed quickly through the city and began, at first, to follow the road. We had 2 km of pavement before we could veer off onto the pathway that traversed alongside it. I knew that the pounding would accumulate quickly and begin to take its toll on my feet and body, so I pulled out my trekking poles, something I’d never used before. I’d read that they could absorb 25% or more of the impact of walking. The metal tips struck the pavement, tapping out a rhythm and marking each footstep. It was odd using them like this—on flat ground—but I was willing to accept any help I could get.

It wasn’t long before we saw the way markings—shells and arrows—leading us off the road and into the countryside. The way markings would be, that first day and for the next month, the sight of happiness.
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(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 1, 2005
Day 2: Roncesvalles to Larrasoana, 31km/19.5m

I woke up at 5 AM but didn’t want to start walking at that hour. It was still dark outside, and most of the others in the refuge were still sleeping. I lay for a long time thinking about the day before. And I checked in with my body. It felt rested and ready for more. Even my feet had stopped throbbing. My bag was lying on the floor under my bed. I stuck my hand in and felt around for Brenda’s packet of letters: after all, it was officially “Week 1.” I pulled out the corresponding envelope and opened it.


I stared at the image on the front of the card for a long time, smiling. The colors. The blood red. The beautiful woman with the golden halo. The pomegranate, held out to me. I turned the card over before opening it, hoping there would be something written on the back. There was:

Eve, The Mother of All

…She holds in her hands an opened pomegranate, whose Hebrew name, rimmon, comes from the word rim, to bear a child. The pomegranate is an ancient middle-eastern symbol of the womb because of its red juice and its numerous seed or offspring. It was carved on the pillars of Solomon’s Temple as a symbol of fertility. In this icon it represents all the descendents of Eve, the human race, and our debt to her and all our foremothers.

Inside, Brenda wrote:

Dear Tess—

Help yourself to those seeds being offered. I look forward to your return and your descriptions of their taste, their texture, their nourishings.

xo Brenda

Wisdom is bright and does not grow dim. By those who love her she is readily seen, and found by those who look for her. Quick to anticipate those who deride her, she makes herself known to them.

Watch for her early and you will have no trouble; you will find her sitting at your gates.

Even to think about her is understanding fully grown; be on the alert for her and anxiety will quickly leave you.

She herself walks about looking for those who are worthy of her and graciously shows herself to them as they go, in every thought of theirs coming to meet them.

—Wisdom 6:7-12

By 7 AM, I was ready to depart. As I laced up my shoes, I glanced over at my PA. He was awake but had not made any moves to prepare himself for the day ahead. His eyes were filled with defeat. I was relieved to be leaving before him so I would not have to endure his energy. In fact, I wanted to not travel with anyone else’s energy at all, but the Italian seemed to want my companionship. He was waiting for me. And when I reached for my jacket and my pack, he did too.
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(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 2, 2005
Day 3: Larrasoana to Cizur Menor, 22 km/13.7 m

In the morning, the Italian sat on his bunk watching my every move. I got dressed and went into the kitchen, and he was there handing me a mug for my coffee. I struggled with what to say to him. Can I tell him of my need to walk alone without hurting him? I thought. And can I separate myself from hurting him? I didn’t want to hurt him, but this was a great test for me: I needed to get better at not feeling responsible for someone else’s emotions. Unless I was responsible, of course. It was a theme that had revisited me again and again, and so it came as no surprise that it would catch up with me on the Camino.

I told him not to wait for me, to start without me. He shook his head, no. I expressed, in the simplest of English, that I wanted to walk by myself, that I needed to be alone.

“No, no,” he said. “I wait. Wherever you want to go, I wait for you, is no trouble.”

Strike one.

He was so earnest in his desire to shepherd me. It was both adorable and awful. But since I didn’t know what else to say, I would spend another day with his silence and his footsteps and his ever-present energy pulling at me… even though I was determined to have MY Camino anyway.

When I left the refuge, my Italian Shepherd (IS) was behind me. Meanwhile, my PA was raising the white flag. He stood at the side of the road waiting for a bus to Pamplona where he would mail some of his belongings back home and reassess his journey. I wished him good luck with his travels.

It was another bitterly cold day on the Camino but every time I walked out into it and was met with a landscape of snow, its beauty took my breath away.
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(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 3, 2005
Day 4: Cizur Menor to Puente la Reina, 26 km/16 m

When I awakened, my IS was sitting at my bedside, dressed and waiting. He smiled at me. I sat up and smiled back at him. A new word had popped into my head that I thought might work. I was hopeful. “Today, I walk solo,” I said.

His face grew long with concern and rejection. “Why? Why?” His eyes desperately searched mine.

My heart ached. “I need time with me,” I said, tapping my chest.

His eyes bulged with understanding, and he quickly grabbed his bag. “Okay, okay,” he said standing.

I apologized. I thanked him for two days of travel. He clung to his bag hiding his face a bit, and then he left quickly, as if embarrassed.

I felt terrible and relieved at the same time. I got dressed, packed up and moved into the kitchen where I soft boiled two eggs and smashed them between an open baguette with slices of cheese. I had learned a new way to cut the bread from Simon: into a V so that the contents stay in the crevice. Brilliant. I put my breakfast on a napkin and sat back down at the internet terminal, indulging my addiction one last time. I quickly dashed off an email to my friend Karen in Exeter.

Subject: Just Passed Pamplona
Date: Wed Mar 3 07:52:23 2005

Karen:

I’m here, and I’m already famous—for being the girl who has managed to bring so much in such a little bag. People are envious. They all have too much and must carry it. Nothing at the moment that I don’t have. Except heat.

The little woman here said it’s supposed to be bad weather all week. We’ll see. So far no rain. Maybe I can take the cold if it’s also not wet!

The refuges are very doable. Small and packed with bunk beds but there are so few of us that it’s fine. I think they’ll get more crowded as we go though. The closer to Santiago, the more people, I suppose. That might be the place I find hotels instead. Otherwise, it’s a bit like camping in a cabin. They have blankets and pillows but that’s all. Toilets in another building usually. Showers. Sometimes even hot water though that’s been sparse!

My hair is fuzzy. Mostly hidden under two hats.

Loving you,
Tess

I hit the trail, and I immediately started singing.
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(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 4, 2005
Day 5: Puente la Reina to Irache, 30 km/18.6 m

Much as I begrudged my Italian Shepherd, he got up every few hours through the night to tend the fire and make sure our clothes were dry by morning. And because he left the door open, it also kept us somewhat warm.

And yet I still didn’t want to walk with him. Thankfully, he’d packed up and left the room without me. But when I exited the dorm, I found him sitting in the common room waiting. And I had to tell him again that I needed to walk alone. He set out reluctantly without me. But I was walking with him anyway, in my mind, and following his footsteps. I could see them in the snow, and they provided me comfort. There was a detour written in Spanish, which I couldn’t fully understand. So without his footprints, I would have felt lost. My Italian Shepherd was the one who marked the way for me. And I struggled with him again. Who am I, and who do I want to be? I kept asking myself. Do I want to be someone who embraces and includes and loves… or am I someone who berates and tosses aside the needs of others? Once again, I was lost between my needs and the needs of others. It went for miles unresolved. Do I waste energy on fighting him or can I simply accept what comes? I didn’t have any answers. There was only the trail ahead. With his footsteps guiding me.


I climbed up to some mountain peak a few miles past Puente la Reina, and when I looked back, I saw the snow-covered countryside and, way off in the mountains, the windmills. I couldn’t believe I’d come that far. Just the day before I was at those windmills, which now seemed miles away. But more than the distance, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of it all. Especially the snow. It was the snow that made every day seem so picturesque and so different. I was grateful for it all.

I kept debating the reasons I might have undertaken the trek but looking at those windmills gave me a sense of purpose. Maybe the trip was simply about marveling—at what I’ve endured, at where my roads have taken me, at forward progress despite what may sometimes feel like inertia. Walking 500 miles is kind of a crazy thing, I thought. But if I can do this and maintain my sense of happiness and presence—being present with being here—if I can every day endure physical pain and difficult conditions and still make progress and still feel full, then that’s all I think I’ll ever need to accomplish.

I thought about Shirley MacLaine. And the star system that follows the Camino along the Milky Way. I thought about the time-intensive act of physically taking each step, and taking each step on that particular earth, under those particular stars and that particular sky, at exactly that moment. And even though I was reaching to the past, to the moment when Shirley MacLaine saw what I was seeing, and even though I glimpsed the feet of a million pilgrims backward and forward through time, I was firmly rooted in the here and now. Past, future and present converged in an instant, all of them interconnected, all of them accessible at every moment. In fact, as I write this on September 7th of 2011, I find myself able to slip back to that moment, to that spot of earth, to that feeling of the entire world contained inside of me. All those spiritual ideas I’d studied—that there’s no separation between you and me and God, that there’s no time—it all made total sense. I am every moment. I am every person. And this world is a shared event.
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(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 5, 2005
Day 6: Irache to Torres del Rio, 27.5 km/ 17 m

When I awakened, I felt more rested than I had in a week. I threw open the curtains and looked out the window. And I shook my head in disbelief. It was snowing. Like a blizzard! A foot of snow had already accumulated, the tree branches were wrapped in ice and a thick fog hovered. I did the only thing I could think of—I took another bath and prayed for better weather!

All my clothes had dried, thankfully, and they smelled fresh and clean. Same meager provisions, but an entirely new week ahead.

The restaurant opened for breakfast at 7:30. I wasn’t expecting much because the Spanish don’t really do breakfast. But I was hoping for something, anything, that would get me through the morning. I was famished, and I had no idea how far away the next town was and what I might find to eat there. I entered the restaurant promptly at 7:30. No one was there. I sat down at a table anyway and studied my guidebook. Ten minutes passed.

I heard noises in the kitchen so I poked my head in and inquired, in terrible Spanish, if breakfast started at 7:30. “Si, si,” the young man responded, smiling. I sat back down at the table and waited. No one came to tend to me.

I went back up to my room, packed up, put on my snow gear and checked out. By the time I returned to the restaurant, a woman was just arriving, tying a smock around her waist. She quickly set a mound of fresh fruit in front of me followed by small packages of bread and muffins. I was delighted. I inhaled most of the fruit and put everything else in my pack as I headed out.

The cold hit me like a slap. But the snow, huge flakes wafting down all around me, took my breath away. It’s impossible to be disappointed in the face of beauty. The fog blended with snow to create a veil, and step-by-step, I moved through it.

Should I have been surprised to find the footprints of my Italian Shepherd leading the way? I laughed. And then my eyes filled with tears. He just kept guiding me. And his presence, at a distance, was such comfort to me. I recognized his boot prints immediately. His gait. Where he liked to walk on the pathway. His prints were fresh. I felt like an animal tracking an animal. And then I thought of that story of footprints in the sand. God was laying down a trail for me—not that I couldn’t find the trail, it’s so well marked—but his prints guiding me were just so beautiful to me. With every step, I felt overcome with forgiveness for men—the men in my life.
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(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 6, 2005
Day 7: Torres del Rio to Navarette, 34.7 km/ 21.5 m

When I awakened, Martin was still on his bed, and I was on mine. We smiled at each other and said good morning. We went down to the kitchen and made breakfast with the Canadians. The meal was slightly less festive if only because we knew it would be our last together.

I was certain that when I hugged them goodbye, I would never see them again.


Martin and I left the refuge together. We were greeted by Torres del Rio in the sun, and it was a paradise. Tiny cobbled streets formed a maze around the town’s most prominent feature—an octagonal church from the days of the Knights Templar. And the views surrounding were simply breathtaking.


We both stood for a long moment in awe. And then Martin asked the most beautiful question. “Is it okay if I walk with you?”

I met his eyes and smiled. “Thank you for asking,” I said. “I would love that.”

And so I walked with tall, handsome, sweet, 24-year-old Martin, from Cologne, in school studying economics, my German Knight. I told him about my Italian Shepherd—how I was trying not to be annoyed, but I didn’t understand his interest in me.

Martin looked at me sweetly, cocked his head and said, “Well, it’s obvious. You are beautiful!”

I was stunned by that. I certainly didn’t feel beautiful. I had yesterday’s mud on my pants. I’d slept in the shirt I was wearing. And let’s not forget about my hair, or lack thereof. Perhaps it’s been a long time since Martin’s seen a woman, I thought.
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(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 7, 2005
Day 8: Navarette to Azofra, 23.5 km/ 14.6 m

Week one was behind me, and with just over 125 miles logged underfoot, I’d discovered a few important things. 1) Sleep is the most incredible reset button. I’d never slept harder and deeper in my life. And I’d never slept without moving. 2) Carbohydrates really do sustain a body under physical exertion far longer than protein. 3) I have about a 4-hour tolerance for just about anything; then I begin to unravel. 4) The accumulative effect of silence, remoteness, meditation and escaping the familiar is extraordinarily powerful. 5) People all over the world are essentially good at heart.

When I awakened to begin week two, I remembered my first dream of the Camino. I dreamed that my friend Maureen was pregnant, and because she’s an actress on a soap opera, she was concerned about how much weight she would gain. I took it as a symbol of something growing inside her—she was giving birth to something within. I liked that thought. I lay on the bunk remembering as many details as I could and doing my best to translate the language of dreams. It felt comforting to have spent some time with Maureen, in whatever world. It had been days since I’d had access to the internet, and I missed getting a small touch of home.

As I lay there, I became aware of how much my Achilles hurt. It burned actually, and I remembered that it had awakened me during the night. It was the same ankle I’d twisted the day before, and I hoped that the pain had passed. But as soon as I stood and bore weight, I knew it would be another tough day on the Camino. I was grateful, once again, that I had trekking poles to help keep me upright.

Leaving Navarette


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(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 8, 2005
Day 9: Azofra to Belorado, 41.4 km/ 25.7 miles

The best of times:

The day started beautifully. Martin, Simon and I set off from the refuge together. I wanted to be with them. I wanted to begin to know who this blue-eyed Simon was. He was in the refuge in Roncesvalles that first night. That meant that he and I had started walking on the same day. And oddly enough, we were keeping the same pace. I was drawn to him, and this was my chance to begin to know him.


Martin must have felt him as competition, which he wasn’t since Simon had no sense of competing in him. But in Simon’s presence, Martin began to lose his confidence and allure. As he competed with Simon for my attention, he grew younger. He began to flirt more overtly but less attractively. His flirtations were backhanded and juvenile. I still thought of him as adorable, but he was showing another side, a younger side. He was, after all, just 24.


Simon was clearly more introverted. He was much more of an observer than a player. He was quiet and thoughtful. I could feel in him a depth that seemed more solid than Martin’s. Martin probably floated a lot on his good looks. Simon took nothing for granted.

We walked together, the three of us, in silence and in conversation. And I fell in love with them both in very different ways. Their packs were of equal size. Martin was taller. He tended to walk with his arms folded across his chest, his head down. His steps were long and measured. Simon had one trekking pole that he stabbed the ground with. His steps were shorter and faster. He took moments to look at the sky. And he took photographs (in fact, many of the photographs in this blog are Simon’s). They were so different, my two companions, even in the way they walked. And I found each of them so beautiful.

Martin already knew of my desire for the internet. Every town that we approached was a new opportunity for me to check in with my people. And finally, in Santo Domingo, I got my chance.
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