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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.)

Next stop, Exeter, on the River Exe in Devon, England.

I got abundant, restful sleep for most of the night all stretched out in my reclining business-class seat and tucked in with my business-class blanket—only my sweet, bald head exposed.

There was a rabbi sitting in the seat behind me, a big, barrel-shaped guy who’d just stepped out of Yentl with his long, prehistoric beard and suspenders.

Somewhere on our approach to Heathrow as breakfast was being prepared, he came to speak to me. He stood, towering above me and filling up the aisle. “I didn’t get to talk with you last night,” he said. “I didn’t want to wake you.”

I looked up at him cautiously.

He said he was curious about me: about where I live and where I was going. I was evasive at first, not wanting to be picked at, but he picked at me, and I eventually told him about my month ahead, that I’d be walking an ancient pilgrimage route across Spain.

His eyes lit up. “Oh, then I must tell you of the curse in Spain.”

Sure, I need to know about curses in Spain.

It seems that Spain was once a land of the Jews, many of whom were killed during the Inquisition. Those who remained were forced to convert to Catholicism, which they did only to put on appearances while they continued to practice Judaism in private. “When the last of the Jews left,” my rabbi told me, “they put a curse on the land. Those of us who are most orthodox will never set foot in Spain.”

I nodded in understanding. “When I get there, I’ll pray for you.”

He smiled. “I wish it were that easy.” He stooped down closer, more reverently. “There is much blood from my people in Spain.”

Where is there not blood from your people? I thought. But instead I said, “Well, I fancy myself as having a direct line,” I pointed to the heavens. “And by the time I walk across the place, that curse’ll be gone; I’m sure of it.” I was feeling a little feisty. Are you not supposed to talk to an aging rabbi that way?
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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.)

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.)

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 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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