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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.)

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 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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