(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.)

A week after my encounter with the groping Spaniard, I limped to the Estacion Maritima in Palma de Majorca, boarded a boat back to Barcelona and got on the first train leaving the country. From my window, I watched as we crossed the border into France, and as I looked over my shoulder I thought, I’ll never set foot in Spain again.

Eleven years later, I read Shirley Maclaine’s book, The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit. Here’s what she writes about the book on her website.

There is a famous pilgrimage that has been taken by people for centuries. It is called the Santiago de Compostela Camino across northern Spain. It is said the Camino lies directly under the Milky Way and follows the ley lines that reflect the energy from those star systems above it.

The Santiago Camino has been traversed for thousands of years by saints, sinners, generals, misfits, kings and queens. People from Saint Francis of Assisi and Charlemagne to Ferdinand and Isabella to Dante and Chaucer have taken the journey, which comprises a 500-mile trek across highways, mountains, cities and fields. It is done with the intent to find one’s deepest spiritual meaning and resolutions regarding conflicts in Self.

Even before I’d finished reading the book, I knew I would take the journey. It seemed so like me to be drawn to something so extreme and arduous and atypical. But I hated that the trail happened to be in Spain. Of course it would be: never say never.

I decided that I’d walk the Camino in honor of my 40th birthday, which was still five years away. I figured that would give me enough time to reconcile my resentment for Spain and ease into the idea of this trek. Besides, it’s easy to commit to something that’s five years away, which is akin to forever.

It turns out, there was no such thing as easing into it because five years passed in a blink. And I didn’t reconcile anything with Spain; I merely put it out of my mind.

During Christmas of 2004, I had to make a decision: would I do it or not? I sure didn’t want to. I wanted the story of walking across Spain to be a part of my history—I wanted to have done it. But I was increasingly afraid of the actual doing of it.

Here’s what I imagined. I was going to give up everything familiar: home, comfort, food, money, language, country… Once I was stripped of everything and dumped out in the middle of nowhere, some sort of bottom would drop out of me, and I’d face myself in an entirely new way. What I imagined, and what I feared, was that that Self would be darkness. I imagined that I’d feel more alone than I ever had and that I’d enter into the black hole lurking inside me.

My certainty didn’t, however, sway me. As much as I feared it, I wanted to meet that black hole. As a dogged student of spirituality, I wanted to open myself up to the biggest lessons and experiences that are possible here on Earth. It’s just that my sense of courage was fleeting. And so I began telling people of my intentions. I started slowly with a few close friends in case I chickened out. As I widened my circle, my commitment was reluctantly solidified.

Then, just to add one more experience to the woodpile, I decided to shave my head. I had always been complimented on my hair, and I had always hidden behind it. Years before, a friend of mine had shaved her head after a painful divorce. In my observation of her, she had undergone a shedding process that felt powerful to me. Showing her full face to the world seemed boldly vulnerable. I decided it was time I, too, show my full face.

My plan was coming together. I didn’t want to turn 40 and then walk 500 miles; I wanted to walk 500 miles and then turn 40. The only problem with that is that because my birthday is in April, it meant my trek would have to happen in the month of March, which tends to be wet and a bit cold in Spain. So be it. I would shave my head on Valentine’s Day, immediately jet off to spend a week with friends in New York, fly to London and spend a few days with friends acclimating to the time zone and then arrive in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, on February 28th to begin my journey.

…to be continued…