(This is the beginning of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago.)

In 1991, I was working as a personal assistant for a horrible man who owned the Malibu Gym. Every day I’d travel from my home in Marina del Rey along the Pacific Coast Highway past all the houses where the other half lived and wonder exactly where my life was going. One afternoon as I was flying home unconsciously at about 75 mph, I was pulled over by the CHP for speeding.

Sometimes, however, there’s a silver lining.

Instead of paying the ticket, I opted to go to traffic school where, ironically, I met one of those men who lived in one of those houses overlooking the Pacific. As a member of the “other half,” he happened to have a house on a tiny island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Barcelona, and for some reason, he offered to let me stay in it for a month, rent-free. I’d never been out of the country before, and I decided it was time to go. I saved some money, quit my job and planned a backpacking trip through Europe using that house in Majorca as a respite. It’s what every 25-year-old should do.

Just before leaving on my trip, George Bush the elder, decided to bomb Iraq in what would become the first Gulf War. My plan hadn’t included there being a Gulf War but since there was, the American government highly recommended not leaving the country. If travel was necessary, they advised Americans to not fly into London. If that wasn’t possible, we were urged to avoid Heathrow Airport. My ticket to Heathrow in hand, I didn’t flinch because I had something the American government didn’t know about: an elephant pendant a friend had given me, which she assured me was some kind of Jewish good-luck-for-travel charm. I figured that pendant and a few earnest prayers were enough to keep me safe.

My father had given me a printout of travel suggestions before I left.

Do not tell people I’m American. Do not wear Nike shoes or Levi jeans or other obvious American labels. Do not give out too many details about myself. Be guarded. Trust no one.

My passport, credit card, traveler’s cheques and emergency phone numbers of U.S. embassies all over Europe were literally strapped to me in a wallet on a belt. Xeroxed copies of everything were sealed, ziplocked and tucked into the side pocket of my bag.

During the first few weeks of my trip, I charted handpicked territories up one side of Great Britain and down the other. I read abandoned English newspapers in train stalls and cafés, and I watched broadcasts of the BBC from the common rooms of youth hostels whenever there was a television. All eyes had turned toward my homeland. I became aware for the first time ever that I’d been born into something considered to be a Superpower. Mine was a nation that was leading a war. We were in the ultimate competition, and like the Olympics, we were waving our flags and rooting for victory.

I traveled south and arrived in Barcelona. At the Estacion Maratima, I bought passage on the overnight ferry for Majorca. The boat to Palma de Majorca, the bus to Puerto de Andratx and the taxi to Marina del Rey had left me exhausted but after more than a month of carrying a bag on my shoulder I unpacked for the first time, excited to see my clothes finally in drawers.

At the Supermercado I loaded up on as much as I could muscle “home,” noting the darkening sky and the wind-blown bend of the palm trees lining the port. My walk back, head down, legs scurrying, brought the first signs of the impending storm, a smattering of rain, and I regretted having purchased the five-liter jug of water and sack of potatoes that slowed my gait. The candles and coffee were not just blessedly light but seemed more of a necessity than food and water.

Boats in the marina began knocking against their docks, bobbing and pulling at their tethers like angry dogs, and all at once the sky opened releasing a firestorm of lightning. I plowed up the hill, a ridiculously steep incline in any weather, and arrived home chilled to the bone. I dropped my wares in the kitchen as the door, not fully latched, threw itself open in the wind. A blast of bitter air demanded entrance along with a small mountain of dead pine needles that had collected on the walkway. I pushed the door closed and, shivering, stared at the fireplace with longing.

Where there were dead pine needles there were sure to be dead trees. I set out into the surrounding forest with my logging skills at hand, cutting down branches and small trunks and sawing them into useable fuel.

Nights were the best in Majorca. Once the sun had slipped behind the mountains surrounding the marina, I set the room ablaze and pulled out my journal to recapture the day. I couldn’t help but think of Hemingway. I have no love of bullfighting but we were definitely sharing Spain. Eventually I would invest in a good lumberjacking saw, add some cheap wine to the menu and, starved for American music, I would dance around the room singing every song I could think of until the last of the glowing embers turned out their lights.

One morning as I was brushing my hair, my necklace broke. The good luck elephant pendant sprang from its string and began bouncing along the bathroom counter toward the sink, followed by a procession of tiny white beads. I gasped and quickly clamped my hands down on top of them to halt their advance. If it was supposed to be a bad omen, I ignored its warning and strung it back together, defiant, tying an extra knot.

What had for days been the silence of island bliss soon stretched into weeks of uninterrupted boredom. It was time to venture out, hike the surrounding hills and discover the next town. I studied the only map in the place, a topographical diagram of hieroglyphics. Nonetheless, I filled a thermos with water, shoved my camera into my back pocket and pointed myself in what may have been the correct direction.

I walked the dirt road, which narrowed to a point on the horizon. Certainty blurred into doubt with every step. I passed through what seemed to be miles of desolation. Abandoned buildings. Homes gutted and scorched by flame. Everything faded and broken and lonely, wilted and deadened with neglect. I kept taking photographs of doors and wondering where all the people were.

Tired from so much walking and so much emptiness, I longed to put my feet up on the balcony railing at home and wait for the sunset. When I heard the hum of a motor scooter on the roadway behind me, I did it impulsively… I turned and held out my thumb for a ride.

…to be continued…