(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.
The more I walked, the more I decided that I would treat myself to my first hotel. It seemed like a celebration was in order. Or at least a hot bath. After five days of being mostly cold, I simply wanted to sit in hot water. And I knew that there was a hotel near the monastery in Irache. In fact, I knew that the hotel was just past the fuente del vino (wine fountain) at the Bodegas Irache. The wine fountain was a gift to the pilgrims from the local winery. The fountain was adorned in scallop shells.

Pull the handle, and wine flowed freely. By the time I’d reached it, I was tired and hungry and ready for some kind of sustenance. I emptied my platypus containers and filled them with wine, too much of it. I stashed them in my pack and dragged myself to the hotel. Being inside a large, heated building that had carpeting, plush chairs and delicate lighting seemed foreign to me. I filled out the check-in form, handed over my credit card and accepted the first key I’d seen in weeks. When I opened the door to my room, it was like discovering heaven.

I dropped my bag on the floor and fell onto the bed like I was falling into a pool. And I laughed. Oh my god, the thought of sleeping in the clean sheets of a king-sized bed—not a silk sack in a roomless sleeping bag on a tiny misshapen mattress—made me giddy with laughter. Then I popped up, darted into the bathroom and turned on the hot water full bore. I poured myself a glass of wine, courtesy of the fuente del vino, and sunk down into the tub.

It is impossible to describe what a hot bath feels like after walking nearly a hundred miles over the course of five days. In the snow.

I soaked until the water lost its heat. Then I drained the tub and refilled it, emptying all my clothes into it. I opened the packets of laundry detergent I’d brought and sprinkled it over the contents. I scrubbed and rinsed and scrubbed and rinsed. Then I wrung everything out and hung it over the heaters all over the room.

I was dead tired but I was hungry. So I ventured out wearing the only things I hadn’t washed—my snow pants and jacket—only to discover that the restaurant didn’t open until 9 pm, another three hours. I seriously doubted I’d make it that long but the bar happened to have an internet station so I was able to pass a bit of time.

Subject: hola de españa
Date: Fri Mar 4 18:51:17 2005


So many thoughts today, day 5. It’s been arduous, to say the least. Mostly just dealing with the weather. Cold, snow, a little rain. Today I needed a hot bath so I sprang for a hotel, which was a slice of heaven in the otherwise barren terrain. I would have paid anything for a hot bath. There’s really nothing quite like it sometimes. My two favorite words today are: agua caliente. I’ve taken two baths so far, and I think I’ll have another before bed.

Every day brings something new—terrain, weather, sights, thoughts, feelings. I take it on, so far, with a sense of wonder and appreciation. But then it’s only day 5. When I wonder what day 20 brings I do my best to pull myself back to the present. I’m still not sure why I came. And I may never know. I can tell you that I sometimes look back at the path behind me and mark my progress. If that’s all I get, I think it’s enough, just this sense that forward movement toward a goal is a step-by-step process.

Much love to you and the beautiful Maureen.


I went back to my room, poured myself another glass of wine and drew another hot bath. My friend Brenda had included, in her packet of envelopes, a purple candle in the shape of a woman. I turned off all the lights, lit the candle and set it at the edge of the tub. I climbed into the water and stared at the flame. I started making tones, noises, and feeling the vibration in different parts of my body. I imagined each of my chakras and beamed colors of light through them as I made sound. I’d learned some chants and phrases, and I called them out in the dark bathroom of Hotel Irache. I mentally scanned my body, checking in with body parts, feeling their aches, their sorenesses, their rumblings. My shoulder had plagued me again for much of the day. I spent a long time chanting to it and trying to listen to its response.

I got out of the tub, wrapped myself up in towels and sat on the bed. I’d brought the candle with me and its flicker reminded me of the fire the night before. It reminded me of fires I’d shared with Brenda in her home. And it connected me to every fire I’d ever enjoyed. I wrote in my journal:

Oh, day 5.

I am drinking wine from the spigot outside the bodega. It is sweeter than I like but it is glorious. I am warm and dry and a tad drunk, with Brenda’s candle lady at my side. She is half gone already. Purple. Healing. I must pray for healing of my shoulder. It ached all day today and I don’t know what to do about it.

I would love a good meal but these Spanish keep kooky hours. Nothing until nine, but I won’t make it. Tonight I will go to bed hungry, but I will go to bed having had three baths!

All the walking is arduous. I’d like to say that I slip into a walking meditation, and maybe sometimes I do, but mostly it just feels like idle thoughts rolling around. Today, I looked back to the trail behind me, the gorgeous snow-covered country stretching back to Puente la Reina. I could see the windmills at Alto de Perdon. They were so far away. I had come forever across the country. And I had walked it all. It amazed me. I wonder if I’ll ever be afraid to do anything again. To walk 500 miles. It’s something.

The yellow markers comfort me. There are so many of them. Enough so that I don’t have to think about where I’m going. I wish there were markers in my own life pointing the way. Maybe there are, and I don’t see them. I fumble, but perhaps I am walking the correct path anyway.

I thought so much about Shirley MacLaine and her thoughts on the star system overhead. Is that why I came? Am I picking up the energy from the place? I have not spent much time in any of the towns. Just passing through. Each town has its own church but I’m not drawn to the churches. In the church in Puente la Reina, a crucifix of Jesus was prominent, of course. And it didn’t make sense to me. Why do the Catholics celebrate suffering? Why is that a symbol of faith? Not my symbol.

A hot bath does a weary body wonders.

I don’t even know what my thoughts are, this is just my life. The life of a pilgrim. How did people do this in other times without heat? And clothes from Patagonia.

My left shoulder plagues me. I’m so surprised. I had no idea it was so tender, so weak. I brought the magnet with me anticipating that my ankle would give me trouble. The ankle is fine. So I’ve taped the magnet to my shoulder, and I’ll sleep with it tonight.

It’s possible that I paid for this hotel what it’s cost the whole trip so far. I think I’m only spending about $20 a day.

I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. I cranked the heat, threw off the towels and slept naked, spread eagle, in a king-sized bed with clean sheets. And I don’t think I moved the entire night.