(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 11, 2005
Day 12: Burgos to Hontanas, 30.3 km/18.8 m

I’d had diarrhea for a couple days. I suspected it was due to the lard the Spanish use for cooking, which liquefied into a horrible orange oil. It seemed that everything arrived in a pool of horrible orange oil. I could live with the diarrhea, it hadn’t been terrible, but when I awakened, to be frank, the inside of one of my butt cheeks was raw and inflamed. That’s when I discovered that it’s impossible to walk without moving the inside of your butt cheeks. I pulled the roll of sports tape from my bag and did the best I could knowing the tape probably wouldn’t stick for very long. I was grateful to be walking solo, that’s for sure.

Jaime came down from his quarters upstairs and offered a warm, easy smile. I told him I’d need another hug from him before I left. As he embraced me, he said that his hugs heal people. I didn’t doubt it.

I asked him if anyone served breakfast at that hour, 8:30, and he said the café next door was open. “Wanna join me?” I inquired boldly.

The Spanish aren’t as keen on breakfast as we are. They tend to like a thimble of espresso to wash down their bland, lifeless pastries. I, on the other hand, like a pot of strong coffee and a plate of something that’s sizzling—eggs are nice. For the Spanish, a fried egg and a plate of French fries is a dinner order. But Jaime hooked me up. He knew the café staff, of course, and he had them make me a vat of Americano coffee to accompany two eggs and toast.

And then we settled into the task at hand—to exchange as much of ourselves as we could over eggs and coffee.

I guessed Jaime to be somewhere between 35 and 40 years old. He was tall, blond and blue eyed. He’d worked for many years as an arts manager—though I did not inquire what that was—in places like London and Washington, DC. And then two years ago, in an instant, his life changed. He had a good job, he was making great money, he was engaged to be married, and one night he found himself at a cocktail party rubbing elbows with the Washington elite. He looked up to discover Bo Derek standing across the room. Bo Derek, he explained, was the woman all the boys coveted when he was young. And there she was in the same room. He’d expected some electricity—sweaty palms, a racing heartbeat, something. But as she moved toward him, the closer she came, the smaller she got. She ended up standing right next to him, and she was tiny. This larger-than-life woman seemed insignificant, he thought. In fact, everything seemed insignificant. His life felt empty and meaningless. But he didn’t think he could change just a few pieces of it; he needed to change everything. So he quit his job, ended his engagement, and walked the Camino. He met Maria on the trail and decided to live off his savings and volunteer at the Burgos refuge. He said that he’d never felt more full and that he no longer experiences a loss of energy like he used to.

He told me that his life had changed as a result of walking the Camino. I certainly wanted to know the details of that but when I probed, he wasn’t as specific as I would have liked. He did say that he could feel people’s life energy through their hands now and that’s why he wanted to touch my hands before hugging me the night before. Without hair, I appeared to have cancer, but when he held my hands he knew I was strong and healthy. I told him that I wasn’t just strong and healthy, but that I was filled with love—more and more each day. He met my eyes, smiled and said that he could tell. And suddenly, tears began streaming down my face. I admitted that I had expected my Camino to be very different—I’d expected darkness and pain and struggle. But I was stunned to find so much happiness within me. I knew that it was changing me, step by step.

He asked me if I’d visited the cathedral and what I thought about it. I told him that it reminded me of my favorite cathedral in New York. And then I admitted that maybe its size reminded me of St. John’s Cathedral in New York or maybe I was just missing my cathedral in New York because despite the immensity and the beauty of the Burgos cathedral, it wasn’t as comforting and inviting to me. St. John’s was filled with symbols of peace and hope and expansion and heart, and the more time I spent in it, the more comforted I felt. But the more I walked around the Burgos cathedral, the more I encountered symbols of war and fighting and torture and suffering and death. I had done my best to look past all, that but it had stayed with me and bothered me all night. Jaime nodded. “God does not live in that cathedral,” he said.

We talked about what the Camino gives you—in every moment you get what you need. I was awakening to the depth of love and gratitude within me, but we talked about how others don’t have such a joyful experience. I knew that I’d left the boys at exactly the right time. I knew that I needed to reconnect with my own Camino and that I needed to continue to check in with myself to make sure I wasn’t having someone else’s experience.

My breakfast with Jaime was so beautiful. He listened. He talked. I listened. I talked. And I felt deeply connected to him—partly because we both knew that that breakfast was all we were ever going to have together, and we’d each decided to make the most of it. I wondered what life would be like if we approached every moment and every interaction as if it was all we were ever going to have. Impossible, to be sure, but it was something to shoot for.

When I left him, I felt full. I felt lucky. I felt grateful. I felt the sacredness of life—to be halfway around the world and to have wandered into, by happenstance, a profound connection, however brief, with another human being. Day by day, my experiences on the Camino were deepening.

A song kept popping into my head. The one by Dido with the words, “I want to thank you for giving me the best day of my life.”

I’d thought of that song when I was walking alone with Martin those first two days. I thought of it again when I was with Martin and Simon. And as I turned back to watch Jaime disappear behind the refuge doors, it came to me again confirming that each new day on the Camino had been better than the last.

It was only 9:30. The city was just waking up. The day was just starting. And it was my favorite day so far—already! Despite the layers of white medical tape that were uncomfortably gripping me like a stiff thong, I danced my way out of Burgos, singing. This time it was Mick Jagger—you don’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.

I was singing and dancing and crying, and my nose was full of goop, and my tears were washing away the sunscreen. And it was my favorite day yet. Of course I was thinking about men. It seemed like I was reliving, in short order, the men in my life. Massimo, the Italian Shepherd, was all the men I’ve dated who have been attentive and adoring and kind and chivalrous but uncommunicative and totally out of touch with what I might want or need, and few skills to communicate with me. Martin, the German Knight, was boyish, playful, charming, exciting and capable but unreceptive, combative and immature. He wanted to understand me, and he tried, but he couldn’t relate to me in a way that felt nourishing. Jaime, I hoped, was the next breed of man to come. Mature, capable, tender, manly, attentive, skilled and desiring nothing more than a real connection. It’s easy to romanticize the man you only get to know for an hour, but I was going to invoke his spirit in all men to come.

I was thinking about that tender place I have in myself that I’ve had to protect for so long, but that was just now emerging, so fully and so beautifully. I felt it. I had the sense that that’s what I was giving birth to—the woman in me that loves and wants to love and be cherished, and how much that’s been violated, but yet it hasn’t been destroyed. I was stunned by that, surprised that I could endure a journey of abuse and violation without becoming entirely hardened or jaded. At least not at my core.

I was thinking about the email that Jeanette had sent me about the woman who was dating the con artist and abuser, a man who had been stalking her. I was thinking about some men’s need to experience their power by overpowering women. I was thinking about this need we have as humans sometimes to not be vulnerable and to crush the very thing that heals us. In an effort to not need anyone, I had tried that. And I was coming to the realization that I needed people. I saw how much I wanted to feel whole, and I needed people to walk beside me and help me become whole. The Camino, like life, a road that keeps going. And every day we walk it, and we take what you need—sometimes too much, sometimes too little. And we meet people along the way to whom we eventually say goodbye. I didn’t know if I’d see Jaime or Martin or Simon again, and I cried at both their gift and their loss.

Walking was difficult. I struggled with the tape for miles, shoving my hands down my pants every few minutes, trying to put it back in place. Then I lathered my, ahem, cheeks with Vaseline, and that helped a lot. Every couple of hours I had to reapply, but the Camino was empty, and the landscape didn’t seem to care what I was doing—all twelve miles of windy, field covered flatland from Burgos to Hornillos. The most interesting part of the journey was mile after endless mile of cairns people had created. In the spirit of Martin, I balanced my own stones and made a few wishes.

I thought so much about Martin and Simon. Several times I’d see boot prints on the trail that looked like Martin’s and I’d wonder where he was, where he’d spent the night, how he was feeling. Simon was planning on walking with Nicolai, a guy we’d met up with at refuges before. I wasn’t certain but I thought they were behind me. Although I coveted the alone time, at times I’ll admit to feeling lonely. And the quiet meseta got tedious.

I kept remembering things the guys had said. When Martin and I were excited to be nearing Logrono, we could see the city spread out in the valley below us. We kept walking and walking and walking but not arriving. Martin said, “It is getting bigger, but it’s not getting closer.”

When Martin, Simon and I had entered a town with seemingly nothing but a brand new Coke machine in the middle of the plaza, Simon said, “This part of the Camino has been sponsored by Coca Cola.” The sentence I loved from him the most, however, was the one he used in response to my endless mileage calculations, which we eventually applied it to everything—”It is unimportant.”

Oh, and then there were the Canadian divas. The night we feasted on cheap red wine we’d pulled from the fridge, Jeanette said, “This is the best damn cold, cheap red wine I’ve ever had!”

Memories. Good ones.

I’d expected to stop in Hornillos for a bite to eat—something not swimming in horrible orange oil. My guidebook said there was a bar. It also said that “Hornillos is a classic pilgrim village; little has changed over the last centuries. A good place in which to soak up some of the ancient atmosphere of the way. There is little to offer the pilgrim apart from the priceless peace that pervades this historic village.” Peace is one word for it. Desolation is another. Basically, the place had been closed and boarded up. I sat down outside an abandoned shack on the far edge of town. I had a can of tuna and a handful of nuts. I was tired and windblown and bored and hungry. My butt hurt. My feet ached. My stomach churned. My face burned from the wind. Although I didn’t feel terrible, it was definitely the worst I’d felt on the Camino to date, and I just wanted to be at the next refuge already. It was 3:00. It would likely take me another couple hours to get to Hontanas, the next town, which was just under 7 miles away. I’d also been told that in Hontanas there was a man who hung out at the bar and preyed on women. I wasn’t exactly eager to press on, but I had no choice.

I was just finishing my tuna when a car pulled up, and two women got out. The younger of them spoke English. She explained that she and her mother were thinking of opening a refuge somewhere after Burgos and before Hontanas. She wanted to know my opinion. I didn’t really have one. I mean, they would certainly get pilgrims during that stretch of nothingness, but I couldn’t urge anyone to take up residence in such a lifeless place. I wondered about the level of despair they must have endured for that to be their best option. I wondered about the opportunities that people in nowhere Spain really had to prosper. I looked in that young woman’s eyes, and I saw someone who could serve. So I told her some ridiculous version of “if you build it they will come.”

Then she offered me a ride to the next town. I immediately said no but I sure as hell wanted that ride. People take all kinds of routes and modes of transportation on the Camino, but I wanted to walk the entire way. I mean, in that moment I didn’t want to walk another step, but I knew that at some point I’d look back on it and think, I walked every mile except those six to Hontanas.

The girl looked at me, her door still open. “Are you sure?” she asked.

“Yes. Thank you,” I told her. “And good luck with your refuge.”

The dirt kicked up behind them as they drove away.

I let out a breath and stood up, queasy. As I walked, I tried not to think about that car speeding ahead at 50 or 60 miles per hour. I tried not to think that if I’d accepted the ride, I’d be there already. Instead, I tried to zone out, move into a mystical walking meditation and feel the energy from all those who had walked ahead of me for a thousand years or so. I tried to think about Shirley MacLaine who had written about the star system overhead and the idea that being on the Camino was to be blasted energetically from above and below. I kept asking, what message do you have for me today? That’s when a beautiful black and red butterfly floated in front of me and led me onward for several minutes. I knew that the butterfly symbolizes transformation and metamorphosis. Feeling hopeful, I picked up my pace.

When I arrived in Hontanas at just after 5:00, the refuge was open but it was empty.

I wrote in my journal.

In Hontanas now, another small village after crossing a bit of a long, tedious meseta. The refuge is amazingly beautiful. Charming. Cold, but charming. There are two floors. On the bottom is the common area with an enormous stone fireplace and good seating. There’s a small kitchen beyond. It looks like the Spanish version of a ski lodge. With people, I’ll bet it would be quite festive. Upstairs are the dormitories, barren at the moment. I think Simon and Nicolai are behind me but I don’t know if they’ll come. It would be weird to spend the night entirely alone.

I wanted to make a fire downstairs, but I didn’t see any firewood, and I don’t quite know how to light the propane heater in the kitchen. Someone left some tea bags though, and I did manage to heat some water on the electric stove. And there is a mound of blankets.

It’s so nice to be done walking.

Is it wrong to mention how happy I am that I’m losing weight?

The internet here doesn’t work. But when I went downstairs to get some more tea, I discovered that someone had come in and lit the propane. And I found some coffee. So I’m sitting next to the blessed heat drinking coffee and eating a KitKat out of the vending machine. Waiting until 7:00 for dinner is a killer—I’m crazy hungry. But I do love the heat. And it’s nice being here alone. It would be okay if Simon doesn’t show. I can’t believe he’s that far behind me, though. Perhaps he stopped in Hornillos. The caffeine is propping me up for dinner.

Simon and Nicolai have arrived with their blisters and sore bodies. I’m surprised they were so far behind—2 ½ hours. The woman is here cooking and has put wine on the table. It will be a good night. She is sweet. I wish I could speak with her. My stomach growls with hunger.