(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 18, 2005
Day 19: Hospital del Orbigo to Santa Catalina, 28.9 km/18 m

Simon and I were up and ready with the sun. As I was making breakfast, Manfred joined us, his hair askew, his eyes slanted from sleep. He was still hobbling, and he thrust himself into the chair as if the music had stopped and he didn’t want to be caught standing. He admitted that he had attempted too much, and he was going to take the day off, hang back, rest, travel more slowly to Compostela. He hung his head in shame as he spoke, which made me sad. Walking the Camino is not a competition. Perhaps that was the realization he had come to. Or would come to.

I said goodbye to Manfred, knowing I would not see him again, and Simon and I left together. We walked through the woods in silence, and when we came to the old Roman bridge at the edge of town, we found the note that Manfred and I had left for Simon the night before. Although he’d not seen it, he had decided to stay at the remote refuge anyway. It was kismet that kept bringing him to me, I thought.

Out of Hospital del Orbigo, the landscape began to roll again with gentle hills, and we moved up and down through the sparse landscape toward Astorga. The sun arrived and the temperature climbed to 70 degrees. For the first time, my jackets were both stuffed into my pack, and my sleeves were rolled up.

Simon, with his careful eye and expert camera, logged our journey on film while I wrote down scattered thoughts in my journal.

The villages in Spain are dying. Old people with sad eyes and so little. The Camino can’t sustain them. I see why it is moving closer to the roads; there may be no refuges to support the pilgrims at some point.

We walked the 10 miles to Santo Toribio where the Mount of Joy is marked with a stone cross. Santo Toribio was apparently the fifth century bishop of Astorga who fell to his knees in rapture as he bid his final farewell to his beloved city. I paused only long enough for a photo before continuing on to that beloved city.

Astorga surprised me with its astounding plaza. It wasn’t overrun with tourists, like Leon had been. Instead, the city was so far off the beaten path that only locals seemed to inhabit it. We arrived just after lunchtime and the place was emptying in time for siesta. Simon and I devoured huge, greasy slices of pizza. And then we became like two giggling kids as we licked towering ice cream cones quickly in the hot sun. We walked the perimeter of the plaza and then, with nothing else to do, decided to push on.

The siesta meant that no shops had been open, and we passed through remote towns with no provisions. As the sun began to set the temperature dropped, of course. I pulled the jackets from my bag and wrapped myself in them.

We came upon a couple from Norway heading in the opposite direction. It was their first day on the Camino, and she was already feeling the affects of a long day as he insisted on going farther. He said they’d be walking another 12 kilometers (7.5 miles). I looked at my watch. It was almost 6:00 already. It would be a cold, dark, terrible night, I thought. I studied her exhausted face and then turned to him. You are an ass, I thought. I stomped away in anger. It was the first anger I’d experienced in such a long time it felt foreign to me.

Simon and I soon arrived in Santa Catalina and although the refuge was empty, it was open for business. Oddly, there was hot water but no heat. I stood under the trickling water to take away the chill. Then I put on every piece of clothing from my bag, it was that cold. There was a blanket on each bed and I grabbed two of them. I lay down on one of the beds, which sagged horribly. I moved to another and another and another. They all sagged.

I had leftover spaghetti in my bag but there was no kitchen in which to cook it. Simon pulled out a can of corn, and we passed it back and forth between us, even sharing the only spoon. Then we burrowed into our sleeping bags, piled the blankets on top and had the sweetest conversation. He’d been asking me deeper and deeper questions as we moved west across the landscape. I felt his trust in me grow as he sought my advice and input on a variety of topics from nutritional information to the best time of day to buy a pair of shoes to the creative process. But that night, in the cold darkness, we talked about happiness. He told me that I’m one of the happiest people he’d ever met, that every day I wake up eager and nothing seemed to get me down. I told him that happiness is simply a decision. He liked that very much.

He spoke about every day wondering why he was walking the Camino. He kept asking the question but not getting an answer. There was a week left, and he worried that his answer would not come. I smiled as I listened to his earnestness. Then I confessed that I was having the same experience. I kept expecting to come to some conclusion or epiphany but didn’t. I was left with the feeling that I didn’t really know why I was walking either. “But,” I said, “I’m willing to never know. There are gifts every day, things I learn, ways in which I feel myself change, but some overwhelming answer—I don’t think that ever comes. I think knowing is slower and more gentle than lightning bolts. And sometimes it’s so subtle it’s lost on us.”

I talked a lot about myself and my process of growing. “What you see is a 40-year-old woman who’s been through some stuff. And maybe more than anything else, my Camino experience is showing me how far I’ve come from being the sad, lonely, overweight depressed girl I used to be.” I told him that for me, growth seemed to have conveniently fit into decades: my 20s were mental and emotional; my 30s were spiritual; and my 40s were beginning as a physical quest. But now the physical felt more fully integrated. I was having a sense of being IN my body. It was both more sensual and more spiritual. “I feel the elements of myself coming together, integrated, and it’s ecstasy. Every day, ecstasy. But then every day on the Camino, all I have to do is walk, make sure I have food and water, feel the steps beneath my feet. There is no stress here for me. So many people are facing themselves and their limitations on the Camino. I am, every day, bumping against the edges of bliss.”

He had a lot of questions, the eager, adorable Simon. It was so lovely having an openness with him—his process, my process. He, at 22, was in the midst of defining himself, of becoming, and wondering. “How do you find answers? How do you become who you are?”

I told him he was doing it perfectly. “I don’t know where answers live but if there’s one thing, only one thing more important than anything else, it’s to remember in every moment to be kind to yourself. I think love happens in the tiniest of moments, and it only happens when love starts from the inside.”