Stories by category: Camino de Santiago

For Thanksgiving of 2000, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to spend time with family who had congregated there. It was a blessed respite from all the running around I seemed to be doing, and I longed to curl up in the corner and just be.

When I arrived, my sister-in-law, Amy, was just finishing reading a new book written by Shirley MacLaine called, The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit. There was a striking photograph on the cover: a small Shirley from a distance, with backpack and walking stick. We all passed the book around and devoured it with glee. As I read, I would spend long hours on the road with Shirley, and then copy passages into my journal, ways in which I connected with the thoughts she was writing about and the transformation she was undergoing. It occurred to me then that walking an ancient path along a holy energy site was something I would do, too. But the thought of traveling 500 miles on foot was daunting, to say the least. I said to myself maybe I’d do it for my 40th birthday, still five years away. It was a romantic idea and blessedly far into the future.

Funny thing about time: it keeps unfolding, and so five years passed. I kept wondering if I’d really do it. I was drawn to it as an idea, as a part of my personal story, something to tell people I’d done. The actual doing of it seemed frightening to me. But since I’m attracted to pursuing things that frighten me, I held it out as a possibility, if not a reality. I tried it on a bit, floated it as an idea among friends and decided that if I committed to the idea by telling people, there’d be no turning back. I didn’t tell a lot of people though, just in case. And I had an out. I’d broken my ankle, undergone surgery, and if I decided not to walk the 500 miles, I could blame it on chronic ankle pain.

There was another idea I was trying on, too.

Years ago, my friend Sandy was going through a divorce, and as a way of releasing the old in order to re-emerge anew, she decided to shave her head. I listened with awe to her process of shedding her identity and her feelings of empowerment by this act of defiance and strength. I felt myself drawn to doing the same thing. It was an idea, and as I traveled a timeline toward 40, these two ideas came together – shaving my head and walking across Spain.

Somewhere around August of 2004 it occurred to me that I could begin growing my hair as long as possible only to cut it all off and donate it to someone with cancer who had no hair. Another romantic idea, and the hatching of a plan.

I’ve never been bald before. I was born with a lot of hair and for the majority of my life, it’s been long and full and blond and lush. People have always commented on and coveted my hair. And so it seemed to be just the thing to give up, along with comfort and familiarity and language and responsibility and materialism. To expose my head as I exposed the deepest parts of myself in this month-long “journey of the spirit” seemed to root me into the reality and excitement of marking a transition, not just in terms of time and age but more powerfully symbolic of a new beginning within. And having told so many people was not just helping hold me to my commitment but also a way of understanding how vital it is that we share ourselves and our intentions so that others open a space and help us transform ideas into realities.

On Valentine’s Day of 2005, I pulled 18 inches of blond mane into two ponytails, braided them tightly, took a deep breath and cut them off.

I thought it was going to be a disaster and that the next year of my life would be a painful process of regrowth. I wasn’t quite prepared to be not just enamored by the way I looked, but completely in love with my bald head. It might be the first time I truly ever saw my face.

And I think it is my best look ever.

Before leaving for Spain, I traveled to New York to visit friends. The Christo exhibit of orange flags in Central Park greeted me. And one night, I did an amazing thing. I took a bath. At night. I had rarely taken baths at night because I didn’t want to deal with my wet hair before going to bed. But one night, late, all I wanted to do was soak in the tub and crawl into bed.

I lay in that water for a hour. It was so incredible. All the lights were off, only the flickering light of a candle lit the room.

There was a razor on the edge of the tub. I had used clippers the shave off my long locks, but it left stubbles and now there was new growth from a few days. So I sat in there in the warm water, and lathered up with shaving cream. I closed my eyes and just kept feeling the pattern of growth and all the different directions my hair grows out of my head. And I shaved my head to go against the grain, all the while keeping my eyes closed. It felt sacred. Beautiful. Some kind of rite of passage. It took me at least a half hour. And with each stroke, my head felt like glass.

The touch of my hand on my bare head. The transfer of heat. All the new sensations.

This head, mine. I lay back in the water and held my head, cradling it. I felt as though I was a baby coming out of the womb.

I’d be hard pressed to come up with another story that approximates the level of conflict, intrigue and drama as the one I just wrote. So it’s possible that my follow-up can really only be a disappointment. Perhaps the one thing working to my advantage is that the conclusion of the Jeanette story was a disappointment for so many people. I’ve gotten great emails expressing outrage and sadness. I love that people have cared so much.

The morning after finishing the last installment of the story, I was awakened at 3 AM to sirens, flashing lights and police helicopters swirling above my neighborhood. Periodically, an announcement would blare out from the darkened sky telling us to stay in our homes, that suspects were at large. This continued, unbelievably, for just over four hours. The police had to swap out their “airships” three times because the onboard fuel only lasts two hours. With nothing else to do, I reached for my iPhone and followed Venice311 on Twitter to get live updates from the LA Police Scanner.

It seems as though three guys broke into a local Best Buy, loaded a U-Haul with stolen electronics and were chased by the cops to my neighborhood where they ditched the U-Haul and started running. Police established a perimeter, tracked the thugs by heat from the airship above, brought in K-9 units and after four hours they had all the guys in custody.


Unfortunately, when the sleep-deprived neighborhood clued into the details, pretty much everyone was stunned to discover that they’d been kept awake since 3 AM for a truckload of electronics. My neighbor shook her head over the fence and said, “That’s it? I’m sorry to say but with all that activity, you’d at least hope someone had been killed.”

(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.

(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.)

Yes, I’m a smart girl, and I know better than to hitchhike. And, let’s be clear, there are no excuses. But I’d just come from a month of traveling the backroads of England where kindly strangers pulled over to the side of the road offering me a respite from the obvious heft of my bag. Some of my best travel stories are born in these moments and these people who wanted only to share their time with me. I’d kept looking for ulterior motives in them to no avail. And so my guard was down. I wasn’t careful. And Spain is not England.

So there I was—with my thumb out.

The man slowed his bike, and I got on the back. I told him where I lived. He nodded, and we were off, dust kicking up in the shadows of our past. He kept trying to talk to me. In Spanish. No comprendo. He tried again. And again. I thought he was making polite conversation. Mi Español es muy mala, I offered. And then he said something I understood: Yo y tu.

The man began driving recklessly and laughing. Talking and laughing. Speeding up. Slowing down. And laughing. He used his left hand, the one with the wedding ring on it, to reach around behind him, and grope me. It was the most fun he’d had in a very long time. I knew this from the echoes of his delight.

With no weaponry of my own, what I had in my arsenal was only my anger. And I can tell you that I have never had more of an instinct to kill. Never. When something like this had happened to me before, I was first a defenseless child and then a floundering teen. So now understanding what it would take for me to put back together the pieces of myself in the aftermath of violation, I would sooner imagine mine being the hands of a murderer. And so I did. I looked at my hands, shaking with fear and fury, and I pulled the nylon strap from my camera between them, testing its durability. In one swift move it would be around his neck.

But I knew it would be better to get off the bike. If I choked him while he was driving, it could get ugly. I looked at the ground moving beneath my feet. Stop, drop and roll; just like a fire drill, I thought.

I noticed that if he groped me he wasn’t paying attention to his speed, and he’d slow down. I waited for his hand to reach back toward me again, and that’s when I did it. I threw myself off the bike, hit the ground and rolled into the ditch, disoriented. A thousand pieces of information barreled through my head, processed, evaluated and sorted entirely apart from me. Everything was suddenly useful or not useful. Black or white. Right or wrong. Good or evil. I evaluated the weeds, dirt, grass, sticks, pebbles. There was nothing with which to protect or defend. And nothing with which to retaliate. To torture. To brutalize. To maim. I clawed a handful of small stones as I rose from the ground, an animal. I could dart into the field and lose myself in tall reeds, but a momentary flash of forewarning had me raped and bloodied and dead, my body never recovered, my parents forever wondering. I could run down the road in the opposite direction heading for nowhere, hunted. Or I could be the hunter, engage the enemy, launch the battle.

I looked back at the man on the road, on his motorbike, stopped, watching me over his shoulder, idling. My eyes bore into him, ready.

Don’t. Fuck. With me.

(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.

(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.)

Preparing for the Camino was a game of weight management: accumulating the most possible gear in the smallest pack. Because I’d have to carry everything on my back, I could only take what was essential. I studied the climate charts for northern Spain. March promised average temperatures of 40 to 50 degrees. As for rainfall, I was to expect to get wet.

I began to scour the sporting goods stores looking at tags not just for pricing info but more specifically for weight. I discovered that as the weight went down, the price went up. So I made a list of what I liked and promptly set up an eBay account. Soon, I was a frenzied bidder, and packages arrived daily.

I selected a Go-Lite backpack made out of parachute material. Not only did it weigh in at only a pound, but it was also water resistant.

In the end, I could take only what would fit in it:

  • Waterproof jacket, Gore-tex
  • Waterproof pants, Gore-tex
  • Waterproof socks, Army-issue, Gore-tex
  • Waterproof gloves, SealSkinz
  • Waterproof shoes, Merrell, Gore-tex
  • Underwear, mens’ Patagonia boxer briefs, 2 pair: one to wash, one to wear
  • Sports bras, Patagonia, 2 pair
  • Socks: 2 pair thin cotton Pearl Izumi low cut, 1 pair Smart Wool hiking
  • Pants, Sierra Nevada quick-dry, zippered to convert to shorts
  • Long underwear, Patagonia Capilene
  • Shirts: 2 Capilene silkweight t’s, Capilene lightweight longsleeve t, REI fleece
  • Towel, small quick-dry, REI
  • Bandanna: bald head protection, face mask, tourniquet if necessary
  • Sun hat, packable
  • Cloth slippers: for nighttime walks to the bathroom
  • Sunglasses, polarized, Tommy Hilfiger
  • Sleeping bag, lightweight, with silk insert
  • Camelbak bladder
  • Platypus collapsible SoftBottle, 2
  • Compass with temperature gauge
  • Pocketknife
  • Pepper spray
  • Pack-It Compressor bags, Magellan’s, 2: takes air out, lends water protection
  • First-aid kit/toiletries: blister kit, Bandaids, tape, gauze, pain patches, Betadine pads, antibiotic ointment, wet naps, aspirin, Benadryl, ear plugs, eye mask, matches, sunscreen, laundry detergent travel packs, tooth brush, toothpaste, deodorant, Vaseline (I was told that if I put Vaseline on my feet every day they wouldn’t blister)
  • Trekking poles
  • Journal and Camino trail book tucked into a Ziplock bag
  • –No camera

I loaded the pack and put it on the scale. It was 17 pounds (including the water).

I hadn’t trained specifically. I had run and cycled and lifted weights for years, but I never went out walking with a backpack. The only thing I tried to prepare for was learning some Spanish. I’d taken a year of it in high school and forgotten most of it. So I checked out some Spanish language tapes from the library. It soon became clear to me that I was woefully inadequate and not likely to get much better.

(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.)

I’d specifically chosen Valentine’s Day as the day to shave my head because I wanted the act to be one of love. I wasn’t just doing it to learn something about myself; I was giving my hair as a gift to someone whom I would never meet: I was donating it to Locks of Love, an organization that provides children suffering from long-term medical hair loss with what they call “hair prosthetics.” It brought me comfort knowing that it would at least be appreciated and cared for.

In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, I couldn’t stop thinking about my hair. I’d never thought about it so much in my life, certainly not with longing and goodbye. I’d mostly taken it for granted. But knowing it would soon be gone—ALL gone—I kept getting teary eyed. I also had the strange sensation that I was completing a cycle. The first time I cut my long hair into a bob was out of anger. I was young, about seven, and I unconsciously decided that it was my hair that made me a girl and made me look like a girl. So I cut it all off in the aftermath of sexual abuse.

Then, oddly enough, I grew it long again during those sexually curious years of high school and college. I used it, however, to take attention away from my face. I didn’t know how to have beauty, or have a beautiful face—I couldn’t hear that. But I could have beautiful hair; that was okay with me; that was somehow less personal.

It struck me—the idea that having no hair would allow something else to emerge. I thought:

God, I wonder if I’m ready to show my face now. At 40. Has it taken me this long to show my face?


(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.)

First stop, New York.

I stayed with my friend Brenda in her incredible apartment just off Lincoln Center overlooking the park. I had arrived the same week that the Gates of New York had gone up. I watched from the window, at least twenty floors above the trees, as the supports were laid out on the paths lining the park. And then suddenly, Central Park was alive in orange drapery. It was stunning, especially offset by the snow.

On my first night in New York, I stayed up late, still on West Coast time. I decided to take a bath. While I love baths, I didn’t take very many of them late at night because I always had too much hair I didn’t want to dry before going to bed. But on that night, I had no hair; what I had was a few days of stubble.

Brenda had set out all the bath salts and candles for me. The room filled with steam as I lit the candles and lined the tub with them. I got in the hot, aromatic water and began to shave my legs. Brenda had shaving cream in a bucket and the combination of it along with a new, high-end razor left my skin silky and radiant. So I decided to shave my head with it. I closed my eyes and began slowly, tentative. I noticed that my hair grew in circles from the crown radiating outward. I’d never known that. Following the pattern of hair growth and shaving each follicle was like reading Braille. It was also a bit like a dance. I’d trace along the stubble with my fingers and follow behind with the razor. Around and around my head. Eyes closed. Trancelike. Almost drunk with wonder.

(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.)

Next stop, Exeter, on the River Exe in Devon, England.

I got abundant, restful sleep for most of the night all stretched out in my reclining business-class seat and tucked in with my business-class blanket—only my sweet, bald head exposed.

There was a rabbi sitting in the seat behind me, a big, barrel-shaped guy who’d just stepped out of Yentl with his long, prehistoric beard and suspenders.

Somewhere on our approach to Heathrow as breakfast was being prepared, he came to speak to me. He stood, towering above me and filling up the aisle. “I didn’t get to talk with you last night,” he said. “I didn’t want to wake you.”

I looked up at him cautiously.

He said he was curious about me: about where I live and where I was going. I was evasive at first, not wanting to be picked at, but he picked at me, and I eventually told him about my month ahead, that I’d be walking an ancient pilgrimage route across Spain.

His eyes lit up. “Oh, then I must tell you of the curse in Spain.”

Sure, I need to know about curses in Spain.

It seems that Spain was once a land of the Jews, many of whom were killed during the Inquisition. Those who remained were forced to convert to Catholicism, which they did only to put on appearances while they continued to practice Judaism in private. “When the last of the Jews left,” my rabbi told me, “they put a curse on the land. Those of us who are most orthodox will never set foot in Spain.”

I nodded in understanding. “When I get there, I’ll pray for you.”

He smiled. “I wish it were that easy.” He stooped down closer, more reverently. “There is much blood from my people in Spain.”

Where is there not blood from your people? I thought. But instead I said, “Well, I fancy myself as having a direct line,” I pointed to the heavens. “And by the time I walk across the place, that curse’ll be gone; I’m sure of it.” I was feeling a little feisty. Are you not supposed to talk to an aging rabbi that way?

(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.)

The Camino de Santiago literally means The Way of Saint James. The trail was traditionally begun from the pilgrim’s home and ended at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia where the body of St. James is supposedly buried. There’s some debate about that—and legend, of course. The legend is that James, a disciple of Jesus, was killed in Jerusalem, and his body was shipped off to be buried in Spain. The ship hit a storm, and the body was lost at sea… only to wash up on the shore near what is now Santiago. But oddly, when the body was discovered, it was covered in scallop shells.

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

It’s that last part that’s important. For centuries, the scallop shell, which is found on the shores of Galicia, has been a symbol and a metaphor for the Camino. The grooves in the shell, which come together at a single point, represent the various routes pilgrims travel to arrive at the same destination: Santiago de Compostela. And, just as the waves of the ocean carry the shells to the shores, the shell then serves as a symbol of God’s hand guiding the pilgrims to Santiago.

In short, it’s tradition to have a shell. And I didn’t have one. Not because I hadn’t searched high and low for one, but because no matter where I looked, I came up empty.