Thursday, December 18, 2014

Thoughts Looking Back On It All

I've been home for five days now, and I've only walked 9 km. That was on Monday.

People have been asking how I feel now, how is it to be home, what did I learn during the Camino, what's my next project. I've put off writing any sort of summary because it is hard to summarize the experience. It was 33 days. That's a long time. It was over 700 km. That's a long way. When I start to talk about it, I ramble. But I guess that's what I did during the Camino.

The most general thing I can say looking back was that it was hard. It was harder than I expected it to be. I never once thought "I could do another 10 km today." I never thought "I could do another 5 km." I was always more than ready to be done when I arrived at each day's destination. Without exception.

Yes, I am accustomed to lots of hiking. But not 20+ km day after day with a 12 kg backpack.

And it was harder on my husband than either of us expected. Well, on the one hand, I was skeptical back in August when he assured me my absence would be manageable. It seemed very generous of him to encourage me to be away for so long.

On the other hand, he and the girls had gone a month without me before two years ago when my mother had surgery and I went to Ohio to help out. So they did have experience managing work, school, meals, and the house. So, okay. We were confident they would manage.

And they did. But it's very stressful to be a single parent, juggling work and dealing with daily life, let alone trying to travel with a sick kid at home.

All of the chores I do leisurely over the course of the week had to get done on the weekends. Which is what Ron does during the summers when we are gone. Except now he also had to manage tasks the girls needed to do during the weekend. Sure, in families where both parents work, weekends are taken up with a lot of these chores. But usually both parents are there to share that load on weekends.

This is not to suggest that either of us regretted the decision. But it was a big project, and it was harder than we expected.

I'm very glad I started at the French border. That first day was the hardest thing I have ever done, physically. But it was so beautiful -- it was worth every minute.

Everyone I met felt that November/December was an okay time to be walking. Yes, often nothing was open, but there were also no crowds and it wasn't hot. I was always able to find plenty to eat and drink (there are fountains all along the way, so no need to carry a lot of water). I was fortunate not to have too many rainy days. Some days I walked without seeing another soul. Other days I knew there were as many as ten of us on that day's stage.

The first third and the last third of the Camino Francés were more interesting to me. Maybe in another season the meseta would be more compelling. To me it was largely an endurance test. The Basque country and Galicia were really beautiful -- and both were parts of Spain I had not ever visited before. If you ask me my opinion, I could happily recommend the two.

Before I left I was a bit curious about how I would feel to walk five to six hours a day alone. Hiking is a very social activity for me. I had only hiked by myself maybe twice in my life. Now I can tell you that this was never a problem. Yes, it was nice to come across another pilgrim to talk to, but it was also just fine if I didn't.

I only lost the route twice, and for relatively short distances. It is extremely well-marked, even in the cities. I had apps and maps and Internet access, and these all provided useful information, but you could do it without any of them.

Now that I'm back home, the house feels so warm and cozy (although I'm surprisingly cold often). That said, I walked into town and back today in what can only be described as crappy weather, and I didn't really give it much thought. I don't want to sleep outside or even in a tent, but I am very happy spending a good portion of the day outside.

I can't say I'm restless or thinking about any new challenges. It's nice to be with my family, to cook a meal, to sleep in my own bed, to wear a variety of clothing. Driving the car still feels a bit odd.

In many ways, there were similarities between walking the Camino and my time in Moscow: it was a really interesting experience, I'm glad I had the chance to do it, I had some amazing adventures, but I don't feel the need to do it again. Like learning the Cyrillic alphabet, if I can do it, you can, too.

If I had any profound revelations, it was the degree to which so many of you took an interest in what I was doing. I continue to be amazed at how many people have written to me and said that they were following my progress. And their friends -- people who had never even met me -- were asking about me, too. I provided inspiration for a friend who is a painter. My husband is proud of me, which means the world. And I think I impressed my kids a little bit.

Would I recommend it? In a heartbeat. It was a real once-in-a-lifetime adventure, and I'm very glad I had the chance to do it. Is there more to say about it? Certainly. But I don't want to ramble just now.

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Monday, December 8, 2014

Day 29, Sarria to Portomarín, Under 100 km to Go

I haven't really had much to report the past few days other than the countryside just keeps getting more and more gorgeous. Seriously, if you are thinking about doing the Camino, you could start by walking to O'Cebreiro and than carry on to Santiago. At least based on what I've seen so far, if you are into pretty scenery, this last part is to die for.

Yes, it rained today. Big deal. I live in Luxembourg. It rains all the time. My only complaint is that I was sorta warm (I over dressed today) and then I had to put my coat on, and I was really warm. But I had a shower, and my clothes are in the washing machine (WASHING MACHINE! Again! Stink-free -- well, soon). The albergue (yes! An auberge! But there are only two of us in it) folks are so sweet. The dad got me change for the washer. The daughter is in med school in Santiago. Could not be more charming.

Speaking of characters, I've walked with a few recently. Saturday I ran into an Italian -- Marco from Rome. We walked together for a bit, but then he needed to go faster (I was really gimping at the end), so, as you do, he went on. But later, I ran into him in the albergue. He was wearing his slippers; I was wearing my Crocs. We were both shuffling around, stiff and barely able to move. "We look like we are in a hospital!" he announced.

The next day I walked about half the stage with him. He was really amusing, holding forth on American and Italian politics and life in general. "Remember this one thing," he said out of the blue. "Life has more fantasy than we can ever imagine!"

Then he told me a hilarious story about a time he was in New York for work. "What is it with Americans and their business cards?" he said. (Obviously, he's never spent any time in Slovakia -- the Slovaks love their visit cards.) "I want to talk to people! I say 'Who are you?' and they all pull out a little card and say 'This is me.' I don't get it!"

Apparently, he printed out his particulars on an A4 piece of paper (8.5 x 11, for the Americans), and the next time some guy pulled out a business card, Marco produced HIS business card. "I told him, 'Mine is bigger!' He wasn't happy."

Today I walked most of the day with an Austrian carpenter named Bastian. Bastian has already walked to Santiago. He was on the bus heading back to Linz when he decided he wasn't done. So in Ponferrada, he got off the bus and is now walking back to Santiago again. When you are 21, you can do this.

Now my laundry is done and my hair is mostly dry, so it's time to look for a glass of wine. I'm counting down the days until I arrive in Santiago, but I'm equally excited to see my darling Home Team on Saturday.

As always, thank you to everyone for all your lovely words of support. It means more than you know.

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Location:Portomarín, Spain

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Day 27: O'Cebrerio to Triacastela, 22 km

This morning when I left O'Cebrerio, it was snowing, and I somehow got into my head that as soon as I descended below the clouds, all would be sunny. What I forgot was that a good 10 km of the walk was UP THERE. And for some reason, I also had it in my head that this was going to be a 15 km day, when, in fact, it was practically 22 km.

Big difference.

The snow ruined what I've heard are spectacular views, but I still had very cool views. Sometimes I could barely see 100 meters in front of me, and it was, at times, a bit hard to see the yellow arrows, which was harrowing, but I had my map and I knew there was a pair of pilgrims behind me. Italians, I learned when they passed me, who had done Cacabelos to O'Cebreiro yesterday -- over 37 km -- and the one I talked to said he was paying for it today. No kidding.

I haven't done more than 29 on one day, and that was brutal. I've met a few people who have pushed the distance. An Italian woman I've run across a few times now was heading for Sarria today: over 42 km. There's not enough daylight for me to go that distance even if I could. That's at least an 8 hour day on flat terrain, and there was a L O N G descent into Triacastela.

I can't descend quickly. I'm usually tired when it happens. My knees are screaming, the path surface is often covered with loose gravel, and I'm afraid I'll fall or turn an ankle or worse. So I go slowly.

I thought, before I began this, that it might happen that I'm feeling good and want to go an extra 10 km. But no. I'm convinced that the weight of the backpack adds the feeling of having done an additional 10 km to whatever it is I have done.

Like today, for instance. 22 km is not a bad walk. I've done it a million times. It should be a 4-5 hour project. Today was not even 22 km, and it took me 5.5 hours. That's without any real stops: no potty breaks, no snack breaks. It's too cold and wet to sit down (and precious few benches on which to sit) and nothing was open in any of the villages I passed through. I got water a few times from fountains. But I wasn't hungry (had a nice lunch just now, so don't worry) and nature never called.

Oh, I lied. I did eat two crepes with sugar forced on me by a tiny old lady in Fonfría. She called to me to wait (there was a big dog wandering in the street, and I thought maybe it had something to do with him), and then reappeared with a plate stacked with crepes. She started sprinkling sugar on one and handed it to me, all the while chatting on about how they were homemade and two pilgrims has passed by earlier and did I know if anyone was behind me. It was delicious and she made me take a second one. I gave her 2€, which probably covered her costs for the whole stack, but she was did not hesitate to take it (I think she was expecting a "donativo").

By this point the snow had become rain. The Italians passed me. And I found myself slogging through mud and cow shit.

It's only funny now that I'm clean.

My map indicated a tunnel, so when I saw I was being routed under a road, I didn't hesitate, but clearly I should have. I could see a big Camino sign ON the road, but I was being directed, by rope barricades, under the road. It was clearly a cow route: mud and cow pie slop that covered one of my boots. I kept muttering, "Oh, you have GOT to be kidding!" I thought about taking a picture, but was afraid I might drop my phone.

Of course as soon as I got out of it, I saw that I could have easily just walked over the road and skipped the cow tunnel. But too late. I found a fountain soon after and rinsed a lot of it off my boots, but then had to slog through more cow routes.

I like cows, but they seem to turn everything into rivers of mud and cow shit.

So delighted was I indeed when I arrived at my albergue (Yes! I'm in an albergue! But it's so empty, I have a triple room to myself.) to find they had washing machines. My cow crapped rain pants are now dripping quietly in the bathroom. My BO shirts now smell lovely. I have to hang out by the heater until my fleece dries because I don't have enough clothing to venture into the common area (which is quite cold). But I hear signs of life out there, so maybe this will be a more social evening than I usually have.

Although I had wine at lunch. And a very late lunch. So I could just turn in now (it's 17:15) and be happy until morning.

In any case, tomorrow I arrive in Sarria, which is the point on the Camino Francés where one has to begin -- the minimum -- to receive a compostela (certificate of completion). As the Italian who passed me today put it, "We are so close now, we can SMELL Santiago!"

Hopefully you can't smell me.

And this time next week I should have my compostela and be on a plane home!

Looking forward to seeing everyone, but especially my Home Team. XOXO

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Triacastela, Spain

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Day 24: Molinaseca to Cacabelos, 24 km

Yesterday was am amazing hike. I want everyone to come and do that hike. The views were incredible. I hit the highest point on the entire Camino Francés (and it was nowhere near as difficult as the first day's climb in the Pyrenees). I walked with some very cool women, and saw some folks from my first week. There was a long descent into Molinaseca, and all of us had rubbery legs at the end, but everything around us was so pretty, it didn't matter.

Because I was walking with other people, I took longer because they were more inclined to do things like, oh, stop to eat. We stopped three times, and this probably contributed to my feeling relatively decent at the end.

That weird hot flash thing I was having on my right leg? Haven't felt it in over a week. Whatever it was, it's gone.

Today was a relatively flat and relatively short stage. But after the prettiness of the past two days, it couldn't compete. The historic center of Ponferrada has some cool stuff, but Greater/Suburban Ponferrada is kinda grim. Plus, I may have wandered off course there. At any rate, there was a period of about 2 km where I hadn't seen any signs for a while, and while I knew I was heading in the right direction, I may have gone farther than necessary.

I did see my first Christmas decorations. It hasn't been very cold, so other than the calendar, I haven't missed them, but it's nice to see things starting to look a little festive. And mountains -- there are mountains all around me.

But I digress. Big news: who has less than 200 km to go? Who? Who? I am now at about 190 km to go, so YAY!

Tomorrow (Thursday, right?) I have about 23 km to La Portela de Valcare. And then Friday, weather permitting, I climb O'Cebreiro (1,330 meters) and enter Galicia!

Lots of love to the Home Team (the Christmas tree looks so pretty) and all my friends and loved ones. XOXO

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Location:Cacabelos, Spain

Sunday, November 30, 2014


I thought I was staying in a small hotel, and when I was walking here yesterday, basking in the sunshine, I entertained visions of a nice glass of red wine at the bar. Maybe a little lunch (it was about 3:00 pm, so, yes, that's Spanish lunch hour).

Imagine my horror when I walk in -- JUST WALK IN THE FRONT DOOR -- and the family is sitting around the table, having THEIR lunch! Worse, after I retreat to my room, I hear them singing the Happy Birthday song!

There was no clue anywhere that this was a B&B.

And I had just walked 5 km from Astorga, where one might find the nearest open restaurant on a Sunday night in late November. I wasn't about to go back, in the dark, to wander around looking for some place open as early as 7:00 pm. So I ate some almonds I had in my bag and went to bed.

But not before I washed out my socks and undies. This also proved a challenge. Call it … I don't know what to call it. I pushed down the built-in drain stopper, filled the sink, dropped in my smalls, and took a shower. When I got out, I realized I couldn't figure out how to drain the sink. I really couldn't. My heart sinks.

There seemed to be a little stem behind the faucet. I got out a safety pin and threaded it through the hole in the stem. Pulled. Nothing. I begin to panic.

I crawled under the sink, looking for the mechanism that manages the sink stopped, thinking I could manipulate it from there. All I got was a whack on my head from the towel rack and the towel I was wearing wouldn't stay on. It was like that episode of Seinfeld: some things shouldn't be done naked.

I tossed the wet clothes in the shower. Found my pocket knife. Tried to pry up the drain stopper. Was unsuccessful with that, but did manage to slice my thumb.

Now things are getting desperate. I don't want to have to go downstairs and confess to the birthday family that I can't work the sink.

I'll have to start bailing it out.

There's a drinking glass provided. Real glass even. So I carefully scoop out the water and pour it into the shower. It takes a while. I'm almost done bailing when a thought occurs to me: I closed the drain by pushing down the stopper. Maybe … wait a minute…

I push down on the stopper and VOILA! It pops right up. Sink drains. Problem solved.

So much for enlightenment along the Camino.

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Location:Murias de Rechivaldo, Spain

Day 21: I Take a Leap

Yesterday, as I plodded through the rain into Sahagún, I decided I had had enough of the meseta and its accompanying head games. It had now been a week since I had the run in with the cyclist as I left Burgos. There were some gorgeous days -- some of the loveliest moments of the whole experience. Some of those had happened in the rain.

But then I saw a sign that said LEÓN 75 KM.

That was three more days. THREE MORE DAYS of flatflatflat and tiny villages with all their shutters down and no open cafes and endless deserted paths through plowed fields.

After two days of virtually no human contact -- not even much in the animal kingdom -- and what was starting to feel like endless uncontrolled crying, I decided I could make a change.

And the Camino provided. As I walked into town, I saw a train pull in. Ah ha! There was a RENFE station. And there it was -- on the other side of a gate -- that was open! Okay, so there was some climbing around and crossing of tracks in a manner not exactly condoned by the good people of RENFE. But it all led me to the ticket window where I asked the nice lady if there were any trains on Sunday to, oh, say, Astorga?

Why yes, there were. And she sold me a ticket. For 10€ I was going to get out of this mind numbing landscape and that much closer to the mountains again.

So at 12:52 I got on a train in dreary Sahagún, and at 14:06 I got off in sunny Astorga. The mountains loomed on the horizon. I saw cows and chickens and huge, fat rainbows unlike any I had ever seen before. The moon was there in an incredible blue sky. And it all felt exciting again like that first day out of St Jean Pied de Port.

Now, instead of arriving in León on Tuesday, weather permitting (and I think it will), I'll be at the La Cruz de Ferro, the highest point on the Camino Francés.

So much better.

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Location:Murias de Rechivaldo, Spain

Friday, November 28, 2014

Day 19: Solidly in Phase 2

I had read before I started this walking thing that there were three distinct phases to the Camino.

The first, from the French border to Burgos or so, is the physical part. And that was the case, indeed. This is the blisters and the oh-my-God-my-backpack-is-so-heavy and the Advil popping portion of our show.

I truly feel like I've turned the corner there. Yes, when the day stretches to more than 25 km, things start to hurt, I won't lie. But the past few days I've felt strong, my pace has picked up, and I don't notice the backpack at all any more. Really.

Because we're into Phase 2 now, friends. The mental part of the game. Yesterday I experienced what can only be described as a melt down.

The walking part was nice, if a bit dull (I'm still on the meseta, so the view hasn't changed much for a few days now -- think driving across Indiana if that helps you). The sun even came out for a bit. Or at least the rain held off until I was done walking. The town (Carrion de Los Condes) was cute. People in the center called out encouraging things to me.

But I got all weepy and began questioning everything. It didn't help matters that it was Thanksgiving. I haven't really celebrated Thanksgiving in years, since it's odd doing it on a normal Thursday, and by the weekend the urge has passed. Regardless, it usually does make me a tiny bit wistful. And when you are all by yourself, that can easily spin out of hand.

I was a real weepy mess. Just could not stop crying. The Home Team all had a difficult day, too, and although my presence at home would not have changed much about that, it's hard to feel you are being supportive from such a distance.

They encouraged me to make no rash decisions at the moment, and to sleep on it, which I did. Of course, everything is better in the morning. I still reserve the option to assess things when I arrive in León. I might hop a bus and cut out some stages. But I won't decide anything until I get there.

For one thing, the weather is forecast to improve on Sunday. Today is 7C/45F and drizzly. It's not really too, too bad, in fairness. For half of today's walk I didn't even wear a jacket (until the drizzle began). And it's not August. There would have been no shade today in mid-summer. It would be brutal, and I don't know how people do it.

I walked today along what was originally a Roman road (but unlike the bits of Roman road I've come across, this had nice, small gravel on it -- easy to walk on!). My notes say, "Probably very boring." It wasn't boring. But it was a very strange feeling.

I saw a few cars. A tractor. A couple of pilgrims heading the OTHER way (probably walking home from Santiago -- it happens, and more often than you think). I memorized part of the license plate of a car that passed me, and it became my mantra: 6-2-7-7, 6-2-7-7…

You know how some things can make you feel really small? Like a grand cathedral. Or the big streets in Moscow. I've never stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon, but I bet that's humbling.

That's how this felt. There was just flat farm land. And the Camino. If I stopped, which I did from time to time, I could hear the traffic on a highway I couldn't see. But not always. Mostly it was just the wind. Some birds, but not many.

It's a lot of head time, this sort of sameness.

Often, I can see my destination for a while before I arrive. Yesterday was like that: you reach a small crest and VOILA! There it is, and you feel like Dorothy running through the poppies towards the Emerald City.

Today my destination was elusive, hiding from me until the very last moment. So every time I thought, "Ah, maybe I'll be able to see it from here …" the answer was, "No. Not yet."

It was during this part of the walk that everything began to feel surreal and dreamlike. I started to wonder if I was really awake, actually doing this thing. And although there was a tiny bit of blue sky way off to my left, it was still grey and drizzly above me.

And that's when I started to experience the sensation of light around me. You're going to say, "Oh, boy! Now she's really lost the plot!" But I swear it felt like a spotlight was above me, making a circle of sunlight just around me. In long pulses. Warm, yellow light.

No, the Virgin did not appear. No one spoke. It was probably just the sky clearing. But it was nonetheless an odd sensation.

We are clearly in the Head Phase here, aren't we. The Third Phase is the spiritual part: that could get really wacky if today is any indication.

So now I'm in this weird bar/hostal place where the bartender/owner is missing some teeth, but not in a Deliverance sort of way. I can hear everything that happens in the bar/kitchen, but that also means the wifi is strong. I ate a salad (if I never see another Spanish tortilla with potatoes it will be too soon), and now I need to figure out how to move photos and video off my phone and onto the iPad as the phone is (again) out of memory. Someone has taken pity on me and turned on the heat (it's freezing in here). So life is good.

Thanks to everyone for all your encouragement. Lots of love from Spain!

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Location:Calzadilla de la Cueza, Spain