(First version posted from the tarmac at Gatwick, waiting for the plane to push off and take me home to Al. Updated from SeaTac as I wait to get through customs.)
I think I’ve been avoiding writing this post because it will close the book on the entire journey. The end. Roll the credits.
Don’t get me wrong– I am ANXIOUS to be home. I miss my husband terribly. I want to visit my kid. I want to snuggle the dogs. I want to see my friends. I want to wear pants with pockets, a bra with shape, and get my gray roots covered.
I am ready to go home. I was ready to go home last week.
But this has been an incredible experience, a once in a lifetime adventure that I will never replicate. Quite a few friends back home have written me messages or made comments indicating they hope I find what I’m looking for. I don’t think I was really searching for anything, but instead was trying to accomplish a mind-over-matter victory for myself. If I pushed my body to its limits and succeeded, could I shake off the unhealthy hypochondriac tendencies I developed based in fear of the pericarditis returning? I am still shocked I completed the Camino so I think the answer is yes, I do have renewed faith in the physical capabilities of my body again. In addition, I am extremely pleased with how my left ankle performed (especially down those ankle-twisting rocks into Ponferrada). I did learn the hard way, though, that the scar tissue throughout my left foot from all of the old metatarsal breaks needs to be taken seriously…
Here is a random list of final thoughts and favorite memories.
I was one of these 1,059 pilgrims who reached Santiago on May 15:
The incredible generosity of all of you for the Steps to Support SCLS walkathon! Thank you!!
Eugene and the TrailSmart app: This app on my phone became indispensable, especially since I wasn’t able to access the guidebook when I had my pack on. Doesn’t matter, I think TrailSmart was far more helpful than the book anyways. When I first downloaded the app before I left, it wasn’t working quite right because of my phone’s iOS. A quick email to the developer Eugene, and it was fixed within a few hours. What I did not anticipate was becoming friends and having him as another source of support throughout the entire Camino. He was checking in with me to see how the walking was going. I was sending him feedback on the trail descriptions. He was sending me tips on some of the features that I didn’t know existed. He was following this blog and we would have email conversations about what I was seeing and experiencing. Thank you for being another walking partner, Eugene.
This last email from Eugene really touched me. It’s in response to me telling him it’s a miracle I finished at all — that as a sedentary, middle-aged, non-hiking urbanite, I really had no business being out there. Shared with Eugene’s permission:
Sorry, I disagree with your point. Anyone can ‘walk’! It is more about determination and character to push through and keep going day after day, setting aside all the annoyances, burdens, day-to-day hurts and pains, annoying Canadians, and so on. Not being perfectly fit certainly makes it more of a challenge, but in my opinion the Camino is more about your head than your body. Indeed, not being perfectly fit says *more* about your head than it does your body… Double challenge! 🤓
One other thing: Never forget – you walked across Spain… Let that fully sink in. Despite the crowds you encountered along the Francés, very few people on Earth have done something like that. Given the Internet and social media, we hear about those sorts of things all the time these days. And when you see huge crowds along the Francés… It seems like it has become commonplace. No big deal. But factually, only an infinitesimally small percentage of people (including very fit people) have ever walked more than 200 mi. You are in a very elite club!
Animals: Some friendly dogs, a lot of sheep, cows, horses, donkeys, butterflies, herons, pelicans, sparrows, tons of other birds I could not identify, the constant cooing of pigeons and doves all day long from SJPDP to Santiago, lizards, slugs, the thousands of snails trying to cross the path in the extreme heat between Itero de la Vega and Boadilla, The giant 2 foot long worms in Navarra, all of the frogs (especially the extremely loud ones west of Sarria). And the cats. Oh my goodness, the cats. Almost every single cat I saw was feral, dirty, sickly, with growths on their faces. Often these feral cats would jump up onto the empty chairs at your table to try to get food from you. If you did not willingly give them bites of food, they were going to do everything they could to take it from you. But there was that one guy who kept jumping into my lap at Zuriain. I am not sure if he was feral or not, but he was very young, very affectionate, and was more interested in being pet than trying to take my breakfast. He was the one who told me it’s probably time to rescue/adopt another cat when I get home. Mina has been gone for 1.5 years now (we lost her the same weekend as Seamus). I hear you, aggressive yet cute little kitten.
At least until Sarria, every pilgrim acknowledged and greeted each other, and every local welcomed us kindly. American friends: can you ever think of a time when you walked into a bar or cafe alone and there would always be at least one other person who would ask to sit with you or invite you to sit with them? It happened to me every single afternoon and evening (except in Samos the night of my birthday, but that was a strange crowd). You may be a solo walker like me, but you are never alone. This is a major reason I was composing for this blog very late at night — I chose company over solitude to write every single time, and I’m glad. I will never see or speak with 99.5% of the pilgrims I connected with ever again, but that’s ok.
I learned so much from almost every person, and I’m absolutely shocked how quickly people would open up about their deepest and darkest secrets, problems, concerns, etc. So much loss and grief and pain and trauma and worry. People would ask me why I’m out there, and if I answered at all I would shrug while sheepishly saying “I didn’t die two years ago…?” Usually I told people either “it’s complicated” or “I’m trying to get in shape” (LIAR!). What was there to say? But Kat told me something very profound on day three of walking: getting sick was my trauma and I too had to work through my PTSD. She was so right, but it just didn’t make sense telling everyone else that. I felt silly and humbled trying to be a compassionate listener to others knowing how good I had it back home. I’m very lucky for the life I have.
A side effect of being a pilgrim and meeting so many people happened the three nights I was in Santiago, especially the very first night. As I sat at an outside table with an assorted group of friends, I had at least 20 different people come up to hug me or say hi — all pilgrims I had met at some point between days one and 40. It was the happiest night of reunions I had ever experienced. Each and every conversation was the same: “Congratulations, you made it! I’m so happy for you!”
Saying goodbye to my poles was harder than I thought. They were never going to come home with me, but still — we’ve been through some stuff together. Before I donated them at the pilgrims office, I noticed that the rubber caps had completely worn down to the metal spikes underneath. Wow!
I saw dozens of sunrises – which is unusual for me since I am not a morning person. I also saw dozens of sunsets. I definitely used the headlamp.
When I left France, the trees and shrubs were bare (except the deciduous ones). Now everything is in bloom and growing summer cover. I even got to watch lilacs bloom and fade as I covered more kilometers. The only trees I still wonder about are those strange plane trees.
Laundry. Doing laundry. Every. Single. Night. Something always had to be washed. I started splurging on dryers in the end because too many times clothes would not be dry by the morning from hanging. If stuff was not dry the next morning, then I either had to bag it up and wash it again at the end of the night, or I would try to pin it to the outside of my pack to dry it while I walked. Ironically, pinning wet clothes to the backpack meant that it was all covered with dust or mud or whatever by the end of the day of walking… so I had to wash it again anyways. All of my clothes are quick dry material except some wool socks, but if it was not a hot day, quick dry just did not dry quickly enough. I really wish I had brought a third change of clothes.
I really hated climbing hills — but I can’t deny the little bit of pride I felt every time I reached an apex. At first I was giddy — “Did you see what I just did?!?” Other random pilgrims I met in the first few days must have thought I was mad. Kat told me last week that she recently saw a French couple we all met in Valcarlos, and that they were surprised I was still walking and hadn’t quit. Ok then. I get it. I was not pretty getting into Roncesvalles.
Sally, Amy, and I attending a service in Pamplona’s cathedral for moving San Fermin back to his rightful church across old town. There were prayers, chanting, processions around the ambulatory. I kept thinking “ok, any minute now they’re going to pick him up and head for the door…” No, they never did. A woman came over to us afterwards to explain the ceremony in Spanish, but Sally couldn’t quite understand what she was saying (Sally is the Spanish speaker). We left so completely confused but certain we had witnessed something.
“No, not Whore-ina. Whore-ina es amiga. Ella en Camino,” I said as I made my fingers walk and pantomimed she was behind me.
“Bally, Whore-ina amiga,” replied the innkeeper in Airexe.
I was sitting at an outside table across the street when Georgia walked into town. “You made it, Whore-ina. Welcome!” 😉
Drinking wine with Chantal while we watched the parade of cows go by all night. A teenage cowgirl freaked out on C when she tried to take a picture of the parade, putting her hands in front of her face and screaming “NO!” We were just admiring your cows, señorita.
Kat and I having an intense day of trying to safely maneuver through and around boot-sucking mud and flood waters walking to Estella. I will remember fondly our conversation about the mechanical engineering behind those giant hay bale stacks larger than small office buildings. The psychologist and the humanities teacher, trying to figure it out. I think we were slightly delirious.
Attending vespers in the 12th century Romanesque church with Anthony in Rabanal.
I can’t believe I grew indifferent to seeing 11-14th century churches. There were just SO MANY.
Hard yet inspiring conversations with Kitty and Wilma about the state of the state in the US vs Europe, the way we deal with poverty and racism, and their own parents’ experiences during Hitler’s regime. I’m so sorry we split in Sansol without knowing we were really splitting for the Camino. I wish we had had just one more evening of wine/soda together.
I willingly paid someone to stick needles in me. Did you get that? The woman with the 41 year-long fear of needles paid someone to stick her left foot, ankle, and leg like a voodoo doll (acupuncture from Dr Felix in Burgos). Probably would not have happened in a million years had I not experienced what I experienced in 2016…
The Spanish white wines are delicious! So are the pinchos (tapas), the fresh orange juice, and the limon beer. Seriously. Limon beer. I’m going to ask our friend who owns a bottle shop to special order me a case or six. On the other hand, it may be a very, very, VERY long time before I eat another meal heavy with bread, tuna, bananas, or Doritos again. Bring on the veggies! I’m going home!
Speaking of bananas, apparently one a day keeps the colds away. I packed an arsenal of cold meds and cough drops but never once had to touch them.
In addition, I count my lucky stars that I never once had to, uh, find relief in the great outdoors. I even toted along one of those contraptions that allows women to stand up while doing their thing. I can think of two times that I found myself in a borderline emergency situation, but luckily places with banos/servicios appeared, like oases in the desert. The Camino provides.
Almost every business plays classic 80s hair rock: the cafe run by the monastery at San Juan de Ortega was playing Van Halen and Twisted Sister, a mini-market playing Foreigner, the taxi driver in Religios blasting Bad to the Bone as soon as he turned the ignition, the tour bus to Finisterre playing AC/DC Highway to Hell (that one was the most apt). Most popular that I heard across all of Spain? The Eagles.
The lip balm I grabbed before I left my house in March happened to be pink tinted with glitter. It was a sample my cosmetics company sent me. I didn’t realize until I noticed glitter around my water bottle straw a few days into the Camino. Kat dubbed me “Sparkle Jen.”
The language barrier was a detriment sometimes, but thank goodness for two things: the patience and grace of locals, and the google translate app. The language barrier I experienced was my own fault. I knew for 18 months I was going to do this, but I never set aside the time to learn more Spanish. I always had an excuse: work, Seafair, work, work, Seafair, Seafair, and work & work. I really needed to take some time to learn some very basic phrases. The language deficit was frustrating — and occasionally downright devastating on the days when I was too exhausted to focus. I am so grateful for every local who showed me patience, and especially those who took the time to teach me a little. Gracias!
I’m looking forward to not feeling such aches and pains every night, shuffling around bent over at the waist. I’m looking forward to being able to stand on my feet squarely every morning when I get out of bed.
I’m looking forward to exiting my own shower every morning empty-handed — that is, being able to leave my soap, shampoo, and conditioner in the shower instead of carrying it all out and packing up in ziplock bags.
I’m looking forward to using a restroom without motion sensor lights. One minute. Some of those suckers only stay on for one minute. There was a casa rural I stayed in where I had to open the shower door and wave my arm every minute to get the light to turn back on so I could finish my shower.
I’m looking forward to wearing jewelry again — especially my wedding ring — and makeup and impractical shoes.
I’m looking forward to driving a car again.
I’m looking forward to not having to tape up and bandage my feet every morning.
To bring this crazy adventure to a close, I leave you with this– a collection of all the selfies I took on the Camino that my phone put in an album for me, plus some bonus pics taken with the front camera lens. Really, this is a collection of me pointing at hills that I either just climbed or was about to climb.
Thank you for joining me on the trail. Buen Camino!
P.S. Dispatch from the plane: I have never felt so happy to see my beloved Cascades before as I am right now. They are gorgeous and a true symbol of home. I look forward to admiring them from home, but I’m not climbing them.