Why?

I’m determined to walk the Camino de Santiago this spring. To be more specific, I’m determined to walk 480 miles of the ancient pilgrimage of Camino de Santiago, starting in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and ending in Santiago de Compostela at Catedral de Santiago (also called Camino Frances, or “The French Way”). The whole journey can be walked in about 35 days, but I am giving myself extra time just in case I need to lollygag (I’m no longer young, fit, and dumb… but instead just old, pudgy, and dumb). If I make great time, I will continue another two days to the coastal town of Finisterre. That is, if I’m not suffering from a completely broken body by the time I reach Compostela.

In addition to walking 480 miles up and down mountainsides, through fields and valleys, in rain/sun/snow (?), I will sleep most nights in giant dorm bunk rooms with 50+ other pilgrims who will probably be the same age as my kid. I anticipate legendary blisters on my feet, eating not real great food, and most likely pushing my poor rebuilt/rehabbed left ankle to its limits. I’m positive I will have a dead phone more often than a charged one, and I’m already trying to think through how to sleep while also protecting my backpack from others who may suffer sticky-finger syndrome.

I will also turn 46 during this trip. So there’s that.

Oh yeah, and I don’t speak more than a few words of Spanish. The Spanish classes were always full when I was in community college, so I gave up and started learning French instead to satisfy my last transfer requirements. Studying French was definitely a watershed moment for my life… but it won’t help me much on this particular journey. The 5+ years of medieval Latin may be of more use. Slightly. I may be able to discern a few root words.

I’m going by myself because none of my friends are foolish enough to do it with me are available for the journey. I know I’m lucky to have a very flexible work situation (I will be using comp time from the extra hours I will work January through March for our annual major fundraising event). Not many others have that luxury. One would think cashing in six weeks of comp time means I should be moving into a beach hut in the Caribbean and do nothing but sip cocktails and read trashy books all day long. That does sound glorious, but…

I’m really looking forward to starting and wish I could go NOW instead of waiting for April (it’s December still).

So why? What’s the big deal?

As a former medieval literature scholar and teacher, I had always known about the act of going on pilgrimage, though as a Chaucerian I was much more familiar with the pilgrimage route from London to Canterbury (or “Pilgrim’s Way”) which provides the narrative frame for The Canterbury Tales. In fact, one of his most famous pilgrim characters, Alisoun of Bath, was said to have walked the Camino… as well as many other ancient holy routes. She was kind of a pilgrimage junkie.

But I never thought of walking it myself. Ever. Even after watching that beautiful and somewhat emotionally patronizing Martin Sheen/Emilio Estevez movie The Way. What a wonderful story, gorgeously filmed… but there’s no reason for ME to do that.

It wasn’t until I became very sick in 2016 that it even crossed my mind to embark on this folly, and how it came to me was a very stupid moment indeed. I learned that I most likely have a yet-to-be-identified autoimmune disease that causes a condition called pericarditis with pericardial effusion (idiomatic in my case since they don’t know the exact cause), and 2016 was a very dangerous episode because it was the second time I had it — the first time in May 2015 I was misdiagnosed as having pleurisy and treated incorrectly, which meant the pericarditis came back with a vengeance and almost snuffed me out completely 11 months later. (Fun fact: our crazy weiner-bull Roxy was born the same day I first fell ill, and part of my recuperation was my friend Lisa piling newborn puppies on me while I sat on her couch not moving. And that’s how Roxy and I met.) It took five months to fully recover and be back to myself, and it was a very bleak five months indeed as I was tapping into communities of people much younger than me who had become debilitated by their chronic pericarditis: they had lost their mobility, health, ability to work, etc. It was terrifying for me (and I can empathize with my friends fighting MS, cancer, etc, who face this reality of everyday).

So there I am lying in bed on what felt like permanent bed rest (“don’t walk more than half a block to keep your heart rate down”), loopy and nauseous from all of the crazy pharmaceuticals I was on, wailing like a maenad to my husband that my life was over and I would have to give up everything I loved to do. What an ugly pity party. “My active life is over! I wasted it! Think of all the things I wanted to do that I will never be able to do now!”

“Like what?” he asked.

“I will have to give up Seafair activities; I won’t get to follow through and serve as Commandant; I wont be able to keep up at my new job; I won’t be able to play with future grandchildren…” Then it popped out. I don’t know where it came from.

“I won’t be able to walk the Camino de Santiago.”

That’s when he stopped being the unusually gentle husband he was trying to be in that moment and snapped back to being my regular husband: “That’s ridiculous. You have never once said you want to do that pilgrimage. I have NEVER heard you say that before.”

“But now I won’t be able to do it so it doesn’t matter!” I whinged.

Then the challenge: “I’ve heard enough. You’re going to be fine. Pull yourself together. When you are back to normal, you better damn well start making plans for that trip.”

And that’s it, folks. I was fine by the fall of 2016 but had to wait another year for my Seafair commitment to end.

The first week in April 2018, I am doing this… because I didn’t die in 2016, but I will die someday in the future. We all will. And this pericarditis is going to come back. I don’t know when, I don’t know how, and I don’t know how bad it will be, but it will come back because that’s how inflammatory diseases work.

Want to come walk with me? I promise there will be wine.

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