Finding Joy

We’re home in Valencia. We left Santiago in the dark and pouring rain early this morning. I’m glad to be home but this past week walking 114 km was a good reminder for me on the power of the journey and what you find along the way.

To say it rained on us this week was an understatement. It’s a good thing we both know how to swim because that’s almost how we found our way to Santiago. We were hurting as we walked through the old town and under the portico to the square in front of the Cathedral. Strangers cheered us in, shouting and clapping. One of the most powerful feelings and I teared up a little – Shhh… don’t tell Jeff.

This short Camino came with more physical pain than emotional. I limped the last 20 km on an Achilles tendon that was visibly swollen and I drug my foot like Igor in Young Frankenstein. If I’d implored my fellow Peregrinos to ‘Walk this way’ I’m not sure they would have understood the reference. But Jeff laughed when I said it in a deluge at Monte de Gozo.

Jeff and I have been married for a long time, and together for longer. Over time, our life together became about the day to day. Raising kids, paying bills. The administrivia of living. But as Ferris Bueller warned us all in the 80’s ‘Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.’ And it’s easy to do. So I wondered – how would it go walking all that way (5-6 hours a day) with Jeff? He didn’t do my first Camino with me. That was Emilie’s special joy.

We’ve never done something that was so physically challenging together. But he surprised me. Not that he couldn’t handle the rain, the sore muscles and the pain. But there were things about him I didn’t know. Stories he’s never told me. In all this time. I guess it took walking side by side for hours to make some things bubble to the surface.

And he mused aloud. In my experience, that’s my domain. Jeff isn’t much of a verbal muser. He’s more of a person who does his musing in private and shows up with the results after many hours, days, weeks of mulling things over. But over the last week I got a view into not only his process, but the outcome in real-time. Interesting.

And I learned some new things. I always knew Jeff liked baby goats. We had goats at one point and he’d laugh at them. But I never knew he subscribed to the baby goat subReddit. He’s a baby goat antics aficionado. Some people like cat videos – Jeff likes baby goats. And he also subscribes to the one for jokes. He had me laughing the whole way. And at least once a day I was doubled over after standing aside to let others pass as I struggled to control myself. He’s funnier than I remember with his puns, quick wit and dry sense of humor.

Jeff’s legs are much longer so he had to adjust his pace to mine and go slower up hills. But there were days he was in pain and we went at a pace that was comfortable for us both. I’ll only lose one toenail this time. So I’m pretty happy about that.

We met some cool people too. A father and son who were walking together after the mother had passed and couldn’t go. A woman who turned 70 in May and whose mother passed away in August. An educator from Minnesota who retired and finally had the time. A group of 5 women from the Faroe Islands who have been friends since they were 6 years old and were on an adventure.

Santiago is an interesting place. The end of journey’s. We watched as those who were already cleaned up walked the streets greeting those still finding their way in, with hugs and cheers. Like old friends, even though they’ve only known each other for a few days or weeks.

Cathedral of St. James – Santiago de Compostela

The smiles on every face, including our own, at the office to get the Compostela are broad. Open faces and laughter. Unspoken are the words ‘Can you believe we did it?!’ as we all peeled off wet gear down to long underwear hoping to ring it out a little before our number was called to get our certificate.

Last night we had dinner in a place that served Thai food we were craving and there were tables filled with ‘Camino Families’ having their final dinners together. Recounting tales from the trail. Places like Molinseca and Castrojenz. Times when they needed help from others and when they gave of themselves. Smiles, ribbing and laughter.

Written on the wall at the restaurant in Santiago

People who walk the Camino are looking for something. Within themselves, in the world. Sometimes it’s closure from an illness or a loss. Sometimes it’s to process grief or find a part of themselves long buried but not forgotten. Tears are almost always near the surface – wine helps grease the skids. And stories spill forth ready to be told. But in the end, I think it comes down to what we’re all looking for in this life. JOY!! And Pilgrims find it on the Camino – in one form or another. And even if for a brief moment, they can name it and hold it in their hands.

Buen Camino🙏

Now He Gets It

When I came home from walking the Camino Frances in summer 2017, I needed quiet. After being on the trail for so long with other people who were having that same intense experience, I found it difficult to return to regularly scheduled programming.

It may sound like a big stretch, but at the time I imagined it like coming home from Afghanistan. You’ve had this intense experience far from home in a foreign country. It’s challenged you body and soul, and you’d had it with strangers who became friends/family. Then you find yourself back home eating chicken lettuce wraps at PF Changs with girl friends and they ask you questions about your experience. But you quickly realize you cant really explain it so they’ll actually understand what you did and what it meant to you. You’re completely changed and you’re at a loss. You’ll never see yourself the same again.

So you speak in broad terms but you try not to go too deep. I found most people didn’t really want to hear the deep stuff and, frankly I didn’t want to try to go there. I knew they’d never get it. And it sort of dimmed the magic I wanted to hold for myself.

But even though my friends couldn’t understand what I’d experienced, I also knew they fell into two categorizes:

#1- They knew I had changed and were happy for me. I was happier and thats all they needed to know. This group was supportive but I still brushed the surface on any Camino conversations.

#2- They saw the changes, didn’t get it and it made them terribly uncomfortable. This group did a lot of ‘Yeah, but weren’t you…?’ And ‘I don’t get why you’d wanna do something like that,’ This reaction required me to not talk about it – even at the surface. So I stopped right there.

Jeff fell into the first group but, of course he wanted to understand and hear about it in detail. Because he saw the changes more than anyone. And his crazy wife was saying we should move to Spain. But did he get it? No. He couldn’t. Not his fault, but he hadn’t done it.

So here we are, walking from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela. A short Camino by my previous experience, but no less valid. When Jeff said he wanted to do it I was a little surprised but was happy a plane and train ticket wouldn’t go to waste. But would he be able to get a Camino experience in such a short time? Enough to finally understand? Or does that take the full 800 km 4-5 week trek thru sleet, hail, 100 degrees in the meseta, mountain ranges, and an angry teenager? I really didn’t know.

Then we were eating dinner on night 2. A friend and I were texting and I was reiterating the conversation to Jeff. His response made me smile.

‘They just need to come do this. You can’t really explain it so anyone understands unless they’ve done it. ‘

Ah. So now he gets it! It only took one day of water wars and the long slog to Palas de Rei to get there. And I knew his Camino transformation was starting to take hold when he broke out his Mountain Hardware hiking kilt. I didn’t know he’d packed it. And with the weather being so cool I wouldn’t have anticipated its appearance. But, yup, there it was one cold, wet morning. Bold move. Respect.

So I was impressed. And it ensured Jeff was given his official Camino moniker.

When I walked with my 15 year old daughter, Emilie, she would get frustrated at my pace and fly ahead. Sometimes by hours. This did not go unnoticed on the trail because I would meet people who would say ‘Have you met the American whose daughter walks ahead?’ Or ‘So you’re the American woman whose daughter walks ahead. I’ve heard about you.’

None of this was meant to be derogatory. It was just how people easily categorize each other when they don’t know your name or have history. I did the same when describing other people I didn’t know.

Jeff’s Camino moniker is ‘That American guy in the kilt’. And while usually very shy, he’s owning it like a boss. Towns? Villages? On the trail? Old men in cafes laugh and shake their heads. Furious discussions strike up in multiple languages in our wake as we pass. That’s what happens when you look like a tall Norseman striding from one village to another. When a giant waves sticks at you and offers a hearty ‘Bon dia’.

He’s been asked ‘Are you Scottish?’ Or ‘What part of Scotland are you from?’ And when he says he just likes a good kilt you can see their confusion. It makes him laugh.

So we are both enjoying this adventure together and I’m so glad he decided to make the time. Jeff’s already talking about doing the full trek on one of the many routes in the near future. And I’ll be proud to accompany ‘That American guy in the kilt’ any time he likes.

The Cloud of Dreams

Close your eyes. Closed? Ok. Breathe deep. Imagine you are staying at a refugio outside Palas de Rei. It was raining when you got here but blessedly, they had a covered cafe. And then you discoverer they had a private room. Heaven.

We are staying in a place of refuge. And not just from the weather. Like a sanctuary run by a Spanish man and his Argentinian wife. Its perfect.

We started our day in Portomarin to a beautiful sunrise. This gave way to a cold uphill walk for most of the day. Then a long downhill that burned my thighs and my toes. I was tired and whiney.

‘I can not do one more hill! I’m fed up!’ I cried

Then out of the mist, virtually from no where, appeared a place of refuge. Sanctuary. Or at least a cafe con leche. So we went in thru the wide barn doors into the ancient barn and stone courtyard. Only to discover it had been completely reformed into a modern paradise.

We were led to a private double room and as I showered in the tub that could hold 6 people easily, I mused.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to own a refugio? Helping pilgrims and facilitating the pilgrimages for those of all faiths and nationalities? Providing a port in the storm of Galician weather?

I could see myself owning an old stone building with windows sills two feet thick. I could serve beverages to the weary and infirm. Providing a simple meal to sustain them on their journey. Real bedding so they might feel human for just one night. Unlimited hot water, of course.

I stand under the steaming water but when I shut it off, the mist clears. Was it just a Camino dream? Hmm. Who can say? But its 7pm and I’m ready for a good nights sleep. And if this is Hotel California I’ll happily never leave.

Galician Rain: The Quintessence of Wetness

Holy Moly! It rained a little today on our walk from Sarria to Portomarin. Like if the earth flipped on its axis and the Atlantic ocean was dumped over the top of us for hours.

I’ve experienced rain like this before. Except then I was inside a car or Inside our home looking out with a fire burning in the grate. Or I could run home and take a hot shower. Never walking for hours thru it when its raining from below, hitting the pavement so hard it splashes up at you like little water bullets. The underside of our rain hats were wet after the water bullets hit our faces.

Jeff looked over at me during an epic deluge, while climbing a steep incline ‘Yup. I could do this for a month.’

So were we undeterred? Not for a moment. Well, we did stop a few times at cafes to pretend we could ‘dry out’ and ‘wait for it to blow over’ but that was just fantasy. Eventually, after becoming chilled to the bone, we would get up like two old codgers, not even silently moaning to ourselves ‘Wait. I just need a minute to stretch.’ Then grabbing our poles for help before getting up to speed.

Back in Valencia, not a day goes by that we don’t get our 10k steps in. Usually more. But those are not Camino steps. Up and down thru mud and unidentifiable smelly muck. Crossing streams and climbing down thru a rocky slippery crevasse into Portomarin. Its rained so hard that roads I’ve walked before are covered in silt and rocks today. Washed out.

But now Jeff is asleep. I just got up to go to the bathroom and it only took me 3 minutes to stand. The ibuprofen must be kicking in. The last time I was here I’d done the pain before Pamplona. Galicia had nothing on me after 30 days, mountains and the Meseta.

But its still as lovely as I remembered it. The greenest greens and even the weather rolling in was beautiful before it sliced thru us like a water knife. Here are a few picture from our day. Layered up with gear – Jeff hasn’t stopped smiling like the water baby he is.

Just Don’t Be An Asshat

There are Do’s and Don’ts of life. Things you shouldn’t do if you want to be a good citizen and get along with others you live along side. In crudest terms it might be just the ‘Don’t be an asshole’ approach.

Im not saying I’ve never been one but I generally try not to be. Respectful is my general philosophy. And here on the Camino there are some easy tips on ‘How not to be THE asshole Peregrino in an Albergue.’

Numero Uno: Don’t come into any Albergue dormitoro and assume you can make as much noise as you like. People are sleeping. Could be 3pm and they’re napping after walking all day. Or it might by 8pm and they’re still wrecked from walking 35 km. But there will be sleeping. Be quiet unless its a small room and you can see everyone is awake.

Numero Dos: Don’t come in loud and drunk at 10pm and decide that nows the time to organize your pack, call your Mom, recount the good times at the bar with your friend. NO!! Just NO!! We’re not all 20 on a gap year!

Numero Tres: Don’t pack your stuff in noisy plastic grocery bags and rifle through every one of those bags multiple times at night and then in the morning. Use cloth stuff sacks! Like a human. And don’t sit on your bed next to me opening your plastic wrapped breakfast protein bar after your very loud phone alarm goes off!

Numero Cuatro: And speaking of alarms – DO NOT set an alarm on anything but silent/vibrate. Then put it under your pillow to wake you up. Not Everyone gets up when you do. Especially if you came in drunk late. See Numero Dos.

I like to think of it this way. Imagine you have a colicky baby who never sleeps. But finally you get them to nod off. You put them in their crib for some blessed quiet. Ask yourself ‘What would I never do while standing next to this sleeping angel?’ And then don’t do that in an Albergue.

But I gotta go now, apparently. The Janice of Spanish Albergue’s has dictated I will not get 5 minutes of sleep this night. Stay tuned for our next episode ‘How NOT to be an asshole over cafe con leche in a Spanish cafe,’ And feel free to share this with anyone you may know who is even remotely considering walking the Camino. As a public service.

Still – Buen Camino