Thursday, August 11, 2016

I Wish You Buen Camino Dear Friends

Well my fellow travelers, this is where our adventure ends.

In this last post of Mapless Pilgrim 2.0 I'd like to do three things:

1. Fill you in on the final few days of my trip
2. Attempt to summarize my take-aways
3. Offer a closing note to those who have shared in this journey with me

So please do settle in with me for this final post.

We left off the night before I was to walk into Santiago. The Dane and I would set off the next morning a bit later than planned but hitting the trail by 9am left us plenty of time to complete the final 20k of the Camino.

We agreed that we would walk the first 15k to Monte de Gozo together and then part ways so that we could each complete our journey how we began: alone.

The mood was noticeably different than other days. Although we had missed the morning crowds there were still plenty of people making the day's trek, all of whom were friendly and visibly excited. We met Jasper from Amsterdam who came upon us quickly given that he was more than 6'6". Dressed in orange from head to toe he was eager to move beyond the pleasantries and the stats about where we had started and how many days each of us had been walking. He wanted to know about what we had learned and why I would make this trek a second time. He told us that after only a few days of his 10 day trek, he had booked another walk. At age 29 and as a young entrepreneur he has decided that hiking would be his new way of finding more balance in his life. And as quickly as he appeared he passed us, though we would both see him later in the day once we had arrived in Santiago.

We would meet a 73 year old German man who had stopped to take a photo of one of the original way markers which he informed us was more than 100 years old. This was his second Camino. After biking from his home to St. Jean Pied de Port (the traditional "starting point" in France) and then walking to Finisterre, on this Camino he still biked but not quite as far and would complete his journey from St. Jean in Santiago. He asked us where we were both from and our ages and went on to say that he felt "religion and sport are the keys to happiness. They both bring out something 'more' in us". He took a picture of me and The Dane and told me he had never met someone named Jill. I will never forget the warmth of his smile and the happiness in his eyes. They are burned into my memory.

Over the course of the first few hours of the day we took to complete that 15k, The Dane would see several people he met along the way. I on the other hand did not as I was at least 2 days ahead of the people I met early on since I jumped over O'Cebriero. I was a little bummed by this but I needed to focus on my feet. And perhaps no more so than when we reached Mote de Gozo.

Just 5k or so before the Cathedral in Santiago is the last real climb of the Camino. It is the point from which pilgrims get their first glimpse of Santiago and so this mountaintop bears the name Monte de Gozo, of "Mount of Joy". For many it is an emotional place. Each day on the Camino there is a certain amount of relief that comes from spying your destination. Sometimes you see it up on a hill, sometimes down in a valley, and sometimes it suddenly appears in the woods; but there is a rush of satisfaction, of pride, of...comfort.

My first arrival at Monte de Gozo was done in the rain and in such fog that I was unable to see the physical Cathedral. There was however a rainbow that appeared for a fleeting moment. This time there wasn't a cloud in the sky but I'd be lying if I said that I could pinpoint the Cathedral. Santiago is a sprawling city.


At Monte de Gozo there is a large monument erected to commemorate St. (Pope) John Paul II's visit to this place when he came Santiago de Compostela. Three years prior when I arrived that didn't mean too much to me, but this time it meant more given that Lino had just spent two+ weeks in Poland and had taken listeners on pilgrimage in the footsteps of JPII.

While I was there I wanted to recreate a photo I had taken on my first Camino of me jumping (for joy) at Monte de Gozo. I asked The Dane to take the picture and said a prayer that my ankles and feet would survive the jump. If not, The Dane would have to drag me the rest of the way.

My ankles survived (thank God) and The Dane and I proceeded down the hill together but it wasn't long before we decided that it was time to part ways. We would make plans to see each other in the square in Santiago the next day and although we did meet up briefly, the Square was crowded and I needed to get to confession before Mass and so this was really where we said goodbye.

And so I began that final handful of kilometers. A lot of different things ran through my head. Chiefly how grateful I was to God and my husband for getting to come back. For the people I had met both in person on the trail and for you who have traveled with me in my pocket.

That final 5k would go quickly it seemed. Perhaps too quickly. My body eager to press on, to be finished, to begin healing. My heart wanting to stay in this rich place of contemplation.

And just as that thought crossed my mind it hit me. You see, the Camino is a very special place and trying to explain to someone why you'd want to go back is to try to explain what makes it so very special. My husband kept saying to me before I left that he hoped I would "find what [I'm] looking for". I kept insisting that I wasn't in search of anything. Yes there were plenty of things in my life that have changed since my last Camino and plenty of questions I have for God about his plans for me and us, but I wasn't setting out yearning to come back with answers.

So I'm not sure I'll ever forget the moment that it hit me. What I happened to be looking at was my foot stepping up onto a sidewalk. But just like the old man's smile it is seared into my mind.

The Camino is so special to me because it is the place where I become acutely aware of God's presence and power, not just in terms of my salvation but in my every day trials. 

It is where I am forced to actually do what I wish I did in the comfort of my every day life: I walk by faith. I take nothing for granted. I am grateful for the good. I am drawn even closer to Him in the bad. I am tested and I am taught. I am cared for and I care for others.

I have said many times that the Camino is a microcosm of life. Here are just a few reasons why I think so:

* We are all spiritual beings having an acutely human experience. Your value, your experience is not synonymous with that of your physical body or the things you possess. Limitations and challenges are not always visible to the naked eye and they are always changing for each one of us. You know little about the journey the person in front of or behind of you is having. Make no assumptions about the decisions you see others making.

*Humanity is a universal language. Fatigue, pain, exhaustion, frustration, compassion, joy, and laughter -- they look the same on everyone and words are not required to empathize. I will hold certain people and memories in my heart forever and they were often of people with whom I shared a language. But I'll never forget the Spaniard with whom I could not communicate verbally but for days on end we saw each other on the trail (sometimes him passing me, and sometimes me passing him), at rest stops,  and at the end of the day.  I saw him suffering with back pain and offered him my poles. He saw me limping and tending to my wounds and he offered me his supplies. I saw him with the smile of satisfaction when completing his day's journey, and we shared laughter when he stumbled upon me with my feet propped up on a table and a huge smile eating an ice cream in the shade. I yelled for him when he missed a turn and was going down the wrong track. And a few days later he did the same for me. Kindness is universal, too.

*The power of encouragement is truly undeniable. It can numb the pain, lift the fallen, summon strength in the weak, and make time speed by. A few words can go so very far. We need to offer more of it one another and not just when it seems necessary.

*More can be learned by listening than by talking and sometimes slowing down to walk at someone else's pace is the greatest decision you can make, or the highest compliment you can give.

*Too much anticipation is pointless. I freely admit that this is a lesson with which I struggle. I am a type-A worry wart. But perhaps in a way that hasn't resonated with me until this walk, I realized that thinking too much about what is around the bend will only rob you of the here and now.  Sometimes you'll be pleased by what you find and sometimes you'll be disappointed, but either way you must continue on. To steal from Baz Luhrmann (again) "Don't worry about the future, or worry. But know that worrying is about as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday."

These and so many other reminders of how to live life and how to be a better contributor in the lives of others are learned in a unique way on the Camino. So as I walked down the steps into the Cathedral's square and turned to face that grand facade and home to the bones of the Apostle James, I wept. I cried happy tears, and grateful tears. I cried for the memories I had made and the pain I had endured. I cried sad tears for the journey being over and I cried happy tears because it had happened. And as I tried to take a selfie a stranger took this picture for me.

I took off my socks and shoes and hobbled to the pillars of an adjacent building in the back of the square where I dropped my pack, sat down, and took this one which I think tells a much better story:


After sitting there for some time I went to the pilgrim's office and collected my Compostela before I checked myself in at the nearby hotel that I stayed in last time. Its a simple but beautiful place. It is the monastery that St. Francis of Assisi founded when he did his Camino and the convent and adjoining Church still exist, although they had to sell some of the older residential buildings which have been converted to a 4-star hotel. I highly recommend it.

I ordered some room service and went to bed. The next day I would do a little shopping, go to confession and attend the 12pm Pilgrim's Mass, even though the botafumeiro would not make an appearance. (If your not familiar with it you can google it or see it in action in the movie The Way).

I didn't do all of the traditional things for a pilgrim. I didn't visit the crypt of St. James or hug the statue of him above the altar. I didn't take another tour of the Cathedral or the museum, and I didn't do another roof top tour like I did last time. Although I recommend all of these things (I did do them on my first Camino), this time around it felt like enough to just be there, to attend Mass, and to give thanks.

So before I close, please let me attempt to convey my sincere thanks to you for traveling with me. This blog was intended to keep my family aware of my physical health and to share some photos with them. It has turned out to be so much more. I simply do not have words adequate enough to express my gratitude for the love and support which you have shown me. You will never know how deeply your encouragement touched me. Not just in terms of processing the experience or grappling with the physical stresses, but also in a much longer lasting way. You have increased my faith in my fellow man and reassured me of the power of prayer. Please know that I have prayed for you and will continue to do so. I have so enjoyed traveling with you and a piece of you will always travel with me.

I leave you with the following paragraph from the Cathedral's website and the photo I took of what it references.

Buen Camino,

When you have finished, exit the Cathedral through the south door, the Platerías door. 
Look at the facade. 
On the mullion, between the two door arches, there is a Chi Rho, symbol of Christ. 
But the letters are backwards: the Alpha has become Omega, and vice-versa. 
The end becomes beginning. 
The destination of The Way is now the beginning of another journey.

P.S. If you have any questions that you would like me to answer, please feel free to leave them in the comments section below and I will be happy to do so.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Coming Soon: Final Post

Hello Dear Fellow Travelers,

I write to you from Santiago!


Since arriving in Santiago yesterday I've tried to soak up the end of my experience but also struggled with some tummy trouble, so I've lacked the focus to write.

My wake up call is set for 5am (let's hope it works because my phone charger has broken and I'm running low on battery already) and by 3pm ET tomorrow I should be home. I plan to take that time to collect my thoughts and fill you in on the conclusion of our journey.

In the meantime, I hope you will accept my sincere thanks for your prayers and support. I can't even begin to articulate how much they have meant to me.

So more from me in the next 36hrs or so. I promise!

Monday, August 8, 2016

WORDS from "Santiago or Bust"

No idea why the last post failed to include copy but here it is. To read older posts from either this Camino or my last one in 2013, please visit


Tomorrow (God-willing) is the big day! 

I failed to write yesterday because I was just so exhausted. I trekked what the book asked of me (27.4km) and it took me ALL day (10hrs) and I walked through hours and hours of 91 degree weather. Up the hills, down the hills, I trekked. The guidebook warned that the daily elevation map was not representative of the actual climbs ...and it was right. 

Yesterday morning I set out late and by myself but
as I took a brief rest on the side of the trail who should walk up the Brits!  They were only going to my halfway point for the day so I walked with them all morning and enjoyed our chat. They were really big on stopping at all the tiny stone churches and so we stopped in the one pictured here. And it turned out that the church was having adoration so I took advantage of the opportunity to spend a few moments in prayer with the Lord and then explained the significance to my non-Catholic companions. 

A little after lunchtime we had arrived at their destination and we said our goodbyes but not before exchanging emails and promising to meet in Santiago to share a glass of champagne. 

(I thought the pilgrim statues which gracefully pointed the way were cute.)

In the afternoon I would see the hippy group that I saw the evening prior. This time we would sit and chat, meeting Ben and Sharon (mother and son) from California, Liam the Canadian who lives in New Zealand, and Jens (pronounced Yinz) from Denmark. 

Most of the crew was staying in that town, but the Dane thought he would press on. I left them all to their octopus burgers (pulpo is a delicacy in this region) and continued on my way in the nasty heat. 

I slogged through another 90m or so before breaking at a small German cafe. And it wasn't long, before up trotted the Dane. We chatted for a little bit and he (21, a total pot enthusiast, a very fast walker, and a funny guy) informed me that he needed to slow down for the rest of the day because his knees were giving him trouble so we walked together a bit before he sped off but we both planned to end in the same village. 

A few hours a later I arrived in that town and we saw each, exchanged hellos and made introductions to a few new people that he knew. They settled in at the albergue and I got a room at the pension across the street. I arrived at 7:30p or so, and after a shower and laundry it was quickly 9:30p and I passed out. 

Today I woke up and was on the road by 8am and walked for about 45m straight uphill into a busy little city with many cafes. I wandered in to one of them to get something to eat since I didn't have dinner the night before and who should I see but the Dane. 

So I sat down and joined him for what would wind up being a full day together. Our dear young Danish friend is quite the talker, a science buff, a boyfriend to his ginger girlfriend and a weed connoisseur. On most occasions I probably would have lost a lot of patience with him but on a long difficult day (24.4k) like today with feet that are in quite a bit of pain (I picked up a new blister on the bottom of my left foot the day before) and pinky toes are hell on wheels, I was quite glad to have him as a distraction. His knees and ankles have been giving him trouble so he was happy to "slow down" to my 4.3k/hr speed. 

So we slogged through today together. We made it to the end of the stage in the book, which leaves us approximately 20k short of Santiago. When we arrived about 4pm, both of the albergues we went to were full. Ugh. But the young man working the second albergue spoke some English and was exceptionally kind. He offered to call a couple more places for us. Full. He tried one last nearby hostel which had 2 beds available and we were set! Jackpot! 

So we arrived and got settled in. I did the customary unveiling of the feet to discover a new blister between my toes which is actually a blood blister. I swear I can't win for losing. All of this intensified by the fact that the skin on my left pinky toe has completely torn off leaving raw skin underneath. It is as painful as you think it is. 

So here I sit, 20k outside of Santiago and again saying "no idea what I'll be able to do tomorrow" and "we'll see what they're like in the morning". But I'll say one thing, even with all of that in mind: tomorrow is Santiago or Bust!  And as the Dane added "it might be both". :)

Friday, August 5, 2016

Long Day, Brief Post

Hello, hello!

I'm going to make this brief because I am exhausted. I trekked 29.2km today, thanks be to God. I got a very late start (9:30am) and it took me all day (arrived at 6:30pm) but I completed what the book assigned for today. Two days in a row of actually feeling like I'm knocking off the kilometers and I am so grateful.

When I arrived at my destination this evening and did the customary collapsing and then the unveiling of the feet. I discovered that my left pinky toe blister has burst. I also developed a small thick blister on the outside (toward the arch) of my right big toe. It won't end I tell you. But I am now less than 70k away from Santiago and God-willing, that means there are only a few more days of suffering. I have thread running through blisters in three places on my feet and all that I can do at this stage is see how they do overnight and figure out where we are in the morning.

Part of the reason today was such a long slog was because this was the first day that I genuinely felt tired. The first 11.4k was almost entirely uphill. Between feeling wiped and wanting to go slow so as to do my best to prevent more foot damage, that 11.4 took me FOUR hours.

So tonight is the first night that all of my legs, from hips to toes, seems to ache unceasingly. Not just when I sit or lean on one side or the other but all the time. The weather was lovely and the views beautiful today but the blisters on my left arm and hand persist. Let's just say that I'm glad that I brought plenty of my tylenolPM to knock me out cold.

Highlights of the day include all of the hydrangeas that evidently THRIVE in this area. They made me so very happy. Plenty of butterflies :) and even bumping into the Swiss guy from my first day in Sahagun!

So I'm settling into my room in a pension in Palas del Rai and getting a kick out of a game show that's on with one of the participants in rocking a pretty sweet mullet.

I try not to watch TV or even check on the news back home too much. But I guess I'm starting to crave those things. I keep thinking about guacamole, and steak, and mashed potatoes...and a day at the spa. Ahh, I better stop. Haha.

I wish I had more stories to report today but the truth is that I put in my earbuds, listened to Lino's shows (I find his voice so comforting right now) and put my nose to the grindstone.

Tomorrow is supposed to be less hilly which is good news, but again we'll just have to see what the feet are willing to do.

Sweet dreams from Espana.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Blisters, Blisters Everywhere

Hello dear fellow travelers!

I write to you from Portomarín, 25.1km west of my post yesterday. And I got here on foot, thanks be to God.

I awoke this morning to many of your comments of encouragement and decided that I was going to take one hour at a time today, and not try too hard to process the totality of my experience thus far.

I'm tired of being a total liar when I tell you that my plans are to start the next day early...and then almost never doing so. I was like a teenager this morning, not wanting to get out of bed. The alarm went off at 5:30a. No. It went off at 6:30a. At 7:30a I made myself get up but only after I could hear everything happening through the walls around me. For a solid hour I heard the muffled alarm clock from the room next door. My room didn't have an alarm clock but I assume their room was nicer...and that they hadn't set the alarm and must have been gone before it went off. I wanted to kill them. But it would turn out that I was to blame. That annoyingly persistent sound I heard was the phone on my own bedside which had apparently been knocked off its cradle when I was fumbling to postpone my own alarms. This was not a good way to start the day.

When I woke up I instinctively examined my feet. Some of the swelling had reduced but only marginally. I'd be trying to walk on these today. The blister on my right pinky toe which I had drained was now quite sensitive while the one of my left pinky toe (which I had not drained) was still swollen with fluid but less sensitive. I wrapped them both entirely in Compeed and would see how they behaved.

Uncharacteristically, I grabbed breakfast before setting out. I was suckered in by corn flakes and white toast. After a small amount of both I was on my way. The guidebook would recommend doing 25.1k but I was taking nothing for granted. There was to be a steady incline all morning and a somewhat rigid descent for the final 4K. Anything would be better than the isolation of sitting in a hotel room all day.

So I set out. The first 9k went slowly but smoothly. Yes, the blisters hurt but they were not unbearable and so long as I kept moving, I could manage. But stop for more than a minute or two and the throbbing began to take over. So I stopped only once in the entirety of the first 18km or so.

I had some special intentions while I walked today, and at one point I was in prayer and sort of wondering if I would be given a sign. Upon completion of my last Camino I had a powerful experience in confession, and my mind wandered if that would happen again...or something like it.

And just as that thought crossed my mind, I saw out of the corner of my eye a four leaf clover on the side of the road. It is worth nothing that we have crossed over into a new province of Spain called Galicia and the Irish say it's just like home. Rolling hills, very green, and often misting and/or raining, and today would not disappoint. After walking in a couple hours of light, rather refreshing mist, I saw the four leaf clover.

My family would tell you that this isn't a surprise. I have a bit of an eye for them it would seem. When I was a little girl my friends and I would often sit amongst the clover patches near my home having a picnic and chatting while sifting through the clover in search of this genetic defect. And very often I would come home proudly boasting a bouquet of them for my parents. And on the trip where Lino and I met I found the biggest four leaf clover of my life, measuring probably close to 2" across. It's pressed and in my fire safe box at home. And yes, I took it as a sign.

Today I stopped dead in my tracks when I thought I saw one. I peered down to the tiny patch of green, and indeed I had spotted one. But then I couldn't believe my eyes. Within a couple inches of this four leaf clover I found another one. And then another. And then another. In total there were 5 that I found all within 18" of each other. I was beside myself and debated whether I should pick one. I looked down the track to see if anyone was coming. A large Spanish family (7 of them) which had been passing me and then falling behind and passing me all morning to my great annoyance, was on my heels. I let them pass. But then I looked again and up walked 2 women I had passed earlier and noticing that they were speaking English, exchanged a "hello" with.

I shouted down the way "you're the Brits, right". "We are the Brits!", they replied. "This is odd, I know but I thought you might appreciate it", I said and began explaining my discovery. After much oohing and ahhing, I wished them well and went on my way.

About 15m later we came upon a tiny village with a bar where I took some rest and collected a stamp. (Pilgrim credentials must have 2 stamps per day from this point forward). They were close behind and just about then the light mist turned to real rain. We sat together in the protection of a picnic table with a large umbrella and began chatting.

Today was their first day on the Camino. One woman is a recent retiree who at 57 is here to knock this trek off of her bucket list. Her friend is a little bit younger and here to make sure that she does in fact get it done. And while they'll answer to being English, they're actually from the Jersey Channel Island off the cost of France, near Normandy. "Have you ever heard of a Jersey cow", the recent retiree asked me. "Yeah, of course", I replied. "They're dairy cows", I add. "Well, they're from where we live", she informed me. What a claim to fame, I thought. But kept that to myself. I would come to learn a lot about Jersey over the next several hours. :)

As the rain began to let up a little, it was obvious that it would persist and require actually gearing up. So they slid ponchos out of their day packs and I pulled my rain coat and rain pants out of my (not day) pack. Once we were all outfitted we set out together. Only 8.6k more to go and they asked if I thought it would take more than 90minutes. I explained why I thought it would take more like 3 hours, given the terrain.

And so for the next 3.5hrs we walked together. Them asking questions about the Camino, and New York, and whether I say "dance" or "dawnce". My feet were killing me but I was exceptionally grateful for the company and their pace was comparable to my own.

We (finally) arrived in Portomarin. They had accommodations already planned as they organized their whole trip through a service. I of course was winging it. But I followed them to their hotel and got a room of my own in a decent 3-star hotel with a restaurant.

By 4:45pm I was in my room and facing the worst part of my day. While I could offer my physical discomfort for my prayer intentions, this was the moment of truth.

Not knowing if the Compeed that I had wrapped my pinky toes in would even come off, I gently tugged at the edges. Given how wet my feet and the bandages were, they released with surprising ease. Both blisters very swollen but not taught. Painful to the touch to be sure but not hellacious. And then I noticed that the left one seemed larger somehow. And then I figured it out. A blister has formed on my left pinky toe but between my toe and the one next to it. AND that blister had merged with the one wrapping around the pad of my toe. So now a solid 80% of the surface area of that entire toe is blister. I don't even know what to say. It is uncomfortable and I don't know if I'll be able to bandage it and walk on it tomorrow but I do know that the fluid which fills it is the body's way of helping heal the tissue underneath it. So if I don't need to drain it, I'll just have to see how it rides.

And then I realized the other blisters. This time they aren't on my feet. They're on my left forearm...from my sunburn. Although there was almost no sun today (which thankfully kept it quite pleasant in terms of temperature) but my burned left arm was now littered with blisters which look like dew drops sitting on my forearm and hand. And then I realized that I have the same phenomenon on the back of my neck. Because why not. At this point, I am one giant human blister.

So after taking a shower and hand washing my laundry in the shower, I laid down for a bit. I caught Lino up on the day and tried not to think of the ballooning fluid-filled parts of my skin. I had agreed to meet the "ladies from Jersey" for dinner at 7:30p. So at 7:26 I pulled myself together and headed down.

I warned them that the English translations of the menus tend to be...optimistic. This one boasted a Waldorf Salad and a Caesar salad. I ordered the Caesar because I was feeling daring and one of the ladies ordered the Waldorf. What we received looked identical except hers had some walnuts in the middle and mine had a gigantic plop of creamy salad dressing that was definitely not Caesar. But we sat and ate and drank (all of us having 1 glass) and chatted over our meal for the next couple hours.

And while I have plenty of anxiety about the current state of my feet, I am grateful. I'm grateful that I was able to complete what the book assigned for the day and in so doing preserving both my chance to get to Santiago and my ability to take another day off if need be. I am grateful for the company and laughter today. I am grateful for the clovers and the time I had in prayer. I am grateful that I'm sleeping tonight in a clean bed where I need not worry about the creepy crawly.

I have no idea what tomorrow will bring, much less the day after that. But for now I will stay focused on the immediate tasks at hand and try to keep putting one foot (however slowly) in front of the other.


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Status Report

I'm very grateful for all the words of support and encouragement you've given me over the duration of this trip. They have carried me much of the way.

This morning I took a taxi to Sarria, which is 111km east of Santiago. This is the last point from which a pilgrim can walk to Santiago and receive a Compostella.

I have had to drain the blister on my right pinky toe and it is indeed tender. The left is too tender to drain. Doing so would render me unable to put weight on it at all.

I have just 7 days available to me to walk. The walk from Sarria is typically done in 5 days. I will try to resume my trek tomorrow morning, hopefully at 6am. Rain is expected from 11-3a. I have no expectations as far as what my body will allow or how far it will carry me.

Today has been a hard day mentally.

I will report back tomorrow.


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

It's a Pilgrimage, Not a Martyrdom

As I lay down in my bunk tonight I let out a deep sigh. And then I feel them. In the corner of my eyes, at the corners of my mouth and deep in the back of my throat. I swallow hard. I feel it fall down the left side of my face dripping slowly, following the curvature of my face until it reaches my ear. And then the same on the right. Now both.

You can call defeat many things but when it is laid bare it stings all the same.

I am in the tiny town of Trabedelo. It's not even a town. The street I grew up on is longer that the single strip of asphalt that is populated by 4 or 5 buildings that constitutes this place. It is 35.7km from where I started today at 6am and more than 128 miles from Sahagun where I first began waking.

The first 19k today went well. Smoothly. Joyously even. But over the balance of my day my feet would deteriorate. Not just because of the heat which reached 91 but because my pinky toes met their match in the rolling hills. Although I suffered through Big Bertha, the abrasions on the top of both feet and the blister on the bottom of my foot which had been ripped open, I was grateful because I knew it could be worse. I knew it could be my pinky toes. I've painstakingly taken my time on every downhill desperately hoping to preserve the skin on the bottom of my pinky toes because I know that it is what separates me from pain and excruciating pain.

Have you seen those pain charts in the ER or the doctors office? They pose a range of smiley faces on a scale of 1 to 10. The diagram shows one being a normal yellow happy face with zero pain and ten being the bright red frowny face which is the worst pain imaginable. The doctors ask you to pick the number which describes your pain.

I've been to that ten places a few times in my life. Three exactly, actually. I've had kidney stones...twice, and I've walked the Camino with raw skin on my pinky toes.

And it is this experience that has taught me what comes right before raw skin on pinky toes. It's large fluid filled blisters. Drain them and you're dead in the water. You've sealed your own fate. If the first rule is to listen to your body, mine is begging me for mercy. It's infuriating that a part of the body as small and as insignificant as pinky toes would be able to halt the entire operation but here we are. At a standstill.

Although the last 10k or so I knew I was pushing it, I really felt I had no choice. I had made it to the end of the stage (that I was supposed to complete yesterday), but as I looked as the day ahead I knew I would fall behind. O'Cebriero, a mountain top town was the end of the next stage in order for me to arrive in Santiago by the 10th. With a 3km increase in altitude, the distance would be 37.9km. Even with my pinky toe blisters in nascent stages, I knew I would never make it tomorrow. I would fall short and then be irreparably behind and be forced to take the bus to Sarria. Or I try to knock off 10km, pray that my feet hang tough, recovery well overnight and then make the grueling 27.9k the next day. So I willfully trudged ahead.

Some 2 hours later I met my goal. But my feet had fallen painfully off the wagon, my sunburns (which I have worked SO diligently to avoid) were blistering themselves, and my spirits about as bad as they've ever been.

The last 4.4km I walked with a young Korean man. We had met two towns prior as he arrived to the bar I was at with two other young men who created quite a mismatched trio. I heard them all clearly enjoying each other's company but cobbling together a conversation between all three of them using broken English. I smiled and kept to myself. Then I heard one of them speaking in Italian and explaining in English the pronunciation of an Italian phrase. A phrase I recognized. I must have looked up because the one doing the explaining took notice of me. "Parla Italiano?" he asked me. "No, but I just started to learn Italian and I speak English". All three turned around to look at me at this point. The trio turned out to be a Spaniard, and Italian, and a Korean. After we exchanged pleasantries the Korean man (whose baptismal name I would later learn to be Peter) was clearly enthusiastic to speak English with a native speaker, and his English was quite good. I noted the rosary hanging around his neck. "I'm Catholic", he said. "very Catholic" he emphasized. "Me too," I said with a smile.

So fast forward to the final 4.4 and Peter the Korean decided that he would walk me since we both intended to finish in the next town. Peter did most of the talking. I would learn that he's 24, began is trek in Lourdes, France some 7 weeks ago and was discerning the priesthood. His favorite things had been some "miraculous" experiences that he explained, and the worst were his encounter with bedbugs. He was quite sweet and a pleasant distraction from the happenings inside my shoes.

Once we arrived, we sought out an albergue I stayed out last time in this town. We got checked in and went to one of several small rooms filled with bunkbeds. We both collapsed and began to instinctively check out our feet. I would literally uncover the disaster that I find myself in, and instantly become discouraged. And just minutes after sitting on the bed I noticed two bedbugs on the pillow of the bed. "Peter! come look! Tell me these aren't bedbugs" I barked. He confirmed my observation and suggested that we move rooms. We did and he had a bedding spray that he graciously shared with me.

Deeply discouraged and now grossed out, I didn't want to do anything. Not shower, not laundry, not eat. Nothing. I wanted to close my eyes and wake up at home. At home, in my clean, soft, decadent bed with my husband there to tell me it was all a bad dream.

Surely I hadn't flown half way around the world only to scale back a goal, and then scale it back again, and be looking at scaling it back further. Surely I wasn't actually feeling a deep sense of embarrassment and humiliation because I had been blogging the whole experience. And if it was real, why could I not have sprained an ankle or broken a bone instead of being foiled by less than 2 square inches of skin. My husband was indeed here (on the other end of my screen) consoling me, but the truth is that I was inconsolable.

I took a shower but couldn't bring myself to wash clothes. Having clean clothes for tomorrow already was enough. I have no energy for such none sense when feeling the way I do. After all, I wasn't going anywhere and I'll have plenty of time for laundry In the near future.

Peter told me that he had heard that there was a place in this tiny little village that served Korean food. "Yeah, ok." I thought to myself but didn't have the heart to say out loud. I walked downstairs and out on to the street with him. He went in search of it and I went to the restaurant on the ground floor of my albergue.

As I went in I heard two American voices. We would quickly begin to chat. John and Marlene are from Akron, NY near Buffalo. John is "nearly 80" but the two of them seem to be in pretty good shape for their ages. They asked if I'd like to join them at their table. I thanked them but said I didn't think I could hobble the six feet from my table to theirs. They inquired about my ailments and my travel plans. I said that I must be in Santiago by the 10th and things were looking Unwalkable for tomorrow.
"Yeah," Marlene said. "We decided pretty early in that this was a pilgrimage, not a martyrdom".

I sat with them for the next 2 hours learning about them and their lives and they learning about mine. We laughed, I got goosebumps from their stories, and I answered their questions about my precious Camino experience until we realized that time was growing late. We exchanged contact information and bid each other goodnight.

As I returned back to the albergue, Peter asked if he could see me for a minute, noticing for me to step out into the hallway and away from others in the room. He walked down the hallway to the communal room and motioned for me to take a seat. He said he had a present for me and took out of his pocket a small gold bookmark wrapped in cellophane. It was attached to an explanatory card done in several languages detailing the design which is a typical colorful Korean jacket. "I want you to have this. It is small but I have carried it with me from Lourdes" and handed it to me using both hands to present it. I was dumbstruck. What an incredible gesture and a beautiful gift. I don't think I could have expected it less. We chatted for a few moments and then he asked if I would do him a favor.

He told me that in Sept his parents have a wedding anniversary. That his father is a famous chef in South Korea and that he is assembling a video for them from people he meets on The Way. So after some coaching I was able to parrot "hello. Happy anniversary" in Korean. I explained who I was and said some nice things about Peter. He'll be translating and inserting subtitles he tells me.

And then I got ready for bed. Tomorrow I'll be figuring out how to skip ahead to Sarria. I'm heartbroken but I figure I'll have time to detail that tomorrow too.

All I can do for now is take heed in these words. "Sometimes you're ahead, sometimes you're behind. The race is long, and in the end it is only with yourself".


Sent from my iPhone

Monday, August 1, 2016

Unexpected Faces, Part II

I don't know why it lopped me off but here's the rest:

Told ya. Real castle. 

I sat there taking my sweet time and after she cleared my table, who should appear before my eyes but the father-son duo from Washington, DC!

I didn't mention them in my post yesterday but I've spent the last 2 days playing tag with them. We don't walk together (they're too fast for me) but we've seen each other a nearly every little town along the way, and we enjoy sitting and chatting for a bit over something cold to drink. 

Anyway, I was sure that they were in the wind, and yet there they were standing before me suckered into the promise of a hamburger just like I was! The told me that the downhills yesterday did a number on them both (Dad probably in his late 40s/early 50s, and son is 15). They decided to sleep in until 10:30 and were just arriving saying that that 7k seemed awfully long. Oh, thank God. Maybe I'm not so far gone, I thought. 

I sat with them through a long lunch. The burger was pretty darn good for a Spanish reproduction. The son went back for a second one which was no surprise given that he was saying yesterday how much he longed for food from home after 20+ days of walking. Besides, red meat doesn't seem that easy to come by out here. We see cows...but maybe that's why they aren't on our plates. I digress. 

They decided that they'd do the next 18k and likely stop there. They've got plenty of time and Dad doesn't seem to be in much hurry. I walked with them through town and said farewell as we approached my hotel. 

Yes, dear travelers we are back in the alleged lap of luxury.  For 55 Euros I'm in a 3 star hotel tonight which is actually quite well appointed with a nice little restaurant attached. It's safe to say that purest heart is melting. 

On my last Camino I railed against "tourist pilgrims", those folks who bus each day and walk only with a bottle of water or a day pack, who sleep in fine hotels at the end of each day. (Mind you that's only really possible to do every single day in the final stretch from Sarria onward). As I crammed myself, my pack, my trekking poles and my hotel key into the tiny elevator I had two thoughts. 

First, I looked up and saw a maximum occupancy sign of six. I laughed. Out loud. 

But as I pressed button for the second floor (which is actually the third floor in Europe, lest you think I'm too lazy to walk a single flight of stairs) I thought to myself, "Yep. It's been 3 years and I'm ready to call in every hotel I can get at the age of 32. At 65 I'll do whatever I damn well please." And I say 65 intentionally. That's the average age of someone who completes the Camino in Santiago, collecting a Compostella (the diploma of the Camino). Think about that. That's the average. Weighed down by all the undergrads and twenty-somethings. Because the dirty truth of the Camino is that if you have time you can do it. Yes there are parts that are tough on the knees or the feet, but of the pain comes from doing long stretches at a time, day after day. If you have the time to go slowly each day, or take days off, this is a reasonable little hike. Let's be serious here, this is not the Appalachian Trail. Far from it. But try to do 800k in 30-35 days and yes, it'll chew you up and spit you out. 

Which is where I was this morning. But I settled into my hotel, cranked up that glorious AC, and stayed off my feet binging some horrible show called Lie to Me. (Crime solving by a PhD in behavioral analysis). Guess what? Couldn't be happier. 

After a while I took a BATH (even shaving my legs! WATCH OUT NOW!) and hanging my clothes. I chatted with Lino and then began to scout out dinner. There's an Italian restaurant right next to my hotel called Pizzeria Trastevere which on its name alone sounded promising, as Trastevere is a charming neighborhood in Rome. It would be like seeing a place called Georgetown Tavern. You'd have reason to be hopeful. I found it online and the menu looked legit. I was more hopeful. I could crane my neck out my window and see that at 8pm it was still closed. I checked the website again, and double-checked my translations. Yep, it was supposed to open at 7:30p. No wording about being closed on Mondays but alas it seems to be the case. Classic. Oh well. 

So I moseyed down the street a little in my flips flops SANS bandages. This is significant as it's the first time since the second day that I've attempted this. It wasn't without discomfort but for a short stroll it was doable. I wandered into a grocery store where I picked up the following for 5,20 Euros. A can of Pepsi, a package of turkey lunch meat (I'll shove that in the mini fridge and have them both for breakfast in the morning), a nectarine (for lunch), a 2L bottle of water for my pack, and a small sleeve of cookies that are dark chocolate on shortbread. Oh, and the plastic bag. You have to pay for those here. When you have access to a real grocery store its totally impressive how far a Euro will go! 

So with my groceries in tow I gently, tenderly, slowly walked back to my hotel and it's attached restaurant. It had outside seating on a beautiful patio and looked like a real restaurant at home. And so I sat down for my first nice meal. Filet medallions (let's just say they play a little fast and loose with those descriptions) and some macerated blueberries (?), on some sort of creamy stuff, in a small tart shell for dessert. It was advertised on the English menu as puff pastry with berries. I'll take enough bites so as not to be rude and then go back and have a few of my cookies. 

So on a peaceful evening in the square, the clock strikes 9. I'd really like to think that my feet will carry me tomorrow. But I'm hellbent on leaving early. I keep saying that...and then I don't. But tomorrow I have no excuse and it's going to hit 93, so I really need to get going. No excuses. 

I feel a little lazy just laying around today but I know my feet could not have hacked it. If I am to arrive in Santiago on the 10th, I must follow the book exactly every day from here on out. If I find behind at all, I will be forced in the next couple of days to take a bus to Sarria (the 100k mark) since that's the minimum you must walk to get a Compostella. I'm not here for the document but it feels awfully silly to come all this way and not at least earn that. 

They say no two Caminos are the same. I think that is intended to mean that even two people walking to and from the same places on the same day won't have the same experience. And that's certainly true.  But it's also true of my own Caminos. I never fathomed that this is how I would be doing this right now, but life is full of surprises I guess. I've had some wonderful experiences and met some great people. Thankfully I'm only halfway done because I'm itchy for the wonderful feeling that comes from accomplishing each day's stage on time. 


...and just as I wrapped this post and paid for my bill, up walked the Italian woman I met on my first day. The poor thing has had bedbugs twice since I left her that next day and she says she's heard many reports of them at the albergues. All the more reason to stay somewhere a little more comfortable I suppose. 

Ok, time to get ready for bed. 5am will come early and I have a lot of packing to do when the time comes. 

As always, thank you for accompanying me on this wild ride. I'm so grateful for you. 


Unexpected Faces

Hola Peregrinos!

I wish I could write to tell you that my feet had a miraculous healing overnight and that I crushed it today. The truth is that the Camino made quick work of crushing me, and I surrendered.

I slept until 7:30a and have leaned that my morning routine of packing and bandaging can take a while. I was on The Way by 8:20am...and I could tell from the start that it wasn't going to be pretty. The blister that was ripped open on the bottom of my foot felt better than expected in the morning. Not that it was in great condition. So you'll understand by shock by the intense pain which came from the other side of the same foot. Yes, that's where Big Bertha lived but she has been healing nicely. But today it felt like my foot was deeply bruised. I mean, with every step I could feel the ache and the bones. What should have been an easy 7k through the suburbs of Ponferrada had me in tears. So when I arrived in this charming small city, I knew it was the end of the day. I hated even thinking it but I consulted the guidebook which informed me that the next lodging wasn't for another 18k. There was simply no way.

Ponferrada is not only a charming little city but it has a castle. No, really. A castle. The kind of Medieval looking thing with a moat! It was apparently built by the Knights Templar and it's still standing. Of course, there are now bars and cafe on this side of the moat, but all the more reason to call it charming I'd say.

So a little after 11am (after getting turned around in town, and then getting myself unturned around) I found an eclectic little spot professing to sell hamburgers. This is only the second place I've seen to do but these folks seemed to know what's up. They offered burgers with the options of cheese, lettuce, tomato, and bacon. This sounded promising. So I ordered one up and dared to push my luck and ask if they had Pepsi. They did. Perhaps God was smiling on my decision after all.

So I sat back and enjoyed my meal.