Solo Travel on the Camino

The school year is ending and summer is approaching and that means I’ve been asked, a lot, about my summer plans. I find myself explaining to a whole crop of new people that I’m going to walk the Camino. “What’s the Camino?” they ask.

It’s always the first question.

And the second question, once I’ve explained that it’s a long walk across Spain, is invariably this: “Who are you going with?”

But I had a strange experience the other day: I was talking to a principal at one of the schools I work at, he was telling me that he and his wife and kids are doing a big cross-country road trip this summer. He asked me what my plans were, and I started like I normally do. “Well, I’m going to Europe, to do a thing called the Camino de Santiago.”

His eyes lit up. “The Way? Seriously?”

Turns out he knew all about it, and we got into a long conversation about the outdoors and hiking and the beauty of moving yourself across a great distance.

But it wasn’t until I was driving home from work that I figured out what really struck me about the conversation, more than the fact that he actually knew what the Camino was. He didn’t ask one question about who I was going with, if I was doing it alone. It hadn’t even seemed to matter.

And I really loved that. I get why people want to know if I’m going alone or not, but sometimes I get a little tired of all the explaining I have to do. Like, “It’s actually really safe, you meet loads of other people, there’s always someone walking nearby.” Even with these explanations, people still sometimes give me a look. They’re confused, they feel sorry for me, they look at me as if I’m a bit strange for wanting to do something like this alone.

But after two 500-mile treks across Spain over these last couple of summers, I have to say, I’m beginning to think it would be difficult to walk with someone.

There are lots of benefits, certainly, to have a walking partner, or a small group to go with. Even I have to admit that sometimes, I’m a little envious of the friends that come to the Camino together. I’ll pass them, sitting tight around a table at lunchtime, bottles of wine and beer and baskets of bread and they’re laughing and joking. They get to share this great experience with someone who knows them really well. I think that would be a cool thing to do. And sometimes- even in a crowd (most especially in a crowd, perhaps)- the Camino can feel lonely. There were a few nights on my Norte last summer when I envied the pilgrims who never, ever had to worry about eating dinner alone, who always had a companion with them.

And there’s the safety issue, too. To be honest, I very, very rarely felt unsafe on either of my treks across Spain. Nervous, sometimes, when a dog barked loudly. Anxious when I hadn’t seen a yellow arrow for a long time. But never unsafe. That’s not to say that bad things can’t happen on the Camino, and as always (and especially as a woman), I needed to keep my wits about me, to be observant and aware, to do my best to not put myself in a compromising situation. And I continue to do that, any time I travel.

But these points aside, I really love my solo-Camino time. In some ways, it feels like one of the most special things I can give to myself at this time in my life, and I know how lucky I am that I can spend a month being totally and completely selfish. I walk when I want to walk, I stop when I want to stop, I can walk a 50+ kilometer day and I don’t have to try to convince anyone to do the same.

A solo-Camino might not be for everyone, but I think it’s a wonderful experience to have. Two summers ago, when I started walking away from St Jean Pied de Port, I was so scared. I’d barely slept the night before, I froze in my bunk because I was too nervous to get up to close the window because I thought I would disturb the person sleeping beneath me, the clothes I’d washed hadn’t dried, I wasn’t even really sure how to get out of the town and onto the path of the Camino. But then I started walking, and that first day still goes down as my absolute favorite Camino walk. It’s hard to describe the sense of achievement, bravery, energy, love, peace, pride, solidity that I felt as I moved myself across a mountain. Others who had come alone were already pairing off, walking in groups, finding their “Camino Families”, braving the Pyrenees together.

I walked alone.

I eventually made friends, and there were times- especially on the Camino Frances- when I felt like I wasn’t as alone as I would have liked. But here was the beauty of coming into this experience myself: at any time, whenever I wanted, I could separate myself. I could walk with others, I could walk alone. I could take a rest day, I could walk a great distance, I could eat french fries for twelve days in a row and no one had any idea.

And it wasn’t just being alone whenever I wanted, it was the ability to be with others. I still think that a solo-pilgrim on the Camino attracts others in a way that pilgrims in pairs or groups don’t. Many, many people approached me to say hi, to start a conversation, because I was alone. And I, in turn, approached others when I was feeling a bit alone. You’re going to meet people on the Camino regardless of whether you’re alone or in a group, but the opportunity for new friends increases, I think, when you’re solo.

People help you, too. They look out for you, they take care of you, when they know it’s just you (well, they help you if you’re in a group too- Camino angels help everyone). On the Frances, I had so many mothers and fathers out there. I even had a little sister and a little brother, and someone who reminded me of my own grandfather. People who asked me how I was doing whenever they saw me, asked if I was wearing my sunscreen, made sure I had a place to sleep, that I had enough to eat.

One time, on the Primitivo, a Spanish guy had been walking ahead of me. We’d left a cafe at the same time and he was fast, and soon he disappeared down the path. But a little later I saw him standing off to the side of the trail. He was waiting for me, and he explained that there was a large dog up ahead. “I didn’t want you to be afraid, so I waited for you, to help you pass,” he said. The same thing happened a few days later- a different guy, and this time, a cow.

I wish I could explain about all of this, when anyone seems concerned that I’m going off to Spain alone. I wish I could explain that I’m never really alone out there, that in fact, I think the Camino Frances is probably one of the safest places in the world for a female to travel solo. And I wish I could explain that going alone isn’t so bad, that actually, it’s quite wonderful. That sometimes it’s good to do things by ourselves, to learn what we’re capable of, to remember what we’re capable of.

I’ve got another Camino coming up- soon- and once again I’m going alone. One of these years I’d love to share this experience with someone, and I have no doubt that I will. But for now I’m solo, and I couldn’t be happier.

Camino Frances vs Camino del Norte: which is “better”?

Madonna in the Pyrenees, Camino de Santiago

“Which Camino did you like better- the Frances, or the Norte?” It’s a question I started to get a lot as this year’s Camino was ending, and oh boy, what a question. But people want to know, they want to … Continue reading

Don’t Stop Me Now; Thoughts on Strength and the Camino

Crossing water on the Camino del Norte

I was surprised the other day when I looked at a calendar and realized that I’d been home from the Camino for a month. A month already! It doesn’t quite seem right, especially since I just started working again, but … Continue reading

The things we can’t leave behind: the story of my walking stick

My walking stick was my constant companion on the Camino. I thought about this a lot as I moved through my walk: the cities and towns would always change, the scenery would change, the people would change- nothing on this Camino seemed to stay the same. Nothing except my stick.

It might seem a little ridiculous- and probably is- my attachment to a piece of a large branch that I found in the woods several kilometers past Deba on my fourth day of walking the Norte. But after I spent the first hour with that stick in my hand, it felt unnatural to walk without it. And it was my companion, it was this thing that helped me, day in and day out, the thing that was always by my side, the thing that I would never, ever, leave behind. (Some people might describe an actual person in this way- a real companion- but for a solo-walker like myself, I think a walking stick takes on a pretty significant role on a long distance journey).

I didn’t actually find the stick, it was Richard, back at the beginning of the Camino when he was part of my first (but brief) Camino family. Have I already written about this? I had told the others about wanting to find a walking stick, and had spent a good part of the morning’s walk looking off to the side of the trail as we passed through wooded areas, hoping to find the perfect fallen branch. And Richard found one, cut it to my exact specifications, shaved off the ends with his pocket knife and even put a ring around the top.

The stick became so perfect to me during my walk- the oils from where my hand grasped the stick caused the wood to become smooth and shiny. The stick was straight and strong, and more than once, people mistook it for something I bought in a shop, rather than something I found in the woods.

Others on the Camino named their sticks, but I never did. Or, rather, I just called it ‘Stick’ (clever, I know). A few times it got stuck in between large rocks and it would tug me backwards. I’d feel a quick shot of panic, that the end might snap off, that my stick could get hurt in some way. “Stick!” I would exclaim, before extracting it from the rocks and moving on.

But it remained perfect, all through my Camino, all the way until the end. It pulled me forward up that last hill in Muxia, when I was tired and exhausted and finished. That stick was part of my Camino.

At some point, I knew I would take it home with me. I’d had a walking stick last year, too, one that I bought in a shop in St Jean Pied de Port, one that look remarkably like a stick you might find in the woods. I loved it, and it was incredibly hard to leave it behind in Santiago at the end of my Camino. I’d considered trying to bring it home with me, but somehow it felt right that I leave it behind.

I’m not sure what was different this year (I suspect one reason is that I walked a more difficult Camino, and the walking stick aided me so much more); in any case, I was determined to bring it home. I strategized with others, I talked with a post office employee in Santiago, I got a list of companies that could ship things throughout the world. In the end, it seemed that the easiest way to get my stick back to the US was to simply check it as a piece of luggage on my flights.

So at the airport in Santiago, I walked over to a stand that wraps and secures luggage. I presented my stick to the man working there, and he laughed. He pulled large sheets of fluorescent green cellophane from a giant roll and carefully wrapped my stick in multiple layers. I’d payed extra for a checked bag, and dropped the stick off at the check-in counter. And when I arrived in Paris, there was my stick, sitting with a few other pieces of over-sized luggage, in the corner of the baggage claim area.

It was easy, and I was delighted that I’d found a simple way to bring my stick home. So I didn’t think twice about checking it on my flight home to the US- but this time, it wasn’t quite as easy. When I made it up to the check-in counter in Paris, the man looked at my stick and said, “You want to check that?” He seemed doubtful, and then gestured over to a blue cart that was far, far across the crowded room. “Put it on there,” he said.

The cart was empty and after confirming several times with other employees that this was the over-sized luggage cart for American Airlines, I laid my stick across the cart and I walked away. I had a heavy feeling, and wondered if I would see the stick again.

So when I arrived in Philly and stood with the other passengers of my flight at the luggage carousel, I was not surprised when I didn’t see my stick. Everyone else got their luggage until it was just me, watching an empty conveyor belt circle around endlessly. A kind employee was helping me- someone who seemed genuinely concerned about my lost ‘luggage’- and he spent a lot of time checking all the possible places where my stick could have gotten held up. Finally he looked at me with sympathy. “It must still be in Paris,” he said. “You can go downstairs and file a claim.”

Arriving back home after being away for 5 weeks should have been exciting or, at the very least, a bit comforting. But instead I went home feeling like I’d left something important behind. “It’s just a stick,” I told myself. It’s one of the lessons of the Camino- that our possessions don’t actually matter that much, that we need far less than we think, it’s the experiences that count- blah blah blah (I do think all of that is important, but when you lose something that’s important to you, even if it is just a piece of wood, it’s okay to feel sad and to feel that our possessions do, in fact, matter a bit).

Things have been a whirlwind since I’ve been home. I stopped at my apartment briefly but then headed right back out for a long road trip to South Carolina, to go to a good friend’s wedding (and I just need to note: the distance I spent 9 hours driving in one day equaled the distance I spent walking for one month). It was when I was in SC that I got a flurry of emails and phone calls about my walking stick. It had been found, made it on a flight to Philly, and was now being delivered to my apartment by a driver named John. He left me a message to confirm that he would be dropping off my ‘luggage’ (when he said luggage he laughed); I called him back and he asked if he was delivering a walking stick to me. “Yes, it is a walking stick!” I told him. He said that all the guys were trying to guess what it was.

An hour later I received a text from him. “I dropped it off by the mailboxes.”

So I sent a text to my landlord, asking if they could look for it and bring it inside, keeping it safe until I made it back home.

I knew I wouldn’t feel completely settled about it all until I was back to my apartment and had that stick in my hand. I finally came home last night, and when my landlord saw me, waved me over so I could get the stick.

He handed it to me- it was definitely my stick, still wrapped in the bright green cellophane- but when I held it I instantly knew something was wrong. The stick wasn’t straight. Back in my apartment I began tearing off the wrapping, worried that I would discover that it had been snapped in two. But when I finally uncovered the stick I realized it wasn’t broken at all. It was just warped. Really, really warped.

I have to laugh about it- all the care and worry about getting that stick home with me- and now that it’s here, it’s not the same, perfect stick that I walked my Camino with. It’s no longer straight at all, but bows out at the bottom half. It’s crooked, it’s changed. It’s my stick, but it’s different.

It’s propped against the wall now, in my living room. I like that I have it back, even though now it’s simply a souvenir, no longer a fully functioning walking stick. And I suppose it’s okay that it’s changed. Part of me wonders- was it meant to be left behind all along? Or, perhaps, maybe it served its purpose, and now it’s done. Finished, retired. “You weren’t meant to walk another Camino with me,” it’s saying. “Find another adventure, and then find another stick.”

stick and pack, Camino del NorteAirport stick wrappingWrapped walking stickPilgrim shadow, Camino de Santiago

You can sleep when you’re in the pencil case; Day 31 on the Camino, Muxia to Santiago (by bus)

(I wrote most of this post while I was still in Santiago, but I’m finally getting around to posting it just now, a full week later. I’m back in the States and this is sort of the last of the ‘live’ Camino posts, but there will be more to come! Including the saga of getting my walking stick home…)

It’s 6:00pm and I’m sitting at a cafe tucked around the corner from the cathedral in Santiago- at an outdoor table under a large white umbrella. I’m steps away from the main square of the cathedral but this tiny corner of the city is very tucked away, down a set of stairs that not many people notice. The day is chilly and the coffee is good and strong. I feel rested and relaxed. Satisfied.

I had another early start this morning, every morning has been an early start on the Camino. Even though I wasn’t walking I still had a 7:30am bus to catch back to Santiago, so I dragged myself out of bed and wondered, again, why in the world I had walked so much yesterday, why in the world I had stayed up so late drinking wine with Honza. But then I remembered something we’d talked about the night before, the expression, “You can sleep when you’re dead.” He told me about one that his girlfriend says, and I’m not sure if it’s a Czech thing or just his girlfriend’s thing, but in any case, it’s this: “You can sleep when you’re in the pencil case.” Same concept, but funnier and stranger. I might start using it.

So yes, I can sleep when I’m in the pencil case. And since I’m not there yet, I have no regrets about pushing myself really hard in this last week: the long, long days of walking, the late nights talking with friends, the early mornings when I sacrificed sleep in order to sit outside and drink coffee with Nicolas or Christine.

Besides, I found my rest today, almost against my will. On the bus ride back to Santiago I closed my eyes for a moment and then opened them to discover I was back in the city; this afternoon I took a nap (the first nap of my Camino! And on my first day of not walking in a month!).

This is my first rest day and my last day in Spain, tomorrow I fly to Paris. My experience of Santiago is so different than it was last year, but not in a bad way. I still feel like I belong here, I’m a pilgrim and I walked here and even though this year’s walk didn’t feel as much like a pilgrimage, Santiago was still, always, the destination. 

But like the rest of this year’s Camino, this final day in Santiago is calm and relaxed. But also filled with beautiful moments. I’d arranged to meet Moritz in the morning; I hadn’t seen him in about four days, since Castroverde. He took a slightly different route to get to Santiago and only arrived early this morning, planning to stop for an hour or two and then pass through and continue on towards Finisterre. When I realized that I could make it back from Muxia in time to see him, and that he would wait for me, I was so happy. It meant that I’d been able to say goodbye to the four people I’d grown closest with on this Camino: Christine, Guillemette, Nicolas and Moritz. And that was a special thing, considering we’d all parted and were arriving/leaving Santiago at different times.

So Moritz and I had coffee and filled each other in on what had happened since we’d last seen each other. We lingered, continuing to talk, already reminiscing on the days we had spent together. We said goodbye in exactly the same spot that Christine and I had parted, giving each other a strong hug and promising to keep in touch. I could feel a small lump in my throat as I watched him walk away, and I thought, once again, about how lucky and grateful I was for the people I met this year.

I stopped by the pension I’d stayed in on Thursday night to see if my room was ready, and it was. This time it all felt easy: I knew exactly where to go, I was given the same room, and when I walked inside I felt like I was back in my little home. After dropping off my pack and my stick I hurried over to the cathedral for the 12:00 mass, and stood quietly in the back of a very packed church. After about 10 minutes two men passed by and I realized I knew them- it was Jose and another Spanish man, the guys who had been at my dinner table in Bodenaya. It was a classic Santiago greeting: the looks of surprise and happiness on our faces, the hugs, the congratulations (all in hushed tones, since there was a service going on). I hadn’t seen them since the Hospitales route, the day that I tacked on an extra stage. Jose told me that they were the first to arrive in Santiago, the rest of the people we’d been with in Bodenaya were a day or two behind. 

I shook my head and joked, “No, I’m the first of the group to arrive!” He wagged his finger at me. “You’re in your own group.”

I had to smile at that, because maybe I AM in my own group, or maybe, actually, I’m in a lot of groups. I come and I go but always, it seemed as though I found people to be with.

Just as the mass ended and I was saying goodbye to Jose, I heard someone exclaim, “Nadine!!” I turned and it was Jill, an American girl from Chicago who I’d met at least two weeks ago in Pendueles (when I was still on the Norte). She threw her arms around me and gave me the longest, strongest hug I’ve maybe ever had in my life. I’d probably only ever talked to her for an hour but, again, this is the Camino: when you see people again, especially when you think it’s impossible, it’s a special thing. 

We’re going to meet for dinner tonight, maybe with a few others as well. I’m hoping I can run into other people I know- I’m still holding out hope that others from the Norte are here, as well- but even if I don’t find anyone else, it will be okay. In many ways I’ve been given more than enough on this Camino- more friends, more connections, more time alone, more time to feel pain, more time to feel alive- than I ever expected. It’s been a good, good month.

(later)…

I never did run into anyone else from the Norte; I’d arrived in Santiago too soon, they had more time to walk, or maybe they were somewhere in the city, and I just couldn’t find them. I did, however, run into one more person, one last Camino encounter that felt strange and special.

I was walking back to my pension after dinner, it was nearly 11:00, the night was dark but the city was still alive, with pilgrims streaming through the streets, eating and drinking and celebrating. Just before coming to the street that I would turn onto for my pension I saw someone familiar walking towards me: it was Andrea, the Italian man who I had helped in Arzua (he had been looking a little lost and I told him to come with me to find an albergue). We greeted each other and he was so pleased to see me. “Come have a beer with me,” he asked.

At first I declined. I was tired and I didn’t know Andrea at all. I’d spent a total of 15 minutes in his company, that day in Arzua, and in that moment, all I wanted was to return to my room and climb into bed and fall into a deep sleep. I felt like my pilgrimage, my Camino, was over.

But Andrea pleaded. “It wil be fast,” he said. “I wanted to buy you a beer in Arzua, after you helped me find a place to sleep, but I went to the pharmacy and then you were gone. But now here you are, and I am so glad.”

I heard his words and then I heard Honza’s words, from the night before: “You can sleep when you’re in the pencil case.”

So I agreed and Andrea and I found a place nearby- a small bar on the corner where we took a table outside and ordered beer and talked for an hour.

It’s hard to describe the conversation we had, but all I can say is that it was such a Camino conversation, and in some ways, the perfect way to end this trip. Andrea told me how much I had helped him, that day in Arzua. To me, I hadn’t thought much of it- he had looked tired and I also needed to find a place to sleep, so it made sense to have him come along with me. But Andrea had really been struggling: he had tendenitis and was in a lot of pain. He was tired and frustrated and feeling like his Camino might have to end, just 40 kilometers before Santiago.

But then I appeared, and he said that when he saw me, I had a smile on my face. That he could feel my positive energy, and that being able to follow me to an albergue helped his spirits and his outlook so much.

We talked about this, and about what the Camino can give you, about how it is really just one small part of a journey through life. How the real Camino begins when you go home. It’s something I’ve thought about before, but it’s been so much more on my mind during this trip. Last year, when I came home from the Camino Frances, I was upset that I wasn’t still on a Camino. I wanted to walk all day, I wanted to be outside all day, I wanted to be meeting people from all over the world, I wanted to feel free, all the time. 

It’s a big reason that I came back to do another Camino: I wanted those feelings again. I wanted to keep walking. But this year, at least right now, my feelings are different. I’d still love to walk all day and meet people and feel that freedom, but I don’t think I need it in the same way. So many of the friends I made on this year’s Camino have asked me: What will your next Camino be? When will it be? And I don’t really have answers, other than it will probably be somewhere in France, and it probably won’t be next summer.

Because I’m ready for other things, now. I think I will always want to be on a Camino, and I have no doubt that I will do another Camino (maybe many Caminos) in my life. But I’m also ready to really live my days, wherever I am. To try to be present with each day and not always be dreaming about my future, about what I want to do when I have time off. I want to say to myself, “I can sleep when I’m in the pencil case” a little more than I normally do in my regular life. When people walk up to me, I want them to see my smile, to feel my positive energy. I want to see what other parts of the world I can explore, what other things in life I can experience. I want to feel more alive and free in my day to day life, which I know is a challenge… but it’s something I want to try. 

So that last Camino conversation, with Andrea, it was perfect. Because it was all about this kind of stuff. He talked about how the Camino will always be with him, that he can carry it within him wherever he goes, in whatever he does. I thought this was a powerful message to hear on my last night in Santiago, and the words repeated in my head as I walked back to my pension, as I finally climbed into bed, as I drifted off into that much needed, very deep sleep. 

The Camino is always with me. 

   

You’ll never walk alone; Day 30 on the Camino, Vilaserio to Muxia

I learned something about myself today: 52 kilometers is a bit over my limit. But… I did it! 2 days from Santiago to Muxia. I would never do it again and maybe it was worse because I had three 40km days leading up to Santiago, which means I did just a tad more than 200 kilometers in 5 days (and I don’t know that I would recommend this to anyone)… but I’m happy to have done it.

Part of this crazy plan of walking really long days was so that I could try to do it all: make it from Irun to Santiago, then be able to walk to Muxia, and then make it back to Santiago and have a little time to try to find people that I’d met along the way. I didn’t realize that I would want to spend time in Santiago after a trip to Muxia until I realized that most of my friends were behind me, so when I began to consider doing Santiago to Muxia in two days, a big reason for that was so that I could have extra time in Santiago at the very end of this journey.

But also, I wanted to see if I could do a 50km day. Last year I’d wanted to break 40km, and I did, and it was plenty. But this year I happened to hang around with some young guys who loved to walk really big days, and the idea began to stir around in my head- maybe I could do it, too. I think it was Simon who said to me, “Don’t you want to go for 50km, to see if you can do it?”

So I did, and I can do it. But not well. You should have seen me on the last 10 kilometers of the walk today: I was literally dragging myself to Muxia. And wondering why in the world I ever thought this was a good idea. And wishing that these weren’t the very last kilometers of my Camino this year- spent in the rain, small pebbles rolling around in my shoes, mud slinging up on my calves, nearly every muscle of my body aching, my eyes heavy because I need more sleep. If there had been a bar 5km or even just 2km away from Muxia I would have stopped for some coffee, just something to power me through. But I powered myself through, ending with a small, steep hill up to the albergue. I stopped in the middle of the hill, partly because I was exhausted, and partly to take a moment to recognize the end of my Camino. Despite my fatigue, I said to myself, “This was a good Camino.” And it was. And, honestly, not a bad way to end this Camino. It started with a steep hill in the rain and was ending with a steep hill in the rain, but the in betweens had been glorious.

The day started really well. I had been the last to bed the night before but the first to wake up in the morning (and this is EXACTLY the reason for my heavy eyes today). I was ready to go in 25 minutes, which I think is a record for me. 5:30am I was on the (dark) road, walking. And even though I walked in the dark for an hour, I didn’t get lost once, or even momentarily confused. My guidebook had decent directions, and I was vigilant about shining my flashlight around to look for arrows and waymarkers. I walked until 7:00 and stopped at the first open bar for a cafe con leche and tostada, and took a few moments to watch the sunrise, something I haven’t seen much on this Camino.

The bar I’d stopped at was also an albergue, and the hospitaleros looked at me as I drank my coffee. “You didn’t stay here last night,” they said to me. “No,” I replied. When I’d entered the bar there were lots of other pilgrims around, getting ready to start their day. It felt kind of good to have already been on the road for 90 minutes. I felt kind of tough.

That feeling lasted for awhile- I walked for a few more hours then took another coffee break. I ran into a German guy I’d met very briefly the day before, and later, passed him on the trail. “Wow, you’re fast!” he told me. I looked at him over my shoulder as I walked away, “I’m fast now, but maybe not so fast later.”

Truer words have never been spoken. After another hour it started to rain, and then my body sort of said to me, “I’ve had enough.” I pushed myself through until I could find a bar, and soon after I arrived the German guy and an Australian girl came in. We all sat and ate sandwiches and the goofy barman tossed rubber eggs at us. I get so confused sometimes because I don’t understand Spanish, but I don’t think this was a language thing, I think the barman was just a bit odd. He had a couple of rubber eggs and I guess they were a joke but maybe I was too tired to really get it. And I WAS tired- too tired for the barman with the rubber eggs, too tired for the good looking German guy who was telling me that he just finished a degree in counseling. I could have handled this at the beginning of my Camino, I could have handled this a few days ago (even yesterday!), but today? All I wanted to do was lay my head on the table and fall asleep.

And then, as I continued to walk, any toughness I’d had in the past few days disappeared. I hobbled through the last kilometers to Muxia, arriving around 6pm, and told myself that I was glad to not have to walk tomorrow. I pulled off my shoes and socks to discover another small blister on the ball of my foot (something I suspected was forming during the last 10 kilometers of the day’s walk… and how’s this for a Camino message? The blister was perfectly formed in the shape of a little heart. Love and pain and all of that… lots of symbolism here- the Camino’s final mark on me was a heart, and I had to laugh when I saw it). I arranged my sleeping bag over my bunk and went to take a shower only to discover that the stalls didn’t have doors. Second time for me on the Camino, but this time I was not the only woman in the albergue. I was not amused but what can you do? At least the water was hot.

I took a walk through the town and over to the end of the little penisula, where I walked over the flat rocks to stand facing the water as it crashed against the shore. It was rough and a bit wild, windy with dark clouds swirling behind me. But ahead of me, far out over the water, the sun was shining (I think another metaphor, perhaps). And as I walked on the rocks and climbed up a hill around the church, the sky began to clear and the evening became beautiful.

Walking back to my albergue I didn’t recognize anyone (and really, the only people I would know in this town were the German and Australian I’d met that day). I wasn’t sure how I felt about being alone; part of me craved it, wanting to just cook up a nice meal and do some writing back at the albergue. But the other part of me was wistful and a little sad- knowing that I was completely finished with my Camino, having just walked over 50 kilometers, wanting to somehow celebrate it, wanting to not be alone. 

Back at the albergue I opened a bottle of wine and cut up some vegetables and settled in at a table to do some writing. Moments later, a guy walked downstairs and I squinted when I saw him. From where I was sitting, he looked an awful lot like Honza, the Czech guy from the night before. He looked at me, and then we both grinned and shook our heads. It was Honza, and I was really, really surprised to see him in Muxia.

“You didn’t walk the 50km today, did you?” I asked as he walked over.

“Oh yes, I did. And it was because of you, you put the idea in my head last night.”

I looked at him, worried about whether he hated me for putting the idea in his head.

He smiled. “And on the walk today I wanted to thank you, because I’m really happy I did it.”

So just like Simon had put the idea of a 50km into my head, I’d put the idea in Honza’s head. And as I stood talking to him, I realized that I wouldn’t be alone tonight after all. Honza was a new friend, but he was a friend who had also just walked 50 kilometers to get here. 

We made a meal together- pasta and a sauce with chorizo, bread, wine. After we finished eating we took the wine up to the second floor terrace of the albergue, where others were gathered to watch the sunset. As we’d been cooking we’d found two candles in one of the kitchen drawers- a 5 and a 0. While surely someone else had celebrated a milestone birthday, Honza noted that these candles were also meaningful for us. So we stuck the candles into the top of two bottles of wine and held out our cameras to take a photo- the ocean and the sunset in the background. A way to commemorate our 52 kilometer day.

We sat on the ledge of a stone wall, Italians next to us, some French in chairs below us. Drinking wine and talking with a new friend as the sun set and the stars came out, I couldn’t have predicted that this would be how I’d spend the night of my last day of walking the Camino Norte/Camino Primitivo. But, in some ways, of course this is how it would finish: I always struggled with whether I wanted to remain on my own or to be with others on this Camino, and in some ways, the Camino wouldn’t let me be alone. I knew it back on Day 4, when I walked away from my first Camino family, passed under that bridge and saw the graffitied words: “You’ll never walk alone.” 

And it was true, because even though I spent so much of the actual walking time alone on this Camino, the number of people I met and the short, but deep connections I made astounded me. I would walk ahead or behind but always, there were others just ahead or behind, as well. Nicolas or Honza, Guillemette or Christine. Moritz or Nicole or Richard or Elissa. And dozens of others. I never knew when I would run into my friends or run into someone new or keep walking alone but this is the Camino (and life, too): in the end, I think we never walk alone.  

           

A Bittersweet and Beautiful Walk; Day 29 on the Camino, Santiago to Vilaserio

My day started perfectly; maybe the whole day was perfect, in fact. 

I woke up, alone in my room in a pension in a quiet corner of Santiago- not needing to worry about my alarm bothering anyone, not needing to worry about making noise or keeping my things contained in a tight, small space. I could get changed in my room and not in a cramped bathroom stall, I could brush my teeth in peace. 

Packing my bag is now so routine that I can do it quickly; I was out the door and into the cathedral square in no time. The square was quiet, only a few pilgrims were standing there and looking up to the cathedral. I went to the far end of the square and took a seat against the wall and hoped that I hadn’t missed Christine. I was ready to head to Muxia, and I had a long 40km ahead of me. Already it was almost 8am and normally I would have already been walking for an hour. 

But trying to find Christine was worth the delayed start. And just when I thought I missed her she walked into the square. She came from the wrong direction- not on the Camino- and I knew she had already been to the square and had probably gotten her compostela. She was walking slowly, looking around, smiling at other pilgrims, still carrying that enormous green pack and her two very worn walking sticks. 

I walked over, reaching out to touch her arm. When she saw me she blinked and said, “Ce n’est pas vrai.” I’m sure she expected that I would be on my way to Muxia by now. We embraced and took a photo and went to find a bar to have breakfast. Our conversations have always been pretty basic, since my French isn’t so good, and this morning I wished so much that we could speak more easily. I had so many questions for her: what it felt like to be in Santiago, what it felt like to end this journey, was she happy or sad or overwhelmed or tired? We talked about some of this, and Christine seemed more subdued than usual. But in the end she told me that she was happy- she was in Santiago, she had seen me. We walked out of the bar and to a corner where we would head in different ways- we hugged again and I struggled to not get too emotional, to not start to cry. 

I felt full as I walked away, across the square in front of the cathedral and over to the Camino route; full of happiness and love and excitement for the next few days of walking. And just before I turned left to leave the square and walk out of the city, I saw a familiar figure standing against a wall- with his blue pack, gray cap, smoking a cigarette and holding a small styrofoam cup of coffee. It was Nicolas- of course it was, because it’s the Camino and things like this usually happen. I walked over and when he saw me he smiled. He had just walked through the night to get to Santiago, losing his friends somewhere along the way, losing himself somewhere along the way as well. 

“I walked- I don’t know- 60 or 80 kilometers.” He frowned, and squinted at the cathedral. He hadn’t been looking forward to Santiago, or the crowds- he and Pierre planned to walk from Santiago down to Portugal, and Santiago was never the destination for Nicolas. I could tell that he was dazed and tired and probably wishing he were some place else.

But still, I smiled at him, and gave him a big hug goodbye. Whether he was happy or not in that moment, I was happy. I’ve said it already, but it’s worth repeating: on the Camino you don’t often get to really say a goodbye. Last year we joked about the “Camino goodbye”, how you’d think you’d never see someone again, try to tell them goodbye, then see them a day or two later (or even a week or two later). But sometimes you don’t say goodbye, thinking it’s inevitable that you’ll run into them somewhere along the Camino, only to never see them again. It’s good practice for life- people come and go all of the time- but it’s always been hard for me to not have closure on the relationships that have been important to me.

So on this Camino, seeing Guillemette the night before, finding Christine this morning, and now seeing Nicolas, moments before I was about to walk out of the city… it meant something to me. Leaving is always hard, but a hug and a goodbye help to ease that bittersweet ache.

I walked out of the city feeling just that: a bittersweet kind of ache, which I think was exactly the way I wanted to feel. I WAS leaving something behind when I left Santiago- I was leaving people and connections I had made- but it was right to leave. This was the end, and leaving was always going to be hard.

But today’s walk? Oh man, it was great. It took me a little while to get going, and for a lot of the first 20 kilometers, I could feel the effort it took to walk up the hills, I could feel a constant hunger in my stomach (despite the multiple coffees, croissant, toast, banana that I had eaten). 

So after I arrived in Negreira, the typical first day stopping point for many pilgrims on the way to Finisterre/Muxia (and where I myself had stopped last year), I found a place to eat, and settled in for a nice, long lunch. Last year, my friend Sonal and I had eaten here- a bar/restaurant just across the street from our albergue, and I had been amazed at the quality of the food. It wasn’t typical for the bars I usually stopped at in Spain: inside, this one had a saloon type feel, with big wooden booths, a few pool tables in the back. Last year I’d eaten an amazing bocadillo (sandwich), and I ordered one again this year, along with a plate of fries. The food that was delivered to my table made my jaw drop: I’d only ordered half a sandwich but the thing that was placed before me was larger than most full sized bocadillos. I laughed at all of the food, the woman who brought out my food laughed with me, and then I dug in.

It had taken a long time for the food to come out so I was at that restaurant for nearly an hour- sitting at an outdoor table in the shade, my shoes and socks off, writing postcards, sipping my coke, munching on french fries. When I finally left, I felt so satisfied and energized, that I knew it would be no problem to keep walking.

Just as I was on my way out of the city, a young man stopped me. He looked like a pilgrim- one who had already checked into his albergue and showered- and he warned me that the municipal albergue was already full (this albergue was outside of the city, so I think he was trying to prevent me from walking out of the city only to have to come back and look for another place to stay).

His kindness made me smile, but I said to him, “Thank you, but I’m planning to keep walking.”

He looked doubtful. “The next town with an albergue is 13 kilometers away.”

I looked back at him. “Clearly, you don’t know who you’re dealing with.”(No, I didn’t actually say this. What I really said was more like- “I know, but it’s no problem.”)

He laughed and shook his head a little, then wished me a Buen Camino.

And a buen camino it was. That sandwich and french fries and long break powered me through those 13 kilometers. It was a late day- when I left Negreira it was already 3:00, and on the very outskirts of the city was a marker that said Muxia was 65 kilometers away. I tried not to think too much about it- 65 kilometers was an awful lot to walk between now and tomorrow- and I pushed on. Once again the sun was out and the afternoon was hot, but when I arrived in Vilaserio, 13 kilometers away, I still felt good. 

A pilgrim sitting outside a bar waved me over and said I would need to go inside the bar to check into the private albergue, if I wanted to stay. I lingered there for a minute, and a few other pilgrims started talking to me. One was an American girl, the other a German guy. The German wanted to make it to Muxia tomorrow as well, and was considering walking further that day. The American girl was staying. I stood there, leaning on my stick, telling the others about the long days I had walked. “You’re crazy!” they said. I knew it was crazy, but I was still feeling good. And I wasn’t sure whether to keep walking or not. It was nearly 6pm, and I had another 7km to go before the next albergue. It could walk it tonight, arrive late, and only have about 40 kilometers to walk tomorrow… or I could stop now, shower and sit at this bar with these friendly pilgrims, and have 52 kilometers to walk tomorrow.

So I decided to stay. And I’m so glad I did, because it was a great Camino night. After settling into the albergue I sat at the bar with a drink and talked to Juliette, a woman from England. Together we walked over to a place just down the road that was offering food and drinks (it’s hard to describe this place; I’d actually stopped there last year for a break during my walk, and I think described it as a little oasis: it’s a family’s home, and they have this beautiful outdoor space for pilgrims: picnic tables and adirondack chairs and hammocks. They cook food in their kitchen and they told us, this year, that they hope to soon open their own albergue).

When we arrived the American girl, Meredith, was sitting there, along with a guy from the Czech Republic, Honza. I’d seen Honza on my walk that day- he’d left Santiago just before I had, and for most of the morning was just ahead of me. We settled into comfortable chairs on the outdoor terrace, and stayed there for hours: eating salad, soup, bread, their house-made wine (the owner of this place warned us about the wine: “Be careful,” she said, “It is strong!!”). Juliette wandered in and out, but Meredith, Honza and I stayed and talked. Like so many people you meet on the Camino, these two felt like my friends in no time. Eventually we were joined by a group of Italians, and a guy and girl from Denmark. Everyone pulled up chairs and sampled the wine and talked about the end of the Camino. It was such a beautiful night- we sat until the sun went down and the stars came out. I knew that I should have had an early night- I wanted to get a really early start for my 50 kilometer day- but it was just so hard to leave that terrace. The others knew about my plan to walk to Muxia the next day. Meredith and Honza both seemed intrigued. “You’re maybe inspiring me to try to walk this,” Meredith said. “Yes,” Honza agreed, “It’s an interesting thing to consider.” We laughed, we finished our wine, we walked back to the albergue.

I marveled, again, at how amazing the Camino is: I’d left Santiago, leaving everyone I knew behind. But within just this one day I’d found people to sit with and eat with, to talk with and laugh with. It was such a beautiful day, and such a beautiful night. 

             

Walking Fast, Walking Free, Walking to the End; Day 28 (!!) on the Camino, Arzua to Santiago

Today, I made it to Santiago! Also, I lost my shorts. 

I did a really good job of not losing things on this trip (well, everything except my passport, which was the worst thing to leave behind, but it worked out okay). Last year I lost my guidebook, a pair of shorts, a tshirt, a pair of socks, my earbuds… this year, I held onto everything. Until last night/this morning.

I’d put my laundry in with some others and then forgot about it. Around 10, when I was going to bed, I went into the laundry room to find it. But it was nowhere to be found. Not in either of the washers, not in the dryers, not hanging on the line, not piled in a basket. I looked everywhere, I even walked through the bunk rooms scanning the beds and the floor for a pile of laundry. Not only could I not find my laundry, I couldn’t find the people who offered to do my laundry. They were out somewhere in Arzua.

So I went to bed and figured I’d deal with it in the morning. The alarm went off at 5:30 and I walked back to the laundry room to discover my things hanging from the line. Everything except my shorts. It’s a frustrating thing, to know that the shorts were somewhere in the building… that I hadn’t forgotten them, I just couldn’t find them. I’m sure someone else mistakenly grabbed them, but I was bummed. I liked those shorts.

But sometimes you lose things and after all, they were just a pair of shorts. I had another to wear for walking, so I got my things together and left the albergue at 6:00. Immediately, and just next to the albergue, was an open bar. The Frances may be crowded, but it also has coffee. Two points for the Camino Frances.

The walk was really good. Nearly 40 kilometers (again), but I felt so motivated to get to Santiago. I stopped a couple more times for coffee, and for one last tortilla, but mostly just powered on. At one of the stops Guillemette passed by; when I saw her I called her name and felt so happy. She paused but then continued walking, calling over her shoulder, “See you in Santiago!” She seemed like she was on a mission, and I could understand it. If you’re walking well and under 15 kilometers to Santiago, you just want to keep going.

Those last 15 kilometers were really good for me. I’d been curious about how it would feel to approach Santiago and I was surprised to feel excited. Just last night I was a little ambivalent, but suddenly it was like I remembered what I was doing: walking a really long distance to get somewhere. The ‘getting somewhere’ part of this Camino wasn’t as important as it was last year- this year it was more about the journey- but I could still feel a stirring of happiness and energy as I moved closer to Santiago. I felt so connected to the history of what I was doing, how hundreds of thousands of other pilgrims must have felt over the last 1,000 years as they approached the city.

The last couple of kilometers were a little tough (as they nearly always are), and once again under a hot sun. I made it into the city center and began to recognize things. Before I knew it I was close to the cathedral and there was part of me that wondered if I should just find a place to stay, first, and walk to the cathedral later.

But I couldn’t resist it- I wanted to walk into the square and look up at the cathedral and feel that I’d made it. So I did: the square was crowded, people were celebrating and hugging, or standing quietly alone. I paused for a moment, and then kept going.

The next hour or so felt overwhelming. I was in Santiago, a place that I’m familiar with, but I was also uncertain. Uncertain about where exactly I should go, uncertain about how to find the pension where I’d stayed last year. I wandered through the streets a little aimlessly, getting turned around more than once. I stopped by the tourism office for a map of the city, and tried to describe the pension that I was looking for. The woman helping me wasn’t sure what I was talking about, so I headed back out into the city to try again. 

Eventually I found my favorite corner of the city, and after walking into a couple of different pensions/hotels that were not the right ones, I found my place: Casa Felisa. And then everything was familiar- I was taken up to my room (a private, glorious, wonderful room!), I took off my pack and spread out my things and took a long shower.

It was strange to be back in Santiago. I wandered through the city for awhile, and I stood in line to get my compostela- the certificate of completion for my Camino. But as I walked around and stood in line, surrounded by other pilgrims, I didn’t recognize anyone. It was like last night in Arzua, but this time I felt it even more strongly: I’ve been walking for a month, I’ve met so many people, and now I’m in Santiago and don’t see anyone I know.

In the last week especially, I moved fast through this Camino. I realized it when I recognized my first person in the city: a young Spanish guy. It took me a moment to place him and then I remembered- we’d stayed at the same albergue in Celorio, nearly two weeks ago. He and his friends were biking the Camino. Biking the Camino. Maybe I did this thing a little too quickly. 

It was late and I thought about going to bed but first I decided to find some ice cream. I wandered through the streets again, then noticed a girl with pink shorts. Her dark hair was pulled back in a bun and she walked with her hands in her pockets. I was pretty far away, but it looked an awful lot like Guillemette. So I ran to catch up and realized it WAS Guillemette; I called her name and she spun around so quickly and then threw her arms around me, laughing.

“I’m so happy to see you, I’ve been looking for you all day!”

We talked about how ridiculous it was that we’d never exchanged phone numbers, and then I joined her and two other girls for a celebratory drink. We stayed out until midnight, drinking wine and talking about the end of the Camino. When we left, Guillemette and I gave each other another strong hug. “Tell me if you ever come to Paris,” she said. “I will,” I promised.

I was so happy to have found her. Guillemette and I had very similar paces throughout the Camino, ever since I met her in Bilbao. We never really planned to stay together, but we kept showing up in the same places. It took me awhile to feel comfortable around her, but in the end, I felt a strong bond: I felt like we were kind of in this Camino together. I would have been really upset if I’d left Santiago without getting to say goodbye.

Back in my hotel I thought about the others that I hadn’t gotten to see: Nicolas and Christine. Moritz too, he was somewhere behind me. I’d sent an email to Christine after I arrived in Santiago but didn’t expect to hear back from her. But I did, her message said she was in Monte do Gozo, four kilometers before Santiago, and that she would be arriving in the city early in the morning.

So I fell asleep with plans swirling around in my head: I wanted to do it all. I wanted to walk to Muxia in two days, and I wanted to hang around in Santiago just a bit to try and find Christine. I didn’t know if any of it would work: if I could find Christine, if I could walk another two 40 kilometer days, if I would run into anyone else I knew, if I would meet new people, if I would stay alone. 

    

two beds! all for me!

   

Close to the End; Day 27 on the Camino, San Roman to Arzua

Today I joined the Camino Frances, and even though this was a route that I walked just last year, even though I loved it, I don’t want to be here. I want to be back on the Norte or the Primitivo, where there aren’t too many pilgrims, where things are a little less “Camino-esque”, where you can walk alone and see your friends in the evenings.

I’m in Arzua and I’ve lost everyone I know. I last saw people in Melide, about 12 kilometers back: Christine and Nicolas, and a few others I met yesterday. Everyone planned to continue on to Ribadiso, 10 kilometers away, and we all left Melide at different times. Christine was either just ahead of me or just behind, and Nicolas stayed back for awhile with his friends. But somehow between then and now, I’ve lost them.

This was another long walking day, 40km. I started a little later than I wanted- a bit after 7- because I couldn’t bring myself to leave the albergue. I’d woken up before 6 and Christine had made coffee for us, so I slowly got myself ready and sat outside on a low stone wall with the warm cup in my hands. A few others got up as well but the morning was quiet: I could hear the birds, the quiet rustling of wind through tree branches, Nicolas singing softly as he took a shower. So I sat and didn’t rush to leave, and accepted a second cup of coffee from Nicolas. I knew I had to walk a lot that day but I felt so peaceful, so content, and I just wanted to soak up that feeling. 

Despite the late start, the day’s walk wasn’t too difficult and I reached Ribadiso in the late afternoon feeling good… only to find out that the two albergues were completo (between the two, there were 136 beds, so that speaks to the crowds on the route just before Santiago!). I had no choice but to continue another 2 kilometers to Arzua, and I was amazed to find that I was feeling great. 42 kilometers in a hot sun, 5:00pm and I felt like I could keep going. In fact, when the kilometer markers dipped below 40km to Santiago (I think I’m about 38 away, now), I was tempted to just keep going. All the way to Santiago! 80km in a day! Ha, I’ve been maybe a bit crazy on this Camino, but I’m not that crazy. Besides, I would arrive in the city after midnight and I don’t like walking in the dark.

In any case, I wandered through Arzua, vaguely remembering the town from last year. On the Frances, I just passed through, but I remember this section being the only time I had difficulties finding a bed. I passed albergue after albergue, and many of them were full. As I walked through the main square, I saw a tired looking pilgrim coming towards me from the other direction. He had a pack on and was limping a bit, and he approached me looking just a bit desperate.

He asked if I was looking for a place to sleep- or, I asked him- and the conversation was a bit tricky since his English wasn’t too good. But I learned that he was Andrea from Italy, and that he wasn’t sure where to go. So I told him to come along with me even though I wasn’t really sure where I was going either, and together we found an albergue- a private one, a little past the town center and it still had free beds. It had a small kitchen and a pilgrim who recognized Andrea told me that I could put my clothes in with their load for the washing machine.

The evening has been strange, different, again, from everything else: there are so, so many pilgrims in this town, but I don’t recognize a soul. It’s so strange to be in this situation, to have been walking for nearly 4 weeks and to have met so many people, but to be so close to Santiago and not know anyone.

But in a way it’s kind of nice. I’ve spent the past four days around people I know, and despite my alone time while I walk, I haven’t gotten much other time to myself. I feel a little behind on things: needing to find an ATM, needing to pay a bill, wanting to check email and publish some blog posts. I mean, all of that stuff can wait, but really, it feels like it’s been so long since I’ve sat in a bar with a glass of wine to write something. I’ve missed it. I got a lot of time to do this on the Norte, but it’s been almost impossible on the Primitivo. And it’s okay- I’ve met some great people and have been so grateful to spend time with them- but this feels good, too. A little time for reflection before this big walk ends.

And I don’t know how I feel about reaching Santiago tomorrow (just under 40km, which makes three really long days in a row but I think I’m holding up well). Last year I was really anticipating reaching Santiago and ending my pilgrimage, but this year, I haven’t given it much thought. Last year, the destination WAS Santiago; this year, it’s been a long walk. Not so much of a pilgrimage, not how it was for me last year… and it’s almost like I forget that I’m walking to Santiago, that I will be in the same place where I was last year, that I will be confronted with all of those memories.

When I joined the Frances today, I searched for familiar things, but struggled to find anything. I kept asking myself, “Did I really walk this same path just last year?” It felt very different, and I’m not sure why. I passed a bar where I had stopped last year for french fries and a coke, but even that felt different. And I wonder, will Santiago feel different, too? Will the memories come back or will the city seem foreign? Will I feel like I want to celebrate, or will I want to just continue to walk?

I have a feeling the answer is: continue to walk. I’m not sure what the next few days are going to look like, but I have a few possibilities. Since it looks like I’ll reach Santiago in only 28 days (what?? I think that was an awfully fast pace, and not entirely typical), I have three extra days to work with. This gives me just enough time to walk to Muxia, though I may have to bus back to Santiago the day I arrive in Muxia if I want to make my flight on Monday morning. That’s not ideal, but I think it would be okay. The walk to either Muxia or Finisterre is about 80 kilometers and done in three days… but given my crazy mind and crazy legs, I’m toying with doing it in two days. And then walking from Muxia to Finisterre, which is something I really want to do (or, vice versa, walking from Finisterre to Muxia).

I could take it easy and hang out in Santiago, take a bus to Finisterre, and take one day to walk to Muxia (which is about 30km), and that would be the smart plan, considering all the walking I’ve done in this last month. But the thing is, I feel fine. I don’t even really feel that tired, and that’s different than how I felt last year as I approached Santiago. Last year, I think I was worn out. This year, I’m feeling pretty good.

So maybe there will be a few more big days of walking, and possibly one last day of walking along the coast. It would be a nice way to finish this Camino.

But first, Santiago. Almost there. 

       

Walking in Circles; Day 26 on the Camino, Castroverde to San Roman

I was woken up this morning by Nicolas, at 5:15. He came over to my bed and whispered, “The coffee is ready.” If it’s got to be that early, I don’t know if there’s a better way to wake up in the morning. 

Today’s walk was long, right around 40 kilometers. And it began by getting lost. The plan was to leave early, around 6, which would mean walking in the dark for about 30 minutes. I left just ahead of Nicolas, who was tying his shoes when I walked out the door. With his pace, I knew he would catch up to me in minutes. I made my way through the town and onto a dirt track but somewhere, something went wrong. When Nicolas never appeared behind me, and when I realized that it had been awhile since I’d seen a yellow arrow, I knew I lost the Camino.

I found my way eventually, after walking in circles, and finally got on track a bit after 6:30 (which totally erased the extra time I had tried to gain by leaving so early). The morning walk was okay, and maybe I was so focused on my thoughts, because when I arrived in Lugo, a bustling and beautiful city about 25km from Castroverde, I sort of just wanted to pass through. When I arrived in the center square I passed by a line of bars with outdoor seating and heard someone calling my name. Sitting around a table cluttered with beer glasses and empty plates were Nicolas and his friend, Pierre (the one he’d been trying to catch), their other friend Daniel (Mexico), Guillemette, and Johan (Belgium). They ushered me over and everyone gave me big smiles. I pulled up a chair and ordered a cafe con leche (and it was one of the best I’ve had on this Camino), but I felt overwhelmed.

Maybe it was entering a bustling city for the first time since Oviedo; maybe it was suddenly being surrounded by new people who were vibrant and joyous and loud; maybe it was because I knew that the group I had been walking with for the past few days was changing: Nicolas would be going off with his other friends, Moritz was somewhere behind us and I didn’t know if I would ever see him again.

In any case, I didn’t stay long. Just long enough to chat a bit with Johan, to notice how very different Pierre was from Nicolas, to run into Christine and plan where we were going to stop for the night. I met another American, Mark, and we walked around the city for a few minutes, trying to find our way back to the Camino.

And then I continued on. As ever, I felt the urge to keep moving, to walk on my own, to continue on through Spain. The afternoon was hot and after a few hours Johan caught up to me. He had been walking from his home in Belgium, and we talked about how it felt to be so close to Santiago, so close to the end. I let him pass me and I continued on, slowing down in the heat, dragging a bit for those last 5 kilometers of a 40+ kilometer day.

The albergue I checked into in San Roman was the municipal one; the private albergue was already full when I passed by. At a first glance, I was a bit worried about the municipal; it was a small and simple wooden building off to the side of the trail, surrounded by woods. It looked like a basic cabin, a hut you might find in the mountains. I worried that it would be dark and dank and sad, but it surprised me. It was almost like one of those tiny houses: the impossibly small structures that are designed so efficiently and beautifully. The albergue had a very small, central area with a kitchen and a long counter; this kitchen was stocked with plenty of pots and pans and glasses and silverware. On either side of the kitchen were two bunk areas, and everything was clean and comfortable. The bathrooms were modern, and the only thing lacking was a good outdoor space with a table or two to hang out at.

But I was content. After my shower I walked nearly a kilometer back to the only bar/shop around for miles, sat with Johan and Guillemette who were taking a long break before continuing on (Guillemette amazed me, saying she felt good and strong and wanted to keep walking). Christine appeared and eventually joined me for a drink, and together we picked up supplies for dinner and went back to the albergue to cook.

Strolling in quite late, at 8:00pm, were Nicolas, Pierre and Daniel. They had taken their time since leaving Lugo- celebrating their reunion and stopping at every bar along the way. They’d also bought supplies for dinner and everyone gathered outside, sitting on the low stone wall, leaning against the albergue wall.

I talked to the three guys for awhile, sitting outside with them after everyone else had gone to bed. I was curious about how Nicolas and Pierre could spend all of their days together on this Camino, given how different they were. I was curious how Daniel fit into this mix: when they met him, how he joined their group. So they told me stories from their Camino, and they were so full of joy. It was a beautiful thing to see but it also made me a little wistful- it all goes back to the push and pull of my own Camino. To be with others, to be alone.

I’m sure I’ll process this all more when I’m done with the Camino and back home, but for now, it continues to be on my mind. I talked about this with the guys, how special it was to find a group to be with, how it can be a difficult thing to find. And also about how I envy it a bit, but how I made a choice to really walk on my own. And I suppose I still don’t really know what the answer is for me, or if there really needs to be an answer, right now. I know that I’ve felt a strong need to be very free on this Camino- to be so spontaneous each day, to follow my feelings, to stay with people when I want to stay with people but to be alone and on my own. And that has been a wonderful, wonderful thing. But I still couldn’t shake that wistful feeling when I watched Nicolas and Pierre and Daniel, and I suppose I was also mourning, just a bit, the loss of my own little group.

I don’t know how this will end for me, if I will be very alone or surrounded by people I’ve met on this walk, but either way I think it will be okay. That was the idea for me, coming into this Camino: I wasn’t sure how I wanted to do it, I knew I just wanted to follow my feelings, to live the moments as best as I could, to give myself every opportunity to be happy. And I think, up until this point, I’ve been doing pretty well.