Memorable Moments of 2016

I always get reflective at this time of the year. For years I would journal on the very last day of the calendar year, looking back and reminding myself of all that I’d done (or hadn’t done), what went well in the year, what hadn’t. And then I’d set my sights forward, making lists of goals and resolutions and plans. A new year has always had a touch of magic to it: I still love the idea that I’m starting from a blank slate, that I hold the pen that writes in the story of my next 12 months.

But before we can get to the future, lets look back at the past! I’ve never written a ‘best of’ post, have I? In any case, I’ve been thinking about all that I’ve done this year, and I thought it could be fun to do a round-up here on this blog, going month to month. There were some things that went wrong, maybe some months where it felt like I didn’t do too much, but I’m going to keep this post happy and positive. These are my memorable moments from the year, along with some of my favorite photos. (And, in case you don’t make it to the end of this post: a great big thank you to all of you. I’m still astounded that there is anyone at all who reads this blog, much less people who have been coming back for years now. My blogging slowed down this year, but I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon. If anything, I want to make blogging a more regular part of my routine for 2017, so I hope you’ll stick around).

January


I kicked off the year in Washington DC, a place I visited multiple times in 2016. I have several very good friends who live in or around the city and so I find myself there a lot: for art museums, baseball games, concerts. And I ended the month in Fort Royal, Virginia, where I met up with a friend for a winter weekend of wine tasting. But aside from these trips, the month was cold, and quiet. I made a few trips into Philly to hunt down the city’s best coffee shops, but otherwise I was tucked into my apartment and doing the tough, but gratifying work of writing my memoir.

February


Another cold, winter month and the few photos I took reveal simple activities: I wrote, I hit more coffee shops, I baked bread, I went on a few long walks when the sun came out.

March


More walks! More coffee! Art museums in Philly are pay what you wish on the first Sunday of the month, and at least once I year I get into the city to see my favorite works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This year I waited in a long line to get free tickets into the Barnes Foundation, a museum that holds an extensive collection of post-impressionist and early modern paintings. It’s an outstanding collection, and I can’t think of a better way to spend a winter Sunday than in the gallery of an art museum.

This month also held my first big trip of the year: a four-day camping excursion on Cumberland Island in the state of Georgia. It was an adventure, to be sure: I’d never been camping on my own before, and never for more than one night. I bought myself a new sleeping bag, a little camp stove, and loaded up my car and drove 12 hours down to Georgia. I took a ferry out to the island and crossed my fingers that this camping thing would work out. And it did. The weather was stunning, I explored all over the island, saw wild horses and armadillos and the ruins of old mansions.

April


The weather began to get nicer this month, so I took advantage and was outside as much as possible. I went on a far-too-long walk along the Delaware & Raritan Canal (I think it was about 18 miles? My feet were throbbing at the end and I had a small blister forming on the ball of my foot but it was a good to get back outside), spent a weekend in Frederick, MD with good friends, spent time with my family and kept chipping away at my writing.

May


I usually love the month of May but this year it seemed like it rained constantly. Did the sun come out at all? My pictures show beautiful days only at the end of the month, when I drove out to Cleveland over Memorial Day weekend to visit my sister. When it wasn’t raining I spent as much time as I could at my local park, hiking on the trails and getting ready for my summer adventures.

June


The end of work, baseball games, beach trips, hiking, a bridal shower for a good friend. And at the very end of the month, I set off for my 7-week summer in Europe, which I kicked off in Bath, England. I spent a day wandering through the city, finding my travel legs, and hanging out with Jane Austen.

July


It’s hard to pick the highlights from the month of July: on the 1st of the month I was at Stonehenge, on the 31st of the month I was dragging myself into Oviedo to finish the Camino de San Salvador. In between I had three mostly glorious weeks at La Muse, the writer’s and artist’s retreat in the south of France. If I had to pick a favorite moment from the month it would probably be sitting up at Le Roc with Homer, looking out over the mountains surrounding Labastide.

August

Look how dirty my leg is!!


Lots more walking to do this month! I started things off with 9 days on the Camino del Norte, then spent a week in Scotland, hiking the West Highland Way. Both trips were incredible, but by the end I felt ready to come home and spend the last month of summer with family and friends.

September


I checked an item off my bucket list this month: I officiated the wedding of two good friends! Afterwards I joked that I might make this officiating-weddings-thing a side-gig (anyone need someone to marry them?), but all joking aside, it was an incredible experience. The rest of the month was about transitioning back into work and enjoying the fading days of summer with long hikes and a couple trips to DC.

October


My mom and I took a little trip up to Concord, Massachusetts to see Walden Pond and (most importantly) Orchard House, which is the long-time home of Louisa May Alcott. I wasn’t supposed to take any photos inside but when no one was looking I snapped a photo of the desk where Alcott wrote Little Women. It’s my favorite book of all time, and after the trip I felt re-energized and excited about getting back into my own writing.

November


November had a couple weekend trips: one down to Maryland and Virginia and West Virginia- with a quick hike in Shenandoah National Park and a visit to Harper’s Ferry, and a day trip up to NYC to reunite with a couple friends from my summer at La Muse. There was election day madness and a relaxing trip home for Thanksgiving, and lots of walks and hiking as I took advantage of some mild fall weather.

December


This has been a quiet month. I’ve seen friends, baked lots of cookies, and spent the holidays with my family. Since my summer travels I’ve really struggled to get back into my writing, but I think I’ve set myself up with a good plan for the next few months. I’m ready to get into a new year, and I’m ready to see what I can accomplish in 2017. 2016 was, overall, a fine year, but now it’s time for something even bigger and greater.

Happy New Year, my friends, and I will see you all soon!

The Last, Perfect Camino Day; Day 9 on the Camino del Norte (Miraz to Sobrado dos Monxes, 25km)

Warning: this is a long post. I think this is what happens when I write after the Camino ends, when I’ve had time to think about my days and reflect on all that happened. So maybe grab a cup of coffee or a glass of good Spanish wine and read about my last day on the Camino.

It seems like each time I do a Camino, I have one perfect day. Or, a day that’s just all-around so good and I feel so happy that I don’t want to even think about it too much- I just want to be in the day, in each moment of it, soaking it all up. On the Camino Frances it was the day I walked into Burgos; last year, it was the day on the Primitivo when my friends and I cobbled together some food and ate in the garden of the albergue under a setting sun.

And this year, it was my very last day on the Camino. How beautiful is that? It seemed like good Camino symmetry, that I’d had a rather difficult and isolated time overall, until the very end. And the very end felt magical.

All three of these ‘perfect days’ have something in common: I spent them with people whose company I truly enjoyed, people who I felt connected to. This makes me laugh, because I spend so much time alone on these Camino journeys; walking alone is important to me, facing challenges alone makes me grow, being happy and content with my own company is something I admire about myself.

But in the end, I need people. I think we all do.

My last post left off in the albergue of Miraz, where I’d eaten a hearty pasta dinner cooked by an Italian woman and eaten with a table full of new friends. I woke in the morning knowing I wouldn’t get an early start- the hospitaleros prepared a simple breakfast for us that they began to serve at 7am, so after a couple cups of strong coffee and a large stack of jellied toast, I didn’t set off until well after 7:30.

From my seat at the table in the albergue kitchen, I had watched the light change out the window. At first a dark, almost navy blue that slowly shifted and thinned, turning pale and then pink and orange tinged at the horizon and it was a perfectly clear, pastel colored sky.

I sat watching this sky in the albergue, wanting to be out there, walking, but at the same time content to sip my coffee and crunch into another piece of toast and make groggy conversation with the pilgrim sitting across from me. I almost felt like I was beginning to master something on this Camino (though in reality I’ve probably still got lots of work to do): I was able to just be in the moment, letting go of expectation and control of how I thought things should go or how I wanted them to go. I had learned to let go of worry or stress, and to just sort of take each day for what it was going to give me. I’m still frustrated that I got sick on my Camino, but if there was one take away, it was that everything felt so much easier once I started to feel better. And that I was reminded that feeling and being healthy is maybe the thing I’m most grateful for; if I have my health then I’m able to walk, I’m able to enjoy the food on the table in front of me, I’m able to smile and talk to a stranger. I’m able to be alive in the world.

So for the end of my Camino, I felt so settled into my days, accepting of whatever they would look like: if I would be alone, if I would make a new friend, if I would fly through the walk or if I would feel the burn in my legs. I had no need to make my last day into anything- to frantically fill it with all my favorite things, to make sure I drank Rioja wine or to have a cafe con leche break, to ensure that I would walk alone, to walk to a beautiful sunrise, to arrive at an albergue at any given time. Maybe I’d have these things and maybe I wouldn’t; it was okay.

This is a long way to open a post about my last day, but I’m reflecting on it now because I think my attitude probably contributed to how beautiful this day turned out to be (and it’s a reminder of how I try to keep living, back at home… it’s awfully hard but I’m trying).

When I did finally leave the albergue, full of coffee and bread and the warmth of the hopsitaleros and my new friends, the walk was beautiful. The day was beautiful: it was barely 60 degrees and a strong wind was blowing and the world around me felt a little wild, and free. And by extension, I felt a little wild, and free. I was alone for most of my walk, facing forward but also turning around to catch the sun reaching over the peaks of distance hills. The light was golden and cast long, deep shadows across the reddish dirt and rough stone. I walked, sometimes feeling like I was gliding, being pushed along by the wind.

And as I approached my destination, Sobrado dos Monxes (after a 25km walk), I didn’t feel sad or anxious to try to capture the last steps of this year’s Camino, to savor each one. I just felt… good.

Just before the small town of Sobrado is a small lake, and sitting off to the side along a stone wall was a big group of Spanish teenagers and a few young adults. One of them flagged me down, and began speaking quickly. When I told them I spoke English, another came over to translate. “Do you know where we are?” he asked. They wanted to know where I had come from- they were walking in the opposite direction, not on the Camino exactly, but maybe on a scouting/camping trip. I mentioned the names of towns I’d seen as I walked, and pulled out my guidebook and pointed at a map, to help them orient themselves.

I walked away feeling satisfied that someone had asked me for direction, knowing that I felt sure about where I was, what was behind me, where I was going. I walked a few more steps and saw two pilgrims sitting on a small dock at the water’s edge. They were two English guys who I’d seen a couple times the day before; we chatted for a few minutes- they were killing time because apparently the albergue in Sobrado didn’t open until 4pm. It was almost 1:30 at this point but I didn’t want to linger too long, I wanted to get into the town and find a restaurant where I could get a good meal. One of the guys nodded and said, “Natalie passed by about 15 minutes ago, so she’s just ahead of you.”

I grinned as I walked away, pleased that this pilgrim had linked me together with Natalie, even though I’d only met her yesterday. And I was pleased that she wasn’t far ahead of me. I’d known that just about everyone I’d been in the albergue with the night before was planning to stay in Sobrado- the albergue is in an old monastery and there were over 100 beds available for pilgrims. So I continued walking and I arrived at the monastery to read a sign posted on the door: the albergue had been open until 1:30, and would reopen at 4:00. I checked my phone for the time- it was 1:38. I had just missed a chance to drop off my pack and claim a bed, but in keeping with the theme of the day, I wasn’t bothered by it. I noticed a German man who I’d met briefly the morning before, and for some reason- even though he hadn’t stayed in the Miraz albergue with us and I didn’t even know his name- I considered him part of our group of solo walkers. I grinned and shrugged at our bad luck and said, “Lets go find some lunch.”

We went back to the main square of the town, looked around, and I picked a bar that had a large black board propped against the wall, listing some items from the day’s menu. After using translators on our phones to decipher the food choices, we ordered and took glasses of wine to a table outside. No sooner had we settled in than Natalie, Silvia, Michael and Matthias walked up (they had made it into the albergue before 1:30). They laughed and cheered when they saw us, and we all crowded around the table, then moved inside when the wind started blowing over chairs and knocking over glasses.

My food came out first, and it was then that we realized we had stumbled onto something great. This wasn’t just another Spanish bar with bland lettuce and watery tomatoes, fried slabs of meat, hunks of white bread. I’m sure there are restaurants like this in larger cities on the Camino (I’ve even been to a few good ones), but this was a hidden gem in a small, dusty town. On the outside and on the inside, it looked like any other bar, maybe a touch more modern, a touch more clean. But the food! The guy bringing out our dishes was the chef, and he owned this restaurant. He was young and full of energy and ideas. He could speak some English (which I hadn’t encountered much), and explained that his menu evolved; he aimed to use the freshest, most local ingredients, and so he cooked with whatever was available and in season.

And it was evident in the food that we ordered. My salad wasn’t a normal ‘ensalada mixta’: the lettuce looked like it had been picked sometime in the last hour (and maybe it had; it took awhile for the food to get to us). The tomatoes were the right color of red, there were thin slices of radish and a broiled cheese that I couldn’t identify but the flavors burst on my tongue and I scraped up every last bit. My next dish was mounds of smoked salmon piled on top of an avocado mousse and layered on thick toast and there was so much I could only finish it because it was so good.

I’m not totally sure of what everyone else was eating because I was so absorbed in own meal, all I know is that everyone was raving over the quality of the food. I saw some sort of pulled pork, and long plates of deep green padron peppers. We drank glasses of wine, and then more glasses of wine. When the chef came to ask us if we wanted dessert, we rubbed our stomachs, looked at each other, and asked what he was making.

I ordered his personal recommendation, in English he called it “cream cheese with jelly”, but even he knew that this description didn’t do the dish justice. “Just try it,” he said. “It’s made with ingredients unique to Galicia, and it is the very best.”

And it was. After dessert we ordered coffee, because there’s nothing like a strong shot of espresso to end a really long and really good meal. We thanked the chef countless times and raved over his food and he urged us to come back later that night. (I’m kicking myself for not noting the name of this restaurant; my google searches are bringing up nothing).

Just as we were leaving, I noticed the two English guys I had passed on my way into Sobrado. One of them- the handsome, blond one with long hair pulled back into a knot at the back of his head- was paying at the bar and I decided to walk over and talk to him. I did it without giving it much thought; he had caught my eye and I wanted to say hi. I was feeling good from the weight of the wine and the fullness of my meal, from the soft morning sunlight and the wild wind, from the freedom I’d felt as I walked and the confidence I had at the end of this journey through Spain.

We stood at the bar, talking, then moved outside to where his friend was sitting, then all walked together back to the monastery. We stood in line together and waited to check in, talking about the day’s walk, about where we lived, about our ideas for the future. I was so distracted by the conversation, by the English guy’s light blue eyes and his nice smile that it wasn’t until we were almost at the front of the line that I realized I had left my walking stick behind.

My stick! You guys know how much my walking sticks mean to me on these Caminos, and this year was no exception. I’d found the stick on my second day of the San Salvador and it was different than the sticks I’d carried on my other Caminos but I’d learned how to carry it so that it fit into my hand perfectly, I learned to love it. I couldn’t believe that I had gotten distracted by a guy and left it behind. I was about to turn around and go retrieve it, but then I realized that I didn’t need it anymore. My walking was done, the stick had fulfilled its purpose, I was going to leave it behind that day anyway. (I did go back later to look for the stick, but it was gone. And that, despite knowing I was going to leave it behind anyway, made me a little sad).

I’m amazed that I don’t have a good photo of this year’s walking stick. So here’s another shadow photo.

 

We got our beds and I showered and a French woman I’d never met before asked if I wanted to share the washing machine with her so I didn’t have to hand wash my clothes. While my clothes were washing I walked around, exploring the monastery. I couldn’t quite believe that I was staying here on my last day of Camino walking. It was my kind of place. Old and nearly abandoned, crumbling and decaying, vines growing through empty windowpanes, the flap of pigeon wings echoing around the vacant spaces. In many ways it was sad to see this beautiful, imposing building left to rot, left behind. But it was also quietly beautiful, more beautiful to me than so many of the gilded and ornate churches that dot the path of the Camino.


The rest of the afternoon and evening went by too fast, and I wanted more time. Time to run my errands and wander through the town. Time to write postcards to my friends and family, time to explore more of the monastery, time to talk to my new friends. I was able to do some of this, all of this, but I wanted just a bit more. More, and yet, what I had was enough. A big group of us did go back to the same restaurant where we’d had lunch, we ordered several bottles of wine and plates of tapas and stayed until just before 10:00, and then we had to rush back to the albergue before we got locked out.

At some point in the evening, Natalie asked me if I was sad that my Camino was over, that I couldn’t continue on to Santiago. And you know, I surprised myself a little that my answer was ‘no’. It would have been wonderful to continue on for two or three more days to Santiago, to try to stick with the group I’d found, and with the people I was continuing to meet. But a few days into the San Salvador I’d known that I couldn’t walk all the way to Santiago this year, and despite my recent connections, I was okay to say goodbye that night. The entire day had felt surrounded by a haze of that ol’ Camino magic- and I was happy. Content with the way I’d walked, excited about a new adventure to come, but mostly just focused on the beautiful place I was in at the moment, the beautiful people surrounding me.

Walking back to the albergue under a half moon and the fading light of the sky, my friends before me, I thought to myself, “This is the perfect end to a Camino. I don’t need anything else.”

You Can Always Come Back: Blue Skies and Final Days

Yesterday, I was thinking about how long it had been since I’d seen a cloud in the sky. It feels a bit as though my entire time here has been under a perfect blue sky, and that is nearly true. But then I remember the last thing I posted here, how the weather was chilly, and I remember that yes, there were clouds. There was wind, there was a cool stretch.

It feels so long ago, that first week when I was settling back into life in a small French village in the mountains, remembering how things are done, relearning how to do them, discovering that some things aren’t the same at all. I finally felt settled, another week passed, and now here we are, almost at the end.

  
How is it possible that my time at La Muse is almost over? It makes me feel a little panicked, and I think, “There’s so much I haven’t done.” It makes me feel a little sad, and I think, “When will I come back again? Will I ever come back again?”

I even thought about canceling my Camino, and just staying here. But it’s impossible- the rooms are all booked, which is great news for La Muse and probably the right kind of news for me, too. As much as I want to stay here and never leave, I also want to settle into the next thing… which happens to be Spain and tapas and lots of walking.

I still have four solid days here, and in addition to my regular brainstorming sessions at Le Roc, the long hikes, the chats with the other residents, we also have an “excursion” down to the ruins of a Cathar Castle (we’re tacking on a lunch in a Michelin starred restaurant, too!), and a concert and all-village fĂȘte on Saturday night. Tomorrow Vera leaves, so tonight we’re all meeting on the terrace for a goodbye drink. Last night we had a reading, two nights before we had more goodbye drinks for Kelly. 

  
There’s a really good group of residents here, though I have a feeling I might say that about nearly any group that spends time at La Muse; everyone here is creative, and serious about their creativity. But then you have a great and unpredictable mix of the rest of our personalities: introverts and extroverts, loud and quiet, soft and hard, vibrant and calm. On a few nights I’ve stayed up until the bitter end, talking and singing and laughing with those who remain on the terrace, long past the time when the stars have appeared in the sky. Usually I’m in the “second wave”, not leaving first, not staying until the end. But some nights I slip out as soon as my dinner is finished, the last sips of wine drunk. I sneak cookies upstairs- we’re not supposed to have food in the rooms- and I read a book or write in my journal or work on my story. 

The work I’ve gotten done here has been difficult to measure. The bulk of my book is written, I think, but it is so very rough, and I’m still struggling to decide what, exactly, I’m trying to stay. So there is still an awful lot left to be done, but I’m feeing good about it. I’ve had the space here to really delve into the heart of this story, and to my surprise, I discovered that I might not want to really share too much about certain parts, and that I have a whole lot to say about others. And just like last time, the most important work seems to have happened away from my desk, away from the computer. I take the 10 minute path up to the top of the mountain and sit on my large, flat rock and stare off into the valley- the Pyrenees lining the horizon- and after an hour sometimes I just know in my gut what I need to do, what I need to write.

I went on an epic hike today; I wanted to get one full, long day of walking in, a sort of “Camino” training day (because in less than a week, I’ll be on a Camino! Hard to imagine right now….). Lets just say that maybe it was a bit too much. I headed for Latourette, which is just another village tucked away in these mountains, though it is not close. Last time I was here I’d seen signs for it, trails that led there, but it always seemed impossibly far away. But now that I have hiking experience, Camino experience, it seemed doable. The first half was great- up and down and through these mountains, stumbing on tiny villages that weren’t much more than a few houses and a really old church along with some crumbling stone ruins.

  
I made it to Latourette and sat on a bench and ate some snacks and rested my feet. Then I continued on, following a path that I assumed would sort of take me in a big circle and back to Labastide, but the further I walked, the more I realized that it might not have been so smart to follow an unknown trail. I wasn’t entirely sure where I was going, and even though I was always on a marked trail, I had a bad feeling that it was taking me away from where I wanted to go.

  
I kept walking though, hoping that the trees would open up and I could take a look at the landscape and get my bearings. The sun was hot, the air was humid, it was getting later, I was feeling more and more unsettled. Finally I turned around, walked back to Latourette, and followed a road that I knew would lead me to a village that was not far from Labastide.

I stumbled back into the village, my legs feeling like jelly, just as dark clouds gathered in the sky and a little rain began to spit down. It’s still overcast now, the first not-blue sky I’ve seen in what feels like weeks and weeks. The kind of sky that makes it easier to sit inside and get some writing done.

Already I can feel myself begin to move away from this experience, my thoughts starting to turn towards Spain, and the Camino. But I’m still here for a few more days and I want to really sink into these last moments: write what I can, wander through the village, sit up at Le Roc, hang out with Homer the dog. And I tell myself the same thing that I did three years ago, as I was preparing to leave: you can always come back.

  
  

  

Into the Wild: Fear and the Unknown

Camping at dusk, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

I got a tent for Christmas. It’s a small and simple thing, maybe the smallest and simplest kind of tent out there: long and narrow and fits a single person, white nylon and a sea-foam green colored rainfly. I had … 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

In the footsteps of Monet and Hemingway; Day Two in Paris, and the end of my Camino

Japanese water garden, Giverny, France

I’ve been trying to write a post about the last day in Paris and the end of my trip, and I’m reminded of why I loved writing in the moment so much: writing about something that happened several weeks ago … Continue reading