My Travel Plans for 2017

2017 is already shaping up to be a good year, and it’s only just begun. Somehow, incredibly, I’ve already got my summer plans figured out.

This is unprecedented.

Last year, in particular, I had such a hard time figuring out what I wanted to do, and I became frustrated by my indecision. I have this somewhat unique opportunity to spend two months of my year doing whatever I like, and I was letting myself become stressed over the decision. I felt ridiculous. And yet, I went back and forth a dozen times, wanting to do it all: wanting to return to my favorite places and experiences, and wanting to try something brand new. I wondered if I should travel to some place other than Europe, I wondered if I should stick closer to home.

You already know what I decided (England, France, Spain, Scotland), and it ended up being the perfect balance of all the things I was craving out of my summertime adventure.

This time around? A few weeks ago I decided to see what flight prices to Paris might be like for June/July. And what I discovered nearly took my breath away: the cheapest prices I’ve ever seen on round-trip, direct flights from Philly to Paris in the summertime. (Well, that’s not entirely true, I got an even cheaper flight back in 2003 but that was a long time ago).

So I did something a bit out of character- I ran into my bedroom, grabbed my wallet from my purse, and before I knew it I had purchased the flight.

Then, I shot off an email to the owners of La Muse (the writer’s and artist’s retreat I visited last summer), and asked about availability. There’s been talk of a few of us from last year reuniting again in July, plus there was an attractive holiday discount being dangled around. The next day I got an email back- “We’d love to have you return!!” and before I knew it, I had myself booked in a room for three weeks.

And then, after a week of browsing through Airbnb apartments in Paris (which was way more fun than I ever expected!), I found a tiny little space on the 7th floor of an old building in St Germain, that has a balcony with views to the Eiffel Tower.

This year, there was very little of the indecision that I’ve had in the past. There are still so many things I want to do and so many places I want to travel to, but for whatever reason, this year’s choice felt easy. I’m going back to France, and I’m going to spend the entire summer there.

I love France, you already know that. Each of my trips to Europe these past four summers have included some time in France (and a mandatory jaunt through Paris, even if only for a day, like this past year). I can speak French- not well, but I improve the more I have the chance to speak. I studied abroad in Toulouse back in 2000-2001, and at the end of that year I said to myself: “This could be a problem. Whenever I have the opportunity to travel, I have a feeling that instead of going to new places, I’m always going to want to come back to France.”

And it could almost drive me mad, the thought that I was existing in the world and Paris was existing too but that I was not there.

Some people, when they travel, will always want to go somewhere new, and I can understand that. “Why return to the same place when you’ve already been there? There are so many places in the world to explore!” they say. I think I will continue to travel to new places throughout my life, but I’m finally coming to terms with the fact that I’m a creature of habit. When I find something I love, I don’t often get tired of it. I can go back- again and again- to the same things and places and learn to love them more fully. And I experience so much happiness when I return to a place that I love.

And so, I’m going back to France.

The trip is going to have three parts- La Muse and Paris, but what would a summer trip be without some walking? You knew this was coming. But instead of squeezing in a trip to Spain, I’m going to stay settled in France, and try a couple weeks on one of the Camino trails through this country. My plan, for now, is to walk the Le Puy route, which cuts a sloping line, east to west, sort of through the southern half of France. I’ll begin at the start- in Le Puy-en-Velay- and walk as far as I can in two weeks. I’ve heard that this is the most beautiful and popular Camino route in France, and that some parts may be challenging but I suspect that it’s nothing I can’t handle.

A walk in France isn’t a walk in Spain; there will be some big differences. France is more expensive, I’ll need to make reservations each night, there won’t be nearly as many people on the trails (though I sure had a large dose of isolation on the San Salvador!), and most of the people walking will be French.

The walking will kick off my trip, then I’ll take a train to La Muse and continue work on my writing and my memoir. The summer journey ends with a week in Paris, and this feels just right. It’s my favorite city in the world, and I certainly have more exploring that I need to do there. But settling into an apartment in the heart of a city that I’m already familiar with gives me the chance to just… be. To drink coffee on the little balcony and stare at the magical views. To make my way to a different café every day and scribble away in a notebook. To keep writing in a city where so many greats have gone to write. To wander, to roam.

It’s going to be a very French summer, and I have to tell you, I’m so excited for it. 2017 already feels like it’s going to be a big, incredible year, and having this trip half-planned sure helps. So as they say in France: Bonne Année! Let’s all make it a good one.

The End of a Long Walk; Day Five on the West Highland Way, Kinlochleven to Glen Nevis, 24km

August 17th was my last day of walking on the West Highland Way, which was exactly 4 months ago. 4 months! This is absolutely the most delayed post I’ve ever written.

I was just looking through my photos from those last days in Scotland, and in some ways I feel like I was just there, but in other ways… it feels like those memories are from another life. This tends to happen, especially in these cold, winter months (I’m currently sitting on my couch under a heavy comforter listening to the ping of freezing rain against my window). In the Scotland photos I’m tan, my hair is lighter, the world is green and the sun is shining brightly. Everything is warm and light and free and fun- very much the opposite of the time of life I’m in now.

There are moments of fun in these months- indeed- so maybe it’s just this transition to winter that always gets me a bit down. These are short, dark days- we are in the very shortest days of the year right now, and I can feel it. The cold has blown in too, and I can feel myself resisting all of this. I still want to be outside in a t-shirt, hiking loops on the trails in my park, driving with my windows down, making smoothies and planning camping trips.

I’ve resisted settling into these dark, cold winter days, because this time of the year, for me, is synonymous with work and discipline and routine. The end of my summer travels was so much fun, and I found that for months afterwards I wanted to hold onto that feeling. I still want to hold on to that feeling, but just as equally, I want to begin again with my writing.

So here’s what happening, over here: I’m missing summertime. I’m dreaming of travel plans for 2017. But more than either of those, I’m finally beginning to accept that winter is here. And that it’s time to write- to really write again.

And what better place to begin than at the end? My last day on the West Highland Way was, by all accounts, the ‘easy’ one. It was the shortest distance of the trip, clocking in at only 24 kilometers (which, following days of 30, 32, 31, 35km, felt like a breeze).

But maybe I was a bit too confident heading into the day: I felt so relaxed that I didn’t prepare as I normally would, by meticulously examining my guidebook and planning stops and lunch breaks. So, an hour into my walk, when I stopped for a moment and paged through the guidebook to see where I was, I realized that I wouldn’t be passing through any villages, the path wouldn’t take me by an Inn, there would be absolutely no places to buy food.

Whoops. I’d eaten another hearty breakfast that morning- a huge bowl of porridge, two slices of toast, a container of yogurt and a lot of coffee- so I didn’t need to worry about my food situation right away. I was totally stocked up on water and I had some leftover snacks tucked away in my pack so I just kept walking, because, well, it was the only thing I could do.

It was another stunning day: bright sunlight and a clear blue sky. The walk started with a steady climb out of Kinlochleven, but soon the path leveled out and the walking was mostly even, with only short ascents and descents for the rest of the way.


I walked steadily for hours, stopping a few times for short breaks, or to examine old stone ruins, or to take off my socks and air out my feet. After about 20km (and a mere 4km from the end of the day), I was too hungry to continue so I hopped up on a large rock and dug through my bag, searching for any bit of food that I could find. I had one apple, three Oreo cookies, a small and rather stale packaged croissant, and half a bag of dried cherries that I’d bought in Santiago. I ate it all, and then continued walking.


Even though the walking that day wasn’t too difficult, I felt ready to be done. I walked swiftly through the last kilometers, ready to find my hostel, ready to take a shower, ready to sit down for a large meal. 100 miles (many of them difficult) in 5 days wasn’t easy. I don’t wish that I’d done it any other way: I loved the challenge, I loved those really long days of walking, I loved how strong I felt.

But I was also tired. And I was at the very end of my trip- not just the Scotland part, but the whole thing: Bath, London, Paris, Labastide, Madrid, Leon, the San Salvador, the Norte, Santiago, Glasgow, the West Highland Way. It was almost time to go home, and I was ready for the comforts of my apartment, the ease of daily life, the familiar faces of my family and friends.

My hostel wasn’t technically at the very end of the West Highland Way- it was in Glen Nevis, a small hamlet in open countryside, about a 45-minute walk from Fort William. The official end of the West Highland Way used to be in Glen Nevis- just off the side of the road by a round-about (and there is still a sign to mark this), but in recent years the “end” was moved into Fort William, so walkers would have to pass directly through the bustling commerce and tourist shops of the main street in town.

In any case, when I arrived at my hostel, I felt as though I had arrived at the end. The next day I would walk into Fort William but for now I was happy to find my bunk, wash my clothes, and eat a good meal. I was happy that I’d decided to stay in the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel- it sits directly across from the entrance to the path that leads up Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain. The hostel building was old and quirky but the rooms were clean, the bunks seemed new, and I found a private bathroom down one of the hallways that had a lock on the door and a pristine shower.

This was the first time that I had to share sleeping quarters with other people on the West Highland Way, but I found the people staying in the hostel to be an interesting mix. After eating dinner at restaurant down the road, I came back to the hostel and settled into the lounge area, to try to do some writing. I only got a few sentences in when Tony, a wiry Londoner in his 50’s, began talking to me. He was in Glen Nevis with a few of his buddies- his friends were taking on the challenge of climbing three mountains in 24-hours and Tony explained that they were currently climbing to the top of Ben Nevis. “I’m their driver,” he explained. “See this radio here? They’ll signal me when they get to the top, and then I’ve got to be ready with the car as soon as they descend. Then we drive off to the next one.”

While he waited, he made me a cup of tea, saying that I had to have it prepared in the proper, British way (with cream and lots of sugar). Sitting with us in the lounge was a Norwegian man who was trying to convince me to climb Ben Nevis the next day (a lot of people staying at the hostel were there to climb the mountain), and an American woman who was tired of driving on the “crazy Scottish roads”.

This felt like the most I’d spoken to anyone in days, and it was nice to be surrounded by friendly people. But, strangely, I was the only one there who had walked the West Highland Way. This cinched it- most people on the West Highland Way were campers. If I were to do it again (and be guaranteed to have stunning weather), I would love to try camping. But as it is, having a roof over my head and a mattress to sleep on is still a very nice luxury at the end of the day.

My original plan had been to walk the West Highland Way in six days. I’d needed to change that because of availability of places to stay along the way, so I cut the walk down to 5 days. This left me an extra day in Glen Nevis/Fort William, and before beginning the walk I thought that I might like to climb Ben Nevis. But sitting in my hostel that night, sipping my sweet tea and listening to tales from the other travelers, I knew that I was done. My body was tired. I could summit that mountain another time- and besides, I hadn’t come to Scotland to climb a mountain. I’d come to walk the West Highland Way, and I’d done a good job of it.

Tony’s radio buzzed and he leaped into action. Before running out the door he raced over and gave me a big hug. The Norwegian man asked if he could have my walking stick. An American girl from Arizona asked what the West Highland Way had been like. I smiled at her. “It was an adventure,” I said.

Wild and Remote; Day 4 on the West Highland Way, Bridge of Orchy to Kinlochleven, 35km

My fourth day on the West Highland Way had me walking out of the tiny hamlet of Bridge of Orchy with nearly all my clothing hanging in rather wet clumps from the back of my pack. Two pairs of underwear, a sports bra, two pairs of socks, two tshirts, and a towel. In fact, I’m sure I hadn’t managed to strap all of this to the outside of my pack so some of it was rolled up into a plastic bag inside my pack, something I’ve never had to do before.

I was wearing dirty hiking shorts but this was fine, because my shorts were often dirty. But both of my hiking shirts were wet so I had to wear the only other shirt I had- a black tank top that I’d been using to sleep in.

I knew I was going to run into this trouble two days before, when I’d walked all day and didn’t feel like washing my clothes at 8:30pm. And the day before, despite getting to my train station hostel around 5, I still didn’t have enough time to sufficiently dry my clothing. The evening was cool, my room at the station was chilly, and my clothing was still almost dripping wet in the morning when I set off.

This has not been an uncommon experience for me on these long walks, but usually I only need to pin a pair of socks from the back of my pack, maybe a pair of underwear. At first I felt strange doing it, but I quickly got used to it. After a few hours of walking in the sunshine, the clothes dry nicely.

And this fourth day was no exception- after a few hours of hiking the sun was brightly shining and my clothes were drying and I was feeling good.

I was feeling really good. It was another beautiful day on the West Highland Way- a long, challenging day, where I would walk over 20 miles, some of them very difficult miles (the miles at the end, of course). At first I was daunted by the elevation profiles in my guidebook, but after an initial sharp ascent and descent out of Bridge of Orchy, the next 8 miles were a very gradual ascent. It was the kind of climbing that I barely noticed, and by this point in the summer, my legs were strong.

I may not have noticed the climbing, but I did notice what was surrounding me. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the landscape, and every five minutes I realized that I was turning in a full circle, and sometimes even walking backwards for a few steps because the landscape- every bit of it- was stunning.

I’m going to post a bunch of photos but it was really difficult for my camera to capture what I was seeing with my eyes. I couldn’t capture it, and maybe that’s a good thing, because my memory of that morning’s walk is one of my favorites from the entire summer.

I was walking through open moorland, in the wildest and most remote section of the West Highland Way. Every once in awhile I would pass another hiker or two, but mostly I was totally alone. These miles are desolate and isolated- there are no roads, no buildings, no shelter, no way out. If the weather is bad this could be a very difficult section of the walk, but since I had clear skies and sunshine, the walk was just… incredible. Land and sky, land and sky, stretching out as far as I could see.



From what I can remember, there are no fun stories from this day, no unique interactions, no good anecdotes. Just beautiful walking. I stopped for lunch at a climber’s bar in the back of an Inn- the only place to stop for miles and miles- and then I kept walking.


I have found my future home.

 

The last part of the day’s hike included the dreaded Devil’s Staircase. My guidebook promised that it wasn’t as bad as the name would suggest, and locals I’d encountered in the past few days said the same thing.

And certainly, from where I stood at the bottom, the “staircase” (or long and winding path) didn’t look impossible. But then I started climbing. And my legs burned. And I was tired. I had been walking great distances day after day and a difficult climb to cap off what would be 35 kilometers was simply not appreciated. But I remembered what the woman in the bar the night before had told me- “It’s only walking”, and so I just put one foot in front of the other and kept going.

Looking back on the Devil’s Staircase (it was harder than it looks!)

 

At the top was a large pile of rocks and lots of day-hikers posing for photos and selfies. I paused for a moment but after spending the entire day pretty  much alone, this little summit felt crowded.

So I kept walking, and walking, and walking. I thought Kinlochleven would never arrive, the descent was longer and harder than I thought and I got a bit confused when I finally arrived in town and was unable to find my campsite. But eventually I did find it after asking for directions, and I was once again directed to a cabin which I had all to myself. And it was beautiful- a line of small wooden cabins and a lawn filled with tents, all set against a backdrop of rugged green mountains.

Can you spot my walking stick in this photo?

 

Dinner was in the pub next to the Inn, and I feasted on a large bowl of cullen skink (which is basically a delicious Scottish fish chowder), a hunk of bread, and a big glass of red wine. Hearty and warm and satisfying.

My cabin had a toasty little heater and a door that wouldn’t stay latched, and it banged open and shut throughout the night but I barely noticed. I slept soundly and comfortably. Day 4 was in the books, and now only one more day of walking remained.

“You’re looking awfully casual for a walk like this” (it’s only walking); Day 3 on the West Highland Way, Inverarnan to Bridge of Orchy, 31km

There is pumpkin bread in the oven, outside it’s pouring rain. Red, wet leaves are everywhere now, they’re blanketing the ground and coating my kitchen window. It’s autumn, maybe the most autumn-est day of the entire season so far. Horror movies run in marathons on TV, tomorrow night is Game 3 of the World Series. The end of October is a great time of year.

And speaking of time, I think it’s about time that I wrote more about Scotland. I can’t believe I’m still writing about this trek- or, more precisely, that it is taking me so long to write about these days. I’m not sure why, but it seems as though the further we move away from the summer, the more difficult it is to remember my long days of walking on the West Highland Way.

I’ve been afraid that I would just stop writing about it altogether, and never finish telling you about my adventure, but that doesn’t feel right. So I’m back at it, and maybe if I’m lucky I can finish telling you about Scotland before we ring in a new year.

We’re on Day 3. And it was a magnificent day. 31 kilometers and I think the walking wasn’t too difficult (See? I can’t remember! Was I tired? Exhausted from the days before? Did the small hills feel like mountains? Or was I gliding along?). All I really remember is that this is the day when I finally felt like I was in the Highlands, or at least the Highlands of my imagination. I’d finally moved away from that lake of epic proportions and was now among rolling hills and green earth. There were cows and sheep, a sky that looked like a painting, crumbling stone walls and an old cemetery.



Aside from the stunning scenery, the highlight of this day might have been my lunch stop. I walked off the trail and went just a bit out of my way to find a little family-run coffee shop that was housed in an old church. One end of the room had a small gift shop full of handmade crafts and the other side had wooden dining tables with tiny vases of fresh flowers. I sat at a corner table and ordered a cafe mocha, a grilled cheese sandwich and a small salad. The service was slow but I didn’t mind; I had nowhere to be and all day to walk and this little café/church was the perfect place for a good, long break.

When I finished I went up to the cash register to pay, and noticed a counter filled with trays of pastries. A hand-written sign said that the pastries were all fresh and homemade, so I picked out a thick slice of lemon drizzle cake, that I asked to have wrapped up.

“That’ll be the perfect snack when you need to get out of your car and stretch your legs,” the woman behind the counter said, handing me my cake.

“Oh I’m not driving,” I replied. “I’m walking the West Highland Way.”

The woman gave me a long look and tilted her head to the side. “Really? You’re looking awfully casual to be on that walk.”

I looked down at myself. What could she have meant? I was wearing my hiking shoes and long green hiking pants and a long-sleeved black t-shirt. I was dressed like a hiker, at least I thought I was. Maybe West Highland Way hikers didn’t often find their way to this café? Maybe when they did, they looked different?

The woman chatted with me for a few minutes and then I was on my way again, back out into the sunshine and the warm air, up into the hills and past fields of cows. I was energized by my espresso drink, full from my meal, satisfied to have all day to walk in a beautiful place.

I rolled into Bridge of Orchy, my destination, sometime in the late afternoon. Bridge of Orchy is described in my guidebook as a tranquil hamlet nestled in the foothills of two mountains. The village is nothing more than a train station, a hotel, a few houses and I walked all the way through and was headed straight out of town when I realized that I must have passed my lodgings for the night.

I’d reserved a bed in a bunkhouse at the train station. I knew I’d be sleeping at the train station, and yet, when I crossed under the tracks, I walked right by because I couldn’t figure out where, exactly, the hostel was located. But I made my way back, walking up onto the platform and peering through the windows of the long, narrow building that sat between the tracks. I tried a few doorknobs; they were locked. Then I saw an opened door and went inside, to find a crowded and messy room. There were old couches and newspapers and books scattered about, shelves of packaged food and a basket to collect money.

I called out ‘hello’, thinking someone might be in the back room, but the place was deserted. I went back outside, circled the building once more, and then- because I had already walked through the village and hadn’t seen a soul- I sat down on a bench to wait.

As I sat on the bench at the empty train station, eating my lemon drizzle cake, I had the thought that I was waiting for a train that would never come. But after only 5 minutes I heard voices, and then I had one of the stranger encounters of my trip.

Three old men walked up, they each had a bag dangling from a hand- one had a small canvas bag but the other two had large and tattered plastic bags. There were all wearing t-shirts, old jeans, beat up sneakers.

I looked up at them eagerly as they walked by. “Excuse me,” I said. “Do you know how to check in here?”

They slowly turned to me as if they hadn’t realized I’d been there all along. One of the men spoke. “We’re walkers,” he said.

“Yeah, me too.”

The men all stared at me for a moment, and then they kept walking down the platform. One of them called back, “But we’re walking the West Highland Way.”

Huh. I couldn’t understand what was going on, but maybe it was best not to. A few minutes later another old man walked up, but this one had a set of keys in his fist and came right up to me and asked if my name was Nadine.

“Strange day,” he said to me as he led me into a room with two sets of (three-tiered!!) bunk beds. “Last night we were packed, but tonight there’s hardly anyone. You’ll be the only one in this room.” The three old men were staying in a room further down the platform (and to be honest I was a little relieved), so I found myself, yet again, with a room of my own.

I ate dinner in the bar of the Inn down the road; it was a beautiful white building and my table had a big leather chair that I sank into and the room was warm and cozy. I ordered a hamburger and fries and a couple glasses of wine (and paid three times as much as I would have in Spain but who’s counting?), and while I was eating a man from California came over to talk. When he found out I was hiking he fired dozens of questions at me, not seeming to understand that I wake up in the morning and just start walking. “You don’t have a bike?” he asked. “You don’t take a train?”

He invited me to join him and his friend for some whiskey but the sun had set, the sky was a dark shade of blue and I had a 10-minute walk back up to an empty room in a deserted train station. I politely declined his offer and he walked away, and then a local woman at a table across the room began talking to me. Under the table and at her feet was a big white dog, and she told me that she overheard some of my conversation and wanted to know how my trek was going. She asked how many days it would take me and when I told her 5, her eyebrows shot up in surprise.

But she quickly recovered. “I walked it with my girlfriends,” she said, “And it took us 7 days. But 5 days is fine, my husband did that.”

I told her that I was worried about tomorrow’s walk- it would be another long day and there were two difficult stretches but her reply was instant. “Don’t worry, you can do it. They call it the ‘Devil’s Staircase’ but it’s really not that bad. And just think, all you’re really doing is walking, right? It’s only walking.”

Yes, it’s only walking. Sometimes it’s uphill, sometimes it goes on for hours and hours and hours, sometimes it’s muddy or rocky or smooth or rough, but at the end of the day, it’s only walking.

So I walked myself back up to the train station under the light of a near-full moon, opened the door to my private room and crawled under the covers of my bottom bunk.

It’s only walking, and I love it.

There’s always a mountain at the end; Day 1 on the West Highland Way, Milngavie to Balmaha 30km (19 miles)

I think I knew within a few minutes of setting off on the West Highland Way that I’d made the right decision. When I’d been trying to figure out my summer plans, I had wanted to do it all: another writer’s retreat in France, another return to the Camino and to Spain, AND I wanted to do something new. A trek in a different place. But in the middle of my travels, and especially when I got sick, I wondered why I had decided to tack on a trip to Scotland. It felt like a bit too much.

That changed the instant I got off the train in Milngavie and made my way to the start of the West Highland Way. My shoes were laced tight, my pack was loaded up, my hand felt a little empty without a walking stick but otherwise I felt ready to walk. And I was so excited to be walking in a new place.

The beginning of the WHW is about 10 miles past the center of Glasgow, in the suburban village of Milngavie (there were a lot of town names I had trouble pronouncing, but this is perhaps the most perplexing: “mullguy”. Sounds nothing like it looks). It’s possible to start walking in Glasgow, and my guidebook had a good map detailing the way; maybe if I ever walk the trail again I’ll do this, but because I was short on time I did what most people do, and took the 30-minute train ride to the official starting point.

It was past 8:30am but only a few people were milling about the main street of the village. Some shops were just opening and I looked around curiously. The skies were gray, there were dark patches on the pavement from the recent rain. I approached the obelisk that marks the beginning of the trail, and noticed a girl in hiking gear lingering nearby as well. We smiled shyly at each other, then offered to take each others’ photos. We continued to chat for a moment or two, then I waved to her as she set off down the trail.

I wanted to put a little distance between us, so I waited around at the start of the trail for awhile, reading the informational posts, retying my shoes. August is the busiest time for the West Highland Way, but I still wasn’t sure what that meant. Would the trail be crowded? Did I have to worry about not being able to feel like I was walking on my own? I already had my beds reserved for each night of the walk, but would the places where I was staying feel cramped, overrun?

I’d stalled long enough, and finally, I started walking. I walked 19 miles that first day- about 30km- and by the end of the day, I felt really, really happy. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I felt such happiness, but I’ll try to explain it as best as I can. Aside from a few bursts of sunlight, the day was overcast and windy and cool. Ideal walking conditions for many, but I always prefer blue sky and at least some sun. I had brief, friendly interactions with about a dozen people, but no real conversations or connections. There was a large hill/small mountain (still don’t really know the difference) to climb at the very end of the day and it wore me out. By the time I got to where I was staying- a private room at the Oak Tree Inn- I was shivering and wanted nothing more than to wrap myself up in bed and watch the Olympics (which, for awhile, I did).

All of this, and I felt nothing but happy. Happy, and excited for the next four days. I think it might go back to that very initial feeling of wonder and awe that I had at the beginning of my trip, when I was settled in my bunk in Bath, England. Just 24-hours before I had been in my apartment, and suddenly I had gotten myself to a very different place. Just like that; it’s easy, and yet, it also requires something of us.

I’d made it through my first day on the West Highland Way, and I guess it gave me the feeling that I could walk anywhere that I want in this world. Scotland is definitely a much easier country to navigate than many others, but the thing is, I think I’d forgotten what it was like to be somewhere completely new. Scotland reminded me of all the exploring I still want to do, and it made me feel like it was all still possible. If I want to walk around the world, I probably can. I just have to decide to do it. If I needed more proof of how much I love this thing- walking alone for great distances- then I got it on the West Highland Way. All I really need is my pack and a good pair of shoes and a walking stick. To be feeling healthy. Some good coffee in the morning, a warm meal at night. It’s a pretty simple recipe for happiness.

The scenery for most of the first day was okay; technically, the beginning of the walk was considered to still be in the suburbs of a large city (though the path was tucked away in parks and woodland), but very quickly it moves into the countryside. For the first half of the day I was crisscrossing with a large family who were out for a day hike- kids and parents and grandparents- and at some point the girl from the obelisk in Milngavie had joined up with them. After a few miles I walked under a drizzle, soon the drizzle turned into a steady rain. I pulled on my rain jacket and when I passed one of the members of the large family, the grandfather, maybe, he turned towards me and opened his arms out wide. Then he turned his face up to the sky, raindrops splashing on his cheeks. “It’s wonderful to be alive, isn’t it?”

The rain only lasted for about 10 minutes, and that was the only rain I walked under on the 5-day hike. Supposedly the weather in the Highlands is fickle and unpredictable; locals told me that it could be pouring rain in one area, while 5 minutes down the road it might be dry. On Day 3 of the walk I was ordering a sandwich at a cafe and the woman behind the counter shook her head in sympathy when I told her I was hiking. “I’m sorry about the weather,” she said. I only looked at her in surprise. “But the weather’s been great!” I replied. “No rain at all!”

The trail wasn’t too crowded on the first day, but that was probably the most crowded I saw it for my entire walk. There seemed to be a lot of people out for a day-hike, but there were several small groups of thru-hikers as well, loaded down with large packs and muddy boots. I said hello to everyone I passed, but it seemed as though other hikers were taken aback by my friendliness. Not all of them, but enough of them. That seemed to be the trend during my hike- I’d try to make eye contact and smile and a good number of people didn’t even really look in my direction, and if they did, they smiled lightly and just kept walking. Many hikers were in pairs or groups, and a lot were camping. It felt like everyone was doing their own thing, which is a very different experience from the Camino. Different, but it wasn’t bad. It almost felt easier to walk my own walk and stay alone and independent when I knew that the chance at community wouldn’t be as easy to find.

But while the other thru-hikers seemed to be in their own worlds, the locals were beyond friendly. I suppose that’s the case in some parts of Spain too, as I walked the Camino, but the difference there is that I couldn’t speak Spanish and communicate with them. But in Scotland? On some parts of the walk, it seemed as though I was getting stopped every 30 minutes or so, by someone who wanted to say hi. That was it! They just wanted to know how things were going- no one exclaimed over my being alone, no one warned me about the hard days ahead. They asked where I was headed to that day, and where I was from- often there was a quick comment about Trump and the upcoming election when they heard that I was American- but mostly it seemed that the locals just wanted to share their love of the Highlands. And I think they wanted to make sure that I was enjoying it too. They seemed pleased when my face would light up, when I talked about how great the weather was, how beautiful the scenery, how much I was enjoying myself.

About 10 miles into the walk I met a man coming in the opposite direction; he was from somewhere in northern Scotland and had walked the West Highland Way dozens of times. We talked for at least 20 minutes, as he told me about the best times of the year to walk, his favorite sections of the trail. He asked about the towns I was staying in, and told me that doing the walk in 5 days would be fine. “Let me see your pack,” he said. When he saw that it wasn’t too big, he nodded. “5 days won’t be too hard, don’t worry.”

The highlight of the day might have been coming across my first “Honesty Box”. There were several of these set up along the West Highland Way: tables full of bottled water, baskets filled with candy bars, and in this first instance, a large cooler filled with ice cream and popsicles. A sign showed the price of each item and there was always a lock-box to drop some coins into. But ice cream in the middle of a vast and empty countryside! (Well, there was a tiny village with a few buildings, but I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere). What a special treat.

20-miles was a big first day, and I had equally- and longer- days ahead. Most of the walk had been fairly flat and not difficult, but the day ended with a winding trail up the side of a small mountain called Conic Hill. The trail was steep, and my legs hurt. Up and up and up, and as I climbed the wind grew stronger, the air cooler. When I walked I worked up a sweat, but as soon as I stopped for a break I began to shiver. Dark clouds swirled around the sky and as I approached the top of the climb I squinted out towards the horizon. I was at the southern edge of Loch Lomond, the largest area of fresh water in Britain. From where I was standing, I was at the start of a 23-mile path that would wind its way along the edge of the lake; but that would be tomorrow’s walk.


For now, I just had to follow the steep descent down the hill and into the town of Balmaha, my destination for the night.

I felt like I stumbled into town with aching feet, heavy legs, my hair in tangles. But I was looking forward to my bed for the night; because I booked rather late, the cheaper beds in the bunkhouse were all taken, so I had to reserve a room at the Inn. It was an expensive night- the most expensive of the summer- but I welcomed the luxury with open arms.

I checked into my tiny room with the cleanest, shiniest bathroom I’d ever seen, and the first thing I noticed was a tray filled with mugs and tea bags and several packet of shortbread cookies. So I took a shower and then heated some water and crawled under the heavy comforter to eat some cookies, drink some tea, and watch some of the semi-final men’s Olympic tennis match. I didn’t want to move from the bed, and I only left for a quick trip over to the Inn’s restaurant for dinner (fish and chips and a tall pint of beer), and then I returned to bed for more tea, more cookies, more Olympics.

A good first day on the West Highland Way. I knew that the days ahead would be more difficult, but finally, my excitement outweighed my nervousness. I couldn’t wait to see what would be next.

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.”

An Adventure All My Own; Day 7 on the Camino del Norte, Gontan to Baamonde, 40km

I’ve been having some slight technical difficulties over here; my trusty keyboard that a good friend gifted me before my first Camino has been malfunctioning. Sometimes it seems as though certain keys don’t work at all; just now I had to wait for awhile and fiddle with it and tap and tap on each key until everything started working. There’s a lag in my typing, the ‘m’ key never seems to register and I always have to go back through and add the ‘m’s’ back in. But right now it looks like things are in (somewhat) working order so I can finally get around to writing another post.

I’m days behind. In fact, in “real time”, I arrived in Santiago today! (by bus, I just didn’t quite have enough time to make it all the way by foot). And tomorrow morning I’m off to Scotland, and it seems surreal. This was a fast, fast Camino- just 15 days of walking which is half of my usual time out here. And the first five days were a totally separate Camino from the Norte, and awfully isolated, and then I was sick for nearly a week, and it wasn’t until 5 or 6 days ago that I finally felt like I was “in” a Camino.

It’s been disjointed, but as I’m sitting here in a bar I know and love, drinking a glass of vino tinto, listening to the happy sounds of pilgrims on the street, I feel great. The end of my Camino was amazing and unexpected, in only the way that a Camino can be. 

I’m going to eventually write about it all and who knows, maybe I can keep churning out posts, but some of these recaps will probably be delayed. I have no idea what my trek through Scotland will be like- if I’ll have extra time, if I’ll have time to myself, if I’ll be able to write- and it might remove me too much from what I’m experiencing to be writing about Spain while I’m off in a different place. 

A tiny plate of tapas was just delivered to my table- a wedge of tortilla and two croquettas. I’m going to miss Spain. Just as I was getting my footing back, finding my joy again, remembering all the things I love about doing a Camino in this country… it’s time to leave. The overwhelming feeling of the past few days has been that I want just a bit more time here.

But the last three days were so great, each in a very different way. So lets go back to where I left off, back to Day 7, the day after I felt like I was flying through the mountains.

I was planning on a 40km day. I’d already done one a few days before (and really, the day through Ribadeo registered at around 4o as well, with the extra city walking), so I wasn’t too concerned about taking on too much. But as I well know from past Caminos, no good feeling lasts forever. I’d had such a strong, strong walk the day before, but now my body was asking for a little rest, or at least an easier day. And I said, “Sorry… I have big plans.”

I think I knew pretty early on in the day that my feet were tired and that my legs weren’t moving quite as quickly. I wasn’t in a hurry- my destination was Baamonde, the site of one of the largest albergues on the Norte (I think about 96 beds?)- so I knew that even if I arrived in the evening, I would have a place to sleep. So when I realized that I was tired, I took my time. 

And sometimes, even with fatigue, days like this are fun. I kept thinking of it like one big adventure- planning a long, epic day of walking, pouring over my guidebook to plan my breaks, thinking about what food I would buy when I passed a grocery store, wondering how I would feel when I reached 20km, when I reached 30km. 

I barely saw other pilgrims on the walk either, and this added to the ‘adventure’. Just me and the road- lots and lots of road.

I crossed into Galicia two days before, but on this day I really felt like I was in it. If I had the time or the memory to give some background on this region of Spain I would do it now, but I have neither. What I do know is that there are strong Celtic influences in this region, and that some parts of the area have a very mystical feel. I can’t think of a better word than mystical, though I’m not sure that’s quite right. In any case, whenever the trail passes through the woods, it’s a different kind of wood- the trees are large and knarled and twisted in a way that I don’t see at other points on the Camino. Everything seems to be covered with a thick layer of moss- the heavy tree trunks, the crumbling stone walls. If I conjure up an image of Galicia in my mind, it is always darker here, more confined, quiet, almost a little spooky. 

There was a heavy wind while I walked, it whipped through the tree branches and blew dust up over my legs. When I entered into a dark tunnel of heavy trees, I saw the first pilgrim in many kilometers. He was standing in the middle of the path and he seemed to be waiting. I had a slight feeling of trepidation- I knew that everything was fine, but the wind and the dark green moss and the wild tree branches all made me feel a little uneasy. But when I reached the pilgrim, he only asked if I could take his photo. And then the took one of me. 

On this walk I began to feel like the towns and villages I passed through were more conscious of the presence of pilgrims, they took note of us and respected the path we were on. Just when I was craving a piece of fruit, I passed a house that had a table set up outside, filled with baskets of peaches and nectarines and melons and plates of cheese. There was a hose that poured out fresh water, and a small bowl that asked for donations. I pulled some coins from my pocket and picked out a round peach and just as I was walking away, a woman opened the window of her home and waved to me with a great smile. “Buen Camino!” she called out, waving her hand furiously. 

I walked and I walked and I walked and I stopped for tortilla and orange juice, I stopped for an icy cold coke, I stopped in a town with a big grocery store, I stopped to set up a picnic lunch on a patch of grass between a chapel and a small cemetery.

And then I kept walking, and walking. Forty kilometers is a big day, but this one seemed to last forever. The trail kept passing over the highway, and while I appreciated that it often wound away from the big road, I knew that it was snaking and curving and adding on extra kilometers. I’d pass signs that said, “Baamonde 7km” and then I’d walk what felt like 3km and I’d cross the road again and see another sign and it said, “Baamonde 7km”.

The day was sunny, and hot. By 4pm I just wanted to be out of the sun but there was no shade on the path and it was inescapable. I pulled out all the stops- my ballcap to cover my face, my buff to cover the back of my neck, but man, the sun was strong. (I’m attempting to post a video- one of the only videos I took on this trip. This is what the end of a long day looks like!)


(Side note: I’m still in this bar in Santiago, writing, and I asked for a second glass of wine. With the wine came another plate of tapas and a small bowl of potato chips. I love Spain!!)

I finally arrived in Baamonde and it was after 6pm and it was probably one of my latest Camino walking days. The albergue was large and clean, the space was really beautiful (and I regret not taking photos). But I walked in and felt like a stranger. I didn’t know anyone or recognize anyone, and people were sprawled out and settled in and sitting in groups and laughing together. I knew it was more my own feeling of shyness than anything else, but it felt really difficult to walk up to a group and start a conversation. And I didn’t even feel like I was in an albergue on the Camino, it just sort of felt like a nice youth hostel where a bunch of people were there for different reasons. It’s possible that I had just spent too much time alone that day, that I’d been spending too much time alone on the Camino in general- but whatever the reason, I retreated from the groups of people and spent the rest of the evening in much the same way as I had the evening before- in a bar around the corner, doing some writing. 

And when I woke up the next morning, I told myself that it was all okay. “It’s a quiet Camino,” I thought. “This one’s just not about other people, this one is about you.” I thought I had things figured out, but it turns out that the the Camino had other plans for me. Isn’t that always the way? Just when you think you know how something is going to go, you realize you don’t know anything at all. So stayed tuned for what turned out to be a day on the Camino that was the last thing I expected, but exactly what I needed.

Walking through Fields of Thorns

It took me several days, but I’ve finally gone hiking. I thought it would be the very first thing I’d do, that I’d settle into my room at La Muse, look out the window, and promtply run out to the green hills.

  
And I wanted to- oh believe me, I wanted to- but for nearly all of this first week at the retreat, I’ve been fighting a cold. At first I thought this was a good thing, that it would give me more time to write, but mostly it’s just been frustrating. I want the energy to write and to go hiking.

My energy has been coming back, and so for the last two days, I’ve gone out to explore the mountains that I fell in love with three years ago.

Like so much else here, the memories come flooding back, and it almost amazes me what I can remember. As I hiked up the steep, rocky hill on what I call the “Lastours view” hike, it hits me with such a strong sense of knowing: there’s a spot coming up where I like to stop and rest. The spot with the tree that’s just tall enough to provide some shade, the one that casts its shadow over a rocky wall that’s the perfect height to rest against- ah yes, there it is. I’m out of breath, and like I always did, like I probably always will, I stop here and drink some water. 

  
After that first hike I began to think that I wouldn’t exactly be having adventures out here this time around; that I’ve already done all of the hikes, that I know this terrain. But then I found myself setting out yesterday, not exactly sure where I wanted to go. I stopped by the source at the bottom of the village to fill up my water bottles (I love that there’s a place to get water that’s actually called ‘the source’ and it’s the first thing that people say to you when you arrive here: “Have you been to the source yet?”). Then, since I’m already down here, I decide to follow a nearby path that winds up and out of the village, the one that heads towards the lake.

I don’t want to walk all the way to the lake today (I haven’t been yet and there’s talk of a group going later in the week), but I know that the path will connect me to a track that can take me over the mountain. So I venture off, gradually making my way up and up on this shaded and narrow trail through the woods.

Almost immediately, I’m not having much fun. There are trees and bushes on either side of me and spiders have cast their webs across the trail and with nearly every other step, I’m walking staight through the stringy webs. I wipe against my arms and legs constantly, trying to rid myself of the invisible strings.

Soon the path curves and opens up and I remember this from last time: it’s a wide and grassy path, hot in the sun. This time, too, it’s hot in the sun and the path is rather wide and grassy, but it looks like it hasn’t been maintained in the three years since I’ve been here last. Wildflowers and weeds shoot up from the ground and take over the trail almost to the point where it’s hard to know if you’re still on a trail or not. And really, this wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t stalks of thorns, too. Fields of thorns, as I came to call them, endless fields of thorns.

  
To be fair, I’d been warned. Another resident, the film editor, has been hiking a lot. He’d arrived a few days before the rest of us and only stayed a week- he’s already gone. But on his last full day he hiked up to the lake, taking the same trail out of the village that I was on now. I asked him about the hike and he gave me some tips, adding, “Oh, if you have long pants, you might want to wear them.”

He said his legs got a little cut up but he really didn’t mind, and that was it. I didn’t think much of it, just assumed that there were a few overgrown sections, that it probably wasn’t that bad.

Let me just say: I should have worn long pants. By the time I got out of the field of thorns, there were scrapes and cuts all over the bottom half of my legs. I’d been careful, too, moving slowly, stepping high, knocking branches away with the end of my stick. But it didn’t matter, the thorns were everywhere. Little nettles were, too, their tiny sharp ends wedging into my socks and shoes and jabbing against my ankles.

“Never again,” I muttered to myself as the path finally joined the road and I walked on towards the mountain top. 

But then the longer I walked, the higher I climbed up towards the ridge of the mountain, the dryer the air felt, the stronger the wind- the annoyance and pain of the first part of the hike vanished. All I was left with was that incredible feeling of freedom and space, the kind of strength you feel when you’ve made it to the top of something.

  
  
I love being back here. I ended my hike hot and sweaty and had to pluck a tiny needle of a thorn from the heel of my foot- but I love it. I’m trying hard to spend time inside, at my desk, but I also can’t resist what is sitting outside my window. Already a week of the retreat is gone- a week!- but I still have two more. And I have a feeling that there are several more adventures waiting for me. 

No Sugar Tonight in my Coffee; the first days at La Muse

Yesterday morning I made myself a small pot of espresso, heated up some milk in the microwave, mixed it together and added a spoonful of what I thought was sugar. It was salt. 

This is a pretty good way to describe what my first few days at La Muse, the writer’s/artist’s retreat in the south of France, have been like. I was here three years ago and some things- many things- are exactly the same. The village dates back to sometime around 1000 AD, and the house where I’m staying used to be the chateau of the village in the Middle Ages. So, things have been here a long, long time. Of course nothing has changed.

  
In some ways I imagined that I would walk back in here and slip straight to the past, to exactly how things used to be, to the same person that I was when I was last here. I could pick up wherever I left off: journaling in the mornings and gazing out at the mountains and marveling over my explorations while I hiked. I could access the same thoughts and excitement and spirit. It would be immediate, and seamless.

But instead, I walked back in and was hit with such a powerful sense of familiarity, but also of difference. The trees are taller, they change the view from the terrace. I walk up two sets of stairs to my room and not just one, I listen for the sounds of my friends but I only hear the voices of strangers. I go on a small hike and pace back and forth, searching for the turnoff of the trail. Eventually I find it; it is much further down the hill than I remember. I reach for sugar and I grab salt.

I don’t quite have the same sense of wonder that I did the first time, either. It reminds me of my experience with Paris: I entered the city and knew exactly where to go, and what to do. If Paris felt like some sort of temporary home, then La Muse and Labastide do, too. Returning to a place you love is a special kind of experience; it reminds you of where you’ve been, it reminds you of where you are now.

There are 14 residents here, it’s a big group. Many Americans, two Germans, two Australians, one Irish woman and one English woman. One is a film editor but all the rest are writers. This feels a bit daunting to me. I know I’m working on a book, but others are too. Without knowing all that much about their projects, I still have the sense that their books are these real, concrete, serious things. So different than my own, which just seems to be a bunch of words at the moment. Some of the residents have already published, I get the sense that many of them know what they are doing.

  
Or do they? Maybe we all give off that sense to each other. If I let myself see past my own doubts, I see that others have them, too. It’s a fascinating experience to be back, once again, with a large group of creative people. We’re all still feeling each other out, and as usual, I’m content to sit back and observe the group quietly. But already I can start to see where I fall within the mix: Vera and I have similar writing schedules, we often work and take breaks at the same time. Hilary is introverted, like me, and we take walks down to Le Fenial for coffee. I pour over a large hiking map with Will, pointing out my favorite trails.

I thought I might be able to jump right back into this experience, to hit the ground running with my writing, to feel at ease around the other residents, but (and really, this should come as no surprise to me), I’ve needed time to settle into this. And I’m getting there, I can feel myself beginning to sink in. My room is beautiful, and I’d forgotten how much I love watching and listening to the swallows swooping around outside my window. I’ve been wandering through the hills (a mild cold has stopped me from taking on big hikes, but it’s probably just as well in terms of getting into a good writing routine), and I’ve returned to Le Roc- my beautiful spot on top of the mountain with views that seem to stretch on forever. Homer, the resident dog, has accompanied me both times, and I love this. He runs fast and far ahead, but always circles back to make sure that I’m still coming. And when we get to Le Roc, he finds a cool spot in the shade while I write, and when I’m done, we walk back to the village together.

  
I love that I have three weeks here, that I can spend these first days adjusting and settling in and finding my routines- the routines of three years ago, but also the routines of today. I’ll mix them together and come away with a brand new experience, and I can’t wait to see what it will be like.

  

Paris and London, Art and Memories

I’m on a train heading down through France, on my way to the writer’s retreat in Labastide. There was a little excitement just now, though not the kind that you want: a bag was left in the middle of the aisle in one of the luggage areas on the train, in car 6 (which, incidentally, was just a few rows behind where I was sitting). The conductor and the staff made multiple announcements, searching for the owner, and someone came through our car to ask if the bag was ours. The next announcement threatened to stop the train if the owner couldn’t be found, and before too long everyone in car 6 was being asked to take our things and move up to the first car. We did, the train began to slow down, and just as we settled into our new seats (I think in a first class car- more room!), we were told that the owner of the bag showed up. 

It wasn’t until the announcement that they were going to stop the train that I began to worry; I’m not typically a worrier, I don’t like to dwell on stuff that could go wrong. But for just a few minutes this had me a little rattled. It’s all the stuff we see on the news, the things that are happening around the world, the warnings of friends and family before I left for this trip: “Be careful!” they all said. “Europe’s not as safe as it used to be.” I don’t think that anywhere is quite as safe as it used to be, but that also doesn’t mean it’s so dangerous that we shouldn’t leave home. Still though, this was a reminder of how unsettling the world feels right now. In the past I might have just been curious about what was going on; this time, my mind jumped to the worst.

In any case, the train has picked back up to its regular pace, the conductor assured us that everything is fine, and the journey continues. 

Or, maybe it’s just not a great morning. Last night I started coughing, and woke in the middle of the night to a sore throat. A few days before- in Bath, actually- the woman in the bunk below me was sick, and was coughing and sneezing quite a bit. “Oh no,” I thought. “The last thing I want is to catch whatever she’s got.” It probably hasn’t helped that I’ve been moving around constantly, that I’m not getting enough sleep, that my meals are a bit erratic and that I might not be eating quite enough fruits and veggies (but the scones! And the crepes!)

So I’m drinking tea and orange juice and I think this was the first time in my life that I was in Paris and didn’t drink any coffee. It doesn’t seem right, somehow. In fact, all of Paris felt a little… different. I was there for under 24 hours- arriving around 2:00pm on Sunday afternoon, and I left just after 7am this morning (Monday). It was such a short time in the city and really I was just kind of passing through. Different than my other trips, even if the others were on the short side as well- this one was just a quick stopover. But for being in such a big, grand city, it was all rather simple. I grabbed a few metro tickets, easily got to my hostel, checked in and stored my luggage then went back into the city, stopped by the place with the best baguettes to pick up a jambon/buerre sandwich (ham and butter, my favorite), then over to the Musee Marmottan, to see all the Monet’s. This was a new museum for me, I liked that even on a short trip I could see something new. 

Back to the hostel to get my key, up to my room to have a shower, then back out in the city to wander around. This was when all I really wanted to do was crawl into bed and sleep: it was chilly and raining and I was exhausted. But it’s not a trip to Paris without seeing Notre Dame, so I walked over, checked out the new Shakespeare and Company cafe, bought a crepe, then headed back.


There’s so much of Paris that I’m not familiar with; every time I go I stay in the same hostel, so I know just one area really well. But there’s something to be said for this- for maybe the very first time, Paris felt sort of like another home to me. It was easy, and effortless. It was like I stopped by to see an old, good friend. And I thought, once again, of something I realized after my very first trip there, when I was 20: Paris isn’t going anywhere. It will always be there, waiting, welcoming me for however long I want to stay. I like that.


I never got a chance to write about my other days in England, but they were great. Rushed and fast and maybe a little too much for someone like me (who wants time to sightsee, AND time to hang out in cafes and write). But I saw a bunch of stuff that meant a lot to me to see- things that are sort of on my unofficial ‘list’ (you know, the things in the world you always assume you’ll get to do/see one day. Lately, I’m realizing that I’m never going to see this stuff if I don’t actually plan a trip and make it happen… obvious, I know, but I guess I just feel that I no longer quite have all the time in the world for all the things I want to do).

So I saw Stonehenge, and I really loved it. In London, I went to the Tate Britain and spent a long time in the Turner rooms- JMW Turner was the first artist I ever really studied, way back in high school, when I was 16. (Come to think of it, I wrote a paper on Notre Dame for that class, too!). Whenever I’m in an art museum I check to see if there’s a Turner, and I was overwhelmed by the number at the Tate. And then I saw another painting I recognized- in another connection to high school, my English class was reading Hamlet and there was a depiction of Ophelia on the cover of our books. When the books were handed out to us, a boy across the room exclaimed, “Nadine! This looks just like you!” Everyone started laughing (maybe because Ophelia was floating down a stream to her death), but the boy was serious. I blushed, and ducked my head. At the time, I wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or not. 
But then I was walking through the halls of the Tate and came across this painting and I started smiling, almost laughing, at the memory. 

The final connection to high school was also during my day in London; an old friend lives there, someone I haven’t seen since I was 18. She invited me over to her family’s apartment; that evening, in the square down below, the neighbors were having a communal bbq. It was an incredible evening: everyone spread out on blankets and chairs in a beautiful garden, a DJ playing tunes (a Beatles song was playing when we walked in), the smell of charcoal, kids running around, twinkle lights in the trees. Standing at the grill, my friend leaned over to me. “They don’t know how to grill stuff here.” And as predicted, the men around the grill watched as my friend flipped her burgers, then put down rounds of bright yellow pineapple. “American,” she explained, and the men all laughed, then asked if she could help them with their food.


Later in the evening, after lots of drinking, people started dancing. But it was the strangest sort of thing- it was like a wedding. There was line dancing and the Bee Gees and even the Macarena. That one brought everyone out to the floor. I was standing by another American and he kept shaking his head. “Don’t they know that no one dances to this anymore?” He gestured to the crowd. “Welcome to Brexit.” It was a combination of every age group: little children, a few teenagers, twenty and thirty-somethings, parents and grandparents. They were swinging their hips and waving their arms and smiling and laughing. England might be a bit of a mess right now, but on that night, in that square, it seemed like everyone was in it together. 



Next up, I’ll be checking in from the south of France!