Everything Is Within Walking Distance

If You Make The Time

“You don’t choose a life. You live one.”

Emilio Estevez

Starting an essay about walking the Camino de Santiago is as daunting as entering into marriage, slipping on a ring or a backpack, finding your way with little or no experience, depending on uniquely positioned markers to silently lead one away from the familiar, and into a journey, a journey no one expects or anticipates. It is formidable, to say the least, and what I discovered was completely unexpected.

If anything, the Camino is a metaphor for life because even though we pass through this world but once, our ultimate purpose is shrouded in mystery, entombed, if you will, by our own iniquity.

Or is it?

The problem remains, we don’t know what we don’t know (story of my life) until we have a personal encounter with the unknown. In fact, one of us isn’t sure she has the endurance to survive the first day, let alone the stamina to survive the untold miles ahead of us or the dexterity to manage an awkward pair of walking sticks and cumbersome backpack. At least my gear is color coordinated, which seemed enormously important in the states but rather boorish on the trail.

I do not believe it was purposeful or intentional, but we have chosen to seek wisdom not from words but from exertion, sweat, and struggle on the infamous Camino de Santiago. Join us as we take on the role of pilgrims, and in doing so, I hope you’ll be intrigued by the possibility of such a journey.

When I say everyone, I mean everyone is altered by the experience of walking the Camino. No exceptions.

It’s not what you think it will be, not even close. In fact, you may never be able to name it, but it will be with you forever, a permanent etching as if wrinkles on your once smooth skin.

I didn’t pull my computer out for almost three weeks (I should have listened to Jan) but carried it across Spain. It’s the longest time I have gone without writing in years, it hurt like the blister on my toe, and I walked with this agony the entire way. During the last few miles each day, I would fantasize about the coolness of a computer perched on my lap, the appeal of a focused mind, and words dripping onto the page as if blood from an open wound. If I were honest, I would admit this is my therapy. I like to peel away the fragile skin of life as if an onion, then layer after layer until I reach bone and I’m deep in the marrow of an issue. Because I believe this is where our strength and vitality are derived, and as if communion, I am weak without it.

I kept abbreviated notes on my phone. It’s not the same. It’s more like having a sordid love affair with adverbs instead of a deep-abiding relationship with adjectives, verbs, and nouns. I’m sure that makes total sense.

I’ll say this about my body. She’s a fucking miracle, adjusting to my every step with unexpected firmness, dedication, and resilience. I’m in love with her for maybe the first time in my life. I don’t know why I spent so many years thinking she was my adversary instead of a blessing. I didn’t realize I could think, walk, and breathe without interruption for miles on end, and she was right there with me every step of the way. I am forever grateful for the chance to fall in love with…my body, soul, and mind because it turns out she’s the well I draw from, and when the body is empty, I, too, have nothing to give.

The phone next to the bed rings at 11:00 am. Our shuttle from Biarritz to Saint Jean Pied de Port has arrived, and we hustle to gather our gear and head downstairs. We’re able to grab a coffee and one hell of a divine croissant as the driver loads our thirty-pound bags in the trunk. We settle ourselves in the spacious van for a two-hour drive.

After picking up additional pilgrims at the airport, we’re finally on our way to St. Jean, the beginning of the end, so to speak. The anticipation in the van is palatable. The first thing you notice about the pilgrims is our age difference. The people we encountered along The Way were either old or young. There is almost no in-between because middle-aged people with young children, mortgages, and demanding jobs do not have the time or inclination to walk The Way.

The new arrivals all fell in the young category, excited, fresh, and eager to prove their mettle. As I unabashedly eavesdropped on their conversation (thank God their common language was English), I noted three of them had four things in common. Single, white females without children. All thirty-somethings who recently quit their jobs and are hoping this pilgrimage will provide the illumination needed for the next part of their journey. As Tolkien claims, all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

Pulling into the parking lot of Hotel Central in Saint Jean Pied de Port, the doors of the van open, and we are unceremoniously expelled from the vehicle, left standing in the pouring rain, clutching our suitcases and backpacks, heading towards a new portal in life.

I know, given the opportunity, I can be as dramatic as Larry.

Of course, we can not check into our hotel until after four, so we dump our luggage with the hotel staff and head to the pilgrim’s office for our first stamp and complimentary shell (which identifies you as a pilgrim).

As in everything in life, symbols hold meaning far beyond their physical representation, and a pilgrimage is no exception. The scallop shell represents both the pilgrimage and the completion of the journey, which is often associated with heaven, not that you get to make a reservation or anything. It’s more of an inkling about what is to come. We received our symbolic shells at the beginning of our journey, and both of us displayed them on our backpacks during the entire walk.

Most pilgrims purchase and carry a document called the “pilgrim’s passport,” a credential stamped with the official St. James stamp at each town or refugios where the pilgrim travels. It provides a record of where you ate, drank, celebrated mass, or slept. It serves as proof to the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago that the journey was accomplished according to the official route and that the pilgrim qualifies to receive a Compostela (certificate of completion of the pilgrimage).

Of course, the “coolest” stamps have become a thing, and I’ll admit we went out of our way to secure a few of them. It’s so cliqued, exactly what we are trying to escape, but what we found is you can’t escape a million years of evolving humans all trying to keep up with the Jones. What I want to know is, who decides what is cool?

After walking up and down the cobbled streets of this ancient town for the better part of the day, checking out the beginning of our route tomorrow, we were finally able to check into the hotel and enjoy our last supper pre-pilgrimage. As you know, eating has become a priority for Larry and me, and this inclination will intensify with every damn step.

Like the character Daniel in The Way (I highly recommend this movie), we woke up to an immense storm. I’m talking about a window-rattling squall with more water pressure than my shower at home. I have to admit it’s discouraging.

As Roger Miller says, some people walk in the rain, and others just get wet. I might be of the latter.

For the first time, we enter into a routine that will become our daily ablution by the end of the week. Excitedly slipping into our hiking gear, brushing our teeth, and stocking our backpacks with extra shirts, socks, rain ponchos, tissues, phones, chapstick, passports, and wool, before checking the all-important pilgrim credentials are tucked in a side pocket. Suitcases must be left in the lobby by 8:00 am (no exceptions). After dropping our gear, we head downstairs for a complimentary breakfast, which is basically coffee, a croissant, and orange juice. Larry can hardly contain his anticipation. I’m a little less ecstatic but covering well.

As we’re exiting the building, a fellow pilgrim announces, “the pass over the Pyrenees is closed due to the storm.”

Larry looks at me with a panicked expression, “we have to stop at the Pilgrims office and find out how we’re going to cross.”

I say, “well, that’s disappointing news,” I admit a tiny part of me is slightly relieved.

My pessimist husband says, “This could ruin our whole trip.”

The optimist in me claims, “I’m sure there’s an alternative,” but maybe they’ll have to drive us to the next town? That could be wishful thinking.

I see the disappointment spread across Larry’s handsome face, and for a second, I feel bad about my recent thoughts. Crossing the Pyrenees is something he’s been looking forward to for years.

At the Pilgrims office, we find out the storm is making the steep pass over the Pyrenees treacherous, not impassable, but not recommended. The guide shared that five pilgrims had to be helicoptered out yesterday, and the conditions were less severe. Oh, and by the way, the helicopter charges $10,000 per rescue. But there is another way over the mountain.

And it looks like we’ll be taking the “alternative” route.

Larry has not landed well with the Pyrenees jerked out from under him as if a rug. There is no doubt if I had not been tagging along, Larry would have chosen the more treacherous passage. Although he has never verbalized this, I believe he’s a little dubious about my ability to survive this little adventure, let alone an inconvenient storm complicating matters.

Let’s hope I can put his fears to rest…and mine.

The alternative route has a less strenuous elevation climb, but the path is slightly longer (19 miles) and still requires a fair amount of climbing. This is our only option, so we head out in the middle of a storm, our goal to reach Roncesvalles before dark. As Neale Donald Walsch claims, life begins at the end of your comfort zone.

Today we are forced to view life through the narrow opening of our ponchos and the relentless pounding of wind and rain. At one point, a shawl-clad woman comes out of her home and flags us down with both her arms, screaming, “pilgrims, you go wrong way, pilgrims, wrong way,” and she indicates the correct direction with exaggerated gestures. God bless the kindness of strangers.

Larry yells, “thank you,” and we backtrack down the small hill we were ascending and back to the Camino de Santiago, but when we round the bend, we can not find the shell marker that keeps you on the traditional trail. She opens her shutters and points, “this way, pilgrims, go this way.”

I say, “muchas gracias,” but we’re still in France, and she smiles and says, “voyagez en toute securite (safe travels).”

We’re drenched, tired, and cold. One of us has sore feet, weary arms, and throbbing thighs. Stopping at a local cafe for a cup of warm coffee at mile seven was sagacious.

My repeated prayer on the first day is…please let me take one step without pain.

Larry’s prayer is…please don’t make me have to carry her out of here on my back.

Both of our prayers were answered. Praise be to God.

Time passes rather quickly as mile after mile is overcome one painful step at a time. Our second stop lands us in a charming bar, where we ran into one of the ladies we met in the van. She is questioning her entire decision to take on a challenge of such epic proportions, along with the reality of wet socks and sore feet. She sat at the next table looking rather forlorn and overwhelmed. A dry slab of ham slapped between a small loaf of bread sat uneaten on a plate in front of her. The dry sandwich a dichotomy to her soggy exterior.

We ordered the bean soup and the three of us sat there searching for a reason to keep going.

By far, day one was one of the most difficult days in terms of length, elevation climb, and the blasted rain. By mile sixteen, I no longer knew what was propelling me, but I have a feeling it was my beloved body. I’m totally checked out physically and mentally. Not only soaked to the bone, but most of my person is in agony, and as my world narrows with each step, so do my thoughts. It gets down to basics. Survival.

My mantra. Keep moving. Pain is liminal. Failure is not an option. As Friedrich Nietzsche notes, all truly great thoughts are conceived while walking. I beg to differ.

The sun is ducking behind the mountains as we pass through a narrow gate and traverse a wide field before arriving at Roncesvalles. It’s the location of an ancient Catholic Church, a refurbished hostel, and two viably different restaurants. With tired eyes, I caress my surroundings as I flop into the nearest chair in the plush lobby. What I mean by plush is the presence of rock, wood, and iron, mixed with lush foliage and elegant ceramics. This is Spain. It’s these rustic elements that will charm us again and again as we travel the Camino. I’m trying to visualize how I can recreate this in my home. Keep in mind I’m nearly delirious.

Seriously, I can’t move.

Larry is everywhere and nowhere. He manages to secure not only a dinner reservation at 8:00 pm (not sure I’ll still be awake) but a cold beer for himself and an elegant glass of red wine for me. Although my arms ache, I manage to bring the glass to my lips repeatedly, allowing the wine to warm my weary soul. I might sleep in this chair tonight.

Somehow I made it from my boudoir in the lobby to our actual room, and I am unexpectedly impressed. It’s a two-room suite with a galley kitchen and these attractive old radiators in every room. I’m not sure where I found the energy, hunger might have had something to do with it, but we laid our wet clothing over the heaters, found restoration in a hot shower, changed into fresh outfits, and headed to the local pub for another round.

This ritual of entering a town and gathering with fellow pilgrims for a cold beer, glass of wine, and hot meal would define the rest of our days on the Camino, as in life, our personal liturgies tend to define us. The Camino has a multitude of elements, including a social component, and we met some wonderful folks along the way.

Can I just add that the pillows in Spain are rock-hard? I realize I’m on pilgrimage, suffering comes with the territory, but I draw the line at rigid headrests.

I woke up with a raging neck ache that had to compete with all the other throbbing parts. The neck won.

Onward…

Every morning we sprinted our luggage down to the lobby just in the nick of time. We never stayed more than one night at any location, we never hit the trail later than 8:30 am or earlier than 7:30 am, and we never missed the complimentary breakfast. Shocking, I know.

On day two, with the storm refusing to let up, we decide to wait it out in an old church on the edge of town. I think I completed an entire rosary, but the storm had more endurance than we expected. Damn, if that doesn’t mimic life? Think of all the places you hide behind, waiting for the worst of the “storm” to pass, only to find out she returns with the next weather pattern.

We worshiped our decision to buy those last-minute rain ponchos as they’ve become our shelter of late. Today’s journey was less strenuous but still painful, and I discovered wrapping a small piece of wool around the sorest appendages was a lifesaver. Thank you, Leanne.

By day four, I’m finding my stride, my feet are adjusting to the demands of the trail, and my muscles are responding to walking sixteen to twenty miles each day. The pounds sort of melt off, the arms firm up, and the skin darkens no matter how much sunscreen you apply.

I won’t lie. From the first step to the last, I walked with a perilous sense of gratitude, often stopping to take in the incredible views, overcome with reverence and humility. The landscape that surrounds me invades the landscape of my mind, and I surrender to a surreal sense of peace and calm.

As we follow the ancient path of thousands and thousands of pilgrims who have come before us, our weary feet carry us through the same lush fields, beside ridiculously quaint farms, through tree-covered trails in the deep dark forest, into rustic villages that have stood for centuries, over moss-covered bridges, and along meandering streams. My eyes are continuously assaulted with images so savory I want to weep. I don’t know how to convey such beauty with mere words.

My vocabulary is morbidly insufficient.

It’s a unique experience; mile after mile, I begin to let go of meaningless attributions, priorities, titles, and relationships that have hampered my ability to move closer to my own objectives and my authentic self. It’s as if I’m slowly becoming less influenced by my own irrational fears, ones that dominate not only my important decisions but the mundane ones as well. I’ve become a tumbleweed, no longer rooted to my flawed self but released from the restrictions I myself created.

You know what I mean? It’s liberating.

We travel on blessed feet through Zubiri, to Pamplona, and on to Ponferrada.

Early one morning, just outside of Pamplona, before the day gets too warm, I ask Larry, “Who are the five most influential people in your life, currently or in the past?” Just when I think he might be warming up to my daily questions, he groans. You know, one of those painfully long, low-pitched moans. Really?

He counters (or stalls) and says, “Who are yours?”

It’s my question, so of course, I’ve given it some thought, and I rattle off the names of significant family members and friends who have blessed my life over the years. I note the ones who have slipped away, but now I’m longing to reengage, and the ones I’m finally ready to let go.

He mostly concurs with me, but I’m surprised by the people he names who have quietly inspired him over the years, especially the ones he’d like to spend more time with in the future.

We allow ourselves a few miles to ponder this alone. When do you ever give yourself permission to consider the importance of the people you spend most of your time with? These are the people who impact our thinking, challenge our perspectives, maybe even expand our views if we let them, and hopefully, they’ll assist us in becoming our best selves. It should be intentional.

At mile six, we stop for a beverage and spend the better part of an hour chatting it up with fellow pilgrims. At one point, I have to use the facilities, but the line for the women’s bathroom is long.

Larry says, “use the men’s bathroom.”

“Absolutely not,” but nature calls, and I line up with half a dozen other women.

When I finally get to the front of the line, the woman exiting the bathroom says, “no, papel.”

I say, “shit,” before realizing the analogousness of my comment and yell to Larry, “I need some tissues. Quick”

He starts digging through the backpack like a madman, eyes bulging, hair standing on end but to no avail.

The husband of the woman behind me runs up to his wife with a little package of tissues, and she immediately hands one to me. I could have cried. The kindness and generosity of strangers we encounter on the trail are unparalleled by any other experience I’ve ever had.

And I don’t mean to be indelicate, but when you have to go, you have to go, and “papel” is essential for women.

Okay, not to be a whiner, but the pillows continue to be an issue. Why would someone purposely sleep on rocks? It’s untenable. Two times Larry and I have had to share one oversized rock-hard pillow. They are the width of a double bed, but Larry and I don’t share well, and you can only imagine the shenanigans that went on all night. Out of desperation, I’ve had to use a throw pillow with a bath towel thrown over the top because God knows where those pillows have been.

Every morning we wake in total darkness, but by the time we’re dressed, the light is emerging, and the moon has disappeared. We now recognize the faces at the neighboring tables, and as we sip our coffee, we offer each other morning salutations. You quickly adjust to the coolness of the morning as you go in search of the now familiar shell markers, and your body prepares to meet the challenges of the day. We quickly establish our rhythm, walking sticks clicking against the solid ground, muscles warming to the continual movement.

We travel through Villafranca del Bierzo, O Cebreiro, and Paslas de Rei, Lugo shouting, “Buen Camino,” to everyone we pass. It’s a thing.

I’m beginning to realize that the only thing that has meaning on the Camino is my eyes. I might have a partner in life, but I walk through this world alone. I am nobody on the trail. It’s just me and the lush greenery, forests, and hills. I don’t have a role or status, just a body striving to meet the demands of the journey, a vessel that carries my thoughts and translates what I take in with my eyes. It’s as if the past and the future melt away, and all you are left with is the ground you are covering one step at a time. Every day, you walk, and while walking, you embody only that which you see.

As I continue to find my stride, I realize I need a lift in the afternoon, and I decided that the lift will come in the form of James Taylor. I’m weary, but at this point in time, slipping an airpod into one ear, I allow the music to energize my soul. I offer an airpod to Larry, but he rejects my gesture. In fact, the airpod sort of annoys him, as if I’m no longer focused on him. The truth is eighty percent of the time, we walk in silence, which is fine with me. I just need a little something in the afternoon to keep me going.

He makes it clear he does not approve of my new practice and decides to pick up the pace. Very soon, I can no longer see him on the trail ahead. We have been walking together for a week, and suddenly I’m left in the dust.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche says, “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” Now that was a smart man.

As I’m walking alone, building up more and more steam, it hits me. I’m not supposed to live this life placating to the expectations of others. If I need James Taylor to give me a lift, that’s okay. I’m not responsible for staying focused on someone else every blasted second of the day.

When I catch up with Larry, I communicate my displeasure of being abandoned, as you can well imagine. I stop midsentence when I realize I’m barking about the same damn thing. We can’t dictate how another person reacts or behaves to the distractions of the world. If I want to listen to music, then I should, if he wants to walk alone, he should, and apparently, we both needed a refresher on this lesson.

The pillows get harder with every town we pass. Just sayin’

Of all the days on the Camino, the most challenging was the last five miles before O’Cebreiro. As we dress in the early morning and stash our bags in the lobby, we go over the itinerary during breakfast. We have a fifteen-mile walk with a constant elevation climb in the first part of the day and then a steep five-mile climb until we reach our destination. But we have our pattern, walk six miles, stop and enjoy a coffee, and give the feet a rest. Walk six miles repeat.

By mile fifteen, we are exhausted, sore, and sweaty. I’m not sure I have the capacity to accomplish the task ahead of us. We found a restaurant beside a small stream, just below the steep climb. We ordered sandwiches, beer, and a glass of wine. My dusty shoes sit beside my feet as I wiggle my toes and try to revive them. This is when I hear the lady at the next table telling her friend that she hired a horse to take her up the mountain in the morning.

Now I’m beginning to worry.

I slip back into my well-worn shoes with trepidation, and we scamper across town to the base of the mountain. I won’t sugarcoat it, the climb was brutal, and as you know, when I get overwhelmed, I narrow my focus, eyes downcast, staring at the ground beneath my feet. The startling thing about doing this is the small purple flowers that are sprinkled along the edge of the trail. They make me smile right through the pain shooting up from my feet and calm my fears about this endless climb.

I suppose this need or longing for an extensive and challenging walk on the Camino is a desire to meet your own being outside the influences of the secular world. The Way is just what it says, a way out of the repetitive loop of doing, thinking, and acting the same way until your brain is begging for a reprieve. An opportunity to find your own voice. The way is simply a path to you.

About halfway up the mountain, when I’m deliriously communicating with purple flowers, we enter a dark space as the path is suddenly encircled by the thick branches of moss-covered oak trees and lush foliage. It’s as if we’ve been transported into a real-life fairytale, and you know how that goes, snow-white much? This is when we come upon the only person we’ve seen in miles. He looks like everyone else you meet on the trail, unkept, dirty, sweaty, with excessive facial hair. I’m leary, and Larry takes the lead.

Suddenly this guy extends his hand to Larry. He’s holding out a white plastic grocery bag, and he says, “take some, for you.” His English is sketchy.

Larry looks in the bag. I have visions of chopped-up fingers or toes, maybe a disembodied head, or worse (this is where my mind goes when I’m stressed), and I’m half expecting Larry to scream, although this is not in his nature.

Larry shakes his head, speaking loudly and adamantly, “no, thank you,” as the guy continues to entreat him.

He grabs my arms and pulls me in front of him, practically pushing me up the trail. Out of fear, I move a little faster. We finally slow our pace when we get to a small village and feel safe again.

I say, “what the hell was in the bag?”

“Mushrooms.”

“Jesus, I could have used a few of those.”

I get the look. We have two more miles to go.

Arriving at the small but ridiculously charming town of O’Cebreiro was on par with the parting of the Red Sea or when Jesus turned water into wine. The first structure we encounter is a church. It’s the parish of the priest who walked the entire Camino in the 80s’ adding yellow arrows along the way to guide the pilgrims, especially when the shell markers were hard to find.

I walk in, sit in front of the church, and do my usual prayers. The structure is common to churches in this area. High domed ceilings, stained glass windows, with small enclaves adorned with intricate statues of Mary, Jesus, and Joseph, along with St. James. Everywhere you look, something sacred catches your eye and holds it hostage.

Suddenly I’m overwhelmed with emotion. I’m tired, dirty, sore, and enormously grateful to have made it to this town, this church, to be sitting in this pew. I feel my eyes fill with tears. I normally try to bury those inconvenient emotions, but this time I can’t hold back, and they trickle down my cheeks as I brush them away. I don’t know how long I sat there, marveling at a feeling I can only describe as deep and abiding love.

While I’m having a minor emotional breakdown, Larry is running around getting our credentials stamped, checking out the grounds, and figuring out the organization of this small town.

I refuse to move.

Eventually, he gathers me up from the pew, and we check into our hotel. It’s actually a small restaurant in a typical rock structure with a tiled roof. There are four rooms located on the second floor. As the proprietor opens the door to a charming but tiny room, she gives us a key and password to the internet before she leaves.

The roof is slanted, and there is only one small window in the dormer with no window coverings. I recline on the bed, shoes off, feet propped up by one of the rock-hard pillows, and after Larry brings me a glass of wine, he heads outside to enjoy a beer and socialize. Extroverts. What can you do?

Early the next morning, as we hit the trail, I ask Larry, “What do you miss about home?”

Larry says, “Football and my big screen television.”

I say, “I miss the grandkids.”

“Wait, I thought you meant things.”

“This is rapid-fire, don’t overthink your answers. Just say whatever comes to mind.” I add, “my pillow.”

“Of course, the grandkids, but also my Wednesday night rides, our bed, oh, and people who speak English.”

“One thing at a time, please. I miss writing.”

“Writing? You can do that anytime.”

“Please don’t judge my answers. And regular coffee.”

“My normal timezone.”

“What will you miss about Spain?”

“Ice-cold beer, steak, fries…”

One thing at a time, please. I’ll miss the croissants.”

“The landscape.”

“The kindness of strangers.”

“Walking all day.”

“Shell markers that make me feel like I’m on track.”

“The people.”

As our words trail off, we allow the rhythm of the walking to center us, and our thoughts again become our own. There is much I will miss about Spain, but there is so much more I miss about home. And I suppose that’s what makes me appreciative of what I’ve encountered and what I have to return to.

We stay a night in Portomarin, then Palas de Rei, and on to Ribadiso.

If I thought our entry into Santiago de Compostela would be emotional and rather dramatic, I was patently wrong. We enter the famous square, dusty and tired, marveling at the enormity of the Church, the majestic towers, and the number of pilgrims milling about. Some are crying, hugging, taking pictures, walking barefoot, sitting on the ground, and soaking up the sun.

The first thing we do is find the pilgrim office and get in line to receive our certificate of completion. We have all our paperwork completed, and we are directed to the back of a long line. Finally, it was our turn, and both of us approach an inspector’s desk to present our documents. We are given beautiful certificates with our names and date of completion.

We step out of the office into a small courtyard and stare at our credentials. Larry says, “I didn’t know if you were going to make it,” and his voice cracks.

“I didn’t either,” and now I’m opening crying.

He puts an arm around me, giving me a little kiss, “you did it.”

“We did it.”

After checking into our fourth-story room with no elevator, we shower and prepare for the pilgrim’s mass. We arrive at St. James Cathedral an hour or so early so we can take our time viewing the remains of St. James, exploring the vast interior, and securing a seat for the service. The church is extraordinary. It would take a week to see everything, but we spend the better part of an hour walking the perimeter and soaking up the ambiance of this sacred space.

One of the most famous symbols of the cathedral is the Botafumeiro, which may be the largest censer in the world. It is used at the 7:30 mass as an homage to the pilgrims of Santiago. The aroma of the incense has a powerful symbolic connection to prayer and spiritual purification. Psalm 141:2 says, “May my prayer be set before you like incense.” It was a profound experience to watch the billowing Botafumeiro swing from one side of the enormous cathedral to the other, with at least six men commanding the ropes that propel the thurible.

What I discovered by walking two hundred miles was the ultimate purpose of life is not a secular one. It’s a path to your own freedom.

Walking the Camino is penitential by its very nature. It takes a toll on your mind, body, and soul, but this allows you absolution for the grievous things you are still harboring…resentments, judgments, anger, and jealousies, burdens you no longer need to carry. By letting go of all the shit you’ve accumulated, something new emerges, a weightless version of yourself. It’s sometimes referred to as absolution.

When you accept you’re own forgiveness, you are free to forgive others. When you are compassionate to your own needs, you are able to show compassion to others. When you know you are beloved, you are free to love your neighbor. And so it goes…

The strange thing about the Camino is it continues to exist in our lives long after the goal is reached. We’ve landed in Compostela de Santiago, taken a spin on the apex of the square, and with a credential in hand, we bid farewell to Spain and head home. This experience can not be treated like a photo I stick in an album and forget about. A true pilgrimage flows into your daily life. It leaves an indelible mark on your heart, and other than a small inkling, the nature of the mark is yet to be determined.

Long after the walk is over and I’ve settled back into my “normal” life, I will remember what I went in search of and what I ultimately discovered.

On the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, cooling my feet in the shallow tide, I had a glimpse of a world without end.

I’m Living in the Gap, grateful you took the time to join me on this journey, love to hear your thoughts. I’ve missed you!

“THE WELL Be thankful now for having arrived, for the sense of having drunk from a well, for remembering the long drought that preceded your arrival and the years walking in a desert landscape of surfaces looking for a spring hidden from you so long that even wanting to find it now had gone from your mind until you only remembered the hard pilgrimage that brought you here, the thirst that caught in your throat; the taste of a world just-missed and the dry throat that came from a love you remembered but had never fully wanted for yourself, until finally after years making the long trek to get here it was as if your whole achievement had become nothing but thirst itself. But the miracle had come simply from allowing yourself to know that you had found it, that this time someone walking out into the clear air from far inside you had decided not to walk past it any more; the miracle had come at the roadside in the kneeling to drink and the prayer you said, and the tears you shed and the memory you held and the realization that in this silence you no longer had to keep your eyes and ears averted from the place that could save you, that you had been given the strength to let go of the thirsty dust laden pilgrim-self that brought you here, walking with her bent back, her bowed head and her careful explanations. No, the miracle had already happened when you stood up, shook off the dust and walked along the road from the well, out of the desert toward the mountain, as if already home again, as if you deserved what you loved all along, as if just remembering the taste of that clear cool spring could lift up your face and set you free.”

David Whyte

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    1. Thank you Mama, for enduring the lengthy read, and joining me in the comments. I’m still savoring the memories, contemplating the experience, and finishing the laundry. It’s far beyond my ability to fully comprehend but I tried. Some things just defy words. Much love to you and yours, hugs, C

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    1. Thanks Susie, this was certainly a learning experience for Larry and me. We both weren’t sure what to expect before we started walking but now I believe just about anyone can do this but at their own pace. We figured out early on that stopping and resting the legs and feet paid off in the end. It was a worthy adventure and one I would highly recommend. Hugs, C

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    1. Hi Crystal, oh how I love that we cried together! I was hoping someone would get the adverb thing, so thank you for being the one! Overjoyed to have inspired you, I hope you might consider a pilgrimage someday, it’s a worthy experience and one that stays with you long after you arrive at the end of the trail. Imagine offering this to high school students? Hugs, C

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  1. Wow, what an amazing accomplishment to walk the Camino de Santiago, but then to write about it so eloquently too. Congratulations on both achievements. I’ve seen many pieces on the Camino, but yours definitely stands out. Yes, I would do the same thing, bring my laptop, cart it around everywhere thinking I’m going to write, but then being too tired to put two words together. I have so many questions: How long were you thinking about walking it? How much research did you do in advance? Did you need to speak Spanish to get around? One day maybe I’ll walk it. In any event, congratulations!

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    1. Hi Brian, thank you for your lovely comment, sorry for the delayed response, I somehow missed this one. I really struggled to convey with words the depth and significance of such an experience. It’s both life-changing and affirming at the same time. I would highly recommend you consider waking the Camino and experiencing the multitude of miracles you find on the trails. We’ve been wanting to do this for about 10 years. We watched the movie The Way and several documentaries available on Netflix or Youtube about the pilgrimage. Then we started researching how we wanted to do it and how far we wanted to walk given we both were working when we planned our adventure. We hired a company to plan the distances we would walk each day given our age and physical abilities (they had us walking 15-19 miles daily), they made all the reservations for our lodging, and moved our luggage from village to village. We carried only our day backpacks with water and supplies for walking. Then the pandemic hit. We had to wait two and a half years! Now we’re retired and wished we could have walked the entire 500 miles, but as it was, we did 200 miles. And yes, brush up on your Spanish, it is extremely helpful but usually someone can translate if needed. We’re planing to walk the Portuguese Camino in 2024 and we’re currently researching the details about this passage. I say do it at your first opportunity! Hugs, C

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  2. As we move through the mile markers of our journey, ‘change’ is inevitable. But growth? That’s a choice.

    Bravo to you two on not just surviving, but rather thriving. 😘🤗🙏🥂

    Cheers.
    CT

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    1. Thanks Chris, it was amazing from beginning to end, even the rock hard pillows! I was surprised by my emotions, especially after a particularly difficult passage, but I suppose that’s the bodies natural response to intense gratitude. Thanks for all your kindness and encouragement. Hugs, C

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  3. What an achievement, Cheryl. I am so proud of you both. ❤ Your essay is eloquent and the ripples from this experience will last a lifetime, I am sure. You did it! ❤ ❤

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    1. Awe, thank you Jane. Trying to find the right words to explain something as intangible as a pilgrimage was daunting to say the least, but I’m glad I tried, because even brushing the edge of such an experience might encourage others to do the same. We’re hooked and looking forward to walking the Portuguese Santiago in 2024! Hugs, C

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  4. I am not a religious person, and had always thought that walking the Camino was only relevant to Catholics. But reading your experience taught me that it is more than just about religion, and made me wish I had done it when I was younger. Your writing made me feel emotional, not only with admiration for your determination, but also the very idea of pushing one’s self beyond preconceived limits.
    Hard pillows included.
    Best wishes, Pete. x

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    1. Hi Pete, I so appreciate your response to my post. This is exactly what I was hoping to get across. Walking the Camino is not just for the religious, it’s for everyone, and I can’t stress that enough. I’m glad you were able to feel the emotions involved with this type of challenging pilgrimage, I wrestled with how to express such deep gratitude at the end of a long day. You would absolutely be able to do this walk Pete and Ollie might manage it too! We saw lots of dogs on the trail. I saw 70 year old women with backpacks twice as heavy as mine and they were doing great. It’s set up so anyone can do this on any type of budget. The hostels have private rooms for less than $10 a night if you share a bathroom. The food is very affordable and wine is included with most meals! You should consider doing a portion of the Camino, you would love it, but bring your own pillow! Hugs, C

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      1. Sadly, Ollie can barely manage an hour out walking now, and gets tired very quickly. I might be able to manage at least some of the Camino, but I have been walking on the flat for so long now, I would need to do some ‘hill training’ first. However, things are not great financially in the UK, so I doubt I will ever have the money to travel abroad again, even with cheap overnight accommodation.
        Best wishes, Pete. x

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    1. Thank you Dorothy, it was a wonderful adventure and I am overjoyed to have made it all the way to Compostela de Santiago! There were thousands of pilgrims on the trails, it would be fun to find out how Joanna did the second time around. Obviously she is hooked on the experience, Larry and I hope to do another one in 2024! Hugs, C

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  5. Thank you for sharing your enlightening experience with us Cheryl and you are both amazing and I know how tough the pilgrimage is on body and soul. Our friends in Madrid did the route in stages rather than all in one go and always came back refreshed in their hearts. A wonderful accomplishment which will follow you the rest of your lives, adding some extra layers of resilience..♥

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    1. Awe, thank you Sally for all your kind words and generous support. It was a challenging experience, but oh my goodness, it certainly leaves you refreshed and feeling absolved. We loved it so much we’re looking into doing the Portuguese Santiago in 2024. It’s slightly shorter and the path follows the coast of Portugal which would be amazing. Hugs, C

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    1. Thank you Elizabeth, it was a transformational experience and one I struggled to explain. I kept trying to find the right words and finally one morning I woke up at 4:00 am and just started writing. It was my prayer to inspire others to consider doing such a pilgrimage, but I especially wanted to open it up for people who are not religious, because everyone is changed by the experience. We’re still fighting the jet lag but I’ll keep you posted on how the experience feels when we get back to our “normal” routines. Thanks for diving into such a long read and joining me in the comments! Hugs, C

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    1. Hi Scott, thank you, I’m overjoyed my words had the capacity to draw you in and take you along the Camino with us! If you ever get the opportunity, do it! It’s life-changing and so worth the time spent away from your regular life and all those secular influences. Thanks for joining me on this most challenging of journeys, hugs, C

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  6. What a beautiful journey and post. I love the questions on the trail. And the idea of walking out from under everything we carry. There is something about long treks (I haven’t done The Way but I trekked to Everest Base Camp) that I believe has a way of showing us what is real.

    And you’ve written about it beautifully! Such a wonderful accomplishment both physically and spiritually. Thank you so much for sharing this with us, Cheryl!

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    1. Hi Wynne, thank you for diving into such a long read and sharing your observations! YOU CLIMBED TO THE EVEREST BASE CAMP! Damn, that’s impressive, and I’m sure you understand how difficult it is to find the right words to explain such an experiences. They simply defy explanation! But I tried. My intention was to inspire others the consider the idea of going on a pilgrimage, even if they are not religious, or have no belief in God. I’m still floating on cloud 9 and hoping to never come down. Hugs, C

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  7. What a fabulous achievement, Cheryl… It sounds magical and glorious what an experience my max in one go is 26.2 miles and I know what feelings that invoked.. I can only image the feelings this challenge would leave on your very soul… unforgettable.. and then there were the pillows. 😂

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    1. Hi Carol, oh my, I love the way you describe a challenge such as this, one that reaches “your very soul.” I found it nearly impossible to put such an experience into words but that didn’t stop me from trying. I so glad it sounded magical because it was (aside from the pillows) and I hope to inspired others to do the same. Thanks for the lovely response, hugs, C

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  8. Omg how incredible! You had some amazing experiences and I am so glad you shared all this with us, I always enjoy reading post like these although now I want to try walking the Camino de Santiago but I just know I’ll give up in about five minutes 😂

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    1. Hi there Pooja! Thanks for taking the time to dive into such a long read. The words kept spilling onto the pages and they just wouldn’t stop. It’s hard to describe an experience such as this but if I have you considering walking the Camino then that is a win in my opinion! You’d be amazed at what your body can do when necessary! Keep the idea tucked away in a safe place. Maybe some day…Hugs, C

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  9. Hi Cheryl,

    I confess! I really missed reading your blog while you were away. However, this was worth it. What an adventure. What an opportunity. While reading it, I felt a yearning to be there too. I pictured it as a chance to make a clean break. A chance to reflect, cogitate, and really figure out who and what you want to be for the rest of your life. You have officially left your pre-retirement life behind. Walking the walk, hiking through history. Making the pilgrimage like so many that have gone before. Just wow! The excitement of travelling. Meeting new people. Tasting great and different foods. Learning to suffer on rock hard pillows (note to self, skip this.) As I think about it, I wonder when can I also make a clean break? Thank you for sharing this great experience.

    My favorite passage: “ Larry says, “I didn’t know if you were going to make it,” and his voice cracks.
    “I didn’t either,” and now I’m openly crying.
    He puts an arm around me, giving me a little kiss, “you did it.”
    “We did it.”” This brought a tear to my eye. Reading this conveys the pure feeling of a couple who care deeply for each other and will be there for each other through thick and thin.

    I would ask what is next, but I can tell from the comments it is the Portuguese Santiago. Can we come too? (insert Gail wince here.)

    Love Roger Miller. But your post deserves better than the Whistle stop, aka Hamster Dance.
    So, had to choose between Pilgrimage by REM which feels more pagan-ish vs this, which better conveys the uplifting spiritual Jubilation you undoubtedly felt at the end of your odyssey.

    Thanks for posting.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Mike! Well if you missed the blog, I missed your comments, and music! And yes, you and Gail are ever so welcome to join us on the Portuguese Camino! That one travels along the coast, very little elevation changes, and you can only imagine the scenery. We’re thinking the end of 2023 or early 2024. Of course all Caminos end in the Compostela de Santiago, with certificates, stellar sunsets, and amazing meals! I wonder about the efficacy of a second Camino? Would your mind respond similarly or are there new insights still awaiting discovery? I can only hope and imagine. The passage you noted in your comment about Larry and I overcome by the reality of such a denouement, really encapsulates the emotion of completing such a journey, I cried when I wrote it, and you felt it reverberating from the words. That’s sort of amazing. It’s such a privilege to write, but when someone actually feels what you were trying to convey, it makes the struggle for words all the more worth it. Thanks for reading and responding to our life-changing adventure, adding the perfect musical accompaniment, and here’s to future Caminos! Onward…hugs, Cheryl

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  10. Well Cheryl, the only appropriate word I can think of is, CONGRATULATIONS! You and Larry have done something truly amazing and I thank you for so richly sharing your journey. The pics were awesome and that Cathedral was spectacular.
    There is something special in accomplishing such a difficult trek and I understand how it’s impact stays with you long after the journey is over. May your body, mind, and soul be continually refreshed, and as always, Best Wishes! Leigh

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    1. Thank you Leigh, it was truly life-changing, all-encompassing, miraculous adventure and one I highly recommend everyone add to their bucket list. Even if you only do a small portion of the walk, it’s so worth it, and revealing. Narrowing our vision allows me to weed out the unimportant stuff and narrow in on my real purpose. It was revelatory to say the least. Thanks for diving into such a long read and joining me on the journey. Hugs, C

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  11. Thank you for sharing your trip of a lifetime Cheryl. You are a warrior woman girl. Kudos to both you and Larry for your embarking on such an incredible journey. Welcome back! ❤

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    1. Hi Debby, thank you for accompanying us on this long and arduous journey, it was a challenge, but so was diving into such a long read. I’m so grateful for you and that you are traveling with me through this crazy life. An enormous pleasure indeed! Hugs, C

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  12. Amen, Cheryl! Thank you so much for letting me glimpse your amazing experience. I got all the goosebumps and teared up at the right time and everything. The pics are gorgeous. I’m thrilled for your journey. I’d love to do that with my husband some day. And I missed your writing. Welcome home!

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    1. Hi Rebecca, thank you, I so appreciate your camaraderie on this journey we call life. It’s challenging no matter where we are or what we do so I love that you walked with us, cried with us, and got the goosebumps! I hope you consider walking the Camino some day with your husband, I would love to read your take on the adventure, and what you discovered along The Way. I missed you too, and it’s is lovely to be home. Hugs, C

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  13. C, I’m SO PROUD of you. What an amazing life and spiritual pilgrimage for you and Larry. You’re such an inspiration to me. I saved this post and have read it twice today. Your writing soothes my soul. I understand how you missed it. I had taken a hiatus, had to,…and a friend sang James Taylor for me at the benefit. I’ll think of the wise pieces in the post about learning to “do your own thing”. I found myself copying many paragraphs that stood out to me~and there were too many to paste to mention here. You could write an entire book about this exemplary and life-altering pilgrimage. I cried with you many times while reading this {and giggled at times, like always}. You bring us, the readers, right along with you through the beauty of your words, tempo, language,…the pictures are breathtaking. I feel blessed to have read this, to somehow be a part in just experiencing the way it impacted you. You’re winning at life. You know the secrets and I thank you for sharing them with all of us! I love you so much and am blessed to know you. 💛💕🙏🏻🥰

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    1. Oh my goodness Karla, you’ve been doing a lot of reading! I keep seeing you pop up on over the place. I love it. Thank you for diving into such a long read and then reading it twice! For pondering my words and experience and allowing them to inspire you. That was my wish when writing. And I agree, there is so much living packed into a pilgrimage although we walked mostly in silence, the interior of my being was lite up like the 4th of July. But I believe this can happen in so many ways. Meditation comes to mind, but also illness, grief, and suffering are portals in which we are given access to our deepest selves, to the raw untethered person underneath all the bullshit we’re conditioned to think is important. Right? Well, soft pillows are important! I love you so very much Karla, and I too feel blessed to have found you, and connected so powerfully. Hugs and love, C

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      1. I must be over-emotional C,…your response made me cry again. I’ve dodged, stepped in, fell in, and gave out my own BS! “Untethering the soul” is definitely the key to the liberation and finding our truest self. You’ve done it beautifully. I had missed you and it felt an honor to spend time at your “place”. I have several saved to read again and again! About hard pillows~about a month ago it was time to buy new pillows,…like good shoes, I don’t spare expense and am embarrassed to admit how much I’ve spent on pillows (some only to give my kids and others ~do they know the value? Lol). I was so excited to find my newest pillows on sale! I THOUGHT I really needed one firmer (due to bone pain…ugh). I was CERTAIN I was making the right decision. After two nights, and not being able to return it, I had regret!!!! It’s sitting, like a boulder, in my back room. When I read about the hard pillows, I giggled…ONLY because I understand. In reality, it’s no way funny! I’ll never understand why I remain “batting” .500 on pillows! BTW,…I had to put in “batting” because of my years on the field and seeing Larry in the KC hat! Yay! I love you dearly, C! 💛💕💚

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  14. This is GREAT WRITING! It’s late and I’m beyond exhausted and way backed up on my correspondence, but I read and enjoyed every word. Your commenters are correct ~ you not only know how to say it, you know what to say. Six thumbs up. 👍

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    1. Wow, thank you Ana, what incredibly kind words you have written. I’m so appreciative and humbled that you read and enjoyed every word of my Camino essay! That means the world to me! Hope you found the rest you needed during the weekend and are feeling restored. Hugs, C

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  15. Y’all are perfect and I admire your marriage and friendship so much. I know y’all have to feel so proud of your accomplishment. I couldn’t help but laugh about the bag of mushrooms and how Larry pushed you along. LOLOLOL
    I totally would have thought there was a chopped up body in there bag as well.

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    1. Trust me Belladonna, Larry and I are so for removed from perfect, it’s actually comical. He’s all action and reaction, I’m prone introspective and my observations can be rather annoying. We view life from such different lenses and it has derailed us mores times than I care to admit. I tend to share our more positive encounters so it can appear we’re more cohesive then the reality. We struggle every day to find the good in each other, bandage up the wounds so they don’t continue to fester, and that requires a healthy sense of humor and tons of compassion. Right? As you noted, he pushes me forward, while I’m communing with purple flowers. It obviously works, this month we celebrate 39 years of wedded bliss rooted in periods of marital unrest. I think this is how we Grow, Damn It! In my opinion, you have an ideal relationship, loving but active children, all of you focused on goals, aspirations and a healthy lifestyle. You’re life is enviable and I love reading about it in your amazing blog! 💕C

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      1. Your imperfections makes you perfect. Recognizing that you haave flaws, fix them as best you can and stick together to create healthy memories. Sounds about right to me. My husband can really work my nerves and I him but he’s my person. LOL
        Yes you are right, you must be doing something right, 39 years of marriage (Congratulations), prooductive children and both of you are adventurous. Sounds like a win to me!
        Thank you for your support.. I really mean that.

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