Days 1 & 2:

5000 feet gained in elevation, 22 miles walked, 478 miles to go! On 4/30, I arrived in St. Jean by myself as Will took a later train to spend more time sightseeing in Bordeaux. I switched trains in Bayonne and entered a train full of pilgrims and backpacks. As we arrived, the train erupted in Pilgrims.

I followed the stream of Pilgrim’s up the hill and found the Pilgrim’s office in order to get my Pilgrim’s passport and attached the scallop shell to my pack making me official.

I dropped my pack at the albergue, stepped out into the cobblestone street and was suddenly so overcome with emotion that I burst into tears. I felt such a rush of gratitude and joy that I was actually here and undertaking this journey at this transitional time in my life. Luckily, I was wearing sunglasses so was able to collect myself before drawing any stares. I wiped my face off and proceeded to check out the gorgeous town.

I met another pilgrim, Ivana from Connecticut and we got some wine as she told me she had been planning this for 15 months and was here to renew her faith. Will arrived later, we all got dinner and then I got to experience my first albergue…about 15 people in a room, a chorus of snores (a snorus!), and very little sleep for me. Still jetlagged and already on 2 nights of little sleep, I started my first day of walking on about 3 hours sleep.

At 6am, I showered, repacked my backpack, met up with Will and headed out of town to climb the French Pyrenees. Some walk up and over in one grueling day, but we decided to break it into 2 days so had booked at an albergue in Orrison, a town on the French side of the Pyrenees. It was beautiful and sunny and as we walked out of St. Jean, there were streaks in the sky overhead that looked like the scallop shell that is the symbol for the Camino and the marker that guides you along the 500 mile path. Talk about your good omens.

The scenery was beautiful and the walk was all uphill and got steeper as we went. The irony of this walk is that the steepest and most dangerous part is day 1. Unfortunately many have died walking over the Pyrenees, especially when there is bad weather. We passed a few red-faced, puffing Pilgrims and on the steeper parts, I could really feel my lack of sleep and at times felt a little dizzy and nasceous.

We arrived in Orisson around 11am where there was one small albergue.

We got to handwash some clothes, hang them on the communal line, and sit and chat with the others also staying there. At 6:30pm, we had a communal dinner, about 50 of us, and they served chicken, peas, potatoes, bread, and many lovely carafes of red wine. After dinner, one of our hosts said, “A tradition we have here is that each person tells us where they are from and why they are here.” I had heard many different languages throughout the day, but everyone now spoke in English or at least made their best effort. The people in the room were from different places from all over the world from places like Namibia, Denmark, Ireland, Tasmania, Germany, South Korea, France, Spain, New Zealand, the U.S, England, the Netherlands to name a few, and then they shared their stories. Some were there because friends had encouraged and inspired them, others had religious reasons, some had health issues they were overcoming, some were there supporting their partner’s Camino dream, and one young man in his 20s from Ireland said, “I lost my mom 6 weeks ago and now I find myself here.” Another man from the U.S.in his 40s said his wife lost her long battle with cancer a year ago and he was walking this for her. A German woman said she was struggling with muscular dystrophy, so was walking while she could. She had actually started her Camino by walking out her front door in northern Germany and was walking this Camino for the third time. The whole experience was really moving and afterwards I had a new appreciation for the people in that room who weren’t strangers anymore.

Day 2: I slept in a room with 3 bunk beds and 6 people. Three were from Tasmania and had strong Aussie accents and called me what sounded like Raaaytch. They were a family: a couple in their 40s and their sweet 8 year old daughter Lily. You see Pilgrims of all ages but she was the youngest I’d seen so far. Thankfully, no one snored, so I had the best sleep, and woke up at 6:30am refreshed and ready to put in a full day of walking. We had a communal breakfast at 7am and we all greeted each other like old friends. We headed out into a thick mist, and I felt a little concerned as some have died during bad visibility by walking off cliff sides, but after a few hours the visibility improved and I was so thankful that at the last minute I threw gloves in my pack. It drizzled here and there and towards the top, there were patches of snow.

Sadly, we also came across a lot of markers indicating Pilgrims who died there.

Overall, we had about 3 hours of lots of uphill, an hour of some steep downhill and then for the next two and a half hours, it flattened out, and the weather warmed. The landscape was just stunning and the ground was covered in leaves.

We emerged from the woods into a town called Roncevalles where most Pilgrims stop and stay but we pushed on another hour to the small village of Espinal.

We had walked from France to Spain and I was elated to be back in Spain. I had moved to Madrid, Spain after grad school for a year in 1995 and this was very life-changing and defining for me. I learned the beautiful language of Spanish which opened up my worldview and gave me a fearlessness of travel that led to going to about 40-50 countries in the two decades since. In many ways, coming to Spain feels like coming home. We settled into our new albergue (13 beds in the room this time), took showers and headed to our communal pilgrim dinner.

Afterwards, we hung out in the pub with the Irish guy I mentioned before who was really interesting and had lived in Beijing for several years. The next day was supposed to be another tough and long walking day and I found I was completely looking forward to it. My body and feet felt great, I felt like I’d been hungrily drinking in the beautiful nature around me all day, and I looked forward to meeting more of my fellow humans on this crazy walking journey.

T-Minus 1 day

After about a 20 hour travel day yesterday, I’m now on a train from Bordeaux, France on my way to St. Jean Pied-de-Port in south western France near the Spanish border. This is where the French Way begins, the most popular route of the Camino de Santiago. I read recently that an average of 400 peregrinos (pilgrims) a day have been leaving from here as the weather turns from winter to spring. Well, add two more Americans as my friend Will and I are going to start walking from there in the morning on May 1st. I’ve known Will for years and as an avid trekker and traveler, he decided a few weeks ago to come join me for the first week of the Camino, and I’m glad he did. It’s easy to be braver with a travel buddy. We had a 6 hour layover in London, so we hopped on a train into central London, had some very large beers and pub food, and we did some hasty sight-seeing around Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and the Houses of Parliament.

Then when we landed in Bordeaux around 10pm (on about 3 hours sleep), we headed out in search of what the city is famous for…the wine. We found plenty, met some really nice European guys in their 20s and chatted and laughed until 1am.

It was an excellent beginning as I’m realizing that one of the things I am most looking forward to is the people part of this journey. I went to Burning Man for a decade even though I despise intense heat because of the sense of community there…people just simply being kind to each other. This is one of the central elements of the Camino by all accounts as I’ve often heard of the Camino “families” that form on the road. Hopefully I’ll keep this positive outlook as I experience for the first time dormitory-style bunk bed accommodations (called albergues). As a light sleeper, my love of community might sour after a few nights of a room full of snorers :). But then again after long days of walking, I’ll probably be so dead tired that I might be snoring away myself.

T-Minus 2 weeks

4/17/19: Today is a Wednesday. It is nearly a year and a half after I submitted my sabbatical proposal, and now I must soon literally walk the walk. The Weds after next on May 1st 2019, I will begin walking the Camino de Santiago taking the French route (Camino Franc├ęs), which is a 500-mile pilgrimage across northern Spain that should take 33-35 days of walking 6-8 hour days to complete. Right now as I sit at my computer with my cat on my lap this seems pretty daunting.

Why blog? Just trying to write about this journey and what it means feels daunting, but I will be documenting it because reason#1, as part of my sabbatical, I’ll share my story with my students as part of my fall class theme: “Challenges, Failures & Persistence” (I really hope this story is not one of failure!). So as I share my journey, I will try to be honest about my struggles, push deeper in my reflections, and also try not to commit the cardinal sin of being boring. Also, I’ll be doing the majority of the walk alone, and yet I’m the type who does not like doing things alone. I feel awkward eating by myself in a restaurant, I feel weird going to a movie by myself, and I felt lonely the one time I’ve traveled out-of-country by myself. While I do want to challenge this in myself, I write this blog for reason #2, so I can also draw strength from knowing my friends and family can join in on this journey with me.

Background: I’m not an athlete. Never have been. I used to run semi-regularly in my 20s and 30s and for the past 8 months I’ve been walking regularly, but I have never gone on a hike longer than 6 hours and I’ve never carried a loaded pack longer than 3 hours. That this will soon change is an understatement. Also, 2019 has already been a year of dramatic challenge and change for me. In December of 2018, after years of feeling like we were living largely separate lives and did not get along like a couple should, I asked my husband to end our marriage after 6 1/2 years together. He moved out last month. So far I’ve been enjoying a much better friendship with him, we’re both happier, but there are still feelings of sadness and loss. Additionally, my mom was recently diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s, so we have been working together to adjust to this new normal while ensuring she can continue to live on her own safely. For the first time, I’ve had to intrude on her privacy and start the process of managing her financials, being her medical-care advocate, and most importantly figuring out our new relationship in which I take on more of a caretaker role and she is open and trusting enough to let me. The last change of 2019 was me turning 49 in January. There’s nothing like staring down the mid-century mark to force you to take stock in your own health in all of its meanings. As I head into this walk and have nothing but time to think and reflect and to have to rely on and push my body in ways I never have before, I hope to emerge stronger in body, mind, and spirit, or something less new-agey sounding :).

My first walk with a 22 pound loaded pack at the beginning April 2019:

Contents of my backpack–every ounce counts! Two days ago I changed out my 45 liter pack (above) for a smaller 28 liter pack. I also did what you aren’t supposed to do…I returned the hiking boots I had been walking in for the last 8 months as they had just recently given me blisters on a particularly hilly hike. I replaced them with lighter hiking shoes I need to pretty much live in now before I go.

The things I’ll carry: After meeting with a friend who has done this walk, reading countless blogs, and looking at various people’s packing lists for the Camino, here is what I have which with water now comes in at 19 pounds…about 4 pounds more than I’d like but things are already bare-bones for over a month of travel! Contents: 3 quick-dry shirts with sunblock; 1 pair of pants, 1 pair of shorts, 1 pair of hiking shoes, 1 pair of flip flops; 1 water resistant windbreaker; 1 long sleeve zip up; 1 dress to wear in the evenings (the one luxury item for relaxing in and not walking in); 4 pairs of underwear; 4 pairs of hiking socks; 2 sports bras; 1 day-pack; 1 shower bag (with soap, shampoo, deodorant, etc); concise map of hiking stages; packets of energy and protein gel; gear bag (charging cords, adapters, carabiners, laundry lines/soap/plug to wash clothes in sinks, etc); quick dry towel; medicine bag (with Ibuprofen, Pepto, electrolytes, anti-inflammatories from my doctor as I have developed tendinitis in my left foot from training); 2 liter water bladder; pack of kleenex and ziplock trash bag (when I’m trapped between towns and need to go!); sunblock; brush; hiking pole; rain covers for pack and self; 1 massage ball to rub on sore feet, back, hips; 1 scarf/headband; a sleep sack sprayed with bed big spray as I’ll mainly be staying in dormitory-style places called albergues with other pilgrims and sleeping in bunk beds (another first); and for the snoring and noise of dormitory-life: ear plugs, eye mask, and sleeping pills! And finally, an item I never thought I would have assembled: a Feet First Aid Kit–my poor little size 6 feet need to carry me and my pack over many many miles, so I have one bag dedicated entirely to feet: foot powder, foot glide, foot lotion, band-aids, sports kinesiology tape, waterproof tape, compeed blister cushions, gauze, alcohol swabs, needle and thread for blisters, neosporin, cortizone cream, clippers, emery board, scissors, and more band-aids!

Stripping down: Those are the contents of my pack now, but every Camino blog I’ve read and video I’ve watched have a repeated theme of stripping down…leaving behind things you thought you couldn’t live without, dropping weight you were carrying but didn’t need to, trimming down to the essentials. The life metaphor is pretty clear here, so I’ll reign in my English-teacher self from putting too fine a point on this.

Well, I hope I’ve piqued your interest and you will come on this journey with me…every word of support will mean everything especially when I’m out on that long road stretching out endlessly ahead.