Ribadiso da Baixo to O Pedrouzo is a 20km walk—the second to last day of the Camino. Leaving Ribadiso, pilgrims walk along an old country road to Arzua: pastureland, cows, farmhouses. Along the way to O Pedrouzo, they can stop to smell the eucalyptus forest straight out of Lord of the Rings. (Not really: it just looks that way in pictures.)
This is the last day of the routine that began 23 days ago in St. Jean Pied de Port; the last day of the new normal.
Life on the Camino has a particular routine, determined by how far one is walking that day and what time they need to check in at an albergue. Here’s how I imagine our days would have been:
5am(ish): Wake in the dark. Change into walking clothes—or better yet, sleep in them so you’re ready to go. Roll up your sleep sack, put on your hat, grab your walking poles, sling your backpack over your shoulder and be out the door. (There is no fixing hair. There is no need to look in a mirror.)
7am(ish): After a couple hours of walking, stop for first breakfast—coffee and a pastry.
Walk, alone or with others.
10am(ish): Second breakfast. Something a bit heartier.
Walk, alone or with others.
Noon(ish): Lunch. (Or wait until destination, depending.)
Walk, alone or with others.
1-2 pm: Arrive at destination. Find your bed at the albergue, which ideally you reserved the day before. Shower. Wash clothes (in the sink, in the washer, or in the shower, depending.) Hang wet clothes to dry.
Or: Stay in a hotel. It’s not that much more expensive, and it’s an option if you want a better night’s sleep and a bit more privacy.
4pm: Siesta: everything is closed. Chill and read a book. Or blog. Or post videos. Or sleep.
7pm: Dinner—usually the pilgrim’s meal, or a meal of the day, eaten in community. (A starter (salad), a protein (beef or fish) and starch, dessert and either beer or wine. After several days of a pilgrim’s meal in a row, it will begin to feel a bit monotonous.) Talk. Meet people. Share histories.
10pm: Albergues close, and you have to be in for the night. They’re run by the church and the municipality, so they’re clean but sparse. This is dormitory living, sleeping in bunkbeds. This is respecting the needs and space of the people around you, while trying to carve out your own tiny niche.
Read by light of the Kindle.
Every day for this blog, I’ve used google maps to chart the path from town to town. Google’s default is to travel by car; the algorithm simply doesn’t assume that one will be crossing a country on foot. Today’s walk—straight through, no stops—was estimated at four hours, ten minutes. It would only take 22 minutes to make the drive.
To some people, I understand, this makes absolutely no sense.
And for most of life, I agree: the point is to get there faster, without a lot of fuss.
But the point of the Camino is simplicity. Getting down to basics, spending the time in your head, searching your heart. For many, the Camino is a religious pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. There are churches along the route, daily masses for pilgrims. I’m not Catholic, but it doesn’t seem like it would be that difficult to get into it, to see the journey as not just one of the body and the mind but of the spirit.
This is the pilgrim mindset: we’re on a journey through life.
Pilgrims on the Camino have a particular greeting: Ultreya! (Also: ultreia.) It translates to “Onward!” or “Persevere!” and also functions as a salute, given in solidarity.
I am not, today, where I planned to be on my journey.
I thought I would be near the end of my trip to Spain, the hard-won miles behind me, a kind of clarity opening up in my mind: this is what I should do, this is how I should be.
This last year has been rough for me, even before the pandemic. I’ve questioned choices, ended relationships, wrestled at night when I should be sleeping with big questions. Maybe it’s just being 44 and feeling restless—the midlife crisis that in theory I should be able to squash with a flashier car. Up until this point, I’ve always been pretty good at glimpsing around the corner to see what’s coming, but that’s been elusive lately. I don’t know what’s coming or how to plan for it. I don’t see the next possibility, the next opportunity. I’ve been feeling stuck.
The Camino, I thought, would unstick me.
In the many blog posts I’ve read about the Camino, this is a common theme: the Camino changes you. It stays with you, long after you’ve returned to your house, your job. For many pilgrims, this isn’t a one-and-done. They come back, walking a different route, or another section of a route, again. They stop at their favorite albergues, talk to their favorite innkeepers, try to get back to that moment when everything felt so clear.
I wanted to be changed.
But I have to believe it can still happen, in some other, different, unexpected way.
Palas de Rei to Ribadiso de Baixo (25.6km/16 miles) is a walk through the province of Galicia—white wine country, known for its el pulpo (octopus) and torta de Santiago (almond cake)—which has a heavily Celtic cultural influence dating to the 5th century. The countryside is dotted with horreos, raised wood or stone structures on pillars that used to house grain. The towns are small, the landscape rural. Ribadiso is not even a village—just an albergue surrounded by fields.
This stage of the journey is marked by heavy crowds. At this point, we would have been two days from Santiago and four days from home.
At this point, I’m four days from finishing my blog.
We’ve been doing a little project at Casa de DeBoard—a landscaping design for our front yard, which we’ve been mostly ignoring for the better part of seventeen years. It has a rose bush I’d like to pull out, some non-exciting shrubs, a box hedge, and a large weed patch that we call a lawn and have faithfully watered and mowed just so the neighbors don’t hate us.
The new plan calls for us to rip out all the grass (… goodbye, weed patch!) and put in stones, bark, and drought-resistant native plants, meant to grow in ridiculously hot and mostly arid climates.
The process has revealed how very little I know about plants, but it’s been interesting, too—each plant I google has a history, can be traced back to so and so’s arrival in the New World. It’s funny to think of plants being carted halfway around the world, how the colonizers really just wanted to pick up the Old World and move it with them to their new place, like they were loading up a U-Haul and carting things across town.
Maybe wherever we go, we want to protect ourselves from change.
I like to think that the people who walk the Camino—a spiritual walk, following ancient paths—are well-intentioned, that they leave light footprints on the places they have visited and come away changed by the experience.
But I’m on some Camino Facebook groups, and I see complaints about people leaving behind their trash on the walk—notably, toilet paper—but other things, too. There are people who bus their way through the Camino, stopping in small villages for stamps in their passports and overrunning local cafes before getting back on the bus. And then there are the complaints from disgruntled travelers: about the owners of albergues, the quality of the pilgrim meals, all the little things that didn’t meet their expectations.
I wonder what it would be like to live and work along the Camino route, to come into daily encounters with pilgrims—weary and crabby and overwhelmed or loud and festive and obnoxious. Like any tourist-centric economy, people make their living from the pilgrims who pay to stay at the albergues, eat their food for first or second breakfast, make demands to arrive late and leave early and be accommodated at all hours. There is a sense of entitlement that sneaks along, packed into a tiny pocket: I arrived late at the albergue and the owner was grumpy and didn’t want to let me in! Well, duh. I suppose the owner wanted some sleep, too.
I have been, as a traveler, hyper-aware that the people who serve my food couldn’t afford to eat in the same restaurant. (I know I don’t have to travel outside of my city to experience this.) I’m aware that there’s a role I’m playing: the entitled traveler, but also the person who is pumping money into the system that allows my server to pay their bills, feed their family.
It’s not an easy balance.
A few days ago at the grocery store, the woman behind the register thanked me for wearing a mask. She was wearing one, too—for an eight-hour shift, presumably, while I was just dashing in for… and here I will sound like the most entitled person in the world: a cup of quinoa needed for my turkey meatloaf.
“It’s not a big deal,” I said.
She smiled at me—yes, you can see that, even in a mask. The mask means you have to look a bit closer, actually look people in the eyes to have an interaction. “For some people,” she said softly, glancing around the store, “it seems to be.”
This has become, weirdly, a dividing line in society.
It seems like such a strange hill to die on (maybe literally).
In the past, I didn’t think much about the little droplets of air expelled each time I breathe or talk or laugh, but these days I imagine them landing on the arm of elderly person, on the gallon of milk that will be picked up by a young parent and brought home.
If we can tread lightly, I think we should.
It’s not a difficult way to exist in the world.
Portomarín to Palas de Rei (24.3km) crosses the Ligonde mountain range, which includes an ascent to Mt. San Antonio and a misty descent through the valley. Throughout the Camino, the walkway for pilgrims is marked by yellow arrows, but as I was reading through some blogs on this stage of the journey, I learned that it’s possible to miss an arrow and therefore make a wrong turn, which means backtracking, lost time, a longer day.
The Camino de Santiago has an official symbol—a scallop shell—which can be found everywhere along the journey and is often taken home on souvenirs. The scallop shell is a reference to the Atlantic Ocean—the end of the earth. Although the walk officially ends in Santiago de Compostela, Finisterre (the end of the known world, at the time people started making this pilgrimage) is another three days’ walk or a short bus ride away. (Among our group, there was talk of a scallop shell tattoo that was never fully scuttled. Does my non-walk walk earn me a tattoo at one of Modesto’s fine establishments?)
Road signs are emblazoned with the scallop shell; it’s painted on buildings and fences and walkways.
Still, apparently, it’s possible to get lost.
In the months leading up to the Camino, when I had things to worry about other than a global pandemic, this was the kind of thing I worried about: getting lost on the Camino. Also: my knee dislocating (again), blisters, bathrooms that wouldn’t be entirely private, and not sleeping.
But mostly: getting lost.
Some people are born with a sense of direction—it’s innate, not taught by a map or an app. Will has this; I’m convinced you could drop him blindfolded from a plane and provided he survived the landing, he’d be able to walk his way home without looking at his phone or stopping to ask for directions.
I was not born with this skill.
It may seem like an exaggeration to say this, like I’m making my directionally challenged self sound more directionally challenged to get to some kind of punch line. But no.
What I’m about to tell you is true.
When I started teaching at UC Merced, I met a friend who didn’t have a car and used the Cat Tracks public trans system, which is free and reliable although not necessarily convenient. I was happy to drop her off at home on my way from campus to the freeway—although it was a slightly different route than I normally took. And herein was the problem: every single time, she had to remind me where to turn, what lane to get into, when I’d passed the final turn onto her street. Every. Single. Time.
It’s become a bit of a joke, but still, even as we’re laughing about it, she has to insert a quiet, “Turn left here.”
I don’t always know where I am, but if I do it’s because I’ve memorized the route to get there. Google Maps and its predecessors have made most travel painless; I don’t even have to think, just follow orders. Sometimes it goes on the fritz, though—a lost signal, or a sudden roadblock that causes me to backtrack, reroute.
In my late twenties and early thirties I wrote for a real estate publication—this was before the housing crash in 2009. The job was easy and mostly fun, except that when I was asked to write about a new housing development, it was often in some new area with street names that hadn’t yet made it onto maps. I spent a lot of time turning the wrong way, realizing, circling and eventually figuring it out. The photographer was usually there when I arrived, and sometimes nearly finished.
In those few minutes when I was lost—it was never more than a few minutes, although that time somehow managed to feel like hours—I had what I now know was a panic attack. My heart seized; tears welled behind my eyes; it was difficult to breathe. Sometimes there was a person around to ask for directions, but mostly, I had to talk myself into trying again: you can do this. There’s no reason to panic. You’ve always figured it out before, and everything has worked out fine.
I rerouted, tried again, and always survived.
I’m writing this at night, with an episode of The West Wing on TV and my husband on the couch next to me. “I need more examples,” I told him. “I can’t remember specific times I got lost, except every single time I’ve been in a hotel and I’ve turned the wrong way coming out of the elevator.”
“Well, there was Venice,” he said, not missing a beat.
Right. Venice. I was so disoriented at the lack of trees and the winding pathways between three story buildings, I wandered for an extra hour with my heavy backpack before finding the hotel, just off St. Mark’s Square.
“And then there was the corn maze,” he reminded me.
It’s true. I once got lost in a corn maze and had a panic attack. I was 32.
And then he said, “Most of the time you’re with me, so it’s hard to get lost.”
Today I used GPS to get me to a Rock and Ready Mix place five minutes from my house.
There’s no telling what would have happened to me on the Camino, with my #CaminoAmigos inevitably walking ahead, at a faster pace. I would have had to watch for the scallop shells, follow signs, be alert.
I would have had to trust that I could figure it out—eventually.
As this is the last stage of the Camino Frances—the last 100km before Santiago de Compostela—the route is much busier. There’s plenty of food, water and shelter, so long as you book ahead. The route passes through 21 villages from Sarria to Portomarín (21.9km), oak groves and Romanesque building remains. There’s a gorgeous medieval bridge over the Miño River into Portomarín.
What I loved was this bit of trivia: When the Belesear Reservoir was built in the 1960s, the old town of Portomarín was flooded. In order to preserve the ancient structures, they were dissembled, moved stone by stone and reconstructed in the new town.
This is a damn good metaphor—for what, I don’t know yet.
Yesterday, on my non-walk walk, I got sick.
It started on Saturday night around 9 p.m. I was reading There There by Tommy Orange which was fantastic, and I decided to push through and finish the last 50 pages. And then a weird thing happened (weird considering a day with very little physical activity and an hour-long afternoon nap to boot): I got so drowsy so fast that I could hardly lift my head. I couldn’t even turn a page.
Covid, of course, has me on edge. Back in March, it was not possible to cough without worrying if this was it. (As the memes say: Is that you, Rona?) At the time, I memorized the lists of symptoms and performed a sort of mental check each day: no cough, no fever or chills, no body aches, no difficulty breathing, no fatigue, no headache.
Still: blow my nose, worry. Wake up in a sweat (probably due to being a 44yo woman in a blistering not-quite summer); worry.
Saturday, I fell into an early sleep and woke Sunday with a screaming headache. I get maybe one or two headaches a year, at times when my coffee supply has run low or some unspeakable tragedy has prevented me from having coffee. But this headache was different—something pulsing behind my temples, sloshing in my head when I tried to get to my feet. I held onto the walls to get down the hallway; I tried to pretend everything was normal and so washed down ibuprofen with my coffee, wrote about 600 words in two hours (not a good ratio for me), walked the dogs, took my temperature (98.6) and practically crawled back into bed.
Where I slept for another five hours.
It’s Monday now, and this weird day of drowsiness seems to be behind me. I feel if not 100% then a good 85%, but it’s only 6 a.m. and as I’m writing this I’ve had exactly two sips of my first cup of coffee. In other words, I usually feel 85% at this time.
Also, a better sign of recovery: I woke up to see that the house was filthy. The other person who lives with me (he who may or may not be reading this blog) had left various shirts draped over various pieces of furniture—where he was standing, apparently, when he got hot. There was a heap of dishes in the sink, crumbs scattered over the counters and tabletop, a little pile of recycling that hadn’t made it to the bigger pile of recycling in the garage. Noticing that things are out of order and feeling like I have the energy to do something about it is a sure sign of recovery.
So, what was that?
A mini-Covid, mild as it comes? A bad case of allergies? My body telling me I’d earned a day off, whether I wanted it or not?
I really couldn’t say.
At this stage of the journey, pilgrims are tired. There are hundreds of kilometers behind them, but by the time they reach Portomarin, only 80 or so kilometers to go.
In the few races I’ve run, pre-knee injuries, this is the hardest stretch. The initial burst of energy is gone and the final burst, the one that propels a runner across the finish line, isn’t here yet. This is where stamina comes in, willpower, the refusal to give up and sit down and have a good little cry.
This is the stage to honor the body—thank you, Yoga with Adriene—to feel all the little bumps and bruises and blisters and appreciate them for what they mean.
We’ve come this far.
We can make it just a bit farther.
Note to self: you’re not invincible. Injuries can happen when you’re not careful (they can even happen when you are). If your body is telling you something, slow down and listen.
And also: Wear the damn mask.
There are many routes to Santiago de Compostela—but notably, the French Way, which starts in St. Jean Pied de Port, France (764km), the Portuguese Way, which starts in Lisbon (620km), and the Northern Way, which begins in Irún (824km). But there are people who begin their walks from all over Europe and hit one of these routes; it only takes a Google search to find people who have been walking for six months or more.
Not many people have six months—or a month, at their disposal. Many pilgrims do the Camino in stages—a week here one year, another week the next, until they’ve chipped away at the pieces and walked the whole route in a lifetime.
Along the journey, pilgrims get stamps in their Camino passport; in Santiago de Compostela, pilgrims get their official Camino document certifying their journey (the “Compostela”) if they have walked the Camino for religious or spiritual reasons, and if they have completed at least 100 km on an official route.
On the French Way, that 100km mark begins in Sarria; Triacastela to Sarria (21.9 km) would have been the last leg of the trip without huge crowds.
Does a piece of paper—like the Compostela—really mean anything? Our group said yes; we wanted to get the certificate.
I’ve acquired other pieces of paper in my lifetime, some of which I’ve faithfully retained, others of which have disappeared. I have several diplomas, and right now I have only a vague idea of where they are (a box high in my office closet?).
Last week, for my visit to the DMV, I had to get my paperwork in order: birth certificate, marriage license, SSN, documents that prove I live at my address. This caused no small amount of anxiety because although I’ve had my SSN memorized since I was sixteen, the card itself was more elusive. After searching old wallets and my “official docs” folder to no avail, I upended my nightstand drawer, which needs a good decluttering, and found it there. I have no memory of putting it there, and no idea why I thought this—amidst old gift cards I never used and wallet-sized photos of my nieces and nephews—would be a secure location.
As a citizen, it’s a special kind of privilege to not have to think about documentation. The social security card came to me through no great difficulty: I was born here, and at some point I asked for it. The birth certificate I presented at the DMV wasn’t the original (I’d been careless there, too, bringing it with me to college and probably tossing it out when I moved) but a certified copy that the attendant reviewed skeptically before allowing me to pass. I was there in the first place because my license had expired during the pandemic closures, and I’d been given a grace period to figure it all out.
It was humbling, for a very small moment, to have to prove who I was and that I deserved to be here.
And appropriate, in a week where the Supreme Court defended DACA, to think about how much a piece of paper might influence one’s destiny.
When I travel, I wear a money belt tight and low around my hips, my passport, credit card and any cash tucked inside there. I follow the rule of never leave anything important in the hotel. This was tested once when we had a 11 a.m. checkout from our hotel in Rome and returned from a visit to the catacombs at about 11:10 a.m. to find our belongings in the trash. (No problem—we dug them out and went on our smelly way.)
And I also follow another rule: never put anything important in your backpack. Once, waiting for a bus in Barcelona, someone unzipped my backpack and went through it while I stood there oblivious, alerted only when the bus driver stepped in, yelling at the thief. My backpack held only a map, sunscreen, and a water bottle, all of which were still intact.
Another time: Will and I were on a night train from Zurich to Paris, dozing uncomfortably in our bunks with our backpacks tight around our limbs so they couldn’t be pulled away when we slept. Suddenly, the door to our compartment opened and there were uniformed men with flashlights and German shepherds barking orders to us. Passports! Present your passports! It was like we’d fallen asleep and woken up in Nazi-occupied territory. Wordlessly, we dug in our money belts, handed over our passports, and stared at each other.
We’d spent weeks guarding our passports with our lives, only to hand them over to the first people who demanded them. What exactly would we do if we arrived in Paris for our flight back to San Francisco with no documentation? How did one get a new passport—at the embassy? How long did this take? How did we prove who we were without the appropriate paperwork?
It wasn’t until we crossed a border at some point the next morning that our passports were returned to us, and we finally felt safe again. Apparently, it was part of the process—an identification check—and not some kind of anomaly. We hadn’t been signaled out; everyone else in every other compartment had had the same rough awakening.
Still—it took a while for my heart rate to get back to normal.
After walking 764km to Santiago de Compostela—minus the meseta, of course—I would stand in line for an official piece of paper, fold it carefully and tuck it into my backpack, and someday not be able to tell you where exactly it was—a box high in my closet?
A pilgrimage is meant to be spiritual, a mark on the heart.
The walk from O Cebreiro to Triacastela (19.6 km; a nice “light” day) is a zigzagging descent down a mountain and through the valley, with panoramic vistas of pastureland and small villages. This portion of the walk contains one of the Camino’s iconic statues: a bronze pilgrim, leaning into the wind.
The descent, of course, is much easier than the ascent.
Or at least, in theory this is true. During and after the ascent, it’s the muscles that are sore, that demand ibuprofen (or even better, the pain patches you can buy along the route of the Camino, which aren’t yet available in the US). On the descent, it’s the joints—the hips, the knees.
This is where things can go wrong.
Yesterday was a mini-emotional rollercoaster.
The day began with a three-and-a-half hour visit with a dear friend. We’ve chatted over Zoom a couple times but haven’t seen each other since the pandemic began, and so: coffee, talk about life and teaching and truncated plans and coffee, tears, talking. My heartbeat did this weird uptick just to be out in the world, entering through her gate, fending off her tiny loveable dog. It’s been hard to find these moments.
Then, it was a rush home and another rush across town with Will, Baxter in his crate and LG on my lap for Baxter’s vet appointment. LG is smarter than she looks; she has no problem being left with Baxter but refuses to be left on her own. For his part, Baxter has a 15-year-record of horrible behavior at the vet. While we waited for our appointment—Will and LG outside, since only one of us could come in due to pandemic restrictions—Baxter circled the lobby and then the exam room approximately one thousand times, which meant doing a thousand mini-hurdles over the bar under the exam table. Every time someone opened the door, he tried to make a run for it—which was ironic, considering that his largest issue at this stage of life is his mobility.
It was a strange discussion, because at times we talked about treating him as if he had all the time in the world left—as if we were talking about some spry ten- or twelve-year-old. And also, we had the talk about what happens then, because it’s coming, and we all need to be prepared. While the vet talked calmly, I sobbed into my mask in the exam room and Will cried in the parking lot, and Baxter circled, circled, hurdled the bar under the table, circled.
At home we fell into an exhausted sleep, all four in different corners of the house. I had that feeling on waking that I’d slept through an entire day, that somehow it was the next day already and I’d missed my morning appointment. I looked at the clock: thirty-five minutes had passed. After another mini-nap, I woke in high-bitch mode, my default after unsatisfying naps.
It wasn’t the best state of mind to log on Zoom and chat with the Friday night anti-racist book group I joined a few weeks earlier. We’re three weeks into a discussion of White Fragility and it’s powerful to see people making realizations, owning and acknowledging. There’s a scrubbed-raw feeling that comes with this, a bit like running your heart over a mandoline. And yet, every time: hope.
And then: unwinding.
I tried to settle into a rerun of The West Wing, which is hard now, too, considering. It almost feels like a fairy tale, some bedtime story of a forgotten land. This is how government should work, kids.
In the midst of this: fireworks. We’ve been hearing them for more than a week now: sudden booms that shake the house and sometimes feel far too close, or distant crackles like static electricity. One of the benefits of being a fifteen-year-old somewhat placid beagle (especially after the one thousand laps) is that you can sleep through anything. But our ready-to-fight ten-year-old rat terrier hears all, and so: an hour of trying to calm her rapid heart, the realization that we are still fifteen days from July 4.
And then, a ping on my phone as I was settling into bed, into the breeze from a fan blowing in the window. An out-of-the-blue thank you from a student: thank you for encouraging me. [Cue heart-swelling music.]
I’ve been trying to come up with a theme for each day, for the walk (or the non-walk walk, as I’ve begun to think of it), and each day the theme somehow suggests itself.
But today all I can think of is, keep going. Keep moving. There is still good out there. There are people who care. Keep putting one foot in front of another.
The walk was never supposed to be easy.
Today would have marked the 2/3 point of our journey: a steady, sweaty climb from Villafranca del Bierzo to O Cebreiro, at just about 30 km (18 miles). The ninth century stone village of O Cebreiro is “an impossibly quaint hobbit hamlet” that “smells like wood fires, manure and pilgrim B.O,” according to Rick Steves (who in 20 years of travel has never steered me wrong).
At this point, pilgrims have exited Leon and entered Galicia, encountering another new language: Galego, a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese. There are seven more days until Santiago de Compostela; a good part of the journey behind, and a good ways to go.
I read some blog posts from other pilgrims about today’s journey, and one woman described utter exhaustion setting in only halfway through the route: every time she saw a town in the distance, she thought it was O Cebreiro. It had to be; she’d been walking forever; she had nothing left. But it wasn’t, and she had no choice but to keep going.
There’s no way to know what your own journey will be like, even with a roadmap.
Sometimes when I look back on the person I am today, versus the person I was five years ago or ten or definitely twenty, twenty-five years ago—I don’t recognize the older versions of me.
Things are about to get personal here.
This is your warning to leave.
For a long time, I allowed other people to define things for me—and that included defining me, who I was, what I could do. I was in my thirties when I raised my voice for the first time (not literally; but almost literally), when I thought that I might have something to say that was worth the effort, when I broke free from the things that had been holding me back.
I’m talking vaguely.
I can circle a topic for hours; watch out.
How to say this?
I grew up in a community where a woman’s highest calling was to be a mother. No problem. I figured that was coming down the road for me at some point. I had a mother. The women I knew were all mothers. It was so expected it was taken for granted; women who didn’t have children were anomalies, oddities, eccentrics.
And then, when I was 13 and experiencing such heavy cramps and bleeding I was in the doctor’s office repeatedly, I first heard the word ‘infertility’ mentioned in connection with me. The doctor said the word to my mother, maybe judging that I wouldn’t know what it meant or that I was too young to be part of the conversation. But I knew the church-word for this: barren. It was never once presented as a positive thing for a person to be.
Over the years, despite medications and painkillers and lost days each month and thousands of dollars in emergency care bills, my condition grew worse, and when I was 22, I had an operation that made infertility no longer a possibility but a fact.
For a decade, I drifted.
I went to everyone’s baby showers. I learned how to knit an eight-hour baby blanket (--full disclosure: it takes me twice as long, but that’s the name of the design.) I spent my time around people whose conversations revolved around their children’s milestones, parenting techniques, homeschooling. It was in many ways a loving and generous environment, but the span of the communal embrace wasn’t wide enough to include me.
I don’t mean this as an indictment of anyone else’s behavior. When I look back on those years, I see myself as the outsider who just didn’t have the guts to get out. It was hard to fit into the group. I had to use my elbows to claim a little space, and it exhausted me. I kept doing: knitting, baking, trying to find my way to that common experience. But I had different interests, different ideas. I was teaching, I was reading, I was studying. Looking back, I’m sure I exhausted them, too.
It wasn’t until I went to grad school that I finally made my exit from the circle. In a way, it was terrifying. Those were the people I knew and loved, even if we didn’t understand each other, even if we had different vocabularies. I didn’t know where I belonged, who I was when I wasn’t trying to camouflage myself. But also, of course, it was a relief. I became a person who wasn’t defined by a deficit, but by the qualities I did have and the things I could do.
The process of becoming, like leaving the cocoon, has to be painful and terrifying at times—otherwise, you haven’t really come that far.
In many ways, I’m the latest of the late bloomers. It took me a long time to figure out who I wasn’t, and then who I was.
It took me a long time to learn that I could speak, that I had a right to speak, and that maybe there was even some value in what I wanted to say. It’s so funny to me that as a teacher, I feel I can recognize this in students so easily, this thing I couldn’t recognize in myself for so long. Here’s a person who needs a little nudge. Here’s a person who is afraid. Here is a person who might need a word of encouragement to start on this path.
How long did it take you to write your first book? I’m sometimes asked.
There are practical answers, like a year of the first draft, another six months for a second, other revisions at later points.
But also, a more honest one: 37 years.
At 30+ km (18+ miles), the walk from Molinaseca to Villafranca del Bierzo was slated to be our longest day on the Camino. According to travel blogs, it’s not the loveliest day of the walk—it’s mostly on a gravel path through industrial areas. The big draw is the 12th century Castillo de los Templarios in Ponferrada, and of course, wine.
Not every day of the walk is supposed to be lovely or exciting.
Some days, the walk just is.
One of the things I appreciate most about yoga—along with the fact that this old body is slowly, slowly, growing more firm and flexible—is the way it embraces the moment. Yoga makes you think about the moment you are in, the way your breath goes in and out, how every part of your body is connected. The moment itself is important, not something to be rushed through, not something to take for granted.
Unfortunately, it’s also the hardest part of the practice for me.
When I sit on my yoga mat, I remember Elizabeth Gilbert in the ashram during the “pray” portion of Eat, Pray, Love, where she’s learning to meditate and for a long time, she literally can’t do it. She can’t stop her mind from wandering or her body from giving up; she can’t reach Zen.
I sit on the yoga mat and remember the email I need to reply to, the letter of recommendation I promised to write, the laundry that needs to be transferred to the dryer. Stop, I order my mind, but ten seconds later, I’m back there: take out the trash, text Mom, read to chapter 5.
Then my knee starts to complain, and I have to shift positions.
Sometimes the moment is elusive.
Sometimes the moment is painful.
I’m not good at living in the now.
I’m a planner, so I’m always looking ahead—or rather, worrying ahead, at what’s coming just around the corner. (You may not know that I’m an anxious person. I once wrote a book about this, but most of my friends thought the character with all the fears was quirky and not based on a real person: me.)
Yesterday I went to the DMV to renew my license that had expired in the midst of the pandemic, and I worried about this for days ahead of time. Would I have the right documents, would I know where to go, what if I didn’t pass the written test, what if people weren’t wearing masks? Reader, it turned out to be fine. And it wasn’t even a written test, but a VISION test— which I passed. The whole process took twenty minutes and afterward I sat in my car, mask off, laughing, and decided to treat myself to a giant Diet Coke.
So yes, that moment.
The pandemic shifted how I think about time, how I prioritize, how I plan. I’ve developed some new routines—I now write from about 5:30 to 7:30 a.m., before dog walks and before the day really gets going. Then yoga or yard work, depending; shower and an hour of reading, working my way through possible texts for my fall syllabus. And then—it goes off the rails for a bit, and I really couldn’t tell you what I do during the afternoon.
I’m trying to honor the moment, what I need at that particular place and time. If I need a nap, I take one, and be grateful for the extra hour. If I end up watching an hour of TV and if that turns into two—okay. Maybe I needed that mental break, the chance to not be in my own head.
Maybe the connection between yoga practice and watching an extra episode of America’s Next Top Model (season 21, y’all) needs closer examination.
Tomorrow we’re taking Bax to the vet to have the end of life conversation—just a conversation, but that end is coming and already I’m waking up at night in a sweat, sick about it. I’m trying not to let my mind go there, to trust that I’ll be ready for it when it comes. Better to be in this moment, with my lovely, dependable old boy circling in the hallway, trying to find the right spot for his morning pre-walk nap.
There’s an Annie Dillard quote that I love: How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
It may not look beautiful, this walk on the gravel path, this daily to-do list being slowly whittled down over the hours, this stolen cuddle with a faithful beagle.
Sometimes it just is.
The walk from Rabanal del Camino to Molinaseca—25km—gets to the highest point of the French Way (1515km) and then begins a long descent. It’s one of the most important days for pilgrims, as it includes the Cruz de Ferro (the Iron Cross). It’s basically just that—an iron cross on top of a five-meter wooden pole, possibly erected as a landmark for pilgrims, although its disputed history has it being constructed by ancient Romans, the Celts or St. James himself. It’s a reflective place with stunning vistas: from there, you can ponder how far you’ve come and how far you have left to go.
The Cruz de Ferro is surrounded by small rocks carried by pilgrims from their homelands. When a pilgrim leaves a rock, it’s symbolic of leaving a heavy burden behind.
On a very literal level, I am from a rock family. I don’t know how many people can truly say this, because I have no idea how many people collect rocks, display them, show off their latest finds like a good report card. When I mentioned my family’s hobby to a friend of mine in grad school, she said, “I literally have no idea what you’re talking about. There are people who do this?”
I nodded. There are indeed.
My family collects rocks. My family knows something about the geology of the rocks they collect, and also has an aesthetic appreciation for what is an interesting rock and what is just a… well, a rock. As a result of this interest, my family has spent quite a lot of time combing rocky beaches in rather chilly locales, walking the wrack line, stuffing the pockets of our windbreakers. The worst thing you could do to my parents would be to plop them onto a sandy beach with no rocks or shells to discover. Our vacation collections might get pared down, but still, a significant amount of rocks come home from each trip and end up in decorative bowls, or on mantels. It’s not unusual to visit my parents’ house and hear a rock tumbler tumbling away in the garage. It’s also not unusual to visit their house in March, after their annual trip to the Arizona Rock and Mineral Show and be expected to listen to detailed descriptions of their latest acquisitions: a stunning piece of tanzanite, a glittery geode.
I should mention that I didn’t inherit this rock gene, and that a good portion of the time when I’m with my family, I have to fake it. Fortunately, I married a guy who knows about rocks, and he picks up the slack for me. (However, it was somewhat alarming to see, when Will and I moved into our first apartment, that he had brought some giant hunks of obsidian with him.)
Over the years, I have conceded to allow various rocks into our married existence, and I’ve even found myself picking up the odd stone here and there, zipping it into the pocket of a backpack where I might encounter it months later. What is this? Why do I have it in my backpack? We have a small display of stones next to our record player (see picture), including these personalized ones from our dear friend’s wedding in Wales. (Now that was a rocky beach.) But these are the rocks we’ve collected from various places in the world, and not necessarily the home rocks a pilgrim might carry to the Cruz de Ferro.
Each May, after a busy semester during which I promised myself repeatedly that I would get the backyard in shape bit by bit and then proceeded to do nothing at all out there—I embark on a yard project.
This requires many gallons of water, multiple audio books, various lawn implements and a lot of physical labor. There are winter leaves lurking under bushes, spring weeds sprouting in the middle of the lawn, trees that should have been trimmed months ago, bermuda grass that has gained a foothold in the flower beds. Each May I dig and toil and develop a startling flip flop tan and halfway through tell myself I should just give up, hire someone else to do it. But then I look around and realize I’ve made some progress, and I keep going.
Inevitably this process upturns some stones—tiny pebbles, surprisingly hefty ones that feel, when the spade first hits it, like I’m striking a long-buried bone. I’ve begun to collect them—it’s possible I did inherit this gene, after all—in a flower pot, these little treasures from the earth, working their way to the air.
I would probably have brought one of these backyard stones with me to Spain, just a small one to not weigh down my pack, an unassuming one, a humble one.
A very Modesto kind of stone.
Astorga to Rabanal del Camino: 20km under tree cover and alongside grassy fields, with a 250m rise.
And this warning from caminoadventures.com: “Take food and fill your water bottle before leaving Astorga. It is only 20.2km to Rabanal; however it is 20.2km uphill all day. Make sure you have money to last two days until Ponferrada. There are a few villages where you will certainly get water, but food cannot be guaranteed until Rabanal, except during the summer months.”
There are some cardinal rules for pilgrims on the Camino: Don’t pack too much. Bring earplugs. And of course: Always fill your water bottle.
In the second week of March, when the United States suddenly began to take the pandemic very seriously all at once, I started making a grocery list. It was a rough plan for three weeks or so of meals, and I double- and triple-checked it, to make sure I hadn’t missed any essential ingredients. Will and I decided we would go together on Friday night when he was off work, a sort of divide-and-conquer approach.
And then Friday morning I was in a Zoom meeting with my colleagues and shit suddenly became very real. Pardon the French, but that’s the best way I can describe it. I logged off, put on my shoes and sent Will a text: Can’t wait until tonight. Going now.
Unless you were on the moon, you know what happened. The Winco Foods near my house was crammed with people; the check-out line stretched to the back of the store and wrapped back around. Forget about getting any toilet paper or ramen noodles. There was a high level of panic lurking behind each exchange. This was before masks and social distancing; up until that point “social distancing” had been something I’d seen only on a meme. Everyone was stressed and desperate and scared and on their cell phones at the same time, taking food orders from their families.
Somehow, I forgot the carefully made list in the car and once inside, I started throwing everything I could find in my cart. Chili beans? Sure. Pinto beans? Why not. Garbanzo beans? Obviously. We hadn’t made pancakes in years, but I threw in pancake and biscuit mix, popcorn kernels, oyster crackers, instant oatmeal, ten kinds of soup, five kinds of cheese. I grabbed giant packages of chicken breasts and elbowed my way toward the ground turkey.
If I hadn’t spent my life reading dystopian literature, I wouldn’t have understood what was happening.
The pandemic isn’t gone, but we’re thinking about it different now, three months later. I’m back on weekly shopping runs at Winco, early on Saturday morning before non-mask-wearing people are awake and mobile. (On the DeBoard’s menu for June 15-19: blue cheese burgers; creamy chicken taco soup in the crockpot.) We have enough, and then a little more—especially if you count all the cans of beans still stacked in the garage.
When I started writing this #TheOtherCamino blog, it didn’t seem like that overwhelming of a task. I would have taken snapshots in Spain, of course, and uploaded them each night we had wifi access. There would be an endless stream of new material—the people I met along the way, the peculiarities of each albergue, the bite of something that made me sick. (If anyone on the trip was going to be sick, reader, it was me. See also: throwing up on my visit to the Oracle at Delphi in 2002. See also: me vomiting on a crowded bus to Bilbao in 2007.)
But I’m not in Spain, and life is definitely quieter. If I took daily snapshots, they would be of the same things: my summer-lazy dogs, my backyard, the reclaimed space in my writing room.
As a writer, there have been times that I worried the well would run dry, but somehow it keeps filling, tapping into deeper sources. It’s there, dormant, until needed.
This is the effect of keeping an ear to the ground, eyes open, curiosity primed. Overhear something interesting in line at the post office, write it down. (This is theft, yes, but falls under the fair-game exception.) Click on a crime story, follow the links, lose an hour of time but end up with an idea, nebulous and nagging. Join a Zoom writing group, find a spark of something--genius? trash?--and fill three pages in ten minutes.
It’s pretty amazing how that happens, this little miracle.
It’s amazing that I only need a few basic things to keep going: food, water, shelter, love, hope, a Zoom with seven women from all around the country laughing over a funny line.
It’s less than you might think.
Paula Treick DeBoard