THE OTHER CAMINO
A BLOG ABOUT POSSIBILITIES
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.
Burgos to Astorga is 222km—not a hike, a bus ride. When we planned our walk, we had to look carefully at dates and distances. The full French way takes about 35 days, but the four of us had only cobbled together 30 days of vacation. We figured we could cover 20-25km each day, but to make it to Santiago de Compostela within 30 days, we would have to skip part of the Camino. Our decision was to skip the meseta, the flat and open plains of central Spain which can be brutal in the relentless heat of summer. Some hikers say it’s the best part, that the desert has its own stark, lonely beauty. Others say it’s brutal—there are no villages or people for long stretches, and it’s as much a mental challenge as a physical one.
At halfway through our trip, it seemed like a good day to take a break, and a bus.
It seemed like a good time for a rest.
Of all the things I’m bad at—and this is not a short list—resting is somewhere near the top.
I have a personal form of restlessness, either a quirk of personality or something hardwired into my DNA. I say that because the older I get, the more I become my mother. Neither of us can sleep past five in the morning. Both of us fill our days and then some. My mother, upon retiring after decades of teaching, promptly went back to her school as a daily volunteer. (And she loves it; this pandemic has been very hard on her.) As it is, I’m forty-four and haven’t been able to commit to just one career.
The truth is, I like being busy. I’m a somewhat anxious person, and I quash that with activity—long-range goals, short-term plans, a daily to-do list that I take great pleasure in writing and even greater pleasure in slicing through with a pen. It’s a way to account for my time, and it satisfies some of my more obsessive tendencies.
It’s been hard to keep busy over these last weeks. Today I’m turning in my excellence review materials—160 or so pages that are supposed to prove my worth as an educator. It’s a relief, because this is not my favorite kind of writing and I’ve had to butter myself up each morning to open my laptop and begin another page. But I’m also staring into an abyss—the empty hours that have been filled with this task for the last month.
Seriously, send help.
The truth is, I often wish I could be a different person—someone who packs a bag and heads to the beach and just relaxes for the day. I wish that I could really binge something—whether the final seasons of America’s Next Top Model that I’m watching as I eat lunch each day, or maybe the last season of The Handmaid’s Tale, but I start to get anxious when I’m sitting there for too long and inevitably, I reach for the to-do list again.
I don’t know, yet, how to get to the root of it.
The truth is, most of the time it serves me well. I juggle busy days; I get things done.
It’s just that at times, I can’t turn it off.
Last night we went to a fundraiser for our dear local theater, the Prospect Theatre Project—a drive-thru dinner and drink pickup. There was a Shakespearean sonnet booth, and an actor recited Sonnet 116 (which was the only one I could remember offhand) into the open window of the Mini: Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments…
It was heartening to see so many people there, in a line of cars that stretched down 13th Street and wound through the alley behind the theater. We’re the same people who would have crammed into the theater in pre-pandemic days, waited in line for the bathroom during intermission or lined up at the bar.
Will and I had packed some lawn chairs, and we ate our dinner on the lawn in nearby Graceada Park, site of our beloved Concert in the Park series each summer except this one. The Mancini Bowl amphitheater was empty except for two teenagers throwing a ball back and forth. People wandered by with their dogs, and we drank our Chekhov’s Cherry Orchards (cherry, lime and heavy on the vodka) and felt as normal as we could feel in this strange time.
And for one single, precious hour, my mind was at rest.
San Juan de Ortega to Burgos is a 25km walk through small towns—Agés, Atapuerca, Villalval, Cardenuela de Riopico, Orbaneja, Villafria—on the way to Burgos. The largest city on our walk, Burgos has more than 350,000 residents, their modern lives coexisting with castle walls and the French gothic Cathedral of St. Mary. Burgos has a rich history; a few keystrokes and I found myself reading about El Cid, born nearby in 1043; Columbus’s visit to see Queen Isabel after his second voyage in 1497; and how Burgos was Franco’s operations center during the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939.
Near Atapuerca, the oldest discovered human remains dating to 750,000 years ago were found in a shaft known as ‘the Pit of Bones’. And then there are more recent bones, from more recent tragedies.
Back when we were planning this trip, I ordered a book called Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and its Silent Past by Giles Tremlett—something to orient me in place and time, something that wouldn’t scrub clean the country’s history like a tourist pamphlet. It wasn’t an easy read, beginning with a description of a mass grave dating to the Civil War/Franco era being exhumed. In fact, it’s estimated there are more than 2,000 of these mass graves dotted around the countryside, and it’s only within the last decade that there is national interest in having them opened, the bones examined, atrocities confronted. Franco was in power until 1975 after all—not such a very long time ago.
It’s easier not to dig up the past—literally.
I’ve heard this argument a lot recently. Maybe you have too, unless you’re smarter than me and don’t peek at the comments section of any media site. Why are we talking about something that happened hundreds of years ago, something that has no possible connection to my own life?
The problem is that if you don’t delve into the past, if you don’t look it head on and say, this is what happened, this is how horrible it was—you’re diminishing the past. It becomes easy to gloss over it, to rewrite a rosier version of history in which neither your ancestors then nor yourself today can bear any guilt.
It’s simply easier to sweep it under the rug.
Yesterday was a fun blog post (aliens! abandoned air strips in the middle of nowhere!), and today is something different.
In my real-life journey, I decided I would enroll in some kind of class this month, something that would take my mind off the fact that I wasn’t sweating buckets each day as I walked across Spain and fortifying myself with a bottle of rioja each night. At about the same time I was looking through some course options online, George Floyd was laying on the ground, an officer’s knee pressed to his neck, pleading for his life. A movement started, one that feels different this time, and I decided in my own scared, tentative way that I was going to peel back the corner of the rug and peek underneath.
I started working my way through this Justice in June document (seriously, click the link. I’m doing the 10 minutes a day version, although it often leads me down other rabbit holes of research and it’s easy to lose an hour or two), and started saving the recommendations for books and podcasts and movies and articles, and it ended up that this was the class I was taking: a self-paced study of America’s racial past (and present).
It’s been bleak and sobering.
I’m a fairly educated, fairly well-read person, and what I’ve been discovering is the history that wasn’t taught to me, not by teachers or textbooks or lived experience. Ten days into this self-study, I’m reeling from the impact of things I didn’t know—or knew, but in a dim way, like suspecting there’s dirt under the rug but not doing anything about it.
Redlining: the practice of keeping black people out of white communities, supported by the US government and real estate firms, banks and local and state governments. This was not just in the South. It was not a post-Civil War practice that died out sometime in the late 1800s. This happened all over the US. It happened in Iowa, in Maryland, in Berkeley. It was state-sponsored segregation as well as economic discrimination that prevented people of color from achieving that most basic of ideals, praised generation after generation by white America: the American dream.
It’s not pleasant to confront these things. It’s easier to think racism was a few horrible dudes in white hoods rather than a system that has oppressed some and elevated others.
Today, I went down a Civil War rabbit hole, which meant cuddling on my bed next to my rat terrier and listening my way through the episodes of UnCivil. (It’s an excellent podcast, and it’s worth your time, too.) It helps to debunk the most pervasive of American myths, ones that those random people in the comments section are still promoting: the Lost Cause narrative, the myth of slaves serving (willingly) in the Confederate army to protect their own enslavement, the revisionism of “states’ rights,” the truth about the statues to Civil War generals.
I can understand why people in Spain haven’t wanted to dig up the graves.
I understand wanting to close the history book or turn off the podcast. It's hard to process information, to understand the way that lives--yes, mine too--have been shaped by this invisible hand.
It’s nicer to romanticize the past, to give it a vintage filter and crop out the ugliness.
But it’s always going to be there.
And at some point--now feels like that point—it needs to come to light.
Belorado to San Juan de Ortega is 24km, mostly hugging N120 and passing through small villages with less than 100 inhabitants. The blogs I read online had warnings about a lack of ATMs and few places to find food. (Note to future self: stock up on energy bars.) The main attraction in San Juan de Ortega, which has only 20 (!) inhabitants, is the cathedral, which contains the sarcophagus of San Juan, the patron saint of fertility. (I mention this as a side note… it’s not of personal relevance.)
The pandemic has kept me near home, away from people. My ailing beagle has me housebound, within arm’s reach. It’s fair to say that my non-journey has begun to drive me crazy.
Today’s big plan was to drive our hazardous waste (some old fertilizer, sprays and solvents, and two 10-pound canisters of old batteries courtesy of my parents) to the county’s hazardous waste disposal, about ten minutes from our house.
It was the farthest out of town (… more specifically, out of my house) I’d been in a while.
But this morning, I said to Will, “I need to go somewhere.”
“It doesn’t matter. Somewhere that isn’t here.”
He nodded sagely. “I know just the place.”
Hello, and welcome to my photo diary from June 12, 2020.
We started at the Stanislaus County Hazardous Waste Disposal, took Crows Landing Road to Highway 33 through the town of Crows Landing, and then turned on Ike Crow Road. This is the “west side” of the county, bisected by Highway 99, which runs north-south through California. This is farmland: nuts, peaches, cattle, large ranches, small pastures with scraggly-looking goats. To the west is I-5 and a constant stream of semis, and beyond that, the Diablo Range, brown and humped in the distance. (Like brown elephants? Oh, shut up, Hemingway.)
By the time we turned on Ike Crow Road and a sign that announced this road was no longer being maintained by the county, I was pretty sure we were in for an adventure.
This is one of the great things about my husband. (Others: he puts together good playlists, is a solid pet parent, and kills the big household bugs with only minimal screaming/prompting.) He likes weird things, off-the-beaten path places, stories and legends. Also—you might know this, and if not, it may seem a little jarring the first time you hear it—he likes aliens.
At some point, the deteriorated road became a blocked road that only a very small Mini and two intrepid travelers could navigate. We made our way slowly onto what was once a Navy airbase, built in 1942 to train pilots for landing on aircraft carriers. At one point it was more than the barren, weed-choked strip of land we found, having barracks, a warehouse, hangars, a school and a baseball field. (It was jarring to see a school crossing sign in literally the middle of a weedpatch.) Approximately 1600 people lived or worked there in its heyday. In 1946, it was decommissioned as a wartime base, but it was later used to test the Lockheed QT-2PC, one of the first stealth planes.
Eventually, it was taken over by NASA in 1993, and it was rumored that aliens were stashed there in an underground facility. You can YouTube it; there are UFO sightings from the runway. (So my alien-loving husband tells me.) It was closed in 1999 and in 2003 there was an EPA clean-up, presumably from jet fuel and not just alien parts. The abandoned buildings, seen as hazards, were torn down in 2013. My nephew reported that when he was in high school—within the last decade—people went there to drift on the runway, which if you’re like me and not necessarily a car person, is harder to picture.
Today, it’s desolate—only a cracked runway overtaken by weeds, some used tire sculptures, a couple of smaller outbuildings and an air traffic control tower. It looked like it was possible to go into the tower, and I dared Will to do it, but the path was filled with waist-high weeds and the threat of snakes. (I didn’t see snakes, but I did see something that seemed squirrel-like and yet too big to be a squirrel. Possibly alien.)
Even though we could see traffic on distant I-5, it felt like we were the last people on earth, except for the driver of the white truck that drove parallel to us a few hundred yards away and kept us in its sights at all times. It looked like a CDF (California Department of Forestry/Fire) truck, with a red stripe and logo that was hard to make out at a distance, but to go along with the alien theme, MAYBE IT WAS FROM A SECRET GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENT THAT DID NOT WANT US TO DISCOVER EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE.
It was an unsettling feeling, being only half an hour from our regular life and so far away at the same time. On our way back to the main road, I looked behind me in the rearview mirror, noting a swastika painted on the door of a shed, hanging open. I shivered. Even in the middle of nowhere, we need our symbols of hate.
We drove through Patterson, just a few miles away, with its quaint city buildings and system of roundabouts, to the Jack-in-the-Box near I-5. It’s strange how, when you’ve been going absolutely nowhere, fast food is almost a panacea. It’s probably the salt and fat and the fact that someone other than me had cooked the food I was about to eat, but biting into that deluxe cheeseburger felt like a small miracle.
We didn’t want to leave Baxter for too long, and we were home again soon, round-trip three hours. It was our little adventure, a perfect nugget of time.
The walk from Santo Domingo to Belorado is 22km, mostly on gravel roads along the N120, a highway in northern Spain. On this stage of the journey, pilgrims leave La Rioja and enter Castilla y Leon—farmland, small towns, charming cafes, chorizo.
At this stage, more than a third of the way through the journey, but with such a massive part remaining, pilgrims might begin to doubt their ability to keep going.
At this stage of my blog, more than a third of my way through this non-journey journey, I’m wondering if I can keep going.
It’s not like my life is particularly difficult now. I’m on summer vacation from my teaching job, and since I was supposed to be on the Camino, I have literally nothing scheduled—a calendar of blank days that I’ve been filling with books and blog posts and Yoga with Adriene and (when Will isn’t home or when he’ll agree to tolerate it) a slow binge of America’s Next Top Model.
The backyard, my project for May, is done. I’m tackling small things: a new curtain over the kitchen window. I have plans for new throw pillows, a new coat of paint. I’m watching over my dear dog’s slow decline.
And yet, somehow things feel overwhelming. I’ve woken the last few days with a weight on my chest that wasn’t my nine-pound rat terrier, but something less definite, more troublesome that has been hard to shake during the day.
Things feel uncertain, on macro levels and micro ones.
Our world feels like it’s in chaos, moving in giant but bumbling lurches toward change, voices drowning each other out, reflection at a minimum. I keep trying to slow it down, to digest, to mentally tackle one thing at a time, but that doesn’t happen. The crawl keeps scrolling, keeps giving me more than I can handle.
In my small world, I’ve been chipping away for four weeks on my teaching portfolio, which is due July 1 and which will amount to more than a hundred pages of reflective writing. Philosophy statement. Contextualization of evidence. Frequent references to PLOs and CLOs and SLOs. (If these acronyms are gibberish, stop and be thankful for a moment that you don’t work in education.) Evidence of student learning. Teaching evaluations. I’m nearly there; a day of hard editing and I could be hitting ‘send’.
In my small world, I’ve sent a draft of a novel out into the world, and I’m waiting to hear back. I always feel this way at the end (at least, for the moment) of a project—great relief followed by a hollowness, the realization that I won’t be waking every morning to spend two hours inside the narrator’s mind, seeing the world through her eyes. The sense of a project being finished always leaves me at a bit of a loss. Now what? I have the time to dig into something new, to really get some words down and do the hard part of sketching out a plot and experimenting with a character’s voice.
Things are uncertain, unsettled.
I’m trying to be positive right now. There (very likely) will be a teaching job for me this fall, even if I’ll be waving hello over Zoom all semester long and wondering what my students actually look like. At some point there will be news on the book front, and one day I’ll have a new idea knocking around inside my brain.
Right now, I’m in the in-between, the long, quiet stretch of the journey.
I was going to end there, but it feels pretty bleak. Or maybe just real.
But then I thought about what it would take to be settled now, to feel firmly rooted, on course. The world would have to be a different place—less hurt, less division, less talk, more action. We’re just not there.
Maybe the weight on the chest, the lump in the throat, that caught in-between feeling is where I (we) need to be right now.
Nothing ever changed by being content.
Nájera to Santo Domingo de la Calzada (21.3km/13 miles) is a relatively flat walk through farmlands, with huge sky vistas, small towns and their churches: Azofra (Parish Church of Nuestra Senora de los Angeles), Cirueña (The Parish Church of St. Andrew) and Santo Domingo (The Cathedral Santo Domingo de la Calzada). The cathedral in Santo Domingo is famous for its “miracle of the chickens,” a somewhat gruesome tale that I’ll link here.
If you’ve seen the movie The Way, you know that walking the Camino is as much about community as it is about one’s personal spiritual journey. And if you haven’t, don’t worry, you’ll get the gist here. There are four main characters: Dr. Thomas Avery—played by Martin Sheen—a somewhat staid dude walking the route in honor of his dead son—Emilio Estevez, who pops up every now and then; Joost from Amsterdam, walking to lose weight and make his wife fall in love with him again; Sarah, a Canadian ostensibly walking to quit smoking but really fleeing an abusive husband and her own past; and Jack from Ireland, a writer with writer’s block.
The Martin Sheen character clearly wants to be left alone to brood and walk the miles and try to understand why this journey was important to his son, but he’s not doing very well on his own. (If I remember correctly, he rests his backpack on a bridge and it falls into the water below, which has got to be Camino 101 level.) Anyway, it’s only when the rag-tag bunch of travelers hitch their wagons (it’s a metaphor; there are no wagons) to him that he begins to open up to them, embrace his and their humanity, and truly experience the beauty of the Camino.
To be honest, as characters they’re all fairly annoying.
But to be honest, so am I.
We made our plans for the Camino as a foursome who has spent a lot of time together but never actually traveled together. (In pre-pandemic life, we had talked about a short camping/hiking trip in the spring, and of course… COVID-19… and it never happened.) On the Camino, we would have met more pilgrims in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and walked with them—at least, ended up in the same cafes and albergues as them—each night, our group shifting when someone was sidelined for blisters, when someone was sick, when someone was feeling especially adventurous and decided to push on ahead to the next town.
We would have built our own little band of pilgrims, looking out for each other, following each other on Instagram, making connections that lasted beyond the Camino.
In real life, I’m not seeing the same people I used to see, before the pandemic and the world went on lockdown. I’ve only been in my car a handful of times since the university where I teach switched to remote instruction on March 13, and I’m still on the same tank of gas with 70 miles remaining, according to the dashboard gauge.
Every day, I walk. When Will isn’t working, we take the dogs for a morning walk before the heat of the day descends on us—a short, slow loop to the nearby park with a rat terrier who occasionally needs to be held because things like sprinklers scare her, and an aging beagle who needs to wear orthopedic shoes to keep his footing on the sidewalk. At night, we walk again, just humans this time. Once or twice a week, we reach out to others—my mom, our friends—for human connection, and we walk.
It’s not the Camino, but it’s a journey together.
We have begun tentatively seeing others—Will is back in his office; we’ve invited small groups to our large backyard for wine, firepit, and talks. We’ve visited with Will’s family twice.
I’ve been on social media more, and despite the times I foolishly try to correct or inform a stranger and end up in a comment spat, I’ve been grateful for my friends there, too. A ‘like’ or a smiling emoji isn’t the low bar for human communication anymore; it means something in this moment.
I see you.
I care about you.
You matter to me.
I’m not a big texter—I’m more likely to turn off notifications or put my phone on do not disturb for vast swaths of the day—but I’ve been exchanging messages with a few friends and family members regularly: a morning check-in, a newsy update, pictures of our dogs.
And then there’s the world that happens on Zoom. Sunday night Treick Zooms, with my parents, three sisters, one to two nephews and the occasional appearance by my chubby-lovely great-niece in Guam. Wednesday night writing group Zooms, far-ranging, laughing-crying, wine in hand. EG Zooms (can we do another, please?) and Zooms with friends far away. I’ve joined some Monday afternoon writing workshop Zooms, a monthly book club Zoom that rose from the ashes of COVID-19, a Friday night anti-racist book group Zoom that is reading its way through White Fragility and having the hard conversations.
Occasionally, there will be a sighting of a masked friend at the grocery store, or someone from church (thank you, Janet!) dropping off a book on my front porch, a friend walking her dog at the same time I’m walking mine.
Wherever (and however) you are, you find your people.
Logroño to Nájera: 29 km/18miles, but without steep inclines. The walk passes through Navarette, famous for pottery, and includes vistas of fruit orchards and vineyards, churches, cathedrals and monasteries.
The idea with the Camino is that you pare down, live simply. You only bring what you are willing to carry, and so you only bring the bare essentials. The pilgrims eat simple evening meals together, typically three courses—cabbage soup to start, fish or pork for the main dish, and then dessert. The sleeping and showering arrangements in albergues are rustic—bunk beds, no-frills bathrooms. And then, of course, there is the walk.
One foot in front of the other, day after day, to Santiago de Compostela.
I had the following on my packing list (most of which is sitting sadly in a box in my closet):
2 short-sleeve shirts
Long sleeve shirt
2 pairs of leggings
A sari (for skirt/dress/privacy curtain)
(PJs) Tank and boxer shorts
2 sports bras
3 pairs of underwear
REALLY GOOD SOCKS
Sleeping bag or sleep sack
Tiny quick dry towel
Health kit (ear plugs, eye mask, sunscreen, meds)
Toiletries (toothbrush/paste, body bar, comb, razor)
Phone (charger, adapter)
Journal and two pens
One backpack – 30L or so
A stone from home to leave at the Cruz de Ferro
Will and I once took a long trip (seven countries in thirty days) with only our backpacks—different, larger ones than we would take on the Camino. I brought three changes of clothes with me and washed them in the hotel sink every other day, and at the end of the trip, I was so sick of them that I held my backpack upside down over the trash bin outside our apartment and shook it out.
Clothes for the Camino have to be no frills—cute shoes that aren’t comfortable will literally mean the end of the trip, anything that chafes will be a nightmare, and things that don’t do double-duty have to be considered carefully. It’s not about how you look, and essentially, with these packing lists, everyone is going to look about the same, anyway.
It’s about living simply.
It’s about paring down.
Here in my 1,000 square foot house, I have way too many things. I honestly don’t know where most of them come from, but they can’t all be blamed on Will. We went on a house diet a few years ago, and then, when we turned around, things had crept back into our lives—papers, magazines, empty boxes and bags, well-intentioned gifts we don’t use. I’ve set some strict rules about when I can buy new clothes (only when I’m getting rid of old clothes), and still—there are too many shirts and skirts and dresses hanging in my closet, which is especially obvious during a pandemic, when the only outside people who see me are neighbors and my people on Zoom.
(Also, thanks to the pandemic, I have an empty bottle collection that is threatening to take over the garage.)
Some of my friends, I’m sure, think I’m too obsessed with paring down, probably due to a dozen Facebook rants and a bit of Marie Kondo worship.
This is probably obvious, but it’s not just about the stuff. Yes, I like to be able to walk down the hallway without walls of junk caving in on me. But things have begun to feel like an emotional burden to me, not just a physical one. They have a weight beyond what can be measured on a scale.
I’ve begun to feel the same way about people, although it feels a bit gross to admit that. But life is fluid—new people come into it, and the people who were there before may not occupy the same role anymore. Maybe this is a gentle drifting-away, maybe it’s a hard block on social media after a racist post that just can’t be ignored. (Maybe that racist post is one I would have ignored a year ago, scrolled past, rolled my eyes, shook my head. Sometimes it takes a while to see what is useless, who is harmful.)
The pandemic created its own paring down, of course. Whether we were looking to purge or not, it happened—planned trips, big events, birthdays, regular routines, all gone.
Something I’ve picked up in the midst of this is yoga, previously an occasional practice and now part of my new routine. (Will came through the room as I was writing this and wants you to know that he has been doing yoga with me, too.) My favorite part—and the part I struggle with the most—is clearing my head, pushing away thoughts, getting to a pure sync of mind, body and soul.
To get there, you can’t carry all that baggage with you.
You have to let some things go.
Los Arcos to Logroño would have been our longest walk to date: 27km (17 miles) over hilly land that is more difficult than it appears on a map. There are long stretches of exposed road on this leg of the journey, which other pilgrims reported could be tortuous in heat and rain.
In the blog posts I’ve read about this stage of the journey, people are tired. Injuries compound, small things like a blister take walkers down for days of R&R. Carrying all your belongings on your back becomes difficult; for a fee, pilgrims can pay to have their belongings delivered by taxi to the next stop on the route, and many take advantage of this service. It’s easy to say I wouldn’t be one of them, from the comfort of my own bed, propped up by pillows, a dog breathing at my side. But I’m trying to be honest here, and that includes owning up to my own weaknesses.
This is the shit-is-getting-real stage.
Will and I spent more than a year in pre-pandemic life planning this trip. Originally, he was going to go by himself—it was a whim I thought he would stop talking about in a week or two, and I didn’t get very excited. Then he got a friend on board, and I overheard the two of them talking, and reader, I actually heard these words come out of my husband’s mouth: Paula would never be able to walk for a whole month. She just wouldn’t make it.
Putting aside for the moment that this is probably an accurate statement…
Okay, moment over. If you know me, you know I seethed. You might remember that I once painted the entire exterior of my house because someone suggested I couldn’t do it myself. (It was damn hard, but not, as it turns out, undoable.)
And just like that, I was on board.
I was going to walk across Spain.
We had to get our ducks in a row—plane tickets, renewed passports, gear, training walks. I would have to submit my excellence review application for my job at UC Merced by the end of May, which would mean a mad rush of work in a few short weeks. We would have to figure out what to do with our house—have someone stay there, or pop in every now and then?
And then there were our dogs.
LG, our rat terrier/ball of fury, could easily stay with friends or maybe even my parents (although the sound of their dishwasher clicking between cycles apparently sends her into barking spasms). Baxter was another story. He was nearly fifteen and in slowly declining health, and we figured there was no way, no way, he would still be around when we got onto a plane on June 1.
And then the pandemic happened, life shifted, and home became my default location. While Baxter kept steadily going downhill, he was still getting around. When the weather was cool, I left the French doors open and he wandered in and out of the house. We celebrated his fifteenth birthday on May 2 with a plain cheeseburger from McDonalds, got him on some new medications that would make him less restless at night, and the days passed slowly.
We came up on the scheduled week of our departure for the Camino—the trip jettisoned due to the pandemic, of course—and Baxter was still here, still going for his daily walks, still as “food-motivated” as ever. We chatted with our fellow Camino travelers about this, and we came to believe that in that other, non-pandemic existence, Baxter would have been gone by then, drifting off quietly in his sleep, the best of outcomes.
And then a few days ago, he had trouble getting to his feet. He had a back injury three years ago, and since then, he’s had limited control over his hind legs, but now they don’t cooperate when he wants to stand, either hinging in front of him when he’s seated or sprawling behind him when he’s laying down (… spread beagle, we call this). To stand, he needs a little boost on the rear end. His walk is more sideways than straight.
We may be crazy dog lovers, but we’re realistic, too. A year ago we thought this would be behind us, the tears mostly shed, the trip a distraction from Baxter’s empty bed at the end of the hall. Now here we are, on borrowed time.
For the last few days, I’ve stayed close to him, doing my writing on my bed while he sleeps next to it, staying within petting reach.
It is a horrible thing, this pandemic. It’s claimed more than 405,000 lives worldwide in just a few months. People have lost jobs and incomes, and we haven’t come close to the end of it.
But for this one, brief moment where my dog is still here, and we can be with him, I’m grateful.
Paula Treick DeBoard