Greetings from Omaha!
After 22 hours of travel, I’ve arrived home safely!
How can I adequately summarize the last 6 weeks? It was filled with so many small, joyful moments and conversations with strangers from across the globe. I’ll never forget the endless fields of red poppies or bonding with multinational groups over things as silly as Pokémon. It also had so many large, “WOW” moments. I’ll always remember climbing to the top of St. Peter’s and breaking down after arriving at Santiago’s cathedral. And the journey had its share of sadness and pain through the death of my grandma and my injury. However, even in those sad times, I’ll always remember the faces of the people who helped me through them.
On Wednesday I had a full day back in Santiago before I started traveling home. I decided to take the bus about two hours west to Finisterre on the Spanish coast. Back in the day, the pagans thought that this peninsula was the edge of the world. They used the Roman roads to reach this town and engage in some ritual that involved burning their clothes and plunging into the ocean. While I contemplated burning my clothes because they’re irreversibly stinky after a month of hiking, I opted instead to just sit. Yup, I found a nice rock, and just sat staring at the water. I spent every day the last 6 weeks on the go. There weren’t many long pauses of stillness like this. I spent a few hours in the gentle breeze and light sun simply watching the water, seagulls, and occasional sailboat.
That’s what I’ll miss most about this journey: the simplicity of life. It’s been six weeks since I’ve watched TV, played Xbox, shaved, combed my hair, cared about what I look like, washed my clothes in a machine, driven a car, and slept in a room alone. I also greatly limited my technology use throughout the Camino. Temporarily cutting out some of these things from my life helped me to be more attentive to the moment. I disconnected to better connect with my surroundings. This is just one example of how I want to keep the spirit of the Camino going in my daily life. While I’m looking forward to shaving again, I hope to keep an attitude of simplicity by potentially biking to work and continuing to limit technology.
In reflection, it’s easy to identify a few ways that I’ve grown in the last six weeks. Pushing myself to my physical and mental limits made me more resilient and accepting of my limitations. Meeting so many people from across the globe gave me insight into what it means to be a global citizen. Visiting museums and historical sights has given me more knowledge and historical awareness. Simple living has taught me about the value of disconnecting and living in better harmony with the environment.
Because I am a teacher, I believe that my growth contributes to my students’ growth. This journey certainly affected both what I teach and how I teach. My newfound resilience gets turned into pep talks at cross country meets. By accepting my limitations, I can better help students who struggle to accept theirs. My awareness of the world helps me model and inspire students to become active and informed global citizens. My new historical knowledge creates new lesson plans and enriches my class content. Practicing simple living allows me to share personal examples of environmental sustainability. Living a reflective life helps me write and lead classroom reflections. In some way, every area of my growth betters the 80 young women I teach every year.
I’m happy to be back home, but am forever grateful for the opportunity to see the world. This journey has been such a gift every step of the way. I have to thank OneTraveler again, because without them this would never have been a possibility for me. They literally made a dream come true that will have lasting affects in my both my life and my classroom.
Greetings from Rome!
As I rest from my last full day here, I’m quite proud of all that I accomplished on my Roman itinerary this week. Refusing to use busses, I walked this city from north to south and east to west. There’s action on every block and people to watch in every piazza, so why would I skip all of that on a bus? (Plus, it’s not like I’m a stranger to walking at this point).
I’ll remember Rome as a marathon. I was always on the go from one thing to the next, hoping to see it all. And looking back, I feel like I saw it all. I learned about the Roman republic and empire at the Forum, Colosseum, and National Museums. I saw the center of the Catholic Church at St. Peter’s Basilica and Vatican Museums. I marveled at the architecture of the Pantheon and Castel Sant’Angelo. I stared at art by Michelangelo, Raphael, and Caravaggio. I ate plenty of pasta, pizza, and gelato. I had a beer with an old Italian man and played chess in the park (he won twice). I even waved to the pope.
Yes, this spontaneous detour was quite the success. I learned a lot from the eleven history museums I visited and the four walking tours I endured across the city. I’m a a better teacher because of this visit.
At most of the museums I skipped the tour guide, opting instead for my Rick Steves audio guide app. As I bounced from one museum to the next, I became really thankful that I didn’t join any tour groups. The groups really zoomed through entire museum rooms at lightning pace. Meanwhile, I take my time in each gallery, contemplate the art, and stop to read every placard. Plus, I have a fairly strong background in Ancient Rome and an even stronger background in Christian history, so I didn’t need their history lessons to catch me up to speed. Instead, I took it nice and slow to really grasp the deeper historical context. A great joy of this journey has been going at my own pace - whether I’m trekking the Camino or walking through an art gallery.
In all of Rome, I joined just one tour. On Sunday I found myself near the old Jewish ghetto and passed by a large synagogue. They had a banner advertising their museum, so I thought “why not?” and went through the security check. I found myself on a tour of the 100 year old synagogue. In the last month and a half I’ve stuck my head into at least a hundred churches, but this was only the second synagogue I have been to in my whole life. Our guide explained that the Jewish community in Rome extends back 2200 years to the Maccabean period. Each century brought changing conditions for this religious minority. Originally respected, they were viewed with suspicion after the Jewish revolt in Israel and the subsequent destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 AD. In Christian times, the fate of the Jews was up to the personality of the pope in power. Some times were good. Some times were hard. Antisemitism spread during the Renaissance and the Jews were quarantined into a walled ghetto subject to frequent floods. It wasn’t until Italy was unified in 1870 that they were free from the ghetto and from having to identify themselves with a yellow scarf or star in public. It was in this time period that this great synagogue was built in a Romanesque style. Of course, their freedom would not last long with the rise of Fascism and WWII right around the corner. The Nazis rounded up the first 2000 Jews for deportation and eventual extermination on the piazza right outside the synagogue. Just 16 of those Jews survived the Holocaust.
A lady in the tour group asked our guide what life was like for Jews in Rome today. Our guide replied that it’s hard because she feels like no one knows the Jewish story in Rome. They’re a small community of less than 20,000 and no one knows too much about them. I suppose that with all of the ancient history and Christian heritage in Rome, it’s easy for visitors and locals alike to overlook this small population. I mean, I only went into the synagogue because I saw a sign on the street. But my guide seemed passionate about spreading her community’s story, so that’s why I decided to relay it here on my blog.
After the tour, I followed the guide’s recommendation to a Kosher restaurant and tried the delicious fried artichokes. From there, I took a brief walking tour around the neighborhood. As I walked, I was disturbed and saddened by the occasional graffitied swastika and the strong police presence necessitated by a terrorist attack several decades ago. Clearly the Roman Jews still struggle with Italy’s long history of antisemitism. In a city that feels so “glammed up” for tourists, I saw this neighborhood in both its flaws and its glory. It’s not something you’ll find at the top of Tripadvisor, but it was one of the highlights of my Roman itinerary.
Greetings from Rome!
As I said in my last post, I successfully completed the walking journey to Santiago! Some friends and I celebrated the night of my arrival with tapas, beer, and even an octopus.
It was nice to walk with a consistent group of people the last 200 kilometers. Since I injured myself after Pamplona, I walked significantly fewer kilometers than the average person each day. I walked so slowly that I couldn’t keep up with anyone, so I made many temporary friends during that time, but always ended up behind them after a day or two. It was funny to actually pass a handful of those people as I zoomed along the Meseta on my bike. After healing up and ditching the bike though, I started talking to the same people day after day, which added a nice touch of consistency to the transient nature of the Camino.
I bid that group farewell my first night in Santiago. Most of them continued their walk towards the coast. Meanwhile, I took a quiet, well-deserved, rest day before flying off to Rome. This leg of the journey is probably the most spontaneous thing I’ve done; a week ago I had no idea that I would be here.
I arrived in the city running only on the two hours of sleep that I got on the plane. I was exhausted, but I started walking around and the city gave me so much energy. My original plan for day one was just to rest, but instead I dumped my bag at the hostel and set off. It’s been two days and I’ve crammed in four museums, three churches, Palatine Hill, the Colosseum, and the Roman Forum. Plus, I’ve already eaten lots of pizza and gelato. In my six days, I want to leave no stone left unturned.
The history of this city just fascinates me. There’s over 2700 years of civilized history just outside my window, and for hundreds of years, Rome was the center of the ancient world. This city served as the capital of an empire that reached from Spain and Scotland to Eqypt and Mesopotamia. All those names you learn about in school really come to life when you see the ground they walked. I imaged Cicero speaking from the forum’s steps, Caesar’s funeral in the public square, and Constantine gazing at his triumphant arc.
A lot of the museums that I’ve visited so far have covered Rome’s classical history and religion. I know I’m a nerd, but I love learning about the pagan beliefs and practice. Their myths were so thoughtful, rituals so elaborate, and temples so grand. I wish I could devote an entire unit to Roman religions, but unfortunately I only have the time for one day in my World Religions course. Nevertheless, the things I’m learning in Rome will certainly enhance that one day.
Greetings from Santiago!
After exactly one month, I’m ecstatic to report that I’ve arrived at Santiago de Compostela! This journey has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life. It was filled with physical pain, doubt, grief, and loss. I battled foot pain, shoulder pain, blisters, a cold, and chaffing. I fought the rain, the heat of the sun, and the chill of the night. Worst of all, I missed my grandma’s funeral. There were definitely moments when I just wanted to throw my walking poles and scream, but in the end I conquered all these small wars. When I look back, I’ll remember my success, the joy, new friends, laughter, good food, the history, and my accomplishment. I feel like if I can walk the Camino, I can do anything.
The last 100 kilometers was probably the least enjoyable for several reasons. First, the crowds have grown significantly. I used to spend hours alone trekking through forests and climbing mountains, but after Sarria I found loads of fresh faces with day packs. In particular, I see a lot more (loud) children around. Between St. Jean and Sarria, I counted just five children under the age of 16. Just five. After Sarria, however, I’ve passed hundreds of middle and high school students. Apparently the last 100 kilometers are popular week-long trips for Spanish youth groups, scouts, and schools. The kids and the crowds made it difficult for those of us who walked from St. Jean to stay humble. The newbies were loud, full of energy, and crowd the road. They didn’t walk for the journey, they walked for the vacation. Behind their backs, we Pyrenees-crossers made fun of these “plastic pilgrims” for their clean shoes, day packs, and incessant need to take photos.
The new faces contributed to the next problem with the final 100 kilometers: tourist towns. I never felt like the Camino was that “touristy” until the end. For the most part, I felt like I saw an authentic Spain throughout the journey. I wrote about this last week actually - I feel like I saw Spain in its beauty and in its flaws. I experienced the real Spanish way of life by going to the same bars, supermarkets, restaurants, and even beaches as the locals. This last 100k, however, reminds me of Branson, Missouri or Gatlinburg, Tennessee. There are many “pilgrim shops” selling souvenirs, restaurants geared only to pilgrims, and cartoon billboards on the trail that all distract me from the real purpose of this journey.
Lastly, the litter. The trail was so pristine at the beginning. I don’t think I saw a single piece of trash crossing the Pyrenees, but the closer I got to Santiago, the more litter I pass. It’s easy to blame the new faces for this problem, but Galicia’s limited resources might also explain why the litter hasn’t been picked up by a parks department.
But that’s enough dwelling on the negative! Santiago is incredible! I woke up early to walk the final 20 kilometers and arrive at the cathedral for its noon pilgrim’s mass. Waiting for mass to start was like a reunion; people I haven’t seen in days or even weeks started pouring into the jammed cathedral. I may not have understood the mass’s language, but it was an experience I will never forget!
I’ve only been in the city for a few hours, but I’m trying to soak up the history and culture. In addition to the pilgrim’s mass, I went to the pilgrim’s office to pick up my Compostela (certificate of completion) and tried the local octopus.
Finally, I saved the best news for last. Since I biked 180 kilometers and felt generally healthy recently, I reached Santiago more than a week earlier than I anticipated. My plan was to continue walking to the coast, but then a German friend told me to go to Rome instead. So just like that, it clicked: I should absolutely go to Rome. Why didn’t I think of this sooner? After some quick research and a budget check, I booked a plane ticket that night! So Tuesday the pilgrimage will continue to the center of the ancient world. All roads really do lead to Rome!
That’s all the time I have for now. It’s time to celebrate the Buen Camino with a well-deserved dinner and drinks before goodbyes.
Greetings from Sarria!
The Update: I’m overjoyed to have summited the final mountain on my way to Santiago! The climb brought me to the tiny village of O Cebreiro - an instrumental place in the history and revitalization of the Camino. In the 80s the town’s priest walked the length of the Camino with cans of yellow paint. Along the route, he marked the path by painting thousands of arrows on roads, poles, and trees along the way. These way marks made the Camino so easy to walk that you don’t even need a map anymore.
The Insights: Shortly before O Cebreiro, I crossed into the Province of Galicia. Galicia is well-known for its seafood, especially dishes containing octopus which I look forward to tasting once I’m closer to the coast. However, Galicia is unfortunately also known for its poverty. Throughout my descent from O Cebreiro I passed many vacant and collapsed buildings. The people who still lived in these tiny villages of just 10-30 people seem to either create a living by operating bars that serve pilgrims or rely on subsistence farming. Several times during my walk I came across farmers leading their handful of livestock through the village to graze.
Poverty and abandoned villages are nothing new on the Camino though. I’ve passed by hundreds of dilapidated buildings marked “vacante permanente” (permanently vacant) and many towns that wouldn’t have a single tienda (basic shop) if there weren’t pilgrims around to support it. As a peregrino, all of this serves as a reminder that I’m not here on a vacation. When people go somewhere for vacation, they tend to stay on the resort; they don’t venture to the parts of the city that might make them uncomfortable or confront them with the local social issues. Meanwhile, I feel privileged to really see all of Spain along the Camino. I get to see the whole country from east to west. I walk through its beautiful mountains and polluted streets. I marvel at its large cities and feel at home in its smallest villages. I pass subsistence farmers as well as large homes that display the family’s coat of arms. I don’t stay on a resort because the Camino is not a comfortable vacation. Instead, the Camino is both a physical and interior journey that makes its peregrinos uncomfortable every step of the way.
But I firmly believe that we can only grow by making ourselves uncomfortable.
Tomorrow I will cross the 100 kilometer mark! By chance, I’m currently scheduled to arrive in Santiago on my birthday.
Greetings from Villafranca!
The Update: Every day I give thanks for my health. You really don’t appreciate it until it gets taken away for a while. Right now, I can go 30 kilometers without even needing an ibuprofen!
I’ve logged about 365 miles so far! That’s more than the distance between Omaha and Wichita.
The Insights: The other day I came to a crossroads. The left pointed to a smooth, paved walking path. After walking on rocks all day and risking rolled ankles, pavement is always a welcome sight for me. But the right arrow pointed to “the Roman road.” It was anything but smooth as chunks of brick and stone jutted up from the path. A slightly riskier and longer path for my tired feet, I chose it anyway. I was glad I did.
Sometimes it’s amazing just to think about the ground I walk on. Over the course of thousands of years, literally millions of people have traveled west to east along the Camino’s ancient paths. Pagan devotees, Roman armies, Christian conquerors, Muslim troops, French soldiers, popes, saints, emperors, and regular people from all over the globe have walked this ground before me. And now, I am a part of this road’s history.
The roads are just one reminder of the history. I’ve come across several sites detailing the archaeological remains of humans from hundreds of thousands of years ago. In Leon, I visited a museum showcasing columns and cornerstones from the Roman settlement two millennia ago. And of course, every day I pass centuries-old churches, walls, city halls, and (coolest of all) castles that still stand today. It’s amazing to think that these buildings are all older than the country of America; this type of history doesn’t exist in the States.
A couple kilometers down that Roman road I came across a small park and an unmanned refreshment stand. I donate a euro for a banana and an orange and sit down to eat. A few minutes later, a man in his 30s comes around a corner pushing a large wheelbarrow and greets me. We got to talking: he constructed the park himself over the course of three years and organized the donation-based refreshment stand. Before that, he helped restore the 5 kilometer stretch of Roman road. At one point in time, locals thought the ancient road would be lost forever, but thanks to him and a few others, volunteers dug it out. Now, pilgrims like me can join in the history of the road.
Greetings from Mazarife!
The Update: I finished my bicycle route today; knocking out nearly 180 kilometers in 3 days feels incredible. One of the gifts of this journey is going alone and, therefore, being able to go at my own pace. I feel like I never get to do this: during the school year I go at the pace of the bell schedule. On the Camino, however, I go as far as I want and as fast or as slow as I want. For once, my schedule is entirely up to me.
I anticipated taking a rest day in Leon, but decided against it. It’s a densely populated city with lots of noise and traffic, reminding me of downtown Los Angeles only with shorter buildings. I walked around its cathedral, which hosts 1000s of square meters of stained glass windows and an art museum, and felt like I had seen enough of Leon. I much prefer the quiet, Spanish countryside and small villages, so that’s where I walked to today instead of staying in the city for a second night. After about 5 hours of trekking through beautiful fields of wildflowers and wheat, I landed in Mazarife - a small town of shepherds who lead their flocks on donkeys.
The Insights: The Camino is definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done physically and mentally. I was talking to an Italian, Marist priest about this the other day and he found the Camino difficult (but also rewarding) because we’re always in a state of constant change. I’ve spent roughly 21 nights abroad. Each of those nights were spent in different beds. Each of those nights were spent in different towns. Each of those nights were spent with different people. A pilgrim on the Camino never settles in and never makes themselves comfortable for very long.
The constant state of change makes those of us on the Camino more flexible. In terms of food, shelter, and even health, we take what we can get and don’t complain much. For example, my albergue filled up quickly this afternoon. Some boys walked in around 3 and my hospitalio could only offer them a mattress on the hallway floor. They paid their 7€ and unrolled their sleeping bags! There’s a saying that tourists make demands, but pilgrims say thanks.
I consider myself a pretty flexible person already, but the Camino helps me practice this skill. So often in the classroom, something doesn’t go as planned or there’s a surprise technology failure. Just like the Camino, I have to think on my feet, accept limitations, and go on with the resources I have.
An Anecdote: I always wondered why bicyclists wear such tight shorts. I thought it had to do with comfort or reducing friction, but now I know the real reason.
I was nearing Leon on my bike. After coasting down a hill, I began to pedal again. As soon as my left foot pushed down on the pedal, I felt an intense pain unlike anything I’ve ever felt before in my upper thigh. I slam my handbrakes, stop, and when I stand up, I feel it in my thigh and now also in my rear. I’ve never felt this pain before, so I’m thinking I tore a muscle or seriously hurt myself. I get off my bike and try to check the area, but I can’t really get a look without a mirror. After a minute, the pain starts to subside and I start walking it off, but then I feel it a third time! This time less intense and in my abdomen. Finally, I hear it. I look down my shirt and there is a bee frantically trying to free itself. So I whip off my long sleeve and he stings me one more time in the process. I’ve never been stung by a bee before, so I half expected to go into anaphylactic shock, but, thankfully, I guess I’m not allergic.
So somehow my shorts caught a bee as I biked and it stung me twice. Then, when I loosened my shorts to check the area, it moved into my shirt, stinging me two more times.
So I learned that bicyclists don’t wear tight shorts to reduce friction or make a fashion statement. Tight shorts just keep bees out of your pants.
Greetings from Fromista!
Quite a lot has happened since my last update! Many miles traveled, sites seen, and people met.
First, to address the question on my family’s mind: I’m so pleased to report that my foot is almost back to 100%! Every day is a little better than the last.
It just needed some rest, so I lowered my daily mileage and took a full day of rest in the large city of Burgos.
I’m continuing to find that the best albergues are the ones which are the ugliest on the outside. A few days ago in Tosantos I had another awesome experience at a place run solely on donations. The hospitalio (man who runs it) has volunteered there for 14 straight years. Many years ago he walked the Camino and found this albergue to be something special - and it certainly is! The pilgrims sleep on mats in a small, but clean room in the building’s attic. There were enough mats for about 15 people, but thankfully there were only 10 of us that night, so we were able to spread out. All of us pitched in and made a hearty dinner together, and after the meal, the hospitalio said that there was a tradition in this albergue. So he led us upstairs into a small chapel and sat us down on the slanted floor. Once we were settled, he explained in Spanish that it’s good to listen to other pilgrims and hear their stories. I think everybody already knew that at this point in our journeys, but he then took out a binder full of loose leaf paper and handed each one of us a page written in our native language. They were letters from pilgrims who came three weeks before us - pilgrims who had presumably finished the Camino very recently. The one I received talked about gaining compassion and the spirit of self-sacrifice along the route. I’ve heard plenty of pilgrims’ stories by now so this one didn’t strike me as particularly unique, but I still love the concept of the whole ritual. Whether she finished the Camino or not, I hope the woman who wrote that message found her compassion and spirit. After we were finished reading our letters the hospitalio explained that if we wanted to we could write a similar letter and drop it off with him tomorrow. In three weeks, after we had reached Santiago, he would share them with pilgrims.
So far, my biggest regret on this journey is not taking the time to contribute a letter.
The day after staying in that albergue I arrived in Burgos. Burgos is the second largest city along the Camino, and probably my favorite stop so far. Its buildings remind you of its history while also incorporating the modern age. I arrived early and had time to explore its grand cathedral and local cuisine in the afternoon. That evening I found a random pub and watched the Spain/Portugal World Cup match. It didn’t seem like any of the locals there knew English, but we still celebrated the goals together! The World Cup season is such an exciting time to be abroad.
I spent an extra night in Burgos to help rest the foot. Like I said, it’s much better! I spent most of the day perusing churches and Burgos’ Museum of Human Evolution. Some of the oldest remains of a human subspecies were discovered here and they have a giant museum that houses their findings.
That evening, for the first time since Paris, I treated myself to a private room so that my dad could FaceTime me into my grandma’s funeral service. I couldn’t physically be there, but listening to the stories, tributes, and even the poetry helped lay her to rest.
Finally, perhaps the biggest news is that I picked up a bike in Burgos! With all my rest days, I had gotten two days behind schedule. I’m determined to make it to Santiago without the help of an engine, so I found a place that rents out bikes for segments of the Camino. I’ll spend just three days cruising through the Spanish plateau called the Meseta, which actually reminds me a lot of rural Nebraska. Today’s ride was mostly flat and I covered a whole 60 kilometers in just 6 hours! For a frame of reference, it would take me roughly three days of walking to complete 60 kilometers, so I’m quickly making up some lost time and should even have enough time leftover to walk to the coast after reaching Santiago! I have to make the most out of my time here!
Biking is a nice change of pace. Zooming down a big hill gets the adrenaline going and it’s so satisfying to see progress made in such a short period of time. That said, I’m glad I’m not biking the whole Camino. Biking is a little more isolating since you rarely strike up conversations as you go. Plus, I started to get accustomed to really soaking in the surroundings and smelling the wild poppies. However, it is really exciting to see people who left me in the dust several days or even weeks ago. I had been walking so slowly for so long that I couldn’t keep up with any group of people for extended periods of time. Today I passed by several people who I haven’t seen in a while and showed off my new wheels to them!
So far I’ve tracked nearly 210 miles. That’s slightly more than the driving distance from Lincoln to downtown Kansas City. Tomorrow I should hit my halfway point.
I remember my second day of walking. The plan was to leave early from the monastery at Roncesvalles and get a bed at Zubiri. Almost all of the 200+ pilgrims finished their breakfast at the same time and rushed out to the trail. The race was on. I managed to beat the coming rain and enough pilgrims to ensure that I’d have a bed in Zubiri.
My pace is slower these days; I don’t race anymore. A few days ago my left foot started to hurt. I’ve escaped any major blister problems, but each morning is a mystery concerning when my foot will start hurting. Some days I make it 10 kilometers without popping an ibuprofen, but yesterday it hurt from the moment I woke up. It’s just sore from overuse, so today I walked just five kilometers and am resting it by keeping it iced, compressed, and elevated.
When I run a race, I’m used to passing people, not being passed. On the Camino, I haven’t passed very many people lately. The other day I was limping along towards the end of the day and a lot of retirees passed me by. Let me tell you, it’s really humbling to be passed by an old woman walking with a broken arm!
The pain is very manageable, so I’m trying to turn this foot problem into something positive. I go slower, so I appreciate the Spanish landscape more and I literally stop to smell the roses. But of course I keep dwelling on the negatives: I’m one day behind in my itinerary and my Camino companions are a full day or two ahead of me now.
There’s a phrase along the Camino: true pilgrims suffer. Two days ago in Logroño I met plenty of these “true pilgrims” that put my problems into perspective. Our crowded bunks were filled with the infirm and wounded: rolled ankles, knees that couldn’t climb stairs, and so many blisters. In the bunk next to me was a boy recovering from infected blisters - a condition that would probably end my Camino. Logroño is a sizable city, so many of these people opted to bus there and rest their injuries for several days.
In hindsight I should have rested there instead of this smaller town. Despite everyone’s pain, spirits were high. Although the tour wasn’t in English, a local volunteer showed a group of us around the city. It was a very special fiesta weekend, so the streets were alive with booths, crafts, and people dressed in medieval costume. I may have only caught bits and pieces of what my tour guide said, but he clearly had a great love of his city and the pilgrims he served.
I’ve discovered that the best places to stay are often the ugliest on the outside. That donation-based hostel in Logroño looked a field hospital; its floors didn’t sparkle and its beds were jammed together with broken people. Nevertheless, the communal dinner was joyful and the conversations were spirited. Regardless of health or not, people happily shared their stories and struggles with strangers from around the globe. My table alone had representation from America, Slovakia, Mexico, the Philippines, Uganda, Ireland, and Scotland. I love listening to the different perspectives about life, the Camino, faith, and (always a popular topic) American politics. Compare that to tonight’s 10€ albergue in Najera: I have a sparkling clean bathroom and plenty of space, but only have an older gentleman who doesn’t speak English for company. I’d rather be cramped and have good conversation than alone and physically comfortable.
I’ve tracked about 117 miles so far. That’s nearly the distance between Omaha and Des Moines and leaves roughly 380 to go. Still following that star all the way to Santiago de Compostela.
Legend says that in the early 9th century a hermit saw a series of stars in the sky. Like the three wise men in the Bible, he followed the stars for some time and eventually found himself at a tomb inscribed to St. James the apostle. From then on, pilgrims from all over the world began to come venerate the resting place of St. James, so the city Santiago de Compostela was built around the site. The word Santiago refers to St. James while Compostela derived from the Latin words campos and stella to mean “field of the stars.” Coincidently, today I write from the city of Estella which also means “star,” so in a way, pilgrims still follow a star to Santiago.
When I was a kid, I heard that when someone died the night sky gained another star. It’s just another legend like that of St. James, but I wish it were true. The past two days have been very difficult for me since finding out my grandma died suddenly on Wednesday night. Grieving the loss of a loved one is hard enough, but how am I supposed to grieve while I’m thousands of miles away from my family? I got the news Thursday afternoon and spent the rest of the walk alone and pretty distraught.
I finished my walk and found a spot at a parish-run albergue, which ended up being exactly what I needed it to be. Carlos, one of the volunteers there studied architecture and told me that he would lead a tour of the local churches that evening. Had it not been for that invitation, I probably would have spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in my bunk avoiding other people. Instead, I got out of bed and walked around the city with 7 strangers learning about the differences between Romanesque and Gothic facades. Carlos spoke with such passion and spent a full 45 minutes walking us through the details of the sculptures outside of just one church. I duck my head into a lot of churches along the route. I usually just say a quick prayer, snap a picture, and get my credential stamped all in under 5 minutes, so taking the time to really examine the detail of just the outside of the building helped me to gain some appreciation for it. After the tour, he dropped us off at a local bar where we talked, ate, and drank, making it back to the albergue just in time before the door locked at 10. (Kudos to Victoria and Maurits for picking up the tab!)
The next morning I told Carlos about my grandma and how much that tour meant to me. The spirit of the Camino doesn’t let anyone walk alone. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really terrible being separated from my family in St. Louis right now, but even though I’m out here as a solo traveler, the Camino community is there for me.
When I heard my parents’ voicemail on Thursday I thought seriously about ending the Camino to go to the funeral. Only the request of my grandpa and parents keep me walking. It’s been two months since I had seen her, but they told me that grandma knew about my journey and was proud of me for it. My grandpa says she would want me to finish it, so that’s what do. And if the night sky gained another star on Wednesday, I’ll follow it all the way to Santiago.