Race to the End of the World

Tuesday: Santiago to Vilaserio, 35k
Wednesday: Vilaserio to Cee, 40k
Thursday: Cee to Fisterra, 15k, plus 10k to lighthouse and beach
Friday: Fisterra to Madrid, 690k! (Via Bus, plane, and Metro!)

Another long post, apologies, and with no pictures, as I didn’t have my camera. (Though hopefully some will be emailed to me shortly and I can add them). No one is under any obligation to actually read it!

I woke up on Tuesday much more glum than I ought to have been after successfully having walked the 750 kilometers or so to Santiago. Apparently runners commonly experience temporary depression after completing a marathon- I believe something similar happens to modern pilgrims once they arrive at Santiago. All of a sudden, the goal we have been working towards for over a month is complete. Instead, we have to say goodbye to the new incredible friends we made, and no one is really sure if we’ll ever see each other again. Most likely we wont ; But that knowledge is in part what helped our relationships on the Camino blossom to their fullest potential. We ask eachother and ourselves, now what? Some pilgrims have a more clear answer than others.

I was not really sure why I was walking to the sea. I was all alone; no one was making me. I could really do whatever I pleased with the rest of the week. My feet were tired and felt done with walking. But my ego wouldn’t allow me to stop. I knew my pride would eventually be bruised by prolonging my loafing in Santiago. I had told everyone I was going to the sea, so come hell or high water, I was going to stick my toe in the ocean.

On the way to Vilaserio, I only saw 2 other pilgrims on foot, and neither spoke English. (I did, however, see my first snake on the Camino. Unwelcome company.) Before departing, I was certain I would be ecstatic to have time to myself to process what I had just accomplished. Instead, I was surprised by how lonely it felt. I pushed past the usual stopping place at the 20k mark because I knew I had to gain mileage in the first two days if I wanted to make it to Fisterra with any time to enjoy myself. I was confident I could complete the first 35k day, but skeptical I could do two such long days in a row. I ended up dragging into Vilaserio around 5 pm, after a much needed ice cream break at a deserted cafe with a kind bartender, and stayed in a small private albergue with a few other pilgrims who spoke English, but no one I recognized.

I left the next morning at 6:45 am, determined to make it all the way to the seaside village of Cee. I fortunately still had 600 mg aspirin leftover from my injuries around Estella and Logrono to premeptively numb any brewing pains and soothe my aching feet. No stars shone down on me as I walked alone, indicating cloudy skies and imminent rain. I had to rely heavily on my headlamp to mark out a 10 foot diameter in front of me so I could see the rocky path underfoot and pray to make out the waymarks ahead. I recall thinking that the only way I was going to make it all the way to Cee was if I could find walking companions to motivate me. It had only been a day, but already I was done with being alone- a shocking revelation, as I typically consider myself an introvert.

After walking in the dark for over an hour, I realized that I had not seen a yellow arrow for some time. I consulted my guidebook, and it was apparent I had somehow missed a turn in the dark. Cursing, I began to retrace my steps. I had only gone about 1k off the route, but it was enough to shake off any remnants of optimism I had started to cling to and plummet my mood. Immediately my thoughts shifted to deciding whether or not I would stop at the village only 20k from where I started, and have less time in Fisterra the next day, or, investigate bus time tables – a new low. At around 9 am, only about 7k from my starting point in Vilaserio, I sat alone in a bar that served no toast and bad coffee to continue with my pity party and contemplate my options, when an overly-energetic pair of pilgrims entered. They immediately introduced themselves as Andrew from England and Ardes from Germany. They had just met the day before and had plans to book it the sea as fast possible, since Andrew had a bus to catch the following evening. I decided they were far too chipper to suit my mood and waited for them to leave before I continued on my way. However, I caught up to them only 50 meters or so from the bar because they had stopped to put their pack covers on – it was starting to rain. Social awkwardess ensued, and I had no choice but to join them in walking. We ran through the typical pilgrim small talk; where we’re from, when we started, what we do when we’re not walking. Soon, their positive spirits began to lift my own. It turns out they are both delightful people. It took me longer than it should have for me to realize that my earliest wishes of the morning for company had been fulfilled, and if I hadn’t gotten lost, I would have not been graced with their companionship. Even though they clearly wanted to walk a little faster than my body would allow, they would wait and refused to leave me behind. Ardes, who spoke English as a second language, had the endearing habit of asking each of us, “Are you fine?”. She wanted to make sure we were okay both physically and emotionally before we continued each phase of our journey. With their positive spirits and a shot of liquid spirits (Andrew’s suggestion) I was able to walk 40k in pouring rain with squelching boots and a smile. The Camino always provides!

At around kilometer 32, we caught our first glimpse of the sea, wedged in between two mountains. I am sorry I did not have my phone with me to capture any pictures. Seeing the ocean for the first time was far more powerful for me than seeing the top of the towers of the Compostela. That vision alone made all the struggles to get there worth it.

I thanked them for their help and let Andrew and Ardes continue to walk on without me, enjoying a quiet night in Cee in an albergue with 42 beds and 5 pilgrims. I ate dinner alone in a small mall with a kind waiter who jokingly made fun of my Spanish. In the mall, there was an escalator! I felt for certain that I was cheating by using it but there were no available stairs.

My walk into Fisterra was in an entirely different mindset than when I had left Santiago. I was filled with joy everytime I saw, smelled, heard the sea, and took my time to savor my last 15k. With great fortune, it was sunny again. I had a snack perched on a large rock lapped by waves on an isolated beach to myself. When I reached the final 2k stretch into Fisterra, I walked barefoot on the beach and collected sea shells in my empty boots. I was alone, but I was happy. I was almost at the end of the world!

And then, like a mirage in the distance, I saw two figures ahead also collecting shells. I was not expecting to encounter anyone I knew in Fisterra since I had taken such a direct route. But, there was Simone and Carlos! I screamed, we hugged, we made plans to send me on towards their albergue and meet after siesta. Perfect.

I filled the rest of my time collecting my certification of completion, avoiding rain in a hippie cafe with a vegetarian menu, journaling, and watching other pilgrims excitedly greet eachother. To my amazement, I once again ran into my beloved German school children and their staff, who shouted my name from across the central square and offered me bus rides to Madrid should my transportation not work out. When the rain cleared, I walked 2k down to another beach with less shells but terrific (and dangerous) waves and drew designs in the sand until it was time to meet Simone and Carlos. Carlos does not speak English, so Simone was often forced to translate between us as he lead is the 3.5k to the lighthouse at the mythical end of the world. It is tradition to burn an item of clothing here to symbolize renewal, so I added my baggie, torn underwear to the fire before crawling down on a far rock by myself so that no other person was in my sight as I watched the sunset over the somewhat cloudy horizon . My Camino was complete.

Ardes, who has completed 2 other caminos already, claims that I will continue to process all the lessons I have learned over time. It is said you gain a year of wisdom for each day you walk the Camino, but I certainly don’t feel 42 years wiser – I had let myself get drawn into negativity only 2 days ago! But there are a few musings I ought to remember, so forgive me while I list some in a nonsensical fashion. I might return to this portion later as the clarity develops.

– Live in the present moment.
– What we tend carry with us in life, physically and emotionally, is usually more than what we need, and it burdens us. Learn to let go.
– The Camino, as well as the universe, will always provide exactly what you need, even if it means you have to get lost first. (Alternatively, remember to receive, not just give).
– Be open with people. Be you. One of the many great conversations I had with Rob was about how since pilgrims tend to not have goals of dating or hooking up with eachother at the end of the night, there is no reason to be anyone other than yourself. The genuineness is incredible and I hope to successfully carry it home with me.
– For me, the pilgrimage has reminded me of the importance of balance. Be happy, be sad. Acknowledge that both emotions are occurring when they do. Be ok alone, be ok surrounded by people. Be ok walking, be okay resting. Pray, drink. Be human. Know that at all times, all is well.
– Perhaps the most important lesson – BE GRATEFUL, always!

I have been incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to walk the Camino. I have met absolutely amazing people who have had more impact on me than they might know. I have more confidence in the beauty of my future (and my present) now than ever before.
I am so very grateful to all the support I have gotten from friends and family back home and to the readers of this blog, which now has over 675 views – insane! Im shocked so many people have cared to put up with my self-indulgent musings. For now, this is the end.

Thank you, I love you all.

BUEN CAMINO!

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Arrival at the Cathedral

Friday: Palas de Rei to Ribadiso, 26k
Saturday: Ribadiso to Arca do Pink, 22k
Sunday: Arca do Pino to SANTIAGO, 20k

This past weekend seems like a blur of excitement, anticipation, and feet aches. The energy on the Camino shifted to a mix of energetic yet blister-ridden daypackers who began their journey in Sarria, and tired but optimistic longhaulers looking forward to the end of the journey while achieving various levels of success in swallowing their judgements towards the newer arrivals.

I have ended my journey with a different cast of characters than when we began. Belgium Scott, Impulsive Julia, and Irish Jim are long gone. However, new faces have very successfully filled in the void, and a select few pilgrims have already managed  reemerge from the past in Santiago, such as South African Tasha. I look forward to spending time in the square this afternoon welcoming new arrivals and finding familiar faces. We did it!

These new faces I have fallen in with include Canadian Darcy and Irish Daniel, two pairs of German girls whose names I struggle to remember, English Chris and Liz, Australian Alister and Anthony, and, of course, Lotus, the Canadian homeopath. Additionally, since Tricastela, I have been consistently encountering a new friend – American Rob, not Welshmen Rob. Rob lives in Asheville and in Wilderness Therapy after getting his degree from University of Georgia and a past military career. (Side: Wilderness therapy sounds phenomenonal and should I fail to get into graduate school, I fully intend on applying for wilderness guide positions before I reapply for a doctorate).  Since meeting him, he has shared with us infectious positivity and a great sense of humor.

In Arca do Pino, Rob, Melissa, Mandie and I had a joyful dinner of pizza and beer with several other pilgrims from the gang after checking in what we have deemed “The Nicest Albergue Ever” that played tranquil music and let you pick your own bed. (Rob and I claimed the bunk right next to the indoor zen garden!).

We departed early the next morning to finish out the last 20k. However,  because we weren’t rushing to make the noon mass or planning on stopping at the 500 person municipal albergue 5k outside the city, we were blessed with a near-deserted stretch of the Camino while we waited for the sun (the sun, not the rain!!) to fully light our way. Just as the sun was finished rising, we also ran back into Rob, who completed the final stretch with us. We took to bursts of singing songs like 500 Miles and a unique rendition of Taylor Swift which involving walking to Santiago instead of breaking up with her boyfriend in order to pass the time and capture our enthusiasm. The first glimpse of the cathedral spires distant through city streets (below) further propelled our excitement; we had already decided we would go straight the cathedral, even though the albergue where we could dump our packs was about 1k before.

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As we approached the cathedral, we all joined hands (even Rob joined us at the end!) and ran like school children to the center of the square, weaving throughout crowds of tourists and enjoying the sounds of bagpipes playing in the background. It was wonderful. We only had a few moments to take in the visual of the cathedral and embrace before we were swooped in by other pilgrims who had beat us in on the way, ready to congratulate us. In the excitement, we were greeted by Esmeralda (not her real name), who had spent several days walking with Rob early on, and after a few pictures, she lead us to the convent/albergue with 177 beds we could stay in, situated on the top of a hill a 10 minute walk from the Cathedral (below). By the universe’s magic, we ended up in the beds right next to hers. (And they’re not bunk beds!!!).

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After a rest, we returned to the streets of Santiago to retrieve our compostelas from the pilgrims office, shop for gifts, and fully explore the Cathedral. Unlike other cathedrals in Northern Spain, Santiago’s has very little stained glass, but its beauty lies in the empty spaces of simplicity, which allows the elaborate alter to shine.

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We waited in cue to hug the center Statue of Saint James, and then went below to pay respects at his resting place, as hundreds of thousands have done before us. Today (Monday) we will finish the last pilgrims ritual by attending the pilgrims mass we missed yesterday.

Esmerelda, Rob, Melissa, Mandie and I found an authentic Galician dinner of octopus and seaweed rice with red wine. We then immediate bought an entire Tarta de  Santiago, a delicious almond cake I’ve become addicted to, pictured below with Esmeralda, and brought it to a different bar to enjoy with Sangria.

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As we were eating, Canadian Darcy appeared and joined us, and Kirsten and Ky from Seattle happened to walk by just in time for a photograph (below) and a contact information exchange. I wonder what other friends I will run into today!

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Tomorrow, I will depart for the end of the world, Finnisterra. It will take me 3 days to walk to the 90k to the sea.  I am looking forward to it as a time for final reflection on my journey, even though I am now eagerly awaiting getting to meet my mom in Madrid on Saturday to enjoy Southern Spain for 10 days before finally coming home. I have decided I am going to give my smartphone to Melissa and Mandie to hold onto while I go to Finnisterra, so that I can resist the temptation to stay plugged in the final stretch. I will still keep my global phone in case of emergency and to let my family know I am all right.

A few nights ago, a friend was messaging me from home and asked me, “Do you feel changed?”. I answered that I think that will be impossible to tell until I get back home in my old environment and process, but I definitely am feeling more empowered than before I left. I can walk 500 miles across Northern Spain with only a backpack and trust that the universe will provide everything I need and more. What else can I do?!

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Much love!

The Rain in Spain Does Not, In Fact, Fall Mainly on the Plain

Tuesday: Tricastela to Sarria, 18.7k
Wednesday: Sarria to Portomarin, 23k
Thursday: Portomarin to Palas de Rei, 25k

Actually, the rain falls mainly in Galicia. The residents of the Plains were complaining of drought when we walked through, just as they have been for the last several centuries. In Galicia, I’ve heard that it rains at least one day out of three. That means that we’re overdue for some sunshine, since it rained the first 3 days we’ve been here. Fortunately, the predicted forecast has us arriving into Santiago on a sunny weekend.

At first, I did not mind the rain. It was relatively gentle and created small creeks under my feet along the Camino. I tried to be grateful that it was keeping me cool and tried to imagine it as washing away my stressors in life. That optimism lasted about an hour. As the rain persisted, and began to permeate my clothes and boots through my rain gear, my gratitude shifted towards the warm bars I kept convincing myself would be just around the next bend. Now my gratitude lies in the fact that I can consider myself not robbed of any part of the pilgrim experience, sopping wet misery included, but that I can look forward to sun and (hopefully, eventually) dry clothes.

Another positive result of the near constant rain is that I no longer feel like I need to immediately visit Ireland or New Zealand or the like for a while – Galicia has given me my fair taste of lush, wet greens for now.

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There have been a few times I’ve been waiting for hobbits or fairies or unicorns to appear. (But sadly no sightings yet).

It is hard to fathom that I am now only 65k away from Santiago. Even though I’ve been following my progress along the map, and walking for over a month now, its hard to believe I’ve come so far. However, it does provide solid evidence that big goals can be accomplished (or near-accomplished, knock on wood) one step at a time, and with the help and support of others. I have mixed feelings about my Camino coming to a close. There is a part of me that longs for the material comforts of home: a warm bed, my car, horses, constant wifi, peanut butter. Yet, the Camino has taught me that these things don’t ultimately matter. Additionally, the Camino has allowed a vacation from most real-life stressors (the election, for one), and I can only hope I can continued to stay somewhat immune to these stressors upon my return home. And fortunately, I still have plans to make it to ocean before I get to put down my stick!

PS: And here’s some proof of the cows I was trying to convey in earlier posts.

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Getting ready for their daily walk.

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Other cows on their daily walk, mixed in with the other pilgrims and me! Notice the horns.

Arrival in Galicia

Saturday: Molinaseca to Villafranca, 31k
Sunday: Villafranca to Laguna, 27k (+1k getting lost!)
Monday: Laguna to Triacastela, 25k

Alternative title: HEY COW!

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The walk this morning up and over the mountain marked my entrance into Galicia, the final region of my journey. The landscape is simply stunning – green and lush. However, the views come with the price of steep climbs and frequent mist and rain. I’ve taken to keeping my raincover on my pack at all times, and my raincoat in easy reach.

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Melissa, Mandie, and I stayed together in the albergue in Molinaseca, but since then, I have been enjoying walking mostly in silence soaking the scenery, and only occasionally strike up conversations with the other pilgrims. I have also taken to spending a few more euros each night to stay in the nicer private albergues,  so I have found new and different company in the evenings. In Villafranca I cooked dinner with a kind Canadian woman who had been laid up for nearly 4 weeks with various injuries in different cities.  I was very impressed with her tenacity; Im sure I would be on the beach or in Italy by now if something similar happened to me. I am grateful that I have not had to deal with such a dilemma, as my body has been holding up remarkably well since Carrion (knock on wood!).

I was thrilled to run back into Simone, our Camino fairy, who I assumed to be far ahead of us, as we had not seen her since Burgos.

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She encountered me napping on a bench as she was walking past with her new companion Carlos, who took the above photo. According to Shirley McClaine, every Camino has a love story, and Simone has certainly fallen into hers! I was thrilled to be able to share a pilgrims dinner with her and yet another older Canadian woman named Lotus in Laguna. Lotus was quite the character – she is a homeopath, and this is her second Camino — but her first Camino fully clothed, as being barebreasted is just “her lifestyle”. I can say I am glad to have met her on this Camino, and not her last. 

I hope to soon be able to capture on film the motivation for this post’s alternative title. Several times as I have been walking up winding mountain paths, I have encountered local farmers herding their cows in a line directly at me, with the aid of a sheepdog, but my camera had always been tucked swaying my pack. The cows walk single file down the path so close past pilgrims that you can reach out and touch them. It is both surreal and mildly frightening, as they have very impressive horns. In addition to cows, I have spotted sheep, donkeys, horses, many dogs, and the occasional friendly cat, such as this cute little guy who I was very tempted to put in my backpack and take with me.

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A shout of “HEY COW” from behind is also how Melissa, Mandie and I signal that we want the other two to stop and wait up for us. I was happy to use the call this morning when I spotted them ahead of me on trail after not seeing them for nearly 48 hours. We are all staying in Triacastela tonight, and plan to arrive in Sarria tomorrow. Sarria marks the last town pilgrims can depart from and still receive their Compostela, as it is just over 100k from Santiago. We have been warned to expect a big increase in pilgrim traffic – but only 6 more days to Santiago!

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Return to the Mountains

Thursday: Astorga to Rabanal, 22k
Friday: Rabanal to Milaseca, 27k

In Astorga, it was once again proven to me that the Camino always provides. After a shower and nap, I had an intense craving for a pastry. I got about two blocks away from my albergue into the city center looking for a bakery when I was approached by a man who was likely Santiago himself. He was an older gentleman with a leather satchel, English cap, big beard, and bigger smile. Despite the fact that he knew I could not speak Spanish (and he did not speak English), once he identified me as a pelegrina he insisted I follow him back through the parts of the city I just walked through. It was very bizarre and opposite every stranger safety advice that was ever written, but my intuition told me it was ok. (Also the fact that he stopped and talked to some other local women who smiled and didn’t seem concerned for my safety helped). The gentleman whose name I do not know proceeded to show me a bell tower with a funny gong, the Roman history museum, some Roman ruins (which he was very excited to point out had a plaque written in English explaining them), and some lovely gardens around the original city wall, all the while trying to explain the sites through charades. He was clearly very proud of his city, and mostly I just smiled and nodded and said “bonito!” or “si si si!”. At the steps to my albergue, he left with a simple “Buen Camino!”. I loved the tour, but was a little disgruntled I missed out on my pastry. However, as soon as I walked back inside the albergue, I met up with Melissa and Mandie checking into the albergue along with some Italian friends they had made who immediately offered us all fresh cream-filled pastries they had just bought in town. Perfecto!

Those same Italians then invited us to a homemade dinner. They served wine, bread, risotto, fried fish, and cookies to over 35 people and refused to accept help or payment. (Though we might have promised to cook them an American dinner at some point, which Im slightly worried about.)
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It was delicious. Unfortunately, Im not sure my stomach was prepared for such a rich meal, and I got sick again in the middle of the night but felt fine to walk to Rabanal in the morning.

I considered pushing on to Foncebadon, but enjoyed a quiet and restful night on the bottom bunk in Rabanal. Shamus was there as well, but slept through dinner. I made a simple meal of soup and bread and yogurt that I shared with Matin, who has carried his guitar all the way from Holland, and another lovely French-Canadian named Dolores, who is walking the Camino for the third time and confirmed that the third leg of the Camino is what touches your soul. The walk today into the mountains was so beautiful I can easily believe it.
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I reached the summit of the first mountain just as the sun was rising (above) and continued along until I reached the highpoint of the entire Camino (below).
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Some of the views were simply breathtaking, but the clouds made it difficult to capture with my phone. But it made the climb well worth it!
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Some parts looked very similar to my beloved Blue Ridge Mountains, simultaneously lifting my spirits and leaving me with a small ache of homesickness. Only 9 more days to Santiago!

Message Received

Monday: Villarente to Leon, 14k
Tuesday: Leon to Mazarife, 22k Wednesday: Mazarife to Astorga, 31k

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Entering Leon.

These past few days have been pretty fabulous. Im going to apologize in advanced for the length of this post. Since my walk to Leon was so short, I felt like I was on a rest day. I accomplished a few errands independently after arriving in the morning, including purchasing a new global phone, since mine glitched to the point of no return. I spoiled myself with good food and ice cream before headed back to the albergue for my usual afternoon nap. When I woke up, I was surprised to see that the astrology woman with big eyes and long dreadlocks down to her waist was sleeping underneath me. This woman had been keeping pace with us for several days; On her pack she advertised astrology and numerology readings. I took her location underneath my bed as a sign that I needed to take the bait. The Camino is meant for new and different experiences, right?

She consulted with me for an hour and a half, and while I took her much of advice with a grain of salt, some positive things came out the session. For example, she emphasized that I need to start meditating and adopting more yogic practices in order to help me further rely on my intuition. I found it striking how much intuition was emphasized, considering my last blog post was about trusting your gut! I finished my day with a tour of the cathedral and dinner with Melissa and Mandie. The cathedral is famous for its stained glass used to illustrate the stories of Christianity – I attempted to capture a few shots but don’t know how successful I was.

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My Tuesday morning departure from Leon marks the entrance into the final third of the Camino. I have less than 300 km to go! Past pilgrims comment that the first leg of the Camino affects the body, the second the mind, and the final, the soul. If I’m going to have any crazy Shirley Mcclaine-esque spiritual visions, this is the time. Fortunately, instead of having visions departing Leon (other than the adorable morning rainbow pictured below), I met a 23 yr old Canadian real estate agent named Shamus at a coffee bar, who was very upset about the lack of sleep he got in the large municipal albergue the night before.

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We began to walk together in the final 5k of the day, and both decided to stay in a albergue tucked in the back of Mazarife after seeing a flyer advertising small rooms and free wifi. We sat down for lunch at the bar at the albergue and kept talking over wine through for dinnertime. I didn’t even have time to do my laundry before bed! The beauty of the Camino is that you occasionally meet people where there is little need for precursory small talk.

The very first thing I learned about Shamus was that he got engaged to his fiance 2 months ago and is hopelessly in love with her. For hours we discussed our relationships, our spiritual beliefs, our past and current struggles, and eventual aspirations, laughing frequently. Shamus shared with me that his fiance had introduced him into mediation and yoga, something he thought was totally crazy before he tried it. Born into a large Irish catholic family, Shamus was hugely skeptical, but explained to me that for the past year now he has woken up every morning at 3:50 to go to a yoga/meditation studio, and it has transformed his life. He also mentioned the importance of intuition! Im not sure I am willing to commit to a 4 am Yoga class every morning, but I’ve definitely gotten the message pretty loud and clear that I need to at least start somewhere.

Shamus takes things to extremes – he also aspires to summit Everest and swim with great white sharks, number one and two on his bucket list. When he asked me what was on my bucket list, I stumbled and didn’t know what to say. So, naturally, I spent the majority of my 31k walk today trying to think of a good answer. I think the reason I stumbled was because Shamus’s bucket list is composed of finite achievements; mine is not. Yes, there are some finite things: finish graduate school, go to India to either volunteer, study yoga, trekk, or some combination of all 3; breed and train a horse and keep it until its death; have children who turn out to be good and kind people; die in love. But what is truly at the top of my bucket list is to achieve enough balance in my life to always live with love and laughter and share that love and laughter with others unconditionally no matter what I end up doing with my life. I want to be the kind of person who makes you smile after you talk with them, no matter what the topic conversation or if you are family, friend, client, or stranger. For me, that’s my Everest – it seems like a very tall, but very worthy order, and most likely starts with some type of yoga and/or meditation! Message received! (Hopefully I will listen to myself when I arrive back stateside…)

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