Letter to Loved Ones
Watch video: Time to Pilgrim
Dearest Friends and Fam,
READER BE WARNED: this post is a approximately the length of Lord of the Rings….sorry about it.
First off, I love you and miss you and hope everyone is happy and healthy. I just picked up my laptop a few days ago from San Sebastian, so I figured I’d drop a line (or a million) and let you all know how I’m doing More than well is the answer. I’m finding many things out about myself along this journey…For example, not planning is the best plan. I plan the bare minimum (booking transportation and lodging) and from there I go with the flow. I meet people everywhere I go, I recently made a list of some that stood out…writing down what we gave each other—I may never see them again, so I think of it as a transfer of energy. We’re all floating about the world, somehow in the same place at the same time, I’ll connect with another solo traveler or a group of travelers and suddenly, I’m on a different path. On and off the Camino, it worked the same way, and along my journey, I’ve learned that the Camino provides…even when I’m not walking 35 km a day. So, if you’re up for it, I’ll start from the beginning
The Camino Del Norte— Road to Santiago
I met an incredible group of pilgrims my second day on the Camino. I had settled into an old monastery that was renovated into an Albergue (hostel for pilgrims only). They were anywhere from donation to 15 euros a night. The group I met in the beginning consisted of one South Korean, two Italians, two Belgians, and one French guy. The day I met them, I walked out of the Albergue to hang my laundry, and I asked if anyone was headed to the beach. Thus, our pilgrim family was born.
Age range was 22-32 and we were all uninhibited and weird in our own ways. A good weird, a “I’m gonna go walk 500 miles for shits and giggles” kind of weird. English was the “common” language—we spent most of the time trying to understand each other, and a lot of the time the translation was completely off, which always produced a good laugh.
We walked together for a week. I walked alone during the days because I preferred it and because I had a slower pace than the rest. At night we would go to the grocery store, buy food, and cook together. Bottles of wine and many beers were consumed, but I never woke up with a hang over. And for those of you that know my past sleeping problems (I slept like a baby every night on the Camino).
By Day 8, my body was feeling it. I was physically warn out, my feet were aching and I wanted to give myself a day off. My internal struggle was that, if I took a break, I’d leave this amazing group of people and maybe never catch up. The morning I woke up in Bilbao, I told a few of them I was thinking of staying. It was slow going that morning for everyone. But somehow, I was walking out the front door, ready to walk again. I did 30 kilometers that day (19 miles). As we walked into Pobena, I was glad I decided to walk that day.
That evening we were all laying on the beach and Charlie, the French guy, started opening up to me about his life. As it turns out, when your story is full of honesty, integrity, and bravery not much is lost in translation. I was brought to tears by his story, and realized in this moment that the Camino gives people hope. For Charlie, it was enough to change his mind about ending his own life after finishing the Camino. We both sat there and cried for a bit, I gave him a hug and got up and walked down the beach by myself. If I hadn’t have walked that day, I may have never heard his story…that evening, I realized that the Camino Provides. And more and more every day I learned what an incredible truth that was.
Every day we made decisions to stay or go. And every day the Camino threw me a curve ball. Some nights I’d look back to the morning and feel like it was three days ago. My days were so full…full of thought, of conversations, of walking, walking, walking…of cleaning, and sleeping, eating, and drinking. Everyday was a week, and every minute was an hour. Time slowed down and life…was simple.
After two weeks, the Crazy Camino was on and off on and off, some days I’d see them and some days not. We were officially split up by the end of the third week, but stayed in touch via facebook. Along the way I met people from all over the world. Germans and Americans were among the biggest groups. Italians, Spanish, Dutch, Korean, Australian, Canadian, French. And everyone, was walking West.
When people asked me if I was doing the Camino for any specific reason, it was a hard question to answer. Sometimes I’d say, “I just graduated college and I had the time.” Other times I’d dive a little deeper, but answering always felt…superficial and broken. I knew why I was walking. But for some reason when I tried to articulate it, it always came out wrong.
One day I was journaling and I came to a conclusion. I was walking. Sure. It was beautiful. Yes. I like hiking, Okay. But it was painful. Physically, I was putting my body through something it had never done before. By mid day most days, my feet were hurting pretty bad. By the end of each day, I felt like I could collapse where I was standing and sleep for 10 hours straight. The point is, it was a pilgrimage. I wasn’t just going on a hike. I was going to Santiago.
I was walking for a reason. The greatest and most powerful reason, in my case, was to give thanks. To show God how grateful I am for all of the blessings in my life. I was walking to show myself I could accomplish this goal, that if I did this, I could do anything. That’s what got me looking past the thought that I often had in the beginning—“Michelle, why are you doing this? You could be anywhere in the world… and you choose to be in the middle of the Spanish countryside, by yourself, with only your thoughts to guide you…YOU’RE CRAZY!” Maybe, but in meaning to gain confidence…I gained a strengthened faith. Faith to follow my gut, to trust God, and to trust myself.
It was a load off. And I didn’t know my faith would strengthen in this way. So I kept on walking. The last days were full of steps— 30 km a day for a week. The day before Santiago the Belgians and I started at 5 am. We walked 43 km that day (27 miles). We sort of wanted to be broken when we reached Santiago…ya know? (No, you probably don’t Well, we were… and per usual, the Camino provided—We didn’t have accommodation for that night and as we were crashed out in the middle of the square, a woman came up to us and asked if we needed a place to stay.
We followed her maybe 50 m, around the corner from the square and she lead us to a beautiful apartment for only 14 euros per person. This was insanely lucky, as most all of the accommodations are full in the center of the square, especially at the time we arrived (7 pm). We slept for 15 hours. I woke up at 1pm and felt like I had been hit by a bus. My body was wrecked. We had work to do though—we needed to book an accommodation for when we returned to Santiago for the St. James Day Festival.
Because of the Crazy Camino messaging group, we were able to arrange a reunion, and we all stayed in an apartment together on July 24th and 25th for the Festival. Those days remain one of my favorite and dearest memories of my journey. Before that of course, was more walking. First to Muxia…and then to the End of the World (Finisterre). After three days to Muxia, The Belgians and I wanted our last day to be a night walk. We started at midnight and reached Finisterre at 7 am. We hoped for sunrise at the top.
As we walked into town, pilgrims were walking the opposite direction towards Muxia. One man, made for a lasting memory for me and Lara as we limped into Finisterre. It was dawn, and he asked, “What are you doing??” We said, “Walking to Finisterre.” “You walked all night??” he asked, nearly shouting. “Yes, we wanted to see the sunrise.” “Oh, well you missed it,” he said plainly. I was disturbed—tired from walking and instantly irritated with him. I thought to myself, “Thanks guy…but no, we didn’t…” The sky was getting lighter, that’s for sure, but the sun had not risen above the mountains yet. He walked away and Lara and I kept struggling along. Thirty seconds later he starts yelling and running back towards us. “Girls Girls!!!” he shouted. Tatiana was hurting and about half a kilometer behind us. I thought maybe he saw her and something was wrong. We both dropped our bags and ran toward him. “What?? What???” we asked. The man shouted out, “The sun!!!! The sun!!! It rises in the East!!! You’re walking West!! You have plenty of time, the sun hasn’t risen yet!!!!!!” Fuuuucking Ay I was pissed. OBVISOUSLY, the sun hadn’t risen yet. And this guy made me think my friend was dead.
Anyways it gave me and Lara a good, delirious laugh for a good many minutes, and also days after.
At the top of Finisterre, is when I lost it. I dropped my sticks, arriving maybe 20 minutes after the girls. I collapsed and saw the headstone with the marking “0.00 km.” I started weeping. Every last step to that stone was a milestone. Every second hurt and the last 2.2 km felt like 10 miles. I cried because I finished. I cried because it hit me how many miles I had walked, how many people I had met, how many crazy experiences I had. All of it, amounted to to 0.00, and I couldn’t believe it. I was grateful, I was happy, I was so incredibly STOKED.
We sat and cried together. I went off on my own for a minute to let it soak in. We all three passed out on the cliff, in the misty rain, for 3 hours.
We took a bus back to Santiago the next morning and that night, we were all reunited. I was so, so happy to be in the same room with them all. I knew it would be over soon, but I remember trying to soak in that moment as best I could. We ate and drank and laughed and made our way to the concert. We danced all night and met pilgrims we hadn’t seen in weeks. We were all together, celebrating our accomplishment and I felt fuller than I ever have in my life.
The next days were strange. What did I used to do…when I wasn’t walking 9 hours a day? I couldn’t remember. It lasted for about two weeks—The Camino Hangover. I was slower, aggravated, confused… in a daze. Everyone split. Heading in different directions all around the world…when just three days before, we were all going in the same direction. Off of a recommendation, I bought a flight to Sevilla, I heard it was beautiful and all the busses out of Santiago were booked.
So I flew South—in an hour, I flew the same distance it took me to walk 5 weeks. Entonces, I was a little shaky getting off the plane, and not because of jet lag. So began a new chapter in my adventure.
Spain, Morocco, Spain, and France…
I arrived to my hostel in Seville that evening with a bocadillo and gatorade in my backpack because I knew when I showed up I wouldn’t want to talk to anyone, go out to eat, or interact with the world in general. I ate my sandwich in bed and passed out until noon the next day.
The day after my first night in Seville, I noticed some unwanted guests all over my body. Bed bug bites. At first I was irritated because I seemed to have a decently severe reaction and my body was covered in giant red lumps. It was uncomfortable and extremely distracting from day to day life. I had booked the accommodation in Seville for three nights and they were non-refundable, being on a budget, I didn’t care to find a new place and decided to endure it. Little did I know, this nightmare would last over a month.
[[In this moment, as I write, I’m sitting in a cafe just north of Barcelona. And I just read a sign that’s hanging on the wall—it says, “Love your challenges.” Now that it’s “over” I can appreciate this sign…]] However, every single challenge I encountered on the Camino did not even come close to the challenge of bed bugs. I wanted to fly home, immediately. My body ached and every day I was accumulating more and more scars from these horrid creatures. I would call mom and cry, text friends and tell them how much pain I was in.
After almost four weeks and washing everything I owned that was able to fit into a washing machine eight times, I was immune (not physically). By the last time I encountered them, I only felt bad for the newbies. I let them know it would probably last for a month. They didn’t believe me. Currently, I’m rid of them, but I don’t want to speak to soon, so I won’t say anymore about it.
Back to “non-challenges”: The cities in southern Spain were vastly different from than the North. More beautiful architecture in my opinion. Castles and cathedrals, roads with incredible cobblestone designs, and narrow streets. But, after a week spent on beautiful beaches and villages, I felt like I needed a change of pace. Morocco was stuck in my head—I didn’t know much about it… but it was close. So I figured, why not?
It was a good decision. I met so many amazing travelers and Moroccans, got to taste the culture and smell all the smells— spices, fresh squeezed juice, leather and sardines, and the dusty desert. Avocado and bananas, mint tea and the salty sea. Morocco was… hiking to see the Bridge of Gods in the Akshore mountains, getting lost in a medinas, drinking a lot of juice, eating a lot of tagine, and smoking a lot of hasheesh. It was good people and good conversations, it was a new culture and a new climate. I felt happy to be alive in Morocco, happy to be under full moons with strangers, breaking bread and sharing stories.
Since Morocco, I’ve been making may way back up north— taking busses and trains, bla bla cars and cabs. A lot less walking, but it’s good because I bought so much stuff in Morocco, my backpack weighs about 50 pounds at this point. My last month traveling I’ve been staying with friends I’ve met along my journey. Everyone has been so hospitable, so kind and welcoming—taking me in like family. I’m grateful to be here in this moment and I’m so happy to share my experiences with you all.
I’m currently in France and I’m making my way up to Belgium to meet up with my original Camino Family. Then off to Irland for a few weeks to go camping and meet up with an old friend from high school. It’s been an incredible journey and I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I didn’t decide to by that ticket to Barcelona.
Thank you all for you love and support, and for being in my life. I’ll be back in the beginning of October. Can’t wait to see you all soon!
P.S. Cheers to Andrew and Kelly!!! Coming for ya, yellow and blue