It started with my feet.
They carried me 800 kilometres across northern Spain, from Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. It took 34 days.
Day 1, Roncesvalles, Pyrenees
I remember my first step, how I soon left my tracks behind me in snow, slush and mud. I was following the tracks of other pilgrims through a thick bush of holly and oak. It was called ‘The Witches’ Forest. When I came out the other side, there was a cross to signify the burnings that took place…
I came to walk the Camino after my father died. I walked in his honour. He had travelled to Spain in his youth, and I sensed that he was with me. I wore his watch.
His motto was, ‘Be brave. Be strong. Watch for the sign.’
Day 2, Zubiri-Pamplona
I was followed by a little bird with red chest and twitching tail. Birds flew out of the hedges. I met horses with bells around their necks and hungry cats. I followed rivers and crossed bridges.
I lost the Camino and wandered afraid for hours through the industrial section of Pamplona. I could hardly walk. There was an excruciating pain behind my right knee that only got worse that night in the hostel. I was regressing through time, learning to walk for the first time. A conflict began between my body and my mind. My feet felt every kind of surface, every stone, every crack. My mind was only pulled to distance.
Day 3, Alto del Perdon, the Mount of Forgiveness
I sat down under the windmills, defeated. The blades of the wind turbines made a humming sound.
I told myself I couldn’t do it. My small pack felt so heavy. I was carrying too much. A lifetime of baggage. Who did I have to forgive the most? Myself…
I dragged myself to the summit and found a procession of tin metal pilgrims and animals crossing the sky. It was such a cheerful sight. Their sprightly figures walking with absolute purpose. They gave me courage. The wind renewed me. Far below in the valley I saw my next three villages and they did not seem impossible.
Day 5, Los Arcos
I walked with two fellow pilgrims, a German and an Australian. The people you find and walk with for days or weeks become your family. We shared the road straight as an arrow, as long as the day, crowned with blue sky. The open land was draped in gold, crimson and ochre. We called this place, ‘Happy Land’.￼
When we stopped to rest close to evening I noticed my mind was empty. I searched for words. There was nothing there. My body was humming. The exertion had stilled my mind. I was at complete peace.￼
The house we built for my father at a pilgrims’ shrine.
‘The Camino is about time, not distance. Find your own rhythm.”
(Austrian hostel owner who had walked four times.)
Day 8, Najera puppets
We danced down the cobblestone streets, with a lively marching band, tossing candies to crowds of children, dressed in costumes for St Gertrude, patron saint of pilgrims. There was a cow, a dragon, the pilgrim Santiago. I was the queen. Our heads were huge and heavy. We couldn’t see through the eyeholes as we whirled around, bumping into each other, laughing. It seemed that a 20-kilometre walk had done nothing to lessen our energy.￼ We forgot who we were. We were becoming something else…
The next morning, I don’t know why, I left early, left my family and walked alone. And then my shadow appeared.
In the open there was nowhere to hide. I felt numb, a difficulty with people, a closing up. I walked 27 kilometres that day and developed tendinitis. A kind volunteer at the monastery gave me ice and arnica, and lentil stew.
Day 11, Montes de Oca
In the mountain forest of pine and oak, there were hunters shouting, volleys of gun shots and dogs running, flushing out the game. I heard rustles and snapping twigs. Something was coming. A wild boar and a deer appeared, running for their lives. They split up. The boar ran behind me. The deer leapt across my path.
I saw the light in its eye. I heard its breath. Every cell in its body was burning for life. “Go, go, go…” I whispered. Its spirit came into my heart and then I really began to walk.
That was how I met the young British boy walking behind me. The boar had crossed his path. We were to cross paths until the end in Santiago. We had this unspoken complicity. Each morning he would set off ahead of me and by the end of the day I would find him having a beer at the hostel, smiling.
St Juan de Ortega.
My father’s name was John. This was his church. I lit candles in so many churches. They burned while I walked. I imagined a trail of flames behind me.
Day 13, Hornillon de Camino
“The Camino is about mind, not body. The mind will stop you in your tracks or carry you to your destination.”
(Spanish pilgrim who overcame severe depression and alcohol addiction.)
Day 14-15, The Meseta
I was walking on a white stone road like I was walking on my father’s body, in a desert land, of tree islands filled with birds. The windmills were rotating crosses. I was walking against the gale winds. Birds hung still in the air. Hour after hour, the winds were droning in my ears like airplanes.
I turned inside out.
And walked through doorways.
Day 18, Sahagun, halfway point
I passed between the two kings, knowing what I had done. They were my witnesses, the one on my right lit up in gold, the one on my left in shadow. They stood in perfect balance.