My Life as a Traveler

The Beauty and the Terror

June 17, 2012 (the correct date, somehow I'm a day off with my camera, I'll sort out the other earlier dates later)

I started out happy.

It was 6am, still dark, the fog lay on top of the mountain across the valley. A perfect morning.

Stopped and had cake and coffee for breakfast. Feeling great. I'm going to climb O Cebreiro!

But there must have been something in the cake, for just steps from the bar, I became apprehensive. My usual 4-5km/hr-take no prisoners-stop only for a potty break pace had dissipated into a stroll to look at the cows, take pictures of the stream, study the buildings lining the road through this little valley.

Something was wrong. I was scared.

There was a part of me that, for some reason, did not want to climb this mountain. What?! This makes no sense! The Sensible Julie reminded the Scared Julie that she had walked more than 350 miles over two mountain ranges already. I was rested, had my coffee, and was ready to roll. I was arguing with myself out loud, to the consternation of Amedeo, my Italian friend who was walking with me this morning. Somehow, it didn't really bother him, though; he had witnessed me in various states of craziness coming down hills and walking beyond my limits; he knew I had a weird streak.

But Scared Julie was having none of Sensible Julie's arguments and reacted like many frustrated women the world over; she started crying. I'm now crying, but trying not to look like I'm crying as I walk a few steps behind Amedeo, thinking that this will pass shortly. But it does not. He stops to wait for me and I am openly sobbing. “Ccccan I hhaave a tttisssue?” I ask him, because I can't reach mine without taking off my pack. He hands me a package. He wants to know what's wrong, what he can do to fix it. I tell him I will not be a good walking companion today, I don't know what's wrong, I don't know why I'm crying, I just am and it looks like I'm going to be doing it for a while. I could see the frustration in his face, but I send him on and just stood for a while at the bottom of the hill, hiccupping.

After a bit, I start up the hill, tears flowing. What was going on? Was is the physical pressure of walking at least six hours a day for the last 25 days without a rest day? Was it the mental pressure of making sure everybody in my group was ok? Was it the deadline that I had set for myself to get to Santiago by next Sunday, needing to average 25km/day? Was it that I was spending too much time walking by myself? Or too little? Was it something more esoteric: the enormity of this adventure, the echoes of the heartaches of those who walked before me? Yet, I am loving being outside, just me and my pack, not knowing each morning where I would spend the night, not knowing who I will meet, cherishing the relationships I had developed so far. It's beautiful, yet I am feeling so, so small on this mountain, so weak. Bigger questions arise. What am I supposed to do here? What is my purpose in this life? What if, when I finally figured it out, I couldn't do it? What if I can't do it? What if I can't do it? What if I can't do it? I'm terrified.

The trees made a dark canopy over the trail at the bottom of the hill. I'm walking slowly and sobbing. The grade is pretty steep, but no more difficult than any other hill I've scaled. In the middle of a particularly steep rise, I see someone has left a sign with a quote on it by Rilke. I stop to read. “let everything happen to you, beauty and terror. just keep going. no feeling is final.” Yes! Instructions! Who hung this sign here knowing it was exactly what I needed at this moment? This is so right! More tears come, but now they are cathartic. Just keep going, it will be ok. It will be ok.

I am climbing in earnest now. Not attacking the hill exactly, but meeting it. Eventually, the trail breaks out of the trees, opening into wide valleys with amazing views. I stop to admire the surrounding mountains and the valleys far below. I greet Jorge from Brazil, who stops to admire the view with me, then moves on. I'm feeling better, still hiccupping a bit, but I know I have definitely made it over the hard part. I meet Jamil from Montreal, who carries a guitar-like instrument, and find out he's been walking since 2am, couldn't sleep.

The guys go on and I head up the hill. At La Faba, only 6km in distance from where I started this morning, yet spiritually much farther, I see Amedeo waiting, as well as Lyn and Kathy, my Australian friends. I tell them about my breakdown, and get hugs from all before they head up the hill ahead of me. I'm slow today, making peace with this mountain and just keeping going, stopping to enjoy the flowers on the side of the trail, the distant vistas, smiling at the farmers working in their barns that straddle the road up the hill.

Farther up the hill is the marker for entry into Galicia, the Province where Santiago de Compostela is located. I'm getting close to the top, to the end, and feeling better, refreshed, now. When I reach the church at O Cebreiro, one of the earliest surviving buildings on the Camino de Santiago, Amedeo tells me he will move on without me. Can't blame him, really. I file into the 9th Century Iglesia with a group of Germans who have apparently reserved the church for their own Mass, complete with German priest. No one shoos me out, though, so I stand when they stand and sit when they sit. I don't understand much German, but I appreciate Gott und Himmel und die Heiliger Geist and bathe in the hymns that echo into all corners of the church. I bet my friend Uli would love this. I say a prayer of Vielen Dank over and over until the service ends, wishing to be nowhere else in the world.

With a wave to Lyn and Kathy, who I see shopping, I head down the hill. A German girl passes by, we start talking, and, in the Spirit of the Camino, we find that we know each other, or at least know of each other. It's Silvana, who has walked with Mary, and we share bits of life story/Camino experience. She's got some ankle problems, though, so she stops to rest, but I'm moving on.

I stop for lunch at Hospital (the name of the town, not a medical facility) with Italian Ricky and his friends. I have actually never seen them walk, only sitting at the bar as I pass by, but I see them at least once every day. I share my sandwich and sit for a bit. They are laughing (as usual) this time because some German tourists were taking pictures of them and they were providing captions: “pilgrims walking”, “pilgrims eating.” I took their picture with the caption, “pilgrims eating.” Every time I see them, I come away smiling.

It's three more kilometers to the next town. I'm pretty tired, it's 2pm, my preferred stopping time, yet I'm back to Julie Walking Speed. I walk past the cows coming home down the village street and catch up to Lyn and Kathy just before Alto do Poio (1335m) where there's a bar/albergue. I'm done for the day and check into the albergue, but they are just having lunch and moving on. Since I just had lunch, I just sit with them for a bit to watch the motorcycle racing (big in Australia), then say goodbye and go back to the albergue to take my shower and do laundry.

There are just nine sets of bunk beds, and it looks like every one is claimed by a man. Oh my, I've stumbled into the men's albergue – I'm the only woman here. It's not the cleanest ever, there's mold in the shower, but for tonight, it's home. Here's where I meet Aymar (not sure of spelling, didn't get it right the first time, called him Liam until I was corrected by Lyn and Cathy who met him later), otherwise known as “The Irishman who took the Spanish Guy's Shoes.” It's cold outside and starting to rain hard. He's paying for a lavadora (washing machine load) and I throw in my shirts and undies with his and split the 3euro bill. We sit on the bench by the radiator and chat until the laundry's done. There's no dryer, so we lay our wet things over the radiator. He shows me pictures of his daughters, who gave him a Father's Day card on his departure to open today. Some new pilgrims come in, Zach from Seattle and Katherine from Australia (yay, another woman!) and we go to dinner in the bar next door. I'm especially thankful for Katherine, who let me use her iPad photo adapter when my after-market job wouldn't work. I bought my companions their first chupitos in the Camino Spirit.

You can believe I was asleep at 9:30.











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