Day 29; Triacastella – Sarria – 25 km

I wasn’t the only pilgrim to sleep well. The hospitalero had to wake up the whole dorm at 7 a.m., which was when we made the collective discovery that it was pouring with rain, and I mean really pouring. While I was still mentally adapting to the sight of such rainfall, I became aware of a heated exchange between some agitated pilgrims and the hospitalero. He was being confronted with suspicions that there were bedbugs, which featured high up on the list of ills a pilgrim might face. Some marks on the bed above mine were being pointed to as evidence, along with suggestions that they might have fallen into my sleeping bag. But there was no certainty that we had bedbugs at all, so I shrugged off the fuss and hoped, as I packed my sleeping bag back into my rucksack, that I was not also taking some unwanted companions with me.

Breakfast was a non-event – I hadn’t been able to make it to the supermarket the day before. A very sweet cappuccino from the vending machine had to do while I applied extra padding to my blistered feet before departure. The dining room was busy with pilgrims, taking longer than necessary, it seemed, to don their waterproof ponchos before venturing out into the pouring rain. With my waterproof leggings on for the first time, I went back upstairs to tell Branu I was leaving. ‘How can you say that!’ he exclaimed. His surprise that I could just leave when I was ready to go was evident. Feeling a bit guilty then, I told Kirsten I would text her after I found a café for breakfast. Truthfully, that was to soften the blow that I was leaving without them. Although we sometimes walked together, I didn’t feel obliged to do so. I wanted the freedom to make the choice that was right for me on any given day.

The rain was still falling as I headed towards the main street, and I discovered that the restaurant we had dined in the night before was open for breakfast. However, when I went inside I realised I didn’t actually want breakfast at all; what I wanted was to walk. Although I remembered what I had said to Kirsten, the bother of removing my rucksack to search and text in the dark and the rain was something I couldn’t face, so I just kept going. As I walked through town, I saw other pilgrims spill out onto the street in the half light of the early morning, and I felt there was already something different about the day, without being quite sure what it was.

Most pilgrims were heading for Sarria, the town where many pilgrims begin to walk the last one hundred kilometres to Santiago. There were two routes: one shorter and more direct, the other route was longer because it looped around to include the village of Samos, the site of an abbey and Benedictine monastery. As I hoped to walk a little further than Sarria, I intended to take the shorter route and initially I thought I had succeeded – that is, until I could no longer deny the fact that the road signs indicated I was en route to Sarria via Samos. Just like that, any realistic possibility that I would get beyond Sarria that day was gone. We had had lots of discussion the previous evening about whether or not to visit Samos, and although it had not been my plan, it was seemingly on my path.

As I looked at the poncho-wearing group along the road ahead of me, I observed for the first time a pilgrimage before my eyes. It was a scene I hadn’t witnessed previously. There was a mystical quality to the sight of poncho-wearing, slow-moving pilgrims with sticks in one or both hands. It was striking in its simplicity and reverence. People were talking quietly, if at all, and there was something much more devotional about the procession than usual.

The arrival of the rain seemed to bring a lightness and freshness to the experience. I remember in particular walking through a small wood where the branches intertwined overhead to give shelter from the rain. This brought me into very close contact with the beauty and perfection of the raindrops as they sat on the leaves in their simple Buddha-like poses. Coming out of the woods, Samos soon opened up and I saw the monastery stand imposingly on my right at the entrance to the village.

Earlier I had met Mike and Jackie, a couple from Limerick, for the first time. Initially I stuck up conversation with Jackie before falling into step with Mike while Jackie walked behind with Marlene from Belgium. Mike referred to himself as a passionate Christian and we quickly got to talking about life and, of course, God. I enjoyed his company very much; he had an open, inclusive way of interacting with the world. When we reached Samos, Mike and I were ahead of the others and as we were longing for breakfast, we headed straight for a café.

Afterwards, we approached the abbey and were advised by someone on the steps to be quick as it was about to close. When we got inside, a young monk came towards us, making a key-locking gesture with his hands. In the brief time we were there, I took in the tranquil holy atmosphere within the abbey; I would have loved to attend Mass. I considered waiting in the village for the next Mass, but people outside were talking about different Mass times. Some said Mass would be another hour while others said two hours, and as I knew Sarria would be busy with pilgrims, I didn’t want to get there too late. Faced with such uncertainty, I decided to continue my walk and return another day to Samos.

On leaving the village I pulled away from the others, as I wanted to walk alone for a while. I wanted to reflect on what meeting Richard had meant to me. As I walked, I wept with gratitude for the feelings he awoke in me. I felt alive, excited and playful, and I knew he had touched my soul. The whole experience felt like heart medicine, and I decided that if we met in Sarria I would let him know how he impacted me.

In the afternoon, although much of the route followed the road, it was really peaceful, uninterrupted by traffic except for a tractor. Walking along quiet, winding country roads felt completely different to walking on busy main roads, and for most of the day I didn’t meet another living soul – that is, until I heard Dave from New Zealand walking behind me. We introduced ourselves and talked only briefly before he powered on ahead of me.

Close to Sarria I rejoined the Limerick couple, and as we arrived in town we followed Javier and Leo, two pilgrims they knew, into the municipal albergue. As we settled in, Jackie asked me if I would like to join them for dinner later and I said I would, although in truth I wasn’t in much of a social mood by then. I needed some time alone and headed out with my journal to find a bar and a beer. Failing to find a bar nearby, I opted for a lovely Italian café and a glass of wine. There, I talked to the Italian man who was the café owner and he told me about setting up his new business with his Spanish wife. Then while he swept the wet leaves from the floor, the most beautiful furry kitten appeared to play with the leaves and the sweeping brush. She was thoroughly irresistible and when I picked her up, the owner asked if I wanted to take her with me. Ha ha! She had strayed into their lives a few weeks earlier and had taken up residence with them. Later, he asked if I would like to come back the following summer to give his wife a break – in the kitchen!

As I sat in the café I longed for a connection with someone who really knew me, someone with whom I could bear my soul. The people I felt closest to were gone and I was starting over again. During the day I had discovered that Branu and Kirsten were staying in Samos, and although I had said I would join Mike, Jackie and the others for dinner, I wanted to stay where I was. The owner came over to me as the café filled. ‘You tell me if and when you want your dinner here,’ he said. I felt really touched that he was taking care of me and tears flowed down my cheeks. The full power of the Camino experience happens in the most unexpected ways and circumstances; the connection I longed for came from an unexpected source. It had been a day of abundance: meeting Mike and Jackie, Samos, walking, feeling my connection with Richard and then the café owner.

While I was having dinner, Richard came in with Jim, an Alaskan man I had met briefly earlier in the day. Seeing me, Richard came over, expressing his surprise, for he had expected me to have gone further. I told him about my unexpected detour to Samos, which had been absolutely worth it. He asked if I wanted to join them and I declined. I knew it was time to move on. Then as I was leaving, I went across to where they were sitting and told Richard that I had really enjoyed meeting him and that he had touched my heart.

Back at the albergue and ready for bed, I took out my book to read while I waited for the others to return. When they did, I was informed that they had come back to look for me a few times during the evening. I apologised and told them where I had been. They didn’t mind; they weren’t offended. Javier asked me what I was reading and I exposed the cover so he could see Conversations with God. ‘What are you reading that stuff for,’ the Spaniards chimed, before recommending their own reading material. I just laughed, feeling pleased that I didn’t need to hide my book cover.

Before lights out, Mike came over and sat on the edge of my bunk with his bible in his hand and took out photographs of his daughters to show me. It was a lovely gesture of welcome and inclusion.

Day 28; La Faba – Triacastela – 26 km

In the morning, Branu and Kirsten were just sitting down to breakfast as I was ready to leave. Although we had planned to leave together, I could see they were pretty relaxed, so I said I’d meet them for coffee later and left. The guidebook had promised some spectacular views on the way to O Cebreiro, but the morning was cold, misty and foggy and I could only see a few yards in front of my feet.

At the entrance to O Cebreiro stood a tall majestic tree that seemed to announce the special place the village held at the top of the mountain. Passing through, I headed for the church and met Richard emerging from it. Inside, the church was more understated than most I had seen. I liked the simplicity; the seats were made of plain dark wood while the walls were devoid of the usual baroque grandeur. However, what usually engages my attention in a church is how I feel. Despite the noise and activity of those around me, I felt really at peace and I knelt down to pray. As I did so, I realised that I felt torn between wanting to stay and wanting to go. I thought that if I left, I might be able to manipulate an encounter with Richard in the village. Then as I contemplated my dilemma, I felt clear that if I allowed distraction to steer me, I would be straying from my intention to walk this pilgrimage with sincerity. In hindsight, I see it as a test of faith and perhaps the most important decision I made on the Camino.

While I waited for Kirsten and Branu, I walked around O Cebreiro before stopping for coffee and cake. Just as I was about to leave they appeared. By that time our schedules were out of sync and I decided to continue walking alone. As the fog cleared, a warm day was revealed and with a full heart I left O Cebreiro. Around me the landscape felt intimate again; animals grazed in fields of lush green grass, wildflowers grew in the hedgerows and I felt connected to my surroundings. Being physically close to the bushes, the trees and the brambles connects me with my internal home, and my connection with the landscape brought forward thoughts of all the people I had met on my Camino, as well as my family and friends at home, and I felt tremendous gratitude.

During the day I was reunited with Kirsten and Branu, but as the afternoon progressed I went ahead of them. I expected Triacastela would be busy and I thought it best if one of us went ahead to get beds for the three of us. Arriving in town at about 5 p.m., I saw a ‘Full’ sign posted outside the municipal albergue, and my concern about finding accommodation increased. Then as I walked on further, I met a local woman dressed in black who told me that everywhere was full, but that I wasn’t to worry – she had a room in her house for €30. I hoped she was a chancer and I thought she probably was. When I asked two young German lads I knew about accommodation, they told me they had got the last two beds in their albergue; they also told me that the woman in black had peddled the same yarn to them. Further along, I saw more ‘Full’ signs and my anxiety deepened. Then at the end of town I entered the last albergue on the street. Inside there was no sign of the hospitalero, and while I waited I peeked into the ground floor dorm and saw some empty beds. What a delightful sight!

Later, as I stood brushing my teeth, Branu emerged from the shower. ‘What now?’ he asked. ‘A beer, and then dinner,’ I suggested. Although clothes washing could wait for another day, some tasks could not be delayed. Branu needed to go to the bank and the supermarket, while I needed to tend to my feet before going out. As there wasn’t enough space or sufficient light to carry out the necessary foot repairs in the dorm, I went downstairs to the entrance foyer cum dining room. While I worked, Richard appeared at the open doorway. ‘Just in time! I’m in need of a doctor,’ I said. I was delighted to see him, though it turned out that he knew less about tending blisters than I did. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t even have to leave the albergue to meet him. We talked about the day and I asked if he would like to join us for a drink. He accepted. I felt so excited.

As Richard and I walked through the narrow, pedestrianised main street full of bars and restaurants looking for a table in the evening sun, I heard my name called. To my surprise I saw Kathy, my American friend. I couldn’t believe it; I thought she would be at least a day ahead of me. The moment we embraced, I knew that what we had shared together was over. Although walking with Kathy had been one of the most beautiful and spiritual encounters of my whole Camino experience, I knew then that the purpose of our meeting had already been served. She was with a new group of Spanish pilgrims, as well as her earlier walking buddy Vanessa, and that was okay with me. I was happy walking my own Camino.

At dinner with Kirsten and Branu talk turned to home. Richard was coming to the end of his Camino, and that was when I found out that he was going home to his wife. Initially I became quiet as I felt my disappointment register, but I didn’t withdraw from conversation. In Richard I had found a kindred spirit, and I was able to continue enjoying our playful banter for the remainder of the evening, even though I had fantasised about more. When we parted later, it really felt like the final goodbye. He was heading for Sarria the next day while I thought I might go a little further.

That night I slept like a log.

Day 26; Ponferrada – Villafranca del Bierzo – 23.5 km

The albergue staff switched on the overhead lighting at 6 a.m., and with the brightness difficult to ignore, I sprung out of bed quickly. The three strangers I had shared the dorm with were early starters and had already left. Kirsten, on the other hand, was slow to mobilise herself; I had finished breakfast before she appeared, she looked exhausted after her long trek the previous day, even putting on boots seemed to take a lot of her energy.

Although we began walking together, Branu gradually fell behind and soon we couldn’t see him at all. It became apparent as we walked through the commercial district, which was completely different to the quaint old city, that Ponferrada was a lot bigger than we’d anticipated. With the city signs competing with one another for attention, I lost sight of the Camino and began to follow another pilgrim, assuming she could see what I could not. Mistake! It transpired that we were following Elizabeth from Dublin, and I don’t know who she was following. She worked as a teaching assistant in Madrid and had good Spanish, which came in handy, as we were lost. If I had been on my own I would have retraced my steps, but I felt safe in numbers and had faith that we would find our way back. However, Kirsten was less trusting – of me, of herself, or anyone else; mostly, perhaps, she was worried about being parted from Branu.

About two hours later we were reunited with the Camino and shortly afterwards, Kirsten and I stopped at a café. Darren was there ahead of us and I was pleased to see him, as I needed some light relief. Walking with Kirsten for the previous couple of hours had been draining, so I was glad of Darren’s company. The three of us left together after coffee, and as the morning progressed into afternoon, Darren and I laughed our way through story after story. We were as carefree as school kids on a day off. I really don’t recall what we were laughing at, but it all seemed funny at the time. After a while, Kirsten dropped back and later I saw her in a bar having a beer with Heather and Eugene.

In Villafranca, the albergue of popular choice was referred to as the ‘hippy place’. Run by a family who had been tending to pilgrims for years, it felt more like a community than usual, and it was clear that the family enjoyed the role they played. The upstairs dorms were accessed by external staircases while balconies overlooked the courtyard below, and as I observed the flow of movement from my vantage point in the queue, I had the feeling of being on holiday.

When Darren and I got to the top of the registration line, we were allocated a double bunk bed – not ideal, but I knew I would be okay. I felt really happy. I knew so many people; Kirsten had arrived with Heather and Eugene, and I was especially pleased to see Branu a little later. Even before he showered, he ordered a bottle of wine and the three of us pooled our food resources for a lovely impromptu picnic. Those were some of the best moments. I felt so fond of Branu. Sometimes we had deep philosophical conversations and at other times we would just look at one another and laugh. I felt no pressure from him or with him. I could come and go as I pleased and we would be happy to meet whenever we did. He was also the bridge that connected me to Kirsten; we seemed to need his laid-back let’s-have-some-fun attitude as an antidote to the intensity between us. His appearance often put things into perspective for me, and I would suddenly find my playfulness again.

Then after a lovely day I found myself drifting away and disconnecting in the evening. I didn’t seem to know what to do with myself and I felt at a loss. At the communal dinner, I struggled to participate in conversation; it took so much energy for me to talk at all. I could see Darren further down the table; he seemed to be getting along well with the girl on his right and I wondered if I had lost my companion.

Day 25; Foncebadón- Ponferrada – 25 km

Cruz de Ferro, a famous Camino landmark, is a huge iron cross originally erected to help pilgrims find their way across the mountain. Over the years, a large mound has formed at its base as pilgrims have added a stone, brought from home, to symbolise what they want to leave behind and their readiness for rebirth on the last leg of the Camino. Legend has it that when the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was being built, pilgrims were asked to contribute to its building by bringing a stone; hence the tradition at Cruz de Ferro.

As I approached, I could see lots of people already there, standing amongst the stones and taking photographs. Not only had I missed the sunrise, but I didn’t have a stone. Still, I wanted to participate in the ritual along with everyone else. Stitched to my rucksack was a multicoloured ribbon, which for me represented joy, and I placed it between the stones. Put simply I wanted joy and play to have more prominence in my life.

Walking across the mountain and through its villages was an uplifting experience. The picture perfect alpine village of El Acebo particularly stood out. I imagined people holidaying in the quaint, historic houses with their rickety balconies overhanging the narrow street, and for a while I felt more on holiday too – that is, until I was struck by the realisation that nothing big was going to happen to me on the Camino. It was like a bolt out of the blue. Suddenly, it became clear to me that I would be exactly the same person when I returned home as I had been when I started out. I could hardly believe that could be true. It was a reality I hadn’t bargained for, and in response I felt really angry and disappointed. What on earth was this Camino all about?

Before arriving in the town of Molinaseca, where I stopped for coffee, I had managed to walk off or at least park my anger. Inside the café I met Darren, the Irishman I had briefly encountered in Foncebadón, and we struck up easy conversation, which helped me forget my morning’s disappointment. Later we left together to continue our journey. Darren was good company and I felt really relaxed, until we arrived at the enormous municipal albergue in Ponferrada. The registration process took place outside in the courtyard, and as I stood in the queue with Darren I began to feel uncomfortable about the possibility of sharing a dorm with him. But I needn’t have worried; I was allocated a small room with two bunk beds and three new companions.

After a nap I made my way to the kitchen with my journal and took a seat at one of the long tables. Although I had slept, I felt unbelievably tired on all levels. I began to reflect on what I had discovered earlier in the day. My expectation that something big would happen was really a fantasy, a belief that I would become somebody or something else. It’s not that I actually wanted to be another person, more a case that just being me wasn’t really enough: I had to be something. Once the initial shock, anger and disappointment had worn off, what I felt was total relief. I realised that I had been saved from the utter disappointment of arriving in Santiago expecting my fantasy to be fulfilled there. So as I sat in the albergue that evening I knew something big had happened, just not the kind of big I had anticipated.

Later that night while I was food shopping, I met Branu for the first time in four days. He had just arrived in Ponferrada, which hardly seemed believable, as it was 9 p.m. I couldn’t imagine that he would have dawdled so much along the way that he needed to walk in darkness to get to his destination. Over a glass of wine in the albergue courtyard, I discovered that he had walked with Kirsten to Molinaseca, intending to stay there, but that they had arrived too late for beds. While they could have shared a hotel room, it was not Branu’s style, so instead of spending a relaxing evening at Molinaseca, they had set out on the additional eight kilometre walk to Ponferrada. Although Kirsten was a good walker, she was nearly thirty years older than Branu, and I wondered if it was something she went along with rather than wanted.

Our time to catch up that night was fairly short – the 10 p.m. curfew arrived all too soon – but we agreed to leave together to continue our reacquaintance in the morning. When I got to my room, it was in complete darkness and the ladder that had been there earlier to help me reach the top bunk had mysteriously been removed. After a couple glasses of wine, I was both a little tipsy and a little noisy in my endeavours to get to bed. But since I blamed one of my room-mates for moving my ladder, I wasn’t too bothered about the grunts that communicated their displeasure.

Day 24; Astorga – Foncebadón – 27.2 km

As the Camino curved its way back into the mountains, the landscape transitioned from the vast sparseness of the Meseta into vibrant, intimate abundance. It felt like a new beginning, an emergence from the womb into an exciting new world. Most pilgrims I knew were intending to stay the night in Rabanal, a town at the bottom of the mountain, but I wanted to be higher up. When I saw Christine waiting for the albergue to open, I went over to say goodbye. ‘Go be with your spirit in the mountain,’ she said. Her words touched me, and I wondered if she had seen more of me than I realised.

That night I decided to stay in a community albergue that offered bed, dinner and breakfast on a donation basis. The evening meal was determined by the shopping done earlier by the volunteer warden, and the pilgrims cooked and ate as a community. Until then I had avoided such places; I wanted to be on the outside of the community, not part of it. On arrival, I was told by the American warden that all the beds had been taken, but that I could have a mattress on the floor if I wished. This was followed by more disappointing news: there was no hot water. The man who had gone for gas hadn’t returned, nor was his return that day guaranteed. Since I had already decided I would stay there I wasn’t easily deterred, and I followed the warden to a room full of mattresses and a mix of German and American students. ‘We have one more,’ he announced. Immediately the students began to rearrange themselves to accommodate me. Then later they took over cooking dinner, while I and many others only had to turn up to the table.

Foncebadón was more of a hamlet than a village; there was no place to go and nothing to do but relax on the veranda. While most people with beds slept, I enjoyed talking to a French couple who were cycling the Camino. It wasn’t often that I got a chance to talk to cyclists, as they generally stayed in different albergues to walkers. Just before dinner I took a short stroll, and while I was out I met Darren, an Irishman from County Meath. He was continuing his Camino after a stint as an artist in residence in Carrión de los Condes. But someone called ‘Dinner’, which put an end to our chat, as I was more than ready for food. Afterwards, I didn’t even wash dishes as there were so many hands available for work. Instead, I sat back on the veranda making a bracelet with elastic bands, colourful beads and letters of the alphabet.

At bedtime most of us headed for sleep in anticipation of reaching Cruz de Ferro, the highest point on the Camino, in time for sunrise the following morning. However, for me sleep came slowly and as I lay on the thin mattress on the concrete floor, I felt cold and couldn’t avoid for long the call of nature. To reach the bathroom I had to overcome both psychological and physical barriers. Firstly, I had to persuade myself to get out of my sleeping bag when I really didn’t want to. Secondly, I had to give myself permission to make the necessary noise, as everything I was about to do involved discomfort for me and disturbance for others. With permission granted, my release began with the noisy separation of the Velcro strips on my sleeping bag, the equivalent of opening a packet of crisps in the cinema during the quiet bits of the film. Then I switched on my torch and swished the light around to establish the easiest route to the door without stepping on anybody. Stage one of my mission was successfully accomplished. Next was the dormitory with the beds and the sleeping bodies – the night would not be complete without disturbing them too. Oh, and I got to repeat the process on the way back. What fun!

Day 22; Leon – Hospital de Órbigo

After a breakfast of tea and toast supplied by the nuns, Kathy and I departed the albergue in high spirits; in fact, it was the most carefree I’d felt in three weeks. Although, initially I enjoyed mingling with other pilgrims as we exited the City, after an hour or so I felt tired and I longed to return to stillness.

With the busyness behind us, the rhythm of the day fell into place as we all spread out again. And in the quietness of the unfolding day, an easy peace settled upon us. We were reunited with life without distraction of any kind and we had nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other. In Kathy’s presence I felt held in a sacred, invisible and powerful container, and I experienced an inner stillness that gave me access to a deeper layer. There was no need to speak, and out of the silence the phrase follow the footsteps of Jesus came to me. It was, in fact, exactly what I felt I was doing in that moment.

It was evening time when we arrived in Hospital de Órbigo, a really beautiful town, but I had no interest in exploring it. My needs were basic after walking 37.5 km and all I wanted was a bed. Kathy planned to reach Santiago a couple of days ahead of me, and for her that meant some very long days. As our time together was limited, I was prepared to push myself for one day, while knowing the next would be a much short one for me.

After dinner I advised Kathy that there was no need to set an alarm. We were sharing the dorm with Toby, a young German man I had first met in Carrión de los Condes, where I discovered that one of his habits was to leave each day by 6 a.m., and I thought he couldn’t do that without disturbing me.

Day 21; Mansilla de las Mulas – León

Day twenty-one marked the end of my journey across the Meseta, and for me the unfortunate arrival in another city. I was sad to say goodbye, as I felt the Meseta had nourished me so well. Many mornings as I left on my own, I had felt that there was someone behind me holding a torch that shone light straight at my feet. Often I had turned around to check, but I was alone. Or was I?

For most of the morning I walked with Eugene and Heather and we talked about the possibility of hopping onto a bus to take us through the suburbs and into the city. My purist attitude of a week earlier had gone; by this time I would have accepted a bus without difficulty. No longer did I think it necessary to walk all the way to Santiago. After a while I let them get ahead of me, and I walked on my own until I met Branu and an anxious Kirsten. Branu approached the city leisurely, browsing the shop windows on the way, while Kirsten worried about finding an albergue. So I asked if she wanted to come with me to the Benedictine convent and let Branu follow in his own time.

The nuns were certainly in charge in what was the only albergue where I experienced men and women with separate sleeping quarters. There was something about the place that I loved; maybe it was that the beds had crisp white sheets – I don’t know. In particular, I loved the safety I felt there. After arriving, Branu, Kirsten and I shared a picnic lunch in the courtyard. While I only had bread to contribute, as usual Branu had enough for both of us. He used his rucksack for carrying food rather than physical attire. When he offered me wine from his yogurt container, I thought he was joking, but I was tempted to find out and it was, in fact, red wine. I was impressed. Kirsten had something of great value too – a sharp penknife – and it was lovely to have actual slices of cheese as opposed to bitten off chunks, which is what I often had. Not only was the experience an upgrade on my own cobbled-together picnics, but it was also better than any café lunch, and I was struck again by Branu’s generosity: he always had food to offer and at all times wanted to share what he had.

As we rested in the aftermath of a satisfying lunch, I spotted Kathy, the American woman with the blisters who had stayed with me at the hotel in Castrojeriz. I was excited and delighted to see her again and we headed off for a drink, although I felt a little guilty about leaving Kirsten and Branu straight after eating. Kathy and I had so much to share that we spent the remainder of the day catching up. I saw nothing of the beauty of León; that would have to wait for another occasion. Later, Kathy gave me her iPod to listen to the poet David Whyte in conversation about Mary Oliver’s poetry. He was offering his thoughts on the importance of retaining innocence in adulthood. That night I drifted off to sleep on my white sheet to the sound of David Whyte’s mystical voice.

Day 19; Ledigos – Calzadilla de los Hermanillos

After half an hour or so without seeing any Camino signs, I began to suspect that I may have missed a turn in the early morning darkness. In the distance I could see some lights and I thought I would reassess my options when I reached the village. However, before I got there a vehicle coming towards me stopped. Two men inside the lorry spoke to me in Spanish and I understood from their gestures that I needed to retrace my steps. They offered me a lift back and I climbed into the cab, fully aware that it was not something I would do at home. When we reached the road I should have taken, the driver stopped the lorry, got out and came around to my side of the vehicle. At first I thought he had done this just to open the door for me, but then I realised as soon as I tried to get out that the weight of my rucksack was pulling me backwards and I couldn’t get out without his help. He stretched out his arms and I threw myself forward into them; he caught me safely and placed me on the ground, just like he might have done with a child.

By then I was about an hour behind schedule. The sun was up and while I walked, I asked God for support. I felt I really needed some holding. At a village further on I stopped, and as I was about to enter a café, I met Branu and Kirsten on their way out. We chatted for a few minutes before they moved on and I went inside. As I was the only person there, I sat at the bar and ordered a coffee and the last chocolate croissant. The barman went about his business, sweeping and tidying up, while I relaxed in the warm, homely atmosphere. A few minutes later, Jan, a Belgian man in his sixties, arrived. We hadn’t met before but actually it’s relatively easy for pilgrims to strike up conversation if they are so inclined. When his French companion Christian, also in his sixties, walked in, he immediately came over and touched my back. His touch was fatherly and not at all intrusive. In fact it was exactly what I needed, and I honestly felt he was an answer to my prayer. As I left the café, happy to set off again, I waved goodbye to Jan and Christian who were sitting outside in the sun, and when I caught up with Anna and Kelly, I told them about my morning and the kindness of strangers.

After lunch in Sahagún we separated again. Anna was staying the night there, while Kelly took the train to León; I was going further on foot. Despite my blistered feet and my adjusted and somewhat uncomfortable gait, I felt uplifted by my morning’s encounters and decided that in the full heat of the afternoon, I would walk another fourteen kilometres. It was a risk, as the village I had set my sights on had only one small albergue and with greater distances between settlements along the Meseta, I thought I might regret my decision.

Before leaving Sahagún, I bought a new supply of plasters and as I emerged from the pharmacy I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw a shop selling flip-flops across the street. Christine had advised me that I needed to air my blisters, that they needed to dry out – otherwise I would have them for the entire Camino. So ruthless had I been in my packing that I had left my sandals at home, taking only light shoes for the evening. Newly stocked up with supplies I set out on my afternoon expedition.

Less than an hour later, I entered a section of the Meseta that was even more barren than anything I had experienced over the previous few days. How I approached the challenge was my choice: I could resent the heat, the lack of shade and facilities, and worry about the possibility of not getting a bed in the albergue, or I could accept the conditions and enjoy the walk. The struggle to accept what I could not change was a central theme of my Camino experience. For a couple of weeks I had clung onto thoughts of how I wanted it to be and resisted accepting the conditions as they actually were. So I decided to take the view that all would be well and that if it came to it, sleeping under a bush wouldn’t be so bad. I had enough food to survive and I could wear everything I possessed to keep me warm overnight, if needed.

In any event, sleeping outdoors was unnecessary; there was, indeed, room at the proverbial inn. The municipal albergue felt really homely; it had a well-stocked kitchen full of items other pilgrims had left behind, while the overall atmosphere was one of welcome. When I arrived, the hospitalero had music playing and candles lit, both of which were soothing to my soul after a long, tiring day. In other respects the accommodation was basic; the comfort was in the heart-centred approach the two hospitaleros brought to their work and interactions.

After the usual arrival routine I went out in search of the local shop and found myself in someone’s front room. I walked into the hallway of his house and there on the left, where a sitting room would normally be, stood a grocery shop. Although odd, it was absolutely adorable. It was like stepping into Aladdin’s cave, where hardly an inch of floor or wall space remained unoccupied. The shopkeeper took on the character of a magician as he pulled out box after box of goodies while he enquired, ‘You want?’ When he opened the fridge to reveal what was in there, it was packed to the rafters. Then he pointed to the wine. ‘You want vino?’ It didn’t seem to matter how I replied, he still had more to show me. Moments like that are part of what makes the Camino so special. He was a tiny man with a large zest for life and the encounter with him made my fourteen-kilometre walk in the afternoon sun all the more worthwhile.

Later over dinner in the albergue, I spoke to Clare from the UK and asked if she had been to the shop. In response, she took out her camera to show me the picture she had taken of a beaming, pint-sized shopkeeper joyfully surrounded by his wares. She also showed me pictures of the local men and women as they sat talking and knitting in the evening sun. In every town and village, people, elderly people in particular, congregated outside their homes or municipal parks. I loved the idea of it and thought about how much my own mother would have enjoyed that life. There seemed to be a public space to rest, to congregate or to just be in every hamlet and village along the way. That night it was the albergue in Calzadillla de los Hermanillos which provided that for me.

Day 18; Carrión de los Condes – Ledigos

Soon after leaving the albergue I fell into step with Branu, a young Slovakian man I had met over breakfast. But we had not gone far when I stopped. My feet were sore, plus I was walking with a slight limp as the blisters made walking difficult. Unable to put my full weight on my feet, other parts of my body compensated and my natural rhythm altered. My hope was that extra padding and a rearrangement of plasters might give me some relief, but even getting my feet in and out of my shoes was painful. As I sat by the side of the road, Branu waited with me, offering plasters and anything else I needed. Then we were joined by Kirsten from Norway who waited with us until I was ready to move again.

The guidebook advised that there would be no facilities for seventeen kilometres. In other words, most of the day would be without any comfort whatsoever. When I mentioned my feelings about this anticipated situation to Branu I was met with optimism. He thought that some enterprising individual would have set up a mobile unit somewhere along the route, and about two hours into our walk his prophecy was realised. A mobile unit selling coffee appeared at the side of the road, and while the taste might not have been up to much, the break was very welcome. We relaxed for half an hour or so and I enjoyed being with my new friends. But as time passed it became apparent that Branu and I were not going to be compatible walking companions. He didn’t mind being out in the sun all day, whereas I did. So I left Kirsten and Branu at the impromptu café to set off again on my own.

The albergue in Ledigos was an interesting collection of somewhat random buildings built onto the rear of a bar that had a large garden and paddling pool. Once settled inside, I discovered that two pilgrims I knew, Anna and Kelly, had a room upstairs in the main building, which I suspected was a bit nicer than the packed outhouse that was my home for the night. In the garden, Christine was paddling her feet in the pool while her friend Sylvia lay in the sun. By contrast I couldn’t take any more of the heat; I was only in the garden to hang out my clothes. After a while, Christine came over and I sought her advice on treating my blisters before enquiring how she was coping. Each day was a struggle for her to remain on the Camino; she wanted to go home. Although I struggled, I never wanted to go home. Maybe that’s because I just wouldn’t give up! But I also had faith in the process, and even though there were times when I really didn’t like what I was experiencing, I knew it would pass.

That evening, while I joined Anna and Kelly for dinner, Christine and Sylvia were short of cash. Instead of the usual pilgrim meal, Christine told me they had two eggs, some bread, yogurt and enough cash for a beer. She wouldn’t take any money from me and later when I saw them in the garden again, I understood why. They were tucking into an appetising omelette sandwich in the evening sun and I could see nothing more was needed. Simple, wholesome and nourishing.

Day 16; Castrojeriz – Frómista

In the morning the hotel was eerily quiet with no signs of life – so different to waking up in an albergue. At the water fountain I filled my bottle while I observed activity outside the hostel nearby and kept my eye out for people I knew who might have slept there. On the steep climb out of Castrojeriz I thought about Kathy and wondered whether she would need to take another rest day and, of course, if I would meet her again. Then after the exertion of the climb, I stopped for water and rest while I enjoyed the rewarding view back across the valley floor as the early dawn blossomed into full expansive light.

To my surprise, day sixteen marked the arrival of my first blister – after two weeks I had begun to believe that I was fated to walk the Camino without any. The burn began before I stopped for coffee, but I didn’t investigate, so my eventual concern and subsequent treatment was delayed, and for that I would pay the price.

While I walked I enjoyed the solitude, and perhaps for the first time on the Camino I was really in sync with myself, immersed in the rhythm of my own body and soul. At times I felt absolutely at one with my environment, while after reading Conversations with God, I had more compassion for my struggle to accept and be open about my spirituality. For lunch I settled under a tree by the river where it was incredibly quiet and peaceful. That day, lunch comprised more white bread and a tin of tuna. I had bought a pack of three small tins a few days earlier and they proved very handy on the days when cafés were at a premium. Dessert was a gorgeous doughnut-shaped peach.

Arriving later at the albergue in Frómista, I stopped on the way in to chat with Christine who was outside washing clothes. Inside, the place was lovely – well, as lovely as you can get with twenty-odd bunks in one long room and very little natural light. The bunks were newish with proper deep mattresses, unlike at some albergues where the bunks were old and the mattresses very thin. There was also a bench in the room, which meant I had somewhere to sit while I carried out blister repairs. Christine sat beside me while I treated my feet, telling me about the challenges she faced on the Camino. Listening to her helped me feel less alone in my own struggle, and not quite so odd after all.

The albergue offered an evening meal, although the dining room was too small and intimate for me to feel comfortable. What I wanted was to blend in and feel anonymous so I went to a hotel for my pilgrim meal and the obligatory red wine! I also thought I was less likely to bump into people I knew there, particularly Eugene and Heather. I felt they didn’t understand me and I had a sense, sometimes, that they wanted to change me. It was as though we spoke two different languages.

Back at the albergue Christine asked me about dinner; she knew I had gone out. When I told her where I had been, she was surprised that I had gone on my own. Although I knew I could have joined her and Sylvia for dinner, I also knew that I was unable to make small talk. It would have required too much effort on my part. The Camino was bringing up a lot for me to process, and that was where my energy was engaged.

Day 15; Hontanas – Castrojeriz

Leaving Hontanas in the darkness of the morning was a magical experience, as the path was lit by the stars. They provided just enough light to keep me out of potholes and I switched off my torch. A clear sky, combined with a path that was sandy white, illuminated the way.

After the sun came up I ran into Brandi and gave voice to the thoughts I was having about calling it a day at Castrojeriz. It was not what I had intended when I set out that morning, but I was feeling pretty low; my throat hurt and I had very little energy. Truthfully, I had probably overdone it the day before. It was Sod’s Law really: any time I thought I got ahead, the following day I seemed to pay the price. The first café appeared on the outskirts of Castrojeriz and when I stopped, my decision not to walk any further that day had been made. So I enjoyed a large chocolate pastry and two cups of café con leche (milky coffee) for breakfast, and by the time I was ready to leave the café had cleared. Outside I saw Kathy, an American woman from Colorado, just standing up from her table. She was alone too. Instead of passing with my usual ‘Buen Camino’, I told her I was stopping for the day. In response she showed me her blistered feet and said she wasn’t going any further either.

Out of a regard for Kathy’s feet we walked slowly up the hill into town and decided to reward ourselves with the comfort of a hotel room. While we waited for our rooms to be readied, we sat outside on a bench in the early morning sun and were completely open with each other about our lives and our Camino experiences. We clicked straight away. I felt Kathy understood when I said how difficult the experience was for me and how out of tune I felt with those who were having a wonderful time.

After we checked into our hotel we went our separate ways, although I hoped we would meet again later in the day. However, as the day progressed I felt really vulnerable and tired, so I spent the whole day more or less in, or on, the bed. With nothing to do, the day was long and I wished I had a novel for company. At some point during the afternoon I picked up the only book I had brought with me, Conversations with God. It was not what I wanted to read, but it was all I had and so I began, reluctantly. Surprisingly, I really got into the book and felt my spirits lift.

By the evening I was starving. I hadn’t had any lunch, and although I was in a hotel, they didn’t serve food; it functioned more as an apartment service. While I could have gone to any number of places, I didn’t have the energy I thought it required, nor was I in the mood for facing people. So after the rain stopped I found a local shop where I bought bread, fruit, cheese and cured meat for dinner in my room. That way I could also continue reading my book.

Later, despite being in a real bed with actual sheets and having a private bathroom at my disposal, I had a fairly sleepless night; part of me wanted to be in the albergue with everyone else.

Day 14; Burgos – Hontanas

In the morning I left the albergue while Burgos was still in darkness, and even though the streets were lit, the Camino signs were difficult to make out, so much so that I couldn’t see them at all! Ahead in the near distance, I noticed a female pilgrim making decisions without hesitation and I decided to follow her. It turned out that I was following Brandi, a young American in her twenties, and we began walking together from the outskirts of Burgos. At our first coffee stop we met some people we knew, including Eugene and Heather. In fact when I arrived Eugene enveloped me in an uncharacteristic hug, as though I was some long-lost relative. After we found a table, Manoel and Sue joined us and I felt my happiness was complete. When I was feeling good, as I was on that morning, I found those impromptu meetings among the loveliest of my Camino experiences.

Brandi and I parted company some time later and before lunch I met Wilhelm who, much to my surprise, was walking alone, as he was one of the seven men from Friesland! Naturally I enquired about his comrades and found out that they had not originated as a group of seven, as I had imagined. Wilhelm had set out to walk the Camino alone, but got no further than the airport before he found a ready-made walking group. The six men carried the Friesland flag on their luggage and that was what had brought them to Wilhelm’s attention. What intrigued me about them was how they walked together – more of a march really, as though they were in the army; they looked like they were taking part in their daily drill. The Camino seemed to be mostly a physical challenge to them, while for Wilhelm it was more than that – he had a real gentleness of spirit. So the first day I talked to Wilhelm was his first day alone. The rest of his group had finished in Burgos, while he was walking on to Santiago, and indeed beyond, to Finisterre.

I had set myself a big task for the day: almost thirty-two kilometres, which was quite an increase under the circumstances. It was the first day of what would be a week of walking the great Meseta Alta, a barren wilderness that provided little or no shade from the relentlessness of the sun. So after lunch I set off on the remaining fourteen-kilometre walk to Hontanas, while others quite sensibly finished their day’s walk at lunch time. I knew it would be difficult; I just didn’t know how difficult until I encountered the reality of no cafés, no trees and no shelter of any kind – just endless walking in oppressive heat.

When I arrived at my destination it was about twelve hours after my day had begun and I booked myself into the first albergue I saw: a bar. They had rooms upstairs, along with additional dormitories located in a series of random buildings at the back. My dorm accommodated ten people and four of them were present when I arrived. We exchanged the normal pleasantries but I didn’t know any of them and I was soon off to complete my chores. As I stood washing at an outdoor sink in what felt like a back alley, I could hear noise and laughter nearby, and I realised how disconnected I felt. The transition from walking alone to being surrounded by people and gaiety was challenging, particularly after the difficulty of the day. Down in the square, outside pubs and bars, the whole of the Camino seemed to have congregated – so many people and yet I felt so lost and alone.

Later I went down to the square to face the world, but I felt that I stood out like a sore thumb. I could no more have engaged in conversation than I could have walked another fourteen kilometres. After walking around the village to get my bearings, I positioned myself at a table with a pot of tea and took out my journal to write. Writing helped me to process my feelings and explore what was going on. The holiday atmosphere really jarred with me and I felt out of sync with the rest of the world. I didn’t know what I wanted, while I had a list of all the things I didn’t want. At the centre of it was my ongoing resistance to the evening meal, the pilgrim menu. In addition, I was resisting drinking alcohol as a way of passing time, while others appeared to be doing it with gusto.

The pilgrim menu, a standard three-course meal served everywhere along the Camino, varies hardly at all from place to place, either in variety or cost. A simple salad – by simple I mean lettuce and tomato – or soup to start, followed by hake or stew with potatoes, but rarely any other vegetables. Dessert might be a banana, Santiago tart (almond), a pot of yogurt or sometimes ice cream, all washed down with red wine for a total cost of about €10. So what was my objection? I should be so lucky, right?

Well, for days I had been trying to figure out how to reduce the carbohydrate content of my diet and increase my vegetable intake. Vegetables were normally only available in the soup. So in order to have vegetables I needed the starter as well as a main course, and then while I was there, how could I refuse a dessert? While my body had some difficulty with the amount of carbohydrate and lack of fibre I was consuming, my mind was even more troubled.

Journaling helped me to realise the bind I had got myself into, and I began to see that my resistance to the pilgrim menu symbolised my rejection of how things were, a refusal to accept what is, which meant that I vetoed everything around me. In an ideal world, one of my own making, I would have had more control over my diet, but if I was to have any peace, I had to accept what was available. I was doing the Camino, after all, and pilgrim dinners were part of the deal!

Day 13; San Juan de Ortega – Burgos

I was awake and annoyed early as a result of the disturbance caused by two male cyclists preparing for departure. At first I hoped to get back to sleep, but once I was awake I found that impossible. I could only look on in disbelief at Jeanie who was sleeping soundly, oblivious to the circus going on around her.

It was dark and cold outside (and inside), and it seemed to be taking longer than usual for daylight to appear. With no way to pass time and no comfort to pass it in, I was impatient to be off. But I wanted someone else to leave before me so I could follow them. My flashlight was a tiny, ineffective little thing and really not up to the task of dealing with darkness. Inexplicably, nobody else seemed to want to leave, so I set off anyway, but I really couldn’t see a thing and I soon returned to the albergue. Again I waited, and still there was no sign of anyone leaving. Once more my impatience got the better of me and at the second attempt I kept going.

Over the next couple of hours, a rugged, nondescript, barren landscape unfolded around me. The sandy, dry soil only supported plants of a spiky variety, or so I thought until I noticed an abundance of tiny, delicate pink flowers growing all around me. The star-shaped flowers sat directly above the soil without any apparent support. I couldn’t see any stalks. What struck me most was their ability to grow and flourish despite the tough conditions. It was difficult for me to imagine how such elegance could exist in an environment so arid. On reflection I see this as a metaphor with personal resonance. The flowers represent the delicacy of the heart, which even though it may get trampled on from time to time, has the strength to survive and prosper.

When Wolfgang appeared beside me later he talked about getting a bus through the industrial parts of Burgos straight into the city, arguing that walking through such areas did not add anything to the Camino. Sylvia and Christine (a couple of Dutch ladies) agreed, saying they would be taking the bus into the city at the earliest opportunity. Although it would have erased ten kilometres of difficult walking conditions, I declared there would be no bus for me; I would be walking all the way. Despite toying with the idea of catching a bus, Wolfgang walked all the way too, some of it with me. He was intending to stay two nights in Burgos and it was unlikely that I would see him again.

At the big, modern, municipal albergue I was shown to my bunk, and I saw that Swedish Ann was already there. Within moments I overheard Sue’s South African accent, and when I went to say hello, I discovered that Elisabeth, Manoel and Sue were near neighbours. While I really needed a nap after my shower, I also wanted a beer with my old friends, and I decided to forgo a rest in favour of friendship and fun.

After lunch we agreed to meet again later for dinner and we went our separate ways for the remainder of the afternoon. Sue and Elisabeth took a city bus tour while I headed for the cathedral, although I was so tired I didn’t get much out of the experience. It was vast and spectacular, but what I needed was rest so I returned to the albergue for a short nap. In the evening the streets were full of all the generations, dressed up and strolling in the sunshine, while lots of elderly people sat on the many benches soaking it all up. It was Friday night and there was a festive atmosphere, with a small circus act attracting a lot of children of all ages. It was very colourful and the children were excited as they sat in the miniature parade vehicles, becoming part of the entertainment while parents followed with clicking cameras.

After the unexpected show, we moved off to get away from the crowds and found an outdoor table in a little piazza surrounded by shops and cafés. It was another world, set apart altogether from day-to-day Camino life. We ordered drinks; mine was a glass of cold, crisp, fruity white wine and I felt like I was on holiday. Then Sue spotted George, a Dutch man we had shared dinner with in Ventosa, in a book shop across from where we were sitting. She reacted quickly and went into the shop to invite him to join us for a drink. We were pleased to see him – well, some of us were anyway. I noticed that Manoel became very quiet and I wondered if he preferred to have the ladies all to himself!

Once seated in the restaurant I knew I no longer wanted to be there. It was about 9 p.m., and I was just too tired and didn’t feel hungry. It was Elisabeth’s last night and although it would have been nice to have shared dinner, I didn’t have the energy for it. I would have been staying only out of politeness and I decided that was taking politeness too far. It was time for bed, so I said my goodbyes and headed back to the albergue alone.

I had had a great day.

Day 10; Cirueña – Santo Domingo de la Calzada

After six kilometres we arrived in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, where we stopped for coffee and a discussion about the day ahead. I wanted to explore the town without being under the pressure of time, although it became apparent, that my interest in Santo Domingo was not shared by all. It was clear that Sue wanted to pass through it as quickly as possible, in the same way we had done with many other places, and as we left the café I felt that the disharmony between us was evident.

Santo Domingo, the man after whom the town is named, was an eleventh-century Benedictine monk who devoted his life to caring for pilgrims. However, what piqued my interest was a story featuring a young German pilgrim who paid the price for rejecting the local innkeeper’s daughter in favour of continuing his pilgrimage. She wasn’t best pleased, and decided to exact her revenge on him by planting a church treasure in his belongings. The crime was duly reported, the young pilgrim was charged with theft, found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. All very swift.

His parents, despite their grief, continued their pilgrimage to Santiago, and as they approached the town on their return journey, a voice told them that their son had been saved by Santo Domingo. Hearing this they went to see the judge who had sentenced the young pilgrim to death to tell him that their son was still alive, despite being hanged. The judge, who was in the middle of roasting chickens when he heard the news, was not inclined to believe them. ‘Your son is as alive as these chickens I am going to eat,’ he said. Just at that moment, the chickens he was cooking – a cock and a hen – leapt from the spit and crowed ‘Santo Domingo de la Calzada where the chickens crow after being roasted’. Since then, descendants of the cock and hen remain in residence in the cathedral in celebration of the local legend.

The Cathedral was first on my list of places to visit, but I couldn’t gain access without a ticket; for that I was directed to the tourist office. There, I cast my eyes around at the souvenir collection and found myself particularly drawn to an emerald green rosary. As I touched the cross, tears came to my eyes and I began to realise that I was facing a decisive moment; continue ahead with my comrades or take a risk.

As I walked around the Cathedral my decision became clear. Even though I had only walked six kilometres, and it was still hours before midday, I would stop in Santo Domingo. I accepted that I needed to slow down to really experience here, and to do that I had to take the risk of following my inner compass. Oddly, I also felt it was time to return to the municipal albergue experience. In some ways my Camino had begun to feel less like a pilgrimage and more of a walking holiday – or perhaps I hadn’t learned how to have both. The pilgrimage experience, something that is really personal to each individual in its meaning, was what I had come to experience. Although the social contact was important, I wondered if it took me away from my deeper journey, or maybe I just hadn’t learned how to navigate between them. My feelings had guided me to a deeper longing, and I sensed that my Camino at that point was about following the courage of my heart.

At the agreed meeting time, I returned to tell the others my decision, which they accepted without question. Elisabeth had returned with pastries and we gorged on those before saying goodbye. I didn’t know if we would meet again, it seemed unlikely as they would be a whole day’s walk ahead of me. After they headed away I sat outside on a bench wondering how I would kill time until the municipal albergue opened at lunchtime. Not to mention the though of the long day stretching ahead with nothing to do and no friends to do nothing with.

The albergue reception provided a view into the large downstairs dining room with access to a rough and ready garden for relaxing and hanging out washing. Upstairs I walked through the old, empty, dilapidated rooms. It was like going back in time to 1950s Ireland, with brown patterned wallpaper and lino floor covering, threadbare carpet, crooked walls, squeaky floors and stiff water taps. It didn’t feel in any way nurturing or comforting and I noticed how empty I felt after the exhilaration of my earlier decision. The reality of my loss began to sink in fully. I didn’t want to spend any time upstairs so I returned to the relative homeliness of the ground floor dining room. From there I had a good vantage point, and I watched some of the first pilgrims arrive; notable amongst them was the advance party of two who were booking beds for seven men from Friesland (a province in Holland). Such a request got my attention and I knew I would remember them.

I felt more alone than ever as I realised all the familiar faces had gone ahead – not just Manoel, Sue and Elisabeth, but all my other Camino acquaintances. The full impact of my decision hit me and in part, I regretted my decision. It was like beginning all over again. I hadn’t anticipated how vulnerable I would feel without my friends, but at the same time I knew there wouldn’t be anything new without letting go of the old. In the dorm, I felt lost among all the new arrivals with their different languages and I asked two women where they were from without actually being interested in their response. Although they told me they were from Holland, they could have been from Mars for all I cared; my enquiry was merely an attempt to conceal how lost I felt.

As I look back, I realise how important the group was for me. Its protection fortified me until I could set out on my own again. Yet to have remained with the group for longer than was necessary would have masked what I needed to resolve within myself.

Day 9; Ventosa – Cirueña

In the morning I awoke to the uplifting sound of Gregorian chanting as it wafted up the stairs from below. It felt like such an appropriate way to greet the day and I climbed out of my bunk to meet it. Over breakfast downstairs, I spoke to Debbie, an American lady who told me she was allowing her Camino to take as long as necessary. I saw the wisdom of that, of course, and although I had a return airline reservation, I had a little contingency that gave me some flexibility. Yet somehow I seemed reluctant to use it.

When we left, the morning was still covered in darkness and Manoel, Sue, Elisabeth, Debbie and I were immediately in dispute about whether to go left or right to rejoin the Camino. For some reason I felt certain that we should go left and they followed me. But then we met a man going in the opposite direction and Debbie decided to turn around and follow him. Later we discovered that both directions worked, although perhaps we had taken the longer route. In any event we were rewarded with the most glorious sunrise after about an hour, and I felt that the experience softened any residual resentment about the extra kilometre or two!

By then we had fallen into a rhythm of walking about twenty kilometres a day and this day was no different. However, half way through the day, the combination of the high temperature and my inflamed knees meant that I was struggling once again. Although Elisabeth, Sue and Manoel were ahead of me, I was able to get Manoel’s attention to say I was stopping and he relayed the message up the line. Everyone was agreeable to taking a rest, but Elisabeth suggested going a little further as she could see in the distance a more fitting resting site than the roadside spot I had chosen. I too had seen what looked like bales of straw and although my fatigue needed to be addressed urgently, I saw the wisdom of her suggestion.

We had begun to routinely book our nightly accommodation in advance and we were heading for a private albergue in the small village of Cirueña. When we arrived we found our albergue, Virgen de Guadalupe, painted in a lively shade of blue with lots of homely and inviting potted plants and hanging baskets outside. However, inside was a different story. The house itself was in disrepair, but more important than that, it felt more like we were staying in an army barracks where the resident sergeant was on patrol. After meeting us at the door, we were instructed to follow the hospitalero upstairs, where he sat us all around the kitchen table to complete the registration process. Included in the offering was an evening meal, and before arriving I had imagined a warm, convivial evening with a welcoming host and fellow pilgrims. However, our host didn’t have the welcoming touch. It felt like we were more of an inconvenience to him than anything else, so when he showed us the evening’s menu, one by one, we all said we wouldn’t be staying for dinner.

When we got to our room, I noticed the absence of the usual stack of blankets. So in anticipation of feeling cold during the night, I asked Manoel to see if he could get a blanket for me from the hospitalero. Manoel agreed to make the approach while I listened to the exchange from the safety of the dorm, and although I didn’t understand Spanish, his tone told me all I needed to know. In fact the hospitalero came into our room to shut the window we had opened. ‘If you kept the window closed you wouldn’t need a blanket,’ was the gist of what he said in Spanish. I wasn’t optimistic about my chances of a blanket!

Unlike other places, I didn’t feel I had the freedom of the house. It felt too much like we were intruding on him and his domain and when the others wanted to go to the pub I joined them, even though I would have preferred to rest and journal. In the bar, we had a couple of hours to wait before they offered dinner service and passing time felt challenging. I knew I was going through the motions until we could order dinner and then sleep. Manoel was using the local services to access the internet while Sue was on her phone; we were all there but not together. Part of me wanted to tell them to put away the gadgets, but I knew I had no right. We did discuss the route for the following day and having consulted my guidebook, and read about Santo Domingo, I knew I really wanted to spend some time in the town. I didn’t want to walk through it and out the other side without experiencing it. Elisabeth and Manoel, too, were open to the idea, but Sue seemed less interested.

Back in the albergue, my comrades offered me their jackets to keep me warm during the night as the hospitalero had not softened his stance on the blanket situation. And as I lay in bed, I began to acknowledge that although being in this group had real advantages, if I tied myself to it I might be compromising my own needs too much. In any event I knew we wouldn’t all finish together as Elisabeth’s Camino would end in Burgos a few days hence, and I thought that might be my exit too.

Day 8; Logroño – Ventosa

In the morning I left Logroño with Elisabeth, Sue and Manoel, but I felt exhausted almost as soon as I began and immediately fell behind. My knee joints were inflamed and I struggled to find a walking rhythm. In truth, my body was telling me to rest but I was ignoring its wisdom. Furthermore, we had set out without breakfast and I just hoped that my comrades would stop at the earliest opportunity, but I thought I might have to wait an hour or more for one to present itself. Then while we were still walking through a large municipal park, I saw them disappear into a building in the distance. It was almost too much to believe that it could be a café and I tried not to get my hopes up. As I arrived outside I saw what appeared to be a public library, but once inside, its inner beauty was revealed. At the back of the bar was an outdoor terrace overlooking a lake, and I realised I would have food for my soul as well as my belly. However it was going to be a long wait, for there was only one man to fulfil the roles of server, chef and cashier.

Swedish Ann was in the café and as usual she was in no hurry at all, and although I knew I needed to adopt more of her philosophy, I had still not accepted the pace that was right for me in that moment. A week into my Camino, I continued to believe I had to match the standard walking plan set out in John Brierley’s guidebook, which for most pilgrims is the Camino bible. It sets out daily walking stages and destinations, where in general, the availability of pilgrim accommodation clusters. I thought that if I could do as John Brierley’s guidebook suggested then I would be doing it properly! Really I was afraid to trust my own wisdom and knowing, for that could mean allowing others to go ahead of me. Each day I wanted to be there, wherever that was; I found that there was, in fact, elusive. I was having trouble allowing myself to be here, in the present moment.

As the afternoon progressed, the others were ahead of me again. Somehow I pulled myself along, knowing that it couldn’t last forever, I would get there eventually. In time, I arrived at a sign which indicated a left turn to Ventosa, a couple of kilometres further, and another dull straight road delivered me to the village. As I was about to enter the albergue I met Manoel on his way back out; he was coming to find me. We had booked the albergue over breakfast in the park that morning and it did not disappoint. The moment I stepped inside, I noticed the house was furnished and decorated with care, and I knew I was going to feel at home. The hospitaleros were professional, and provided a very clean, efficiently run house with a small shop on the ground floor that sold food in pilgrim-friendly quantities. Upstairs they had segregated bathroom facilities, which made things a little more comfortable, particularly as the clothes washing and drying facilities were housed separately at the top of the garden.

While journaling later, I allowed myself to consider the possibility that I might not complete the Camino, and it was a thought that was not easy to accept. Even though I tried to console myself with the knowledge that the Camino is at heart an internal journey, not an external one, I still wanted to complete it! But I knew I needed to take the risk of slowing down and trust that my body would guide me physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually in accordance with its needs, rather than trying to implement a preconceived idea of how I thought it should be.

While Elisabeth and I sat in the garden in the late afternoon and early evening we discovered that we had misplaced Manoel and Sue. Where could they be? In the pub. They were drinking beer and eating crisps with George, a new acquaintance and a fellow pilgrim from Holland. Truth be told Manoel was a bit tipsy when we discovered his whereabouts, and wasn’t that inclined to want to leave, but with a little persuasion he came with us to a local restaurant for a lovely meal and a very enjoyable night with George.

Sue, Elisabeth, George, Me and Manoel

Day 7; Los Arcos – Logroño

The breakfast spread at Casa de Abuela looked inviting and I wanted to do it justice, so I took as much time as I could to enjoy what was before me. But I couldn’t linger too long as there was the small matter of a twenty-seven kilometre walk ahead of me to the City of Logroño. It was a walk I wasn’t particularly looking forward to as my limbs had taken a battering over the previous couple of days, and I would also have preferred to avoid trekking across a big City. Sue had left with the morning still bathed in darkness, while Manoel was coming to terms with losing his map and the consequence of its loss. The previous day’s experiences had left me feeling in an optimistic, positive mood so I asked Manoel if he wanted to leave with me, and my map, when daylight appeared.

Mid morning we stopped for coffee in a small village where some other pilgrims were already gathered, and I sat outside with Dublin John. He was on a two-week Camino, which he intended to finish in Burgos a week later. While I waited for Manoel to join us, our conversation focused on John’s injured foot. We pondered whether or not he would be able to make it to Logroño that day at all. Typically, feet and legs are high up on the Camino conversational agenda, but it could get a bit tedious, speculating on exactly what had been hurt, and how long it might remain hurt. I needed some light relief, which I hoped would come from Manoel, but when I looked around, I noticed he had joined another table. Interesting.

Just as Manoel and I were leaving the café, Elisabeth arrived. Earlier in the morning we had left her sitting at the kitchen table in the albergue. At sixty-eight, Elisabeth was an impressive walker, much better than me, and she caught up with us shortly after her coffee break. Soon Manoel and Elisabeth began to converse in French. He had lived in France during his Royal Air Force days, so he found speaking French easier than English. While they talked, I lost interest and fell behind, partly because I wasn’t part of the conversation, but mostly because I was feeling sluggish. In the distance I could see Viana, where we intended to stop for lunch. It looked deceptively close due to the flatness of the surrounding landscape, whereas I felt the reality of the actual distance with each step I walked – for me it couldn’t be close enough.

In Viana, my spirits lifted at the sight of the enticing and extravagant display of tapas that covered the entire length of the long bar, its beauty alone felt restorative. While we sat outside enjoying a delicious lunch Dublin John came into view and joined us. Quite soon I sensed Manoel wasn’t very keen on John being with us. That seed had been sown in my mind when he hadn’t joined our table at the cafe earlier, and over lunch he seemed to make very little effort to include John. Secretly, I hoped John would push off on his own after lunch so that the awkwardness wouldn’t continue further into the afternoon and he duly obliged.

As we rested outside in the shade Manoel phoned ahead to a private albergue in Logroño to book beds for the three of us. It was a relief to have accommodation secured and comforting to know that I would be staying in a private albergue. Before leaving Viana, Manoel found a supermarket nearby, so I was able to stock up on black tea bags. I had been missing my morning cuppa, as most albergues had vending machines that dispensed only lemon tea.

Refuelled, we set out on the remaining ten kilometres to Logroño, which for me was even more difficult than the hours before lunch. By then the day was very hot, and although I tried to keep up with the others, I really struggled. My knee joints were swollen and my legs felt like dead weight. Every step felt torturous. I knew I should just stop and take a break. In fact I should have taken as many breaks as I needed, but I was reluctant to either let the others go on ahead of me or ask them to wait.

As the afternoon progressed, walking in the heat felt almost unbearable, and by the time we got to the outskirts of Logroño I just wanted it to be over. Every step required physical, emotional and mental effort, so I left the navigation through the city to Manoel and Elisabeth. Then as we drew closer to our destination, I thought I spotted the albergue and I tried to point it out – they ignored me, and continued on. While I was annoyed at being dismissed, I still followed them, as I wasn’t entirely certain of what I had seen either. Within minutes we arrived outside the building I had identified earlier, having gone the long way round, which wasn’t very long at all; still, I was irritated as it confirmed I had been correct, although not confident, in my observation. As we arrived, we met Sue emerging from the albergue and I felt even more resentful. She was heading out for a walk around the City having arrived well ahead of us and seemed to have taken the twenty-seven-kilometre walk in her stride. I didn’t like her being so carefree when the experience had taken so much out of me. I was more familiar with seeing myself as the one striding ahead, rather than the one struggling behind and I didn’t like this new turn of events.

Inside the albergue, the check-in process was unusually laborious and I found my patience further tested. I needed to rest so badly, but the hospitalero moved at a snail’s pace and she had an appetite for collecting more information than I was used to providing. When we were shown to a large, thirty-bed dormitory, I felt really disappointed. I just couldn’t believe my eyes as I looked around at what was more akin to an open-plan office and not at all the kind of private albergue experience I had in mind.

When I lay down to sleep, it proved very difficult, as a group of young Spanish students were making a lot of noise, despite other pilgrims telling them to be quiet. As I sat up again in exasperation I caught the eye of a familiar Spaniard resting in his bunk across the room. ‘They are very loud,’ he said. ‘They certainly are,’ I replied before I burst into tears and lay down again in my sleeping bag. I sobbed uncontrollably. I didn’t know why I was crying; I just was. When Manoel realised what was happening, he stood by my bed and held my hand. Between the sobs I said to him ‘I can’t stop,’ he replied in his best English, ‘why you want to?’

When my tears began to abate, Manoel and Elisabeth asked what they could do, and I suggested a cup of tea with my newly purchased teabags. As I sipped my hot tea, the Spanish guy from across the room came over to enquire if I was all right. He wondered what had happened to cause the tears. Nothing had happened as far as any of us knew; that puzzled him, I think. After he returned to his bunk, conversation turned to plans for dinner and while I was absolutely shattered I though I would regret it later if I didn’t summoned my strength to join them. However as we walked around the City savouring the atmosphere, I was very much a follower, just as I had been earlier in the day. During dinner my companions began to speak again in French and I felt increasingly more excluded as it continued. Truthfully I felt hurt by Manoel’s insensitivity in particular, as he was the person I had the primary relationship with. To prevent myself receding into the background completely I asked him to speak in English. It took some courage to voice as I was speaking from a place of hurt, a small place, a child place, rather than from a position of adult confidence and strength. It was an awkward moment as he didn’t seem too happy with my request, although he did acquiesce.

After dinner and an eventful day, there was a lovely quiet hum in the albergue as people completed their bedtime rituals just before lights out. And as I sat up in my bunk the Spanish pilgrim from earlier mouthed across the room, ‘Are you okay?’ My nod indicated yes, I was feeling better. Sue observed the exchange, and I could see from her expression that she wondered what she had missed. But I chose not to enlighten her; I didn’t want to share my vulnerability any further.

Earlier in the evening, Elisabeth suggested that my tears were caused by tiredness. Although, it was certainly true that the difficulty of the day dismantled my defences, I also felt that something deeper was being exposed, without knowing what specifically it might be. With hindsight, I see much more in the symbolism of the adults walking ahead of me, speaking a different language while I languished behind, unable to let them go, get their attention or voice what I needed.

I met my inner child so many times on the Camino, this was just one of those encounters.

Day 6; Estella – Los Arcos

There was an amazing still quality to the morning as I walked through the town of Estella. I felt present to the awakening of the day while the town’s residents were still mostly asleep, except for the early morning delivery workers. In my normal everyday life, when I step out of the house the city is already fully alive and active, whereas on the Camino, I got to experience each day slowly unfolding, and it was a beautiful, precious thing to witness.

After a gentle start to the day I came upon a painted yellow arrow that didn’t fulfill its promise, which is to direct pilgrims out of town while remaining on the Camino. As I stood trying to figure out the direction it was pointing towards, Monika from Brazil arrived on the scene. She was on her own that day, whereas normally she walked with her boyfriend and his father, and until that morning we were Buen Camino acquaintances only. Without a common language we communicated with gestures and a few words agreeing which road to take, more in hope than certainty. After a couple of kilometres, the absence of Camino signs and other pilgrims became concerning, as we found ourselves in a part of town that was as dead as a dodo. There wasn’t a living soul to ask directions of, but rather than retrace our steps, we kept going in the hope that once we reached the edge of town, we would be reunited with the familiar yellow arrows of the Camino. It was a risk that paid off, as soon afterwards we knew we were on the right track when we reached the Bodegas Irache landmark.

Mid morning, when I was alone again, I went into the church in the small village of Villamayor de Monjardín. Inside I rested my rucksack against a pew and waited as my eyesight adjusted to the darkness. The church was held in near total darkness as the narrow windows were more like slits that allowed in very little daylight. Gradually three men came into focus: two pilgrims and a man with a Camino stamp standing alongside an altar of lighting candles. While I searched for my Camino passport, the two pilgrims left and I walked over to present myself to the man with the stamp. He immediately clasped my hand and held it while he said a few words in Spanish. I beamed as the sincerity of his blessing landed within and I felt elevated to another world by his powerful, loving presence.

Walking away from the church my heart felt full, and as I looked across at the vines in the fields, I saw what was around me through new eyes. I felt oneness with nature and I wanted to walk alone to savour the grace of the moment, however I could see Swedish Ann just ahead, waiting for me. When I reached her, I didn’t have the heart to say I wanted to walk alone. I told her about my experience in the church, but I felt a bit cheated that the spell I was under had been broken.

Soon afterwards I walked ahead of Ann; her pace was too slow for me, whereas the previous day I had willingly fallen into step with the quite gruelling pace set by David. That hadn’t suited me either, but I had stayed with him and as a result my left leg was sore.

After lunch I caught up with Manoel who was also walking alone. At first I didn’t know if I wanted company, but I discovered that walking with Manoel was actually very comfortable. He was undemanding company, and it was easy to walk with him in companionable silence or talk as the mood took me. When we arrived in Los Arcos, Manoel phoned Sue to get her location and we followed her directions to the private albergue where she was staying.

The hospitaleros, a husband and wife team, had converted a house previously owned by the woman’s grandmother and had named it Casa de Abuela (Little Grandmother). As soon as I stepped into the intimate family kitchen it felt familiar and homely. Bread was baking in the over and through the glass oven door I could see that it looked like a large doughnut. Upstairs I was sharing a small dorm with Manoel, and Elisabeth from Paris while Sue was in another room. We also had the luxury of having the hospitaleros do all our washing by machine for an extra fifty cents. Washing clothes each day is very much part of the daily ritual, but washing by hand doesn’t really get clothes clean – at least, not the way I washed them.

The afternoon was comfortable, lazy and carefree. I had lunch in the albergue kitchen, followed by conversation and map reading with Monika, my Brazilian friend from the morning’s adventure, along with Sue, Manoel and Elisabeth. Afterward I went for a walk, found a bank to get some money and sat in the square with some Australian pilgrims having coffee. When I returned to the albergue, the kitchen was quite and I chatted to the male hospitalero while he did his chores. I wanted him to know how much I appreciated what they offered, in their attitude and their facilities. I also wanted to know more about the bread! I was in luck – he was about to make a second loaf for our breakfast in the morning. This was a level of hospitality that I hadn’t experienced till then and that afternoon I became the apprentice bread maker at Casa de Abuela.

Looking back, I can see that Day Six had everything!. In particular staying in Casa de Abuela was one of the most relaxing and enjoyable experiences of the whole Camino for me. A week in, I was beginning to find more of myself, I felt more available to others and sharing the journey changed it completely.

Day 5; Obanos – Estella

After breakfast in Puente de la Reina, Manoel, Sue and I separated, and until mid morning, which on the Camino is about 9.30, I walked alone. Then I met David, an Irish musician in his mid thirties, who lived in Paris with his girlfriend. We hit it off straight away, and I realised as the hours passed that I didn’t want to share him with anyone else. It seemed we could talk about anything, and our conversation flowed freely. We talked about life, struggles, heartbreak, personal histories, influences; we covered a lot in one day! I usually think of myself as an open person, but on the Camino that was not how I was at all. However with David I was completely open. I let him see me and I saw him.

After five hours of walking together and only one brief coffee stop we reached Estella. Immediately, I faced a choice between a further uphill climb into town to find a private albergue, or settle for the big municipal hostel that stood in front of me. Despite my preference for small homely places, my tiredness dictated my decision. Initially we waited in the street with a few other pilgrims for the scheduled 1 p.m. opening time, not realising it was in fact already open. While we waited I noticed that the ease I had felt while I had walked with David had gone. I now felt awkward about our arrival together, as that often meant sharing a bunk, or at least ending up in close physical proximity. I also didn’t want anyone to assume we were a couple. Quite why that had any importance I don’t know, but at the time it did.

Once inside the albergue, David placed his rucksack on the ground before he set about a comprehensive rummage through his belongings. I was puzzled about what needed to be so urgently rescued when we only required the usual items: a Camino passport and €5 in cash. Why anyone would bury them in their belongings I couldn’t understand. I didn’t know whether to wait for him to find whatever he was looking for or not. In the end I decided to register without him, and when I received my bed number I went upstairs, leaving him to continue his search in the foyer.

Shortly after arriving in the dorm, Dublin John appeared next to me. He had been allocated the bunk above mine, and as we prepared our nests for the night, we did our best to navigate around each other without touching. There was still no sign of David. I thought perhaps the rummaging in his bag had been a delaying tactic, and I wondered if I had lost him. Despite the connection I had experienced with him, or perhaps because of it, I was relieved not to be sharing close physical quarters with him – it was easier for me to share such confinement with strangers – but I didn’t want to lose him either.

We hadn’t eaten along the way, and even though I was really hungry, I delayed lunch further in favour of chores. That was a mistake! By the time I had finished washing, the supermarkets were closed for siesta, so any ideas I had about making lunch in the homely albergue kitchen were quashed. Instead, I found a soulless, empty bar along the street serving food, and while I could have explored the town afterwards, I had neither the interest nor the energy for more activity. It might have been a pretty town, but I was unlikely to see it, except on the way out in the semi-darkness of the morning.

Late in the afternoon, I observed a few people, including David and Dublin John, chatting in the garden, and although I wanted to join them, I hesitated. I questioned whether or not I should. Maybe David wants some space, I thought, and as I second-guessed what David wanted, I held back and denied my own needs. In the evening, Dublin John was rounding up people for dinner, but I wouldn’t join them – by then I had lost any ability for conversation.

With hindsight I have a clearer understanding of the events that triggered my reactions that day. In David I had found a kindred spirit, someone who spoke my language. He was the first person I was willing to confide in, and while we walked I felt held in a protective bubble, without interference from the external world. But when we were reunited with the world, it was a transition I found difficult to make; I felt challenged by the reintegration process. During the day when I observed David in conversation with others, I told myself not to be a burden to him, yet at the same time I felt burdened by what seemed to be required of me – assimilation into a wider group and the ordinary conversations of Camino life.

Day 3; Zubiri – Pamplona

I was awake at about 6 a.m., and while it was still dark I crossed the yard to the dining room, where breakfast for me consisted of a humble banana and coffee. Deborah, (Walking for love of God) was up early too and already tucking into a big bowl of fresh fruit, while a man I didn’t know kept a watchful eye on a small stove as he heated milk for his cereal. Observing the importance they had given their breakfast, I wished I too had planned ahead for the nourishment my journey required. Not just in terms of something more substantial to eat, though that was part of it, it was more about the sacredness of their morning ritual. It symbolised to me, patience, self care and apparent ease with themselves. In contrast, I couldn’t wait to be off.

Packed and ready to go, I waited impatiently outside for daylight to appear so I could be reunited with the yellow arrows that would lead me out of town – and to greater ease, I hoped. However, I soon realised that I could not get away from what I was feeling inside and I knew it was going to be a repeat of the day before. The Camino I was experiencing was not the one I had imagined. I had misjudged it completely. Before leaving home, I thought I would love walking in expectation that I would get lost in the peace and beauty of it all. How wrong I was!

During the morning I crossed paths with Sue and Manoel for the first time, while they had met a couple of days earlier in St Jean. Sue, a South African in her early fifties, had begun the Camino with her father, but they had separated soon afterwards to walk at a pace that suited them individually. Manoel, a sixty-something Brazilian, fell into step behind, while Sue and I talked, Sue every so often relaying to him the substance of our conversation and throwing in the few words of Portuguese he had been teaching her.

After a while I walked on ahead of them as I found it challenging to be around people for any real length of time. The pain I was carrying inside felt like a dead weight and made it difficult for me to speak and connect with others. It was as though we were orbiting different planets and what I really wanted was to scream and lash out at the world I felt locked within, but instead of screaming I remained silent.

My utter disbelief at how awful my experience felt didn’t get any easier to accept as the hours rolled by. In fact, it was further compounded by the struggle between my need for rest and my desire to run for the hills as I faced the challenge presented by the first opportunity to stop for coffee. Facing people I knew was difficult. I couldn’t say how I was feeling, so I knew I would have to pretend I was fine and I found that incredibly hard.

At a busy outdoor tavern an array of brightly coloured rucksacks stood lined up against the wall while their owners sat at the many outdoor tables, chatting and having fun. I noticed the chatty young South African woman with her Dutch companion from the previous day, and while I stood at the bar waiting for my coffee, I scanned the environment for other seating possibilities. Seeing no alternative, I steeled myself to go and join the faces I recognised and although I tried to participate in conversation it was a huge effort for me. Then as soon as I finished my coffee, I fled. I had to get away to recommence my walk; I had to be alone. When I was with others, it amplified the painful depth of my disconnection from the world, and although I felt compelled to be alone, I also felt the pain and isolation of aloneness. I felt as though I was a small island adrift from the mainland, without the means to return home but I also know that even if I had been sent a life raft, I would not have taken it.

Another, less crowded, opportunity to stop presented itself about an hour from Pamplona. There I was joined by Christian, a young German man I had met at the outdoor tavern earlier. As we talked he became the first person to ask why I was doing the Camino. On hearing his question, initially I felt stumped. While it sounds like a small, simple question, it’s actually quite big and I didn’t know whether I wanted to answer it sincerely or say something general that would deflect him. I was aware that a sincere response would feel exposing for me but I decided to take the risk. In hindsight I see that answering sincerely was more for my benefit than for his. As I began to find the words, tears came. ‘I’ve come to meet, and be alone with, myself,’ I said. In response, Christian wondered if that was not something I could do at home and I said ‘not in the way I want to experience it’. Actually I had come in the hope of experiencing a deep encounter with my soul. I wanted to be close to God, although I didn’t say so. I noticed my reluctance to name God and soul. Even on the Camino, where I might have assumed pilgrims were accepting and open about their spirituality, I felt vulnerable and reluctant to reveal mine.

When I arrived in Pamplona in the blazing heat of the early afternoon, I found myself standing outside a homely and inviting two-storey stone house that advertised itself as an albergue and I decided to check it out. Inside it looked and felt just like a family home, and once the preliminaries were completed, I was shown to my bunk in one of the upstairs rooms. It was a complete contrast to the night before – more like staying in a bed and breakfast, where breakfast was offered for an extra €2.50. I found a little more of myself there, as the hospitaleros, two German men in their fifties, offered a more caring experience, in contrast with the no care experience of the previous night.

In the evening, I was partly filling time and partly hoping to have a spiritual encounter that would connect me with God and myself so I joined a small local community for rosary in the Cathedral. Just when I though the rosary had reached an uneventful conclusion, I noticed the congregation joining the priest to walk in procession around the large, almost empty, church, while they were accompanied by what sounded like a choir of angels. Immediately, I felt moved to join them but I hesitated, telling myself I didn’t know where they were going! However, I felt drawn as if by magnet to the procession, and I put aside any reticence I felt about my spirit being so visible. While I walked slowly around the church, something within me melted as I sank deeper into connection. Then when I came into line with the choir I stopped to digest the experience fully, taking in the ordinariness of the group of men in front of me. As they sang, they channelled pure love and I felt transported to another world. The one I had inhabited earlier in the day had dissolved into a puddle.

To witness the coming together of the local community to honour their connection with God, with themselves and each other touched me deeply. It was the apparent ease with which they took their place in honour of their God that affected me most, and I realised my struggle lay in the tension between my longing to satisfy the needs of my soul and my resistance to its fulfilment.

Despite the uplifting experience in the Cathedral, once I returned to the albergue, I noticed myself withdraw. I didn’t have it in me to go and join the group in the garden for a drink, even though I had regained more of myself that day. As I lay down on my bunk I could hear laughter downstairs, and I wished I had a buddy to make my experience easier. I seemed to need someone to open the door for me, so most of the time I felt as if I was on the outside looking in, wanting what others had while I stayed in the shadows.