Lightening the Load

On my first Camino three years ago, my friend Rick and I would see people with small daypacks. These were the people who hired  a service to bring their packs to their destination instead of carrying them themselves. “This walk would be a piece of cake if I wasn’t carrying a pack!” Rick would say. “Yeah, I could walk so much further if I didn’t have my pack,” I added. A few days ago, I learned we were right. For the first time ever on the Camino, there was no belt cinched tight around my waist, no straps pulling on my shoulders. I carried a tiny bag on my back that held water, my jacket, and some snacks.

“You already did this trail once carrying your pack. You’ve got that story to tell your grandkids,” Lois told me.”You’ve got nothing to prove, kid. And me? I’m only doing this once and I’m here to enjoy it. We can enjoy it a lot more without carrying our packs.” Well, since she put it that way . . .

I studied myself that day–how I felt being on the other side of the carry-your-pack or not debate. I didn’t feel guilty–initially. I did, however, wonder how other people would react to us, but was surprised to see we got the same “Buen Camino” greetings we received the day before.

A few hours into our day, after crossing a busy mountain road, we got to a food truck. Plastic chairs held weary pilgrims, their packs and walking sticks strewn about the pavement. Lois and I stood looking at our food options as a large man dropped his equally large pack and settled himself into a chair beside me with a big sigh. We smiled at each other, and I patted his back, then started to massage his shoulders. A man sitting across from him said, in an Irish accent, “Over here next!” pointing to his own shoulders. We all exchanged answers to “Where are you from” and “where are you going today.” I let out that this was my third Camino. “You’ve done this twice already? From St. Jean?” “No–I’ve done this route once before, and did 10 days on the Portugese last year.” I very deliberately did not add, “carrying my pack the whole time.” These men had seen Lois and I arrive. Looking at Lois, one would easily forgive her for not carrying a pack. But me? What was my reason? Did I need one?

I’ve just finished my third day without my pack. And the guilt has come and gone and come and gone again. Yesterday, a German man caught up with us and one of the first things he said was, “I see you’re not carrying much.” I stumbled over an explanation.

Me and the German

He and I had a delightful discussion, and when he moved on I said to Lois, “I need to come up with some good responses to the question of why I’m not carrying my pack.”

We came up with:

  • In case I have to carry Lois.
  • My pack? You mean it’s not on my back? Hm.
  • The better question is why are you carrying yours?
  • I’m probably carrying about as much as the pilgrims of the middle ages carried.

“People can’t have a one-sided conversation,” Lois said. In other words, I didn’t have to say anything. That hadn’t occured to me.

“You know it’s not personal–he asked about your pack to make himself feel better.” Indeed, this idea of “it’s not personal” is one of the best things I’ve learned from Lois.

A few days ago, pilgrims gathered in the choir loft of the church at Zabaldika, some sitting on cushions on the floor, others on chairs. The Sister who ran the evening prayer service asked if anyone would like to share anything they’ve learned thus far on their journey. I hadn’t taken the time to consider either question until that point. But something simple came to me quickly. “On my first Camino I learned to stop judging other people. On this Camino, I’m learning to let go of my concern about other people judging me.”



Judgement Days–Or Lack Thereof

Prior to my first Camino I spoke with a woman who had spent a week walking The Way. She stayed in hotels the entire time and had her pack ported from town to town. She was the first one to tell me that “Everyone does their own Camino.”

During my Camino, I wrote an entire blog post on that very topic. Upon my return, I contacted the  woman who had shared her wisdom with me. She had read the blog post  and wanted to tell me why she had her pack ported: she had a family member with special needs. Every day she felt like she was carrying more weight than she could bear. The Camino was her chance to let someone else shoulder her burden.

Her words stuck with me and I hoped to carry that lesson for the rest of my life. Who was I to judge? Rarely do we have the whole story, and even if we do, what good does my judgement do anyone?

Of course, living this lesson is easier said than done. Such was the case on day 3 of our Camino, when I walked up to the front door of the Corazon Puro, at which we had a reservation. The owners looked down on me and in very few words dismissed me: I had been told to arrive by 3 p.m. and it was 3:15. They informed me they’d given our room away.

I freely admit I had forgotten they had told me to arrive by 3 p.m. But four pilgrims who had stayed at this place had raved about how wonderful the owners were, and their curt dismissal left me stunned.

As I told Lois what they said to me, tears sprung to my eyes. I knew there must be some explanation for their attitude. But at that moment I couldn’t get over it.  Lois and I found a bench and sat down to talk about our next steps. We decided we’d go back to the bar we passed and call a taxi to take us back to Burguete, a town we walked through that we thought looked like a wonderful place to spend a night. On the way to the bar, however, we saw a handwritten sign that said, “Rooms.” Nearby another sign indicated the name of the place: La Posada Nueva. I recognized it from our guidebook and we decided to take a look.

I inquired in my broken Spanish, and asked the woman if we could see a room. She indicated that would be fine, but asked kindly for us to leave our hiking shoes in the space under the stairs. I was spent and flopped onto the couch. “You go look,” I told Lois. “I’m still too flustered to make any decisions.” Let alone climb any stairs.

A few minutes later I heard Lois exclaim and start laughing. She returned with a thumbs up, telling me two friends we’d met earlier in our trip were staying in the room next to ours. I breathed a deep sigh, unlaced my shoes, and hauled my bag upstairs.

That evening, over a meal home-cooked by the proprietor, we dined with our friends Mandy and Bill, another Rebecca we’d met the day before,  and a couple from–of all places–Asheville, NC. We shared our stories over our first course of  perfectly seasoned garden-grown tomatoes and cucumbers. We shared our greatest challenges during the main course of pasta with blue cheese, rabbit, and tortilla. The wine and laughter continued to pour forth as we devoured our apple cake for dessert.

The next day, friends that spent the previous night at Corazon Pura told us they were unsure why we were turned away–there were only three pilgrims in the entire place. I will never know, and have decided to let it go. Who am I to judge?

Paying It Forward

In 2011, when I first hatched my plan to walk the Camino de Santiago hardly anyone I knew had ever heard of it, let alone walked it. But I was lucky enough to get first-hand advice from people I have not, to this day, ever met.  

Nine months before my departure I was a host at the John C. Campbell Folk School for four months. JCCFS is like a summer camp for adults. People come from all over the country to take classes in cooking, writing, weaving, blacksmithing, wood carving, you get the idea. So, as you can imagine, it’s a wonderful mix of fascinating people. Every day I had the chance to dine with a new group of students. When asked what my plans were after my time at JCCFS was finished, I talked of the Camino. On a few occasions someone said, “I know someone who did that!” I would ask if they could put me in touch and was quite surprised at how enthusiastic total strangers were about sharing their Camino experiences and advice with me. After every one of these conversations I thought, “When I get back I must find a way to pay this forward.” 

Six weeks after my return an opportunity presented itself–an opportunity unlike any I could have ever imagined. I learned there was a weekly gathering of returned pilgrims at a coffee shop within walking distance of my new home. They met every Tuesday at 9 AM to not only reminisce, but to share their wisdom with anyone they knew of who was interested in walking The Way. 

At the first meeting, I was hooked. Here was a group of people who understood exactly what I had done and what I was grappling with coming back to the real world after such an experience. And here was a way for me to share my knowledge with future pilgrims. 

Not only did I attend nearly every week, but I also offered to meet future pilgrims one-on-one for coffee or lunch, and was delighted every time my offer was excepted. Thanks to this group, rare is it for someone from the Asheville area to go on the Camino with as little knowledge as I had the first time.

After my first day of walking the Camino in 2012 I had the pleasure of meeting Vincent and Franco, friends from Italy walking the Camino together. Vincent was on his third Camino and was accompanying his friend Franco who was walking it for the first time. After buying me a drink, Vincent opened my guidebook and marked everyplace he recommended I stay. He told me about the parish Hostel in Granon where a meal is prepared and eaten together and a candlelit service is held in the church next-door each evening. He circled the town of Moratinos and next to it wrote, “Italiano,” explaining that two Italians had just opened a hostel there and I would be guaranteed a delicious meal along with wonderful hospitality.

It has occurred to me that I am in Vincent’s shoes this time: an experienced pilgrim guiding a first-timer. And, like Vincent, I am thrilled to help whomever else I can.

That opportunity presented itself as the eight of us who had ridden together from the airport to St. Jean gathered our backpacks out of the van. An Asian couple approached Mick, a first time pilgrim I had spoken with during the ride. He pointed them in my direction saying, “She can help you.” 

I learned they were lost. And though it had been 3 1/2 years since I had been in this town, I knew where they needed to go. It was on our way to our destination, so I walked with them, learning they were from South Korea and had a reservation at a hostel further along the route. I let them know their destination was three hours away and when we parted ways I wished them Buen Camino.

A Day in the Life: On the Camino de Santiago

On Friday I’ll begin my third Camino. My friend Lois and I will walk ten miles per day for fifty or so days, reaching our goal of Santiago, Spain sometime in early November.

Some people’s eyes grow wide when they hear we’re walking ten miles in a day. “Well, think about it,” I explain. “If you’re only job was to walk every day, you could do ten miles, too.” I then explain the mathematics of it all, which may or may not help depending on one’s childhood experiences with numbers. But in a nutshell, it’s this: normal walking pace is three miles per hour. So it takes 3.5 hours to walk ten miles. And we have all darn day!

In fact, my day on the Camino is a lot like those of you working folks. After waking, I get dressed, pack up for the day and eat some breakfast. And about 8 o’clock I depart to begin my “work” day. I “work” for two hours, stop for coffee break. Then another two hours and I stop for lunch. Then another two hours.

And here’s where my day may differ a little from that of the working folk: I’m done at 2. I shower, change my clothes, do some laundry, and if all goes as planned I’m sitting on a piazza with a glass of wine by 3. I spend the next six or so hours catching up with friends, maybe doing a little grocery shopping, eating some dinner, then I’m off to bed.

There are a few other differences, as well:

  • The place I leave from in the morning is not the same one I return to at night.
  • Breakfast is shared with anywhere from one to twenty people. As are my coffee breaks and lunch breaks. And it could be twenty people from twenty different countries.
  • I see my friends nearly every day—or at most every few days. In person.
  • They only ever see me in one of two outfits, as that is all I have.
  • These friends of mine are people I’ve known only for a few hours or a few days.
  • Our conversations rarely have anything to do with our jobs. Or the headlines.  Why we’re here on the Camino is an often answered question whose answer can lead to a conversation that may go on for hours–a conversation in which I may learn about the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the end of a career, the questions one is seeking answers to.
  • I drink more wine on the Camino than I ever do in my life in the States. Partly because people like to buy me drinks, which is partly because they can buy a round for ten people for about fifteen dollars.
  • I go to bed earlier than I ever do in the States. And don’t need a book to read before my eyes close—my body slips into sleep not long after my head finds my pillow.
  • The bed in which I sleep each night rarely has sheets.
  • I share my room with one or two or fifty other people.
  • I don’t need an alarm. My roommates will begin rousing themselves long before I care to wake myself.

And every morning I’m happy to do it all over again.  This, I hope, is how you feel each day when you wake up as well.


p.s. Though I haven’t written much in the last two months, I’m hoping to return to this blog many times in these next two months. If you don’t want to miss a thing I recommend subscribing to the blog (upper right)–that way you’ll get an e-mail every time I write something.

And for those of you looking to procrastinate whatever it is you’re “supposed” to be doing at this hour, here’s a link to things I wrote my first time on the Camino. -Rebecca

Go. Now.

The Q & A

Q: Why France?

A: Why not?

Q: What will you do there?

A: Not sure.

Q: What do you do that you can afford to take three months off?

A: I basically work to save up money so I can travel.

There you have it. The answers to the three most-asked questions I received before my three month trip to Europe. Of course, those that have known me for a long time don’t bother asking: they already know my answers–or lack there of.

My boyfriend, Michael, however, has different answers to the last two questions. He spent our time in France doing what he’s been doing since the day I met him–he can work from anywhere that has a high-speed internet connection because he has mastered the art of location-independence. I am an aspiring student of that way of life.

Less Stuff. More Travel.

“It must be nice to have so few things that you can just up and go,” a friend said the other day. Well, yes, indeed it is. I lack a mortgage, a car payment, kids.

Oh. Wait. She meant “stuff.”

Well, I used to have a lot more of that. But on 7/7/11 I took off for a year–after giving away or selling as much as I could, and leaving the rest stored in my parent’s barn. (I haven’t seen most of those belongings in three years. Might be time to get rid of them.)

My mother says I have the least amount of “stuff” of anyone she knows. I know people with less. And I envy them.

The Many Ways to Travel

Before you think I’m a little crazy (oh wait . . .you already do), let me say that getting rid of all your stuff is not a pre-requisite to travel. In fact, there are lots of ways to travel.

  • There’s the traditional take-a-week, hop-a-plane, see-the-sites, come-home-to-so-much-work-I-think-maybe-I-never-should-have-left kind of travel. Very popular in the U.S. (Or not–it was predicted that, in 2014, forty-one percent of Americans would not use all of their paid time-off. The Europeans I’ve met think we’re insane.)
  • There’s the job-that-takes-me-around-the-world-but-I-never-have-time-to-see-anything type of travel. Popular among the corporate America set. You can identify these folks by the suits they wear and the speed with which they get through the security check-points at the airport.
  • There’s the  I-just-graduated-college-and-need-to-postpone-taking-a-soul-sucking-job-to-pay-off-my-debt types. These folks are usually Americans, as the Canadians and Australians I’ve met in my travels don’t have college debt to worry about.  Nor health insurance. Identified by their enormous backpacks, these American young’uns have a hint of that do-it-while-you-can philosophy. I particularly like it when they realize they can actually pay off their debt by working some pretty awesome jobs around the world.
  • Then there are the work-to-save-enough-money-to-quit-and-travel types. I believe you all know at least one of those.
  • And then there are those that have mastered location-independence. I’m dating one of those. Next best thing to being one.

Your Life. Your Choice.

Here’s the thing: I don’t care what your preference is for travel.

  • Some friends like the security of their cubicles and their paychecks. I’m fine with that, as long as they realize the two are not inextricably linked, and neither keep them from doing however much (or little) travel they want.
  • Some people don’t care to travel at all. No problem. As long as they have determined that by choice, and don’t think it’s fate.
  • Some folks have seen all they want to see. Ah, now these are some great folks. Took advantage of the see-it-while-you-can philosophy, have reached 80, and said, “You know what. I’m good. Glad I went when I was young(er).”

Honestly, travel or don’t travel. I don’t care. Just don’t think you can’t travel because you have a mortgage/family/job/home. Because there are plenty of people that have all those things and DO travel. Maybe they don’t stay in a Hilton after flying First Class, but I’d rather arrive at a budget accommodation after an economy flight than never arrive at all.

We live in a country where nearly anything is possible. Traveling is no exception. So if that’s your goal, get out there. Go. Now. Before you’re dead. (You do realize we’re all going to die one day, don’t you?)


And if you’re wondering how one affords to do such things, read this but only if you also read this.

A Tale of Two Caminos

Huffing up into the Pyrenees on the first day of my first Camino a compact woman who looked to be in her late sixties caught up to me. “Bonjour,” she said. “Bonjour. Ça va?” I asked. After exchanging details about where we were from she asked me if this was my first Camino. “Yes,” I said, thinking, Why on earth would someone walk 500 miles more than once? She told me it was her seventh. I thought I misunderstood her French. “Septième?” I said. Yep. Seventh time.

Half-way through that first Camino, I began planning my next. And on September 2nd I will embark on my third Camino in four years. I’m walking the Camino Frances–the same route I walked in 2012. With such a big world out there, I’m not surprised when people ask why I would do it all over again.

Actually, returning to the Camino is quite common. Nearly everyone I’ve met who has walked the Camino has walked it more than once–or is planning to.

There are numerous routes to get to Santiago, so a pilgrim could traverse up from Portugal one year (my route in 2014), from southern Spain the next. But why return to the same route?

Well, why do you return to your favorite restaurant week after week? Why do you spend time with the same friends repeatedly? Why do you go to the same church? The same gym? And root for the same sports teams over and over again? Because there’s something you enjoy about those places, those people, those experiences. And that’s why I’m returning to the Camino Francès.

  • Where else in the world can you walk a few miles, sit for a cup of coffee with strangers doing the same, then walk again, into an ancient town that wouldn’t exist anymore were it not for the tens, hundreds of people who walk through it each day?
  • Where else can you meet people from nineteen countries in the space of one month–people who will, within a few minutes of meeting you, tell you their deepest fears and their highest hopes?
  • Where else can you turn off technology for an entire day (or month) and be present nearly every moment, with more than enough time to reflect on your life–alone, or with people who are genuinely interested to hear about it?
  • And where else could you spend forty nights in forty different towns and share meals with people from all over the world for a grand total of $1700?*
Pilgrims from three continents (Africa, Australia, North America) sharing a meal on a fourth:)

Pilgrims from three continents (Africa, Australia, North America) sharing a meal on a fourth:)

I’m sure the Camino de Santiago is not the only place in the world one can experience all of the above. If you know of any others, do let me know, and I’ll add that to next year’s adventures:)


*$1700 does not include airfare. It does, however, include every penny I spent from the moment I touched down in Europe to begin my journey–food, lodging, one doctor’s visit and three medications as a result of that visit! How do I know this? I logged every cent in a small notebook I kept in my pocket.



Where in the World Is . . .

“Where are you living these days?” a friend asked.

“Well, what’s your definition of ‘live’?”

Most of my stuff is in a 5 x 5 storage unit Michael and I share in Asheville, North Carolina. Though my stuff sleeps there, I don’t. The last few nights I’ve been in Schroon Lake. And the majority of last month I was in Poughkeepsie—where the rest of my ‘stuff’ resides.

“I can’t keep track of you,” friends say. Neither can I, sometimes.

So for those of you wondering about my next steps, here you go:

Michael on the desk of Chalet Edelweiss

Michael on the desk of Chalet Edelweiss

  • Sunday morning: I depart for the Collegeville Institute for a week-long all-expense-paid writing workshop with Asheville native Lauren Winner. For those of you that have been waiting for the book about my first Camino, this is the kick-off to my summer goal of finishing the darn thing. (But don’t get too excited, because the next step requires lots and lots of editing!)
  • July 4: I return to Schroon Lake for two weeks, during which time I will finally try to comprehend Michael’s love of opera by attending two with him, thanks to the Seagle Colony’s summer productions of the Barber of Seville and Falstaff.
  • July 16: We’re finally returning to Asheville! For a little while, at least. We’ll begin by attending the wedding of Mike (one of my first Asheville friends)and Ashley–who have graciously allowed us to come despite the fact that I never received an invitation–because I’m not easy to track down via U.S. mail (or so they say).
  • End of August: I’ll return to NY to meet my friend Lois and depart on September 2 for the Camino de Santiago — Part Deux. Michael has not yet confirmed where he will reside during this time.

35L pack for a 10 week trip

  • November 11 — Lois and I return from our European adventure.
  • Mid-November — Michael and I head to California to spend Thanksgiving with his family.
  • Mid-December — We return to NY for Christmas, much to my father’s delight if you recall this post.
  • Post-Christmas — Who knows? Hopefully we will by the time the end of the year arrives!