on returning home from the camino de santiago: final thoughts

Walking the Camino de Santiago was one of the top experiences of my life, along with having my children, living and working abroad, traveling far and wide, and writing my still-unpublished novel. Not only was it a physical accomplishment, but it was a spiritual immersion and awakening as well.

Throughout, I felt that the Camino was a parallel world, removed from my own life yet at the same time a reflection of it; my life in microcosm, as it were. The one constant was me, the pilgrim.  I removed myself temporarily from my life and took a brief journey on the shorter path of the Camino.  But everything found on the Camino was simply a reflection of what is present in the larger journey of life.  A sign I encountered stated this succinctly: “Life is a Camino.”  The Camino is also Life.

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Life is a Camino

Ten Lessons Learned:

  1. You will establish your own rhythm to your Camino, and this rhythm will be unique to you.
    • I would never have been able to walk with anyone else, as I wouldn’t have wanted to keep a pace other than my own.  Nor would I have wanted constant chatter or even companionship. I did it my way, the slow, quiet and deliberate way, and I socialized with pilgrims in the evening, which was perfect for me.
  2. If you are open, the universe will provide what you need.
    • I found this when I was devastated and heartbroken over someone dear to me, and people appeared to share their own stories, which always seemed in some way related to the issues I faced.  It was as if angels appeared to give me wisdom that I needed at that moment.
  3. If you need to be alone, you will find space for that. If you want companionship, companions will show up.
    • You will find what you need, ultimately.
  4. Your feet are the vehicle to your journey, and you must take care of them painstakingly and with love and kindness, just as you take care of your body and spirit, the vehicles in your larger life.
    • I was lucky to hardly have any blisters during my entire Camino, but every evening, I changed quickly out of my hiking boots, showered, put tape around raw spots, and rubbed Vaseline on my feet.  I also wore an elastic knee brace for the entire walk.
  5. You are perfectly capable of navigating your challenges, even in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and where you don’t know a soul, just as you are capable of navigating your larger life.
    • I found the heat unbearable in afternoons, so I got up early, left before dark, and arrived in early afternoon at my destination.  I found carrying my full backpack was too hard on my knees and back, so I used transport services to send it ahead each day.  Other pilgrims figured out what they could and couldn’t do, and adjusted accordingly: taking a bus or taxi, buying new hiking boots, walking in their sandals — whatever was necessary to complete the journey.  If they couldn’t make it, they quit. There was no shame in any of it.
  6. You can carry all your worries and problems on your journey, but there is relief in releasing them, even if they come back to haunt you later.
    • I found there was relief in putting my problems on the stone I deposited at Cruz de Ferro, but later I found myself worrying about them again.  You will still be who you are going to be, but you can slowly learn to trust, to let go and let God.
  7. Fellow pilgrims on the Camino come from all walks of life, and you will meet people you love, people you hate, and people who don’t engender any feelings at all.
    • People you meet will be reflections of people you encounter in your larger life, and you will feel the same way about them.  The Camino does not guarantee widespread connections with others, but it provides plenty of opportunities for deep connections.  I found I was attracted to people who had a sense of humor and who were compassionate listeners. I was turned off by bossy, brash, and opinionated people, and by people who appointed themselves decision-makers for large groups (as in albergues).
  8. The Camino brings out a person’s most desirable and least attractive traits.
    • I found good traits in myself: I was able to listen to people and be patient and loving with them.  I felt elated and hopeful. As I can be needy with people, I was proud of myself for not becoming too attached to anyone. I loved my friend Darina, but we gave each other space to walk alone; we met up when we could, but I didn’t feel a need to cling to her.  This was a big step for me.
    • My less attractive traits were also evident: I found myself being judgmental and impatient. I also was overwhelmed, disheartened and felt like giving up a number of times. Sometimes I felt depressed and hopeless.  I often felt like I was on the outside of things, as I do in my larger life.
  9. Each day all that is required is to put one foot in front of the other, take the path a day at a time, and not become overwhelmed by the distance ahead.
    • From the beginning, I tried not to think about how many days I’d be walking, or how many kilometers I had ahead of me.  After the first two grueling days over the Pyrenees, I didn’t let the sign “790 km to Santiago” get me down.  I just focused on the day at hand, and one step at a time.
  10. Be present, accept each day as a blessing, and don’t try to wish your life away.
    • Some days seemed endless, so I tried hard to keep my eyes down and stop hoping for a glimpse of the next town.  I know in life, that’s like wishing your life away.  I tried to accept every situation, even the challenging ones.
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pilgrim dreams

The routine:

The Camino asks for a rhythm, much like a day in regular life. I had to figure out early on how to take care of normal functions: eating breakfast, going to the bathroom, finding snacks or second breakfasts, doing my laundry, sleeping with hordes of other pilgrims, dealing with heat, knee pain and sheer exhaustion. I started leaving before sunrise with a headlamp and usually called it a day no later than 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon. I reveled in sunrises and rested during the hottest parts of the days. I fell in love with early morning light, lavender and white wildflowers, starry weeds, building-like haystacks, the vineyards of La Rioja, olive groves, and Spanish villages.

I didn’t carry my full backpack except for two days.  The remaining 42 days of walking, I sent my pack ahead with transport services at a cost of 3-5€ per day. That was how I dealt with the exhaustion and the knee pain I felt while carrying the pack. I didn’t for one second regret that decision.

I became obsessed with collecting sellos (stamps) in my pilgrim credenciale.  I also got my Compostela in Santiago and bought a mug in Finisterre with sellos on it.  The other symbols I grew to love were the ubiquitous shell motifs and the yellow arrows.

Weather challenges:

Since I started in early September, most days got relentlessly hot by 9:00 or 10:00.  I soon learned to leave before dark and arrive at my destination by no later than 1:00.

Extremes of temperature became more exaggerated as I progressed.  It was often cold in the mornings and hot in the afternoons.  I had days where a pleasant breeze kept on giving. On others, wind was gusting and biting. On some stretches, I was annoyed by gnats and flies swarming around my face in the heat the whole way. I used my hiking poles like a baton, twirling them around and around to keep the flying insects at bay.

Moving into Galicia, I encountered days that were alternately foggy, damp, drizzling, and outright raining. Through it all, it was cold. We were greeted by roosters cockadoodling and chickens clucking and pecking. The path often ran through deep, leafy chestnut forests and gullies with babbling streams. The constant fog, rain and mist carried intimations of sprites and witches, in which Galicians are said to believe.

Overall, though, I felt lucky that I had pretty decent weather for the entire walk.

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a rainy day in El Bierzo

Food:

I enjoyed too many potato tortillas to count and downed endless cups of café con leche. I loved albondigas, or meatballs, with fries, and I enjoyed tapas in the bigger cities.  The cuisine changed as we approached Galicia on the last third of the Camino.  I tried morcilla, or blood sausage, and trout soup, a local specialty, and garlic soup, both of which had way too much bread in them!  I enjoyed a cool limon y cerveza with many meals, and all the Spanish wine we could drink.

El Ganso had a funky Cowboy Bar, but the highlight of the town was a tiny supermarket where I got toast with chopped tomato spread and sliced avocado drizzled with olive oil. At a café in Ponferrada, I had mushrooms sauteed in garlic with bread to dip.  For dinner that same night, at La Taberna de Ra, I enjoyed grilled asparagus and Brie, which was delicious, along with some wine.

In Ruitelán, a quaint hamlet where San Froilán had a hermitage, I took Darina’s advice and stopped at the first café for lentil soup with vegetables for an early lunch. I was surprised when they brought me an entire pot of soup, and I tried to eat as much as I could.  I enjoyed many a steaming bowl of traditional Galican soup, caldo gallego, with kale and potatoes, red wine, and crusty bread.  I also tried pulpo, or octopus, in Melide.

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pulpo, or octopus, in Melide

People who enriched and detracted from my experience:

I connected with pilgrims with whom I shared a spirit of fellowship and laughter. I started the Camino crossing the Pyrenees with Ingrid from Minneapolis, and soon met Anna and Vibeke from Denmark, Pat from Seattle, and newlyweds Claire and Matt, who would go to South Korea to teach English soon after the Camino.  I also met two French-Canadian guys, Paul and Richard, and Aussies Ray and Tony, who would become dear friends, for a time, until they left me in the dust.

I intersected often with friendly Karen and Simon from Norfolk, UK.  We sat outside drinking wine at Albergue Amanecer, where donkeys, geese, sheep and dogs wandered around the grounds, and a donkey tried to have a sip of our wine.  I saw them again in Carrión de los Condes  and Sahagún.  While with them,  I met Kate from London but originally from South Africa; she had lived in Dubai for a time and had visited Oman, so we shared our experiences there. I also met Adele and Bud from Tasmania. Later, I ran into Kate again, who was doing a walk of joy, a thanksgiving of sorts for people she loved who had been ill, and then got better.  On my last day in Santiago, on my birthday, Kate treated me to a drink at the beautiful Parador.

I met Sheryl from Seattle, who was walking the Camino for her niece who was 30, addicted to meth, and in prison. Later, I met 73-year-old Sharon, who was organizing the Camino for Sheryl, booking shared rooms in hotels and transporting their bags ahead.  Sharon’s husband John made up their threesome. I would see them countless times during the rest of my Camino.

I loved the two fun-loving Irish sisters, Marian and Anne.  We talked of everything from our sons and young men in general to politics – Trump and Brexit – and our Camino experiences.  Sadly, they were doing only a short stretch on the Camino, so I didn’t see them again.

Near the end of the Camino, I met Greg and Sean, high school math teachers from British Columbia, Canada.  Later, I met Beth from Canberra.  She was the same Beth that Greg from British Columbia had told me he’d “really connected with.” Beth had interests of her own; she was to meet a British guy named Pat in Sarria.

Phil from Britain irritated the crap out of me with his know-it-all-attitude and his bigoted views. I met Australian and American Trump supporters, Germans who insisted on being in charge of windows in albergues, and Koreans who shook me and yelled at me to stop snoring.

Darina from Slovakia, who I had met early on in Muruzábal, got ahead of me and then stopped off at Navarette for a week with some teaching colleagues.  She wrote to me regularly through Whatsapp until we finally caught up with each other again in El Burgo Ranero. Meeting Darina became the highlight of the remainder of my Camino.

Darina and I didn’t think the movie, The Way, was realistic, especially the part about those four characters randomly meeting and then walking together the whole way.  We agreed that such a scenario was unlikely.  However, we did think of a few people we met that did join together for the duration, like Australian Karen and Taiwanese Chun-Yu.

Personal issues:

I had to deal with a number of stressful issues with a beloved family member during my Camino. I felt demoralized and devastated by the whole situation, much like the forlorn black-faced sunflowers I passed along the way.  I couldn’t think of a better place to have to deal with personal problems.  While in real life we don’t always share our deepest heartbreaks and worries, on the Camino I was able to share my fears with other pilgrims. I would find consolation from compassionate people, some of whom would share a related story that was highly personal, without offering unwanted advice. After a deep talk, they would disappear on the horizon and I’d never see them again, as if they were angels who dropped in to console and assure me I wasn’t alone in my struggles. Those were sacred moments.

As I walked and shared my struggles with other pilgrims, they shared intimately with me, about: sons who had died of opioid overdoses; sons with whom they are estranged due to drug-addiction and mental illness; schizophrenic brothers; ex-husbands suffering from alcohol abuse and addiction; daughters exploring the mystical and healing properties of mushrooms while on Shamanic journeys in Peru; sons who were bipolar and had been repeatedly “locked up;”  lost sons and struggling sons.  We talked about the meaning of “grit;” about what was true and what wasn’t.

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sunflowers on the Meseta

Places I loved:

One of my favorite days was walking from Pamplona to Muruzábal.  We had gorgeous scenery all day, topped off with the climb to Alto del Perdon, with magnificent views of wind turbines twirling on the ridge line and rusted sheet metal pilgrims headed westward in a line.  On that day, I met Darina, a middle school teacher from Slovakia, who would become a dear friend on my Camino, and who would encourage me to take a bicycle on a detour to explore the 12th century Romanesque church of Eunate.  This was of my most memorable moments on the Camino.

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beautiful scenery in early morning in the first heady days

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Alto del Perdon

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Alto del Perdon

I was blessed with a moment of presence as a modern-day shepherd led his flock of bleating sheep, with bells around their necks chiming a soothing tune, across a bridge.

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a flock of sheep

I found myself captivated by anise, blackberries, thistles, prickly weeds, figs, olive groves, huge square haystacks, rolling farmland, medieval stone bridges, and meandering rivers.

I adored León, Astorga, and the charming oasis outside of León, La Casa del Camino: Albergue de Peregrinos.  Though it sat along a busy road, lounge chairs and couches dotted the green lawn, hammocks beckoned under a merry-go-round-like canopy, a line of foot baths offered pain relief, and the owners welcomed pilgrims with fresh orange juice.

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Catedral de Santa María de León

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Hospital de Órbigo

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La Casa del Camino: Albergue de Peregrinos

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Astorga

Leaving O’Cebreiro, I walked under a painterly sunrise of rich corals; the whole sky was a rosy unfurling.  I was overwhelmed by the dramatic beauty along the ridge top, through a path bordered by Scotch broom and wild absinthe. Green pastures and small villages dotted the valley below.

I loved days of walking through these stunning landscapes.

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sunrise leaving O’Cebreiro

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views leaving O’Cebreiro

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another sunrise

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me in Boente while meeting Fatima

Places I didn’t much care for:

I continued to descend from the highest elevation on the Camino at Cruz de Ferro into Galicia. There were plenty of steep and gravelly climbs and descents. I passed through a series of tiny towns I called “cow towns,” where small herds of cattle grazed in pastures.  The smell of dirt, cow dung, loamy grains, and chickens permeated the air.  Many houses had hórreos, or raised granaries, nearby. I was told many of them have ancient fertility symbols on top. Though many people love Galicia, I found it my least favorite part of the Camino.  The weather was often gloomy, damp or rainy, and the climbs were relentless.  The temperatures became more extreme.

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cows in “cow towns”

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crossing in Galicia

It was a steep and relentless climb to O’Cebreiro, which sat at the top of a mountain where the wind howled and where I could see two valleys, the one I left behind and the one into which I would descend. The views were magnificent. But it was icy cold and the albergue was the most horrid I stayed in during my entire Camino.

After Sarria, the numbers of pilgrims on the path increased, stealing the quiet I’d enjoyed for so many days.  There were lot of fresh faces and too many groups chatting away.  Serenity on this stretch dissipated.

The Meseta:

Crossing the relentless Meseta was both challenging and rewarding. The landscape was flat, monotonous and even hypnotic, with few visual references. The stony covering on the Roman road made the walk uncomfortable, with pebbles rolling out underfoot and causing ankles to twist repeatedly. Much of the path was on soulless sendas (trails) that ran alongside the pilgrim autopistas, or motorways. The hours were long. I passed a sign that said LIFE IS A CAMINO, and I thought that about summed it up.

It wasn’t all misery though.  The monotony was interspersed with  lovely rolling farmland dotted with rectangular and cylindrical hay bales. A stunning sky hovered overhead.  Owls hooted morning greetings as the sun rose, while birds twittered in the rustling trees. I watched the harvest moon float downward to earth. A field of sunflowers seemed more vibrant than others I’d seen.  Ornamental grasses danced along a canal that held reflections of trees from the opposite shore.  On the fringes of the Meseta, wind turbines twirled on ridges. I encountered what looked like hobbit homes but were actually wine cellars, or bodegas. We had amazing views over the flat farmland, and often the distances looked daunting, with the endless plain stretching away to ephemeral towns on the horizon.

Many people say they hate the Meseta.  I could say I both loved and was bored by it. I often found it peaceful and soothing.  The worst were the roadside paths; the ones in the wild were much more enjoyable.

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me on the Meseta

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the Meseta

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the long shadow of the early morning pilgrim

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the endless Meseta

What I hated:

The challenges included the uncomfortable afternoon heat, the pungent and ubiquitous pilgrim stink, and arguments with fellow pilgrims who insisted on closing doors and windows in albergue rooms, making for stuffy afternoons and evenings.  I also found the big cities generally abrasive and loud, especially after the serenity of the Camino.

The municipal albergue in O’Cebreiro, Xunta, with its 104 beds, was disheartening: cold showers, an unwelcoming receptionist, people herded about like animals, beds crammed together.  It was the worst of the worst, as far as albergues.  I decided then and there, I would avoid any more municipals if I could help it.

Spiritual blessings:

I loved the long stretches of silent reflection and stopping into churches to pray, kneeling, and offering prayers for family, friends, fellow pilgrims, my country and the world.

I attended my first pilgrim mass in Carrión de los Condes.  After the all-Spanish mass, the two priests called the pilgrims up and read blessings in Spanish and English. They placed their hands on each of our heads and said blessings on our Camino journey and on each and every day of our lives and did the sign of the cross on our foreheads. I was in tears.

I was called to read in English at Vespers in the Monastery in Rabanal del Camino, a true blessing.

I loved the pilgrim meals where people shared their reasons for doing the Camino and fellowship evolved among pilgrims. These were frequent for the first half of the Camino, but sadly, dwindled during the latter half, especially in Galicia. At one pilgrim meal, Simona from Lithuania told how she stayed in an albergue whose owner had done the Camino many times.  This woman believed the Camino was a death walk: you shed who you were to make way for becoming someone new.

I laid my stone at Cruz de Ferro, a simple iron cross atop a weathered pole that stands at 1,504 meters above sea level, the highest point on the Camino. At the base of the cross is a large mound of stones left by pilgrims. The custom is for a pilgrim to bring a stone from home. Supposedly, you place all your burdens on the stone and lay it at the foot of the cross.  I tried to turn all them over to God.  I asked for simple trust and faith, and for a deeper spiritual connection to God.

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placing my stone at Cruz de Ferro

When leaving Ponferrada, I got lost, which was disheartening. I kept thinking about my problems, so obviously I hadn’t left them behind at Cruz de Ferro. With only 10 days left to walk, I felt deflated, exhausted and close to quitting. I felt like this was life in microcosm: sometimes you don’t feel like going on but then you must, so you do.

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Ponferrada

I loved simply being outside each day, putting one foot in front of the other, with no other obligation whatsoever other than the journey itself. It felt like a daydream, magical and otherworldly.

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one of many messages on the Camino

Finally, I arrived in Santiago, though I realized that it wasn’t the destination that was so important.  The journey was everything.

When I met people along the path who said they were walking the Frances route for the 2nd, 3rd or 4th time, I’d think, Are they crazy? I would never do that!  There are too many routes to Santiago, plus there are too many other places in the world to see, and other walks to do. Why on earth would someone walk the same route twice?  Now that I’ve done it, I can understand why, and, strangely enough, I might consider doing it again.

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Polarsteps map of the Camino and the trip to Portugal

My top 17 days on the Camino:

  1. {camino: day 1} climbing to orisson (amazing views, walking with Ingrid, high hopes!)
  2. {camino: day 2} crossing the pyrenees (amazing views, walking with Ingrid, high hopes!)
  3. {camino: day 6} pamplona to muruzábal (beautiful walk, windmills & pilgrim sculptures, and met Darina!)
  4. {camino day 9} villamayor de monjardín to torres del río
  5. {camino day 14} azofra to santo domingo de la calzada & ruminations {week two}
  6. {camino day 21} hornillos del camino to castrojeriz & ruminations {week three}
  7. {camino day 24} villarmentero de campos to carrión de los condes
  8. {camino day 26} calzadilla de la cuenza to san nicolás del real camino
  9. {camino day 30} arcahueja to león (lunch & dinner with Darina in León)
  10. {camino day 32} valverde de la virgen to hospital de órbigo (met two lovely Irish sisters)
  11. {camino day 33} hospital de órbigo to astorga (stunning Astorga & dinner with Darina)
  12. {camino day 34} astorga to rabanal del camino (reading in English at vespers)
  13. {camino day 36} el acebo to ponferrada (Ponferrada is stunning and so was the walk)
  14. {camino day 38} cacabelos to trabadelo (beautiful views despite the rain, the alternate route atop a mountain)
  15. {camino day 40} o’cebreiro to triacastela (stunning views & beautiful weather!)
  16. {camino day 45} melide to arzúa (beautiful day, stunning views, great company)
  17. {camino day 47} pedrouzo to santiago (arrived in Santiago and went to the German mass and experienced the swinging of the Botafumeiro with Darina)

My worst days on the Camino:

  1. {camino: day 3} espinal to zubiri (tough hike & emotional turmoil on the homefront)
  2. {camino day 17} villafranca montes de oca to atapuerca (emotional turmoil on the homefront)
  3. {camino day 18} atapuerca to burgos (emotional turmoil on the homefront)
  4. {camino day 19} a day in burgos (emotional turmoil on the homefront)
  5. {camino day 39} trabadelo to o’cebreiro (some parts were beautiful but it was a hard uphill climb most of the day, and the albergue at top was horrid)

My favorite albergues/hostels/hotels:

  1. Beilari in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port
  2. Suseia in Zubiri
  3. El Jardin de Muruzábal in Muruzábal
  4. La Alpargaten in Villafranca Montes de Oca
  5. Meeting Point in Hornillos del Camino
  6. Albergue Rosalia in Castrojeriz
  7. Albergueria Laganares in San Nicolas Real Camino
  8. La Casa del Camino: Albergue de Peregrinos in Valverde de la Virgen
  9. La Casa del Peregrino in El Acebo
  10. Albergue Camino y Leyenda in Trabadelo
  11. PR Libredón in Santiago

Worst albergues:

  1. Albergue Camino Real in Calzadilla de la Cueza
  2. Albergue Parada in Reliegos
  3. Albergue La Encina in Hospital de Órbigo
  4. Xunta (municipal) in O’Cebreiro

Here are all my “ruminations” posts, where at the end of each I summed up the entire week.

  1. {camino: day 7} muruzábal to lorca & ruminations {week one}
  2. {camino day 14} azofra to santo domingo de la calzada & ruminations {week two}
  3. {camino day 21} hornillos del camino to castrojeriz & ruminations {week three}
  4. {camino day 28} bercianos del real camino to reliegos & ruminations {week 4}
  5. (camino day 35} rabanal del camino to el acebo & ruminations {week 5}
  6. {camino day 42} sarria to portomarín & ruminations {week 6}

And I wrote a number of poems based on my Camino experience.

  1. poetic journeys: what i carried
  2. poetic journeys: refugio
  3. poetic journeys: awakening
  4. poetic journeys: a contagion of fireflies

You can find everything I’ve written so far on the Camino de Santiago here:

*Tuesday, September 4 – Saturday, October 20, 2018 (44 days of walking and three days staying over in Pamplona, Logroño, and Burgos)*

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“ON RETURNING HOME” INVITATION: I invite you to write a post on your own blog about returning home from one particular destination or, alternately, from a long journey encompassing many stops.  How do you linger over your wanderings and create something from them?  How have you changed? Did the place live up to its hype, or was it disappointing? Feel free to address any aspect of your journey and how it influences you upon your return. If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to write in the comments.

For some ideas on this, you can check out the original post about this subject: on returning home.

Include the link in the comments below by Sunday, February 2 at 1:00 p.m. EST.  When I write my post in response to this challenge on Monday, February 3, I’ll include your links in that post.

This will be an ongoing invitation on the first Monday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time.