September 22, 2011, in some ways, was the biggest day of my life.
It was the day I got on a plane to Spain.
I felt strangely calm as Austin drove me to the airport that morning. I had packed my bag the night before, only to have him re-pack it at least 3 times. An experienced outdoorsman, he was well-versed in the complications of fitting many weeks’ worth of supplies into a single backpack. He kept discovering new and more efficient uses of space. His face was steeped in concentration as I watched him empty out the pack and place all of my belongings out on the floor for the umpteenth time. Each new spacial combination brought him more joy than I could really understand. I watched attentively while he packed and unpacked, knowing it was about more than just the puzzle.
He was going to miss me too.
When the alarm went off the next morning I groaned in the way I did on any average work day. Within fifteen minutes we were headed to the airport. All I could think was how weird it was that I wasn’t feeling weird at all. I didn’t feel a twinge of longing as we crossed the Canyonlands Park boundary. I knew I’d be back.
My first flight was uneventful. It wasn’t until Dallas that reality settled in.
I had a long layover. Once landed I got some food and settled down with my guidebook. The trailer for the new Dirty Dancing movie was playing on repeat across an enormous screen at the head of my gate. As departure-time neared I noticed a large group of Spaniards congregating in the row in front of me. They seemed to be traveling together, and they were all decked out in cowboy hats and Texas regalia. At first I laughed at the silliness of it all. And then I realized – 24 hours from now, that would be me.
I would be in the middle of a foreign country with only the most basic grasp of the language and likely a completely ridiculous sense of the local culture. The only difference was that I would be alone.
I actually found myself tearing up in that busy airport terminal. I’ve always been a crier, what can I say? Thankfully the tears didn’t actually flow in full force, but my heart rate finally betrayed my previously calm demeanor. What the hell am I doing?? I thought to myself.
I think I thought that somewhere along my airport journey I would run into someone else with a backpack and a concha, and that we would smile at each other and take comfort in the fact that we weren’t alone after all. That wouldn’t happen until I reached St Jean Pied to Port almost four days later. In between I would sit on three planes, two taxis, and a very lonely (and small!) hotel room; discovering along the way that, actually, there was no bus to my starting point from San Sebastian, and that I had forgotten my debit card (and therefore access to all cash) at home. I can’t begin to explain how the homesickness, the stress of it all overwhelmed me in those first hours, completely mocking my previous sense of calm. But soon enough I was on my way.
I probably think about the Camino every single day. Often I miss it in the same way I missed home on that trans-continental flight. When I think about the possibilities of new adventures for this winter, the thought always excuses itself in: Can’t I just go back to Spain?
No. The timing doesn’t work out right this year. And anyway, there are so many places to see! I know, when I need it, the opportunity will present itself to return to that ancient trail. And if the Camino opened anything up for me, it was the world. It instilled confidence and competence. It gave me the skills and the motivation to continue to explore. I would be doing that whole journey wrong to fall back into what I perceive as comfort.
Ah but the way it follows you! Constantly I was told by pilgrims on the trail that once you start walking the Camino, you never stop. It’s funny the ways in which the experience reminds me of the truth in that statement. Just today, for example, I was dealing with a particularly difficult visitor. He insisted I let him on my tour without a ticket, for reasons that didn’t – and never will – make total sense. As I smiled and nodded, the sense of exhausted hopelessness began to creep upon me. Will this guy ever back down? I thought to myself. And then, a thought popped into my head – and with that a creeping smile.
This guy is annoying. But he’s not 550 miles.
I can handle this.