Walking Across A Country . . .

Scarecrow or mystical vision?

Scarecrow or mystical vision?

Note:  On this rest day, I wanted to finish my Meseta posts and get closer to my current days, but I’ve been writing this as well, so no, I haven’t skipped Leon and moving from Castilla y Leon to Galicia.  I’ve moved into my mind this afternoon.

Monday, October 7, 2013

I talk to scarecrows on the way to Sahagun, (yes, I know . . . first sunflowers and now scarecrows  . . ) and as I approach them I wonder whether if I turn away and look back, they will disappear.  That would freak me out.  Some sort of saint showing up in the middle of the fields.  Then . . . poof!  I do not feel mystical magical.  Walking like this each day is not, at least for me, a spiritual experience.  Some days have a bit of magical in them, yes, but most days are just present.  And so am I.  I am just walking across a country.

My backpack is inordinately full of electronics, since I am writing on this MacAir with its itinerant cords, back-up hard drive and cord, camera and cord, iPhone and cord, iPod and cord, European conversion plug, multi-plug, headphones.  Get the picture?  Without all this, I would be about six pounds lighter, but then I could never remember the things I want to write about.  At least I wouldn’t remember town names, details, and the kinds of things I write down on the trails in a little notebook, scribbling with a teal blue Pilot G-2.  Some people would say, “So what?”  I would respond, “A lot what . . . ”  Brierley would say leave it all at home.  Remember it in your mind and heart.  Yeah, well that’s fine if you can do it, but I have always been an archivist, first an unwitting one, and then a deliberate one.

Since my parents gave me that little five-year diary with the tiny gold key, a Christmas present when I was eight years old, I have written things down to remember them, to sort them out, to celebrate or rage about parts of my life.  On this walk, I have a little notebook that is easily accessible all the time, as well as the lovely half-size journal Libby made for me, tucked in my pack, the pack I always carry.  When I am walking, I can pull out the tiny notebook.  When I stop in a town for juice or cafe con leche, I can use Libby’s lovely one.  And then there is always the Mc’Air in the evening after I’ve checked in somewhere.   So “So what?” just doesn’t fit for me.  People who really know me don’t say that.  Ever.  And as for the rest?  Well, I know they have their own intimate friends.  Maybe the mantra always is, “Well, it’s your Camino,” with absolutely no flippancy or sarcasm.  Just a sincere acknowledgement that we each do this our own way.

One thing I would bring next time is a voice activated little dictaphone. I have two of them at home.  I do use my iPhone occasionally on the trail, to talk messages to myself, or make notes on its Note function.  But the rambling stream of thoughts I have will never be remembered, let alone captured, and perhaps that is fine, though sometimes I do lose those brilliant insights.  I’ve been asked, “Well, what’s going on inside you while you walk?” (No one on the Camino asks this question.  They’re probably too busy trying to figure out how to answer that question for themselves.  Or not.)

My response would have to be:  Everything and nothing. But I can’t nail it down.  If I had a voice-activated dictaphone, I’d just talk instead of muse internally.  Whether that would be good or bad, I really don’t know.  As it is, the answer is “everything and nothing.”  The birds and the bees. My family and love and weather and trees and which sunflowers are on moist soil, which are on hardscrabble.  Solitude.  I said I wanted a long quiet walk, and while it’s hardly a walk . . . often more like a climb, I’m definitely getting alone time as I walk across a country.

Noticing people who pass by and the fact that there is quite often no one near me on the road at any given time.  Being deliriously and unconsciously happy in my little walking bubble, whether it be comfortable or teeth-gritting at any given moment.  I am aware of that even if I’m walking in a crowd.  And the fact that I am walking across a country.

My inner noticing sensor sees the way this person rolls his socks down over his boot tops and that person is wearing flip-flops. The number of people who clearly ship their packs every day.  (I am not alone in this, though I carry all of it some of the time and some of it all of the time.) How many couples vs. groups vs. single people are walking on this (any) particular day.  How many languages did I hear today?  How many non-English speakers who do speak some English and with what accents?  Who has sticks and who doesn’t?  Two poles or one?  Knee braces or ankle or neither.  Who on a hot day wears black long pants, a black long sleeve shirt and jacket, and who is barely wearing anything at all . . . shorts that have a fat quarter of fabric, a sports bra, and a cowboy hat.  And I am walking across a country.

About once a week, with no plan to do so, I get my iPod out of my zip-off shorts pocket and select the collection of courtship poems Neil used to leave for me once a week on my old answering machine.  I have quite a collection of them there.  The archivist in me again.  I didn’t really plan to do this at all, but sometimes I want to hear his voice in that tone new lovers have, the one that fades away no matter how much love is still in the relationship after 25 years.  The tentative, dreamy voice of a new man long ago  in my life delivering some of the loveliest or funniest or most puzzling poems ever written.  W.H. Auden, e.e. cummings, Marge Piercy, Emily Dickenson, Theodore Roethke, John Donne, Maxine Kumin.  And I see that while I no longer get poems, he no longer gets love cards.  I ponder the usual way these things drop off, even in the best of relationships.  Perhaps that can change. I file possibilities away in my brain.  I listen to his voice from 25 years ago.  I am clearly aware that from the day he first walked in my door, I have never even looked at anyone else.  I am grateful for what we still have.  And I keep walking across a country.

Sometimes I think regular people in whatever area we are traveling must perceive that peregrinos are a nuisance on their roads.  Or perhaps just crazy.  Why walk when you could drive?  And indeed, what am I doing here?  Some people, those who think they know and who usually mean well, often said to me before I left, “Well, you will find out why you’re there once you get there.”  No.  My answer to the question, “Why do you want to do this?” is still the same.  I have no f&%king idea.  But I get up every day in the dark, feel around for all my little packing cubes, my watch, glasses, pills for today, etc.  I test my feet to see whether it’s boot day or sandal day.  Whether it’s “Send the pack” day or “Carry it” day.  And then I walk another 20-25 km. across a country.

I watch Camino walkers who light up a cigarette every time they take a bar/town break.  WTF???  I cannot understand that.  Most of them assure themselves and me that they only smoke two or three cigarettes a day.  Whatever.  But they are walking, and one would think they’d like the extra lung power.  They have their own Camino, a smoker’s Camino, I guess.  And we are all walking across a country.

I think about fresh squeezed orange juice at any next opportunity.  Now I am a new diabetic, and even before I fell off that A1C cliff, I avoided juice, especially orange juice, though I dearly love it.  Just full of sugar.  However, here, it gives me energy without requiring bush stops, and lord knows I’m getting enough exercise to keep my blood sugar way down.  There’s another electronic device – my blood sugar machine.  And the strips for 60 days.  And the pill packs as well.  At least that weight is diminishing.  My docs say perhaps I can get off the newly prescribed meds when I get home.  That would be nice.  Not expected, but a nice reward for walking across a country.

When I walk with someone for awhile, I enjoy the conversation, but am always conscious of whether that other person also prefers walking alone.  We generally get a hiccup of friendly back and forth, and then change pace enough to resume our solitary places.  The people I meet again and again are a comfort to bump into.  New people often join that comfort group, but sometimes one encounter is all you get.

My usually good radar about whether I want more than “Buen Camino” with/from them has sharpened.  The nicest person might also be one you just sense you need to be careful about.  I don’t mean in a safety way.  This is the safest place on the planet, I’m convinced of it, as long as you stay off the highways.  Personal safety?  100%, I’d bet.  And no one wants to steal anything, because then they’d have another ounce or pound to carry! But I just mean careful because that person seems to need someone with whom to start and/or finish the day.  There are others like that, and they will meet up, either for the long Camino haul or for a few days and then, like a square-dancer, change partners.

The sweetest face I've seen on this Camino

The sweetest face I’ve seen on this Camino

Despite what people at home might think I am experiencing, the Camino is not all harps and majesty.  But on MOST days you can pay attention to what is even a tiny majesty.  A huge dog just sleeping in the middle of a road, and then stretching and getting out of the way when a vehicle comes by.  Scares the shit out of me but after all, it’s the dog’s Camino.  And it’s her country.



I hear the birds chirping, cawing and the roosters crowing, see truly free-range chickens running down the road in a little stone village, pecking at the moss growing from the stones, looking for bugs.  I hear the cows mooing, the sheep b-a-a-a-a-h-ing.  Usually the animals are off the road, but occasionally they are crossing it in front of us.  And on one wonderful occasion on the way from Leon to Hospital del Orbigo, I watched an entire sheep herd and their real live shepherd pour out into the road in front of me like liquid mercury (there might not be any other kind, so forgive the possible redundancy) right in front of me.  As the end-straggler sheepsies went on and off the road, looking for green nibblies, they really did resemble a some aberrant white mercury, the kind you used to try to catch when the old-fashioned thermometer fell on the floor and broke, spilling wobbly silver beads all over for you to capture.  Now THAT (the sheep, not the broken thermometer, of course) was a wonderful moment, earthy, nearly cuddly, and warm.  Definitely magical.  If it hadn’t been that 30 km. day for Christel and me, I would have just walked s-l-o-w-l-y behind them until their shepherd naturally took them off to the other side of the road, rather than doing it prematurely to clear the path for us, the peregrinos.

Sometimes the noise in the ear is traffic, an ugly, oxymoronic sound on this isolated journey.  A good time to get out the iPod and turn on some favorite tunes.  Old Steve Winwood.  “Defying Gravity” from Wicked.  Todd Rundgren with his 42-years-ago flood of memories from my Denver life.  Al Jarreau with his courtship crooning songs from the old days of my beginnings with Professor Neil.  “One thing isn’t very clear, my love . . . should the teacher stand so near, my love . . . graduation’s almost here, my love . . . teach me tonight.”  I’m reconnecting with music in my life, and realizing yet again that my memories are so often anchored in music.  This while I walk across a country.

My thoughts are often not thoughts at all . . . they are just flits . . . sometimes strung together like those old biology diagrams of DNA and RNA and compounds and elements.  They must make sense to someone, but not to me.  Not the diagrams and not the flits.  But on this Camino, I have the luxury of not caring one whit about whether flits make sense.  I hope I can bottle that and take it home with me.  I am walking across a country.

Grateful path

Grateful path

The days are so very different from my days at home, but on some level, they are exactly, at least metaphorically, the same.  Look at an easy path and breathe in/out in tranquility.

Where do I step now?

Where do I step now?

Holy shit!  Get out the crampons, or the wings!

Holy shit! Get out the crampons, or the wings!

Things get a bit worse, more uneven, with stones of all sizes at your feet, but after all this time, you have your confidence.  And your sticks.  Then you get the one you couldn’t imagine . . . a really rocky one, pure diagonal ledge, and you hope you can find one footstep and then another that is at least manageable.  See bottom of this post for the “abandonment” possibility, when the equipment or resources you have just simply will not do, though the direction is clear.  (The photo just won’t fit in sequence, and it’s worth being larger than these are!)

When you think you can’t take much more, the “carrot” shows up . . . you can see your town barely visible ahead of you, and you know you can do this for one more hour, one more kilometer, one more near slide on rock ledge, caught only by your blessed sticks.

The 'carrot' - in this case, Molinaseca

The ‘carrot’ – in this case, Molinaseca

If I have one real, articulate, insight it is this.  When you are on the Camino, you don’t leave your life.  In part, you can tuck it in your backpack and send it on ahead, but clearly you bring it with you in some fashion and sort it out very differently while you walk.  You are that turtle, large or small, with all of your life and “stuff” on your back.  And you are always in awe of your very self (at least I am), walking across a country.

You are on your own now!

You cut your boots, took out the laces, finally . . . PHFFFT! Leave behind what doesn’t serve you on the mountain. You are on your own now!  (Thankfully these are not mine . . . yet.)

About Woodswoman

Writer, educator, psychotherapist, woodswoman. Crave solitude and just walked the Camino de Santiago from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. Long-term partner, Neil. Three grown kids, one traveling the world for a couple of years (see theparallellife.com), and two in other countries . . . Thailand and Texas! One Golden Retrievers and two cats. Avid reader, looking for 10 more hours in each of my days.
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10 Responses to Walking Across A Country . . .

  1. Jeanne Sheriff says:

    Really enjoyed this more interior posting.

  2. Greg Shemas says:

    Joannah, when you first began it was about the physicality of this walk. Now you talk in more terms of the journey and the meaning it has had for you, not the mystical journey as you say but the aloneness and the introspection that comes from doing this alone. Your post of walking across the country is truly introspective and touching… keep on writing, as I said earlier I relish reading about this journey and look forward to hearing more about it every. Enjoy your rest in Leon! Then keep on truckin “across a country” wow.

  3. Hugh Petrie says:


    The most lyrical, beautiful post yet.

  4. kadamslpc says:

    This is so beautiful. I am truly enjoying every bit of your journey vicariously and with such admiration and respect. We launched Journalverse yesterday! Finally!! That’s my equivalent of “walking across a country.”

  5. Joan Mercurio says:

    I get caught up in reading your posts and I forget to look at the pictures!

  6. Rock says:

    I loved this one… !

  7. What a beautiful document of a brave experience. Who cares “why”? (Or…cuz u wanna, that’s why).

  8. I love this description of our inner journey, which I find fascinating to compare to my own solo walks in wildlands. Our settings are quite different, but I fully understand the pull to be out there even if we have no clue why we feel that way. It doesn’t matter why.

    I haven’t been drawn to the kind of intense long wilderness walks that some people do–the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail–because I greatly enjoy poking into what I find along the way and not having to get very far. On backpacking trips I’ve done where we changed campsites every day, I found that I wanted instead to linger and not leave a place so quickly. If I were on your trip, I’d probably find some cool little town and want to hang out for a few days.

    But reading about your journey as a fellow older woman traveling alone, it is inspiring me to take a long walking journey, some time and some place. Nearly a year after my knee replacement I am doing great and one of these days it will be time to sling on a backpack again, head into the backcountry, and see what happens. And maybe walk for a long time instead of just a matter of days.

    Thanks for getting those dreaming juices going again.


  9. This is a lovely piece of writing, Joannah. I hear your voice.

  10. Dennis Sovick says:

    I enjoyed following your journey and your musings. Your 10/8 write up/summary was very good and adds value to anyone that reads it.

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