“Every time I’m lost, I find myself.”~ Sabrina Musumeci
My plan is to walk 17km to Quintáns and stay at a 1-star hotel unironically called Plaza. 10.5 miles. At 17 miles, Muxia is too far for me to walk in one day. Everywhere I’ve stayed had plenty of open beds, so I decided to ignore my little Spanish phone and trust the Way.
Just past O Logoso, the Camino splits in two. To the left is the more familiar path to Fisterra, the end of the earth. To the right is the way I’ve never taken, proceeding to Muxía (moo-SHE-ah), the coast, and ancient stones connected to Mary and (more ancient still) fertility. I’m going there on foot for the first time.
Even with the early morning drizzle, this section of the Camino might be the most beautiful I’ve seen. Very short parts follow the little-used highway, otherwise it’s steep downhill through forest, over small streams, passing between high-walled gardens, and along old stone fences with rusty barbed wire.
Every day so far, I’m dedicating my walk to an important person in my life. Today, it’s Carol. She’s the first person in my life who walked the Way (in 2008). She’s the first person I called when I thought I might walk it in 2013, even though it felt impossible. See, Carol is an extraordinary person. She’s seen me though some major life changes and been my cheerleader. She’s energetic, fun, and a consummate explorer. In short, she’s everything I’d like to be.
Once, a group of friends (including Carol) did a four-day hike on the Mackenzie River. The weather was unexpectedly hot and we ran out of water, perched on a cliff, far above the water’s edge. Needing to replenish our water, but exhausted, I convinced Carol that we could walk down to where the path was closer to the water. So we walked. And walked. It got hotter. We walked in silence like dehydrated zombies.
Finally, Carol turned to me, “We can’t keep walking in this heat. We’re going back,” she said. “I know a better way.”
Back at our campsite, she said, “I’m going down the cliff.” I could only stare in astonished horror.
“I used to teach rock climbing. This will be easy.”
In a few minutes, she had water bottles tied to her body with rope. The others were so convinced of her abilities they do likewise, me included.
“Now,” she said, looking down the cliff, “You can see there’s a path. Go slowly, and I’ll talk you through it.”
One by one, she pointed out the footholds and level places to walk. “Put your right foot there and hold this branch.” In 10 minutes, all four of us were at the bottom.
After we filter all the water we need, we ascend the same way. Heavier, slower, but safely.
At the top, our more cautious friends cheered our accomplishment. Without Carol, we would have been lugging water several miles up a long hill in temperatures over 100° (34° C). The praise belongs to no one but our brave, decisive, positive friend.
I think of her while I’m walking, grateful for her optimism in my life. I lose my awareness of self in the beauty around me. Down the slopes through plantings of three types of eucalyptus, enjoying their fragrance. Up and down past tall pines, clusters of oaks, along miles of moss-covered stone walls. Delighting in the songs of sweet birds whose names I don’t know makes it all the more magical.
Even though it’s raining now and windy, I’m reminded of what an Austrian man said to me yesterday about the Camino. “It didn’t matter the weather — instant happiness!”
Entering a little town, suddenly there are cars everywhere. An older couple pass me twice on the narrow road, looking for parking. By the time I get to the town on foot, they’re getting out of their car.
Here, especially in smaller towns, you say, “Hola, buenas dias” to everyone. And I do this as I walk by, my greeting returned.
“¿Es un poco mojado hoy, no?” I smile at him and my understatement. It’s way more than damp!
He chuckles, “Sí!” then asks, “Where are you from?”
“Los Estados Unidos.”
“Eh, habas bien español!” This isn’t the first time I’ve gotten this compliment, and I’m touched. My grasp of verbs, tenses, and gender agreement is horrendous.
Within a few moments, the rain for all the cars becomes apparent. Some kind of open-air market is in process. Nearly a dozen tent- covered tables display everything from belts and hats, to mechanical parts. One vendor has baskets piled high with carrots, onions, and other colorful produce. What catches my eye is the food cart selling churros, including chocolate-covered.
Yes, they look like turds, but I swear you’ve never tasted anything so crunchy and delicious in your whole life. The deep fried dough covered with melty chocolate is perfection. It was totally worth the five minute ordeal of taking off my hat, mask, poncho, and backpack just to get the €1 coin.
I eat them in a bus stop shelter for protection from the drizzle, and then check my map. Another 5k. Chugging down some water, I can do this.
Finally, wet and tired, I arrive at the Plaza Hotel. I’m ready for a hot meal, a hot shower, and some clean, dry clothes.
It’s generally bad form to walk into any establishment dripping wet, so under the eaves of the doorway, I remove all my gear again. I grab the door handle and pull.
It doesn’t open.
I push it instead.
Maybe they’re taking a siesta and I’ll have to wait a bit. But I look around me more closely. All the outdoor chairs are stacked up and wet. The outdoor tent canopy is zipped closed.
Now I dig out my little Spanish phone and call the number in my guidebook. No answer. A Plaza Hotel and Catering van parked nearby has a different number, so I call it.
“Sorry, we’re closed.”
“Right now for siesta or all day? I’m outside.”
“Completely closed. Sorry.”
“Okay, thank you.” I say the words because they’re polite, but nothing in me feels grateful.
Okay, stay calm. Maybe there’s another place nearby. My guidebook shows a few small towns ahead with lodging, but it means walking another five or ten minutes. I want to be done. The wind picks up and blows rain onto my map.
Through the eerily quiet village, I see no people, no dogs barking, no cats skulking around. Not even a rooster announces his presence. I keep going through twisting streets, then past more fields, certain that a Camino angel will appear and help me out of this fix.
And then I see it — a newly renovated pensión and attached albergue. I’ll take either, I think to myself. I approach the door of the pensión, grab the handle.
Shit. Okay, try the albergue.
Also locked. Shit. Shit. I stare at the glass door a moment just wishing someone would appear to open it. Now what?
Slowly, I turn to continue walking when my eyes settled onto a… is that a shelter? A table under a shelter? From the side of a house wall is a little corrugated-metal covered area that houses what appears to be handicrafts. This is common on the Camino, local enterprising folks offer food or other goods to pilgrims. And then I see the form of a person.
“Peregrina (pilgrim), why are you out in the rain? Come under here and get dry!” It’s a tiny grandmother. “Come. Sit down a minute.”
I obey, ducking under the entrance. “Gracias.”
My Camino angel. I knew it would work out. I already know she’s going to make a miracle happen.
“I have nowhere to sleep. The Plaza Hotel was closed. This albergue is closed too.”
“Yes, she says, “Everything is still closed.” From the pandemic.
This is not good news. Shit. “Everything?”
“Well, there are many places in Muxia.”
There’s no way I can reach Muxia. That would mean nearly 30 kilometers in one day. “I don’t think I can walk that far.”
“Do you want me to call the owner of this albergue to ask if she’s open?”
“Would you? Yes, please!”
The first try, there’s no answer, but while she dials, I get a chance to look at the crafts she’s made. It’s lace. Handmade lace. She’s got a work in progress from which dozens of spools of thread hand doren from a stuffed pillow. It’s stunning.
Someone picks up on her second call. In Galego, she explains there’s a lady pilgrim who is here and has been walking in the rain. Maybe she’s going for the sympathy card? But the noises she makes next sound less promising, and then she hangs up.
“It’s okay,” trying to sound brave. I’m going to have to walk to Muxia. I don’t know how much further it is, and I don’t dare look. I’m positive I’ve never walked farther in my life.
I chose a few items of hers to purchase while we chat a bit. “Are you all alone?”
“Sí.” There’s so much more to that answer.
“You will find a place to stay in Muxia,” she reassures me. “Maybe three hours’ walk. Do you want some cookies to take with you? “
“Thank you, I’m okay.”
“Here, have a cough drop. They’re good for the throat.” I take it. She gives me another.
I have to walk to Muxia today. After profuse thanks for her hospitality, I get up to leave, duck under the low roof, and go back out into the driving rain.
A car passes slowly, and its driver stares at me in astonishment. The forecast said there’d be wind gusts of 50 miles per hour.
Following the arrows, I’m in the last little town before a long stretch though the woods. A couple stands outside their home just out of the rain. Hopeful, I ask, “Are there any albergues open in this town?”
“In Muxia,” they reply in unison.
“Thank you!” Trying to be grateful and brave, but I don’t feel either.
The rain is pelting. I skirt around a car that’s obstructing the arrow that leads uphill. I see it, I just can’t believe the steep hill it points to. Rivers of water pour down toward me over chunky brick-sized rocks.
My only option is up. Water everywhere, there’s no use in looking for less-wet ground. My sneakers are soaked, and water bubbles out with a squishing sound with every footfall. The wind kicks up, making me shiver and stinging my skin with raindrips.
I’m so out of shape. My lungs suck in air, heaving from the effort of getting me and my 20lb/10k backpack to the top. I can’t believe I’m out here in this. The gasps slowly become to crying. I’m cold. I’m in pain. I am alone. And the tidal wave finally hits. Tears fall for this situation I’m in, but it’s more than that. It’s for the marriage that just fell apart, despite how hard we tried. It’s for the pain I’ve felt in my work, seeing my nation ripped apart by hostility and hatred and violence. I sob thinking of the many people who needlessly died from covid. All the deferred grief of the past five years just overflows. I keen for the loss of safety after our wildfire evacuation last summer, and the knowledge of our planet slowly burning up. Ugly crying down the trail, I know this is what I needed.
This is the Camino. It always provides what you need, and I have been playing it brave too long. People always tell me how much they admire my courage, but being a “hero” takes a toll on the soul. Out here, alone, wet, and cold, I don’t feel brave at all. There’s no use, and the emotion wracks my body even as I proceed forward.
One step. Another step. The path levels out for a while, and I wipe my drenched face. “I can’t carry it all,” I admit to the creator of the trees and flowers. “I’m so tired. I can’t. It’s too heavy.”
Maybe you’ve had one of those moments, where the old way no longer works. It’s painful to recognize it, and there’s grief in letting it go, especially when a better way is still unclear. Yet, in the words of my pilgrim friend, Sabrina, “Every time I get lost, I find myself.”
It’s more than walking so far to Muxia. It’s about accepting that some of the heaviest things I carry in my work and life aren’t mine. “I hand it over. I let go now.”
I think of Carol. If she were here, I imagine she’d say, Yes, it’s far. But you can see there’s a path. It’s the only option, let’s take it slowly, and we’ll get there.
As I pass a Camino cairn painted with a yellow arrow and scallop shell, I note that the kilometers are .5 lower than the last one I passed. 11kms is far, but I won’t think about that. Just focus on the next cairn. You can do this.
So I walk. And I warm up. The horrible weather continues, but slowly the remaining kilometers click by through forests, single-lane roads, across a terrifying highway. In a small village, I pass an older lady out with her dog and a basket hanging from her arm.
We exchange greetings and she asks, “Would you like an apple?” Tipping it toward me, there are fresh brown eggs too. “They’re a little green.”
She picks through them, examining each for spots and hands me a perfect one.
A Camino angel. Just what I needed.
At 2.9kms, the sky turns blue. It’s an utter miracle. The sun begins to shine just as Muxía rises into view. Gasping with joy, I stop to take off my drenched poncho and hat, and the sudden warmth seeps into my skin.
17 miles is no joke. My feet ache. My legs ache. Both my smallest toes are huge with blisters. When I get to the water’s edge, tears flow.
I did it! I got here, even though I didn’t think I could!
I’m sure I look a fright when I check into the hotel, but the owner is gracious and warm. “You must be cold, but don’t worry, your room has fluffy towels and a huge bed. “Take as long a shower as you want!”
Before I do any of that, though, I drop my bag, strip out of my soggy clothes, and call Carol.
“SEVENTEEN MILES!?! Holy hell, Jen!”
I explain the details at length.
“I’m so touched you dedicated your walk to me today.”
“I thought of you so much too, especially the time we went rock climbing for water.”
“Oh, God! I forgot about that!” Laughing.
“You showed me I could do hard things if I just took it a step at a time. You’re one of the bravest people I know. While I am proud I got here, I did it with you at my side.”
“That means so much, Jen. Thank you for saying that.”
Even after all the waterworks, rain, and tears today, I welcome more water in the form of a hot shower.
And to go back to my friend’s quote, I did lose myself. But not on the Camino. I got lost in my work, in my too-big aspirations, and in relationship turn of events I wish had gone differently. Fortunately, the Camino is a place I come back to again to find myself and let it show me the way forward.