Last updated on November 29, 2023
I took a coronoviraus “separation incentive program” in spring of 2021 from my university, then my brother passed away in November of 2021 from a COVID-19 related accident just after he turned 66. My mindset became, “you never know when you are going to go, so do what you can, when you can.” I was free to travel and motivated and so over the course of five months beginning in June, 2023, as crazy as it seemed, I committed to participating in three international trips.
My first was to climb Kilimanjaro in late June with my college buddy, her idea. Forty-two hours before we were scheduled to depart, I decided to squeeze in my bird monitoring on Stairs Mountain, near Mt. Washington, N.H. No small feat, it required backpacking eight miles to the designated GPS coordinates, setting up camp, rising at 4 a.m., listening for and observing birds until 8 am, returning to base camp, packing up, and hiking back out. By the time I reached my car at 2:30 pm the following day, I was tired, hungry, and dehydrated.
I thought I could make the hour drive home. The next thing I remember was waking up and noticing I was driving off the road headed for trees. Everything felt like it was in slow motion. My reflexes were frozen. Simultaneously, the airbags deployed as I heard metal and plastic crunching. When the car came to a standstill, I could see smoke rising from the dashboard. Fear gripped my mind. Was the car going to catch fire? I wanted to escape, but the driver-side door was crushed. I tried to move toward the passenger door, but my lower left leg felt pinned by metal. Immediately it seemed like I heard voices around the car. A woman wearing pink climbed in next to me and started asking me questions- my name, the date, where I lived. Then I felt a backboard being slid under me; the movement to a horizontal position felt excruciating. I am not sure how they removed me from the car; it was like I was blind or had something over my head. The next thing I was aware of I was being transported in an ambulance.
From the extraction, to the ambulance ride, to arriving in the hospital emergency room and having CAT scans, to being moved to a room for the night, all my medical care was exemplary. Everyone I encountered was superb. The doctors informed me that I had fractured my left tibial plateau, right wrist, lower rib, and had a hematoma on my lower left side. I felt traumatized but was happy to be alive.
I was encouraged when my Tanzania college buddy arrived within twenty-four hours. A general practitioner, she helped me bathe, which I desperately needed after my backpacking trip. More importantly, she boosted my spirits by rescheduling our trip to Africa for September 2024. The silver lining to my accident was learning what a supportive community surrounds me! I was amazed, humbled, and oh so grateful.
My second adventure was to have been a private, family and friends raft trip on the Tatshenshini River starting in the Yukon, flowing into British Columbia, and finishing on the coast of Alaska. Reluctantly, I had to give up my coveted spot as I was not sure my fractures would heal before the departure on August 23rd. I did not want to be the weak link on such a remote trip. Another silver lining was that my niece was able to take my place.
The third trip I had planned to walk the oldest Camino route across northern Spain starting on the border in France. At the celebration of life service for my brother in November of 2021, I asked Tom’s girlfriend, Linda, if she wanted to walk the Camino to process Tom’s death. I didn’t even know if she knew what it was, but she immediately said yes. I learned of the Camino five years before from my then 22-year-old daughter. Not knowing how I would hold up, I was still seeing an occupational and physical therapist for my wrist and knee, we altered our plans and decided to shorten the trip by switching to the Central Portuguese route. To ease the burden of carrying heavy backpacks, we contracted with a company that booked our lodging and moved our luggage each day.
The first day as we set off walking on the Camino I thought, I just have to make it 12 days, 160 miles. I was glad I didn’t have to walk the 30+ days across northern Spain, which had been our original plan. The company we contracted to book our lodging and move our belongings transported eight of us in a van to the outskirts of Porto, so we set off at the same time as part of a group. Linda and I met a father and son from the States. The father is a retired global religion and philosophy professor, and the son is a Geographic Information System whiz. We had so much to share and discuss about our lives and processing the Camino. We walked and talked our way along the first day, had dinner that evening, and breakfast the next morning as we were staying at the same place. Having the same schedule, we quickly formed into a loose team and enjoyed the camaraderie. We didn’t always need to walk together; we branched off and met others. However, we took breaks together, enjoying refreshments at cafes, at least twice a day, often more. Having more eyes to make sure we stayed on route, following the yellow clamshells on a blue background was advantageous.
The simplicity of walking day after day helped me live in the moment. I didn’t want to miss anything along the way- sights, sounds, smells and opportunities to meet others from all nationalities. We heard roosters crowing as we set off most mornings, and church bells ringing throughout the day. The stone architecture – walkways, walls, bridges, churches, crosses- all kinds of structures, seem unchanged since medieval times.
Part of the allure of the Camino for me was waking up as if I had been transplanted to another time period- 50, 100, 500 years ago, it didn’t matter. The Portuguese respect their heritage; horreos- stone granaries with vents, raised on stilts off the ground to keep rodents out; sometimes mistaken for burial sites- are protected, and can’t be taken down.
Maybe it’s my geology background, but I was particularly fascinated with the three-inch, square, granite blocks separated by sand, called setts, that formed our walkways through Portugal. This surface is robust, ideal for heavy-duty outdoor use, for the thousands of pilgrims passing through each year. 2023 turned out to be a record number. The uniformly laid stone is aesthetic, but hard on the feet, mile after mile.
Our small organically formed group shared walking quotes some days. My contribution was- “you can walk anywhere if you have the time.” In my mind, walking through a new country is the best way to orient oneself to a landscape and culture. On the Camino, we had a goal each day, between 8 to 19 miles, determined by our pre-booked lodging. Even when a severe weather warning was issued, we walked in the wind and rain.
We walked through villages, fields, and woods. Being October there were signs of harvested crops. Grapes still drooped heavy from vines, some overhead, too tempting not to sample. Limes, oranges, kiwis, persimmons, and other fruits still hung on trees. Chestnut trees grew everywhere, nuts covering the ground in great profusion. The agrarian, ruralness of the Portuguese route is so appealing.
Being on the Camino in some ways felt like the perfect antidote to all the chaos happening in the Middle East that erupted right before we started our walk. All pilgrims, from many countries speaking many languages, had a cultural, spiritual, or religious mission to reach Compostela- the cathedral where St. James is reported to be buried. We felt a common, human bond as we greeted one another with “Buon Camino.” The connections made with others was one of the most sacred parts of the Camino. The welcoming, mobile community surely contributes to everyone’s positive experience and desire to return.
On the last day of our Camino, our longest- 19 miles, I didn’t want the experience to be over. Starting in the morning before it was light, I recognized how every step needed to be savored. I wanted to take note of all the gifts the Camino offered – a beautifully carved door, a profusion of colorful flowers, the pungent smell of sheep and goats, vibrant rainbows after showers, a distant vista of mountains shrouded in mist, and finally the Cathedral towers in the distance- our destination- Santiago de Compostela.
We ended our walk with a surprise, a grand finale. On our last morning, before taking the train out of Santiago, we decided to visit the inside of the church. There were very few in attendance in any of the three naves as we took our seats on a pew. Our eyes feasted on the gold, ornate, elaborate sculptures that adorned the altar, apse, and beyond. I was surprised when eight red-roped men called tiraboleiros walked down the aisle beside me, looped around, and came up the other side. Could it be? Yes, they were unhooking the ropes that held the giant incense burner, known as the Botafumeiro, three and a half feet tall and upwards of 110 or more pounds in weight. We watched transfixed as the large thurible (censer) began to swing faster and faster in a wide arc as the monks pulled on the ropes. This famous tradition dates to the 11th century. I have since read that incense was believed to help clean the halls of the smell of unwashed pilgrims and was a deterrent from plagues and epidemics.
Upon returning home, our group of four, forged on the Camino, continues to share our “reentry” reflections of our experience. As another pilgrim friend wrote me, “A Journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” In addition to feeling gratitude for being able to make the trip, I have more appreciation for every aspect of my life now, for- my health and mobility, my family, and every action, choice and conversation. I am happier, more content, and more accepting of where I am and what I am doing. I have more openness and look to bestow and receive unexpected gifts each day from the wider world around me. This is the transformation the Camino provides.