Updated: Mar 11, 2020
I threw my own party for my 40th birthday – a bona fide ceilidh complete with caller, live band and lots of friends and family. My daughter had come down with the chicken pox the previous week, her second bout in three months. She always had a perfect sense of timing.
Leading up to my birthday that March, someone I knew through my faith community had decided to walk the Camino de Santiago. I’d never even heard of it, but listened intently as she told the congregation about her plans to walk part of the 800km pilgrims’ path. She encouraged us to follow her as she blogged her way from refugio to cathedral to mediaeval garden. Myrta was a writer, a creative soul who put words together with such beauty and candor that I was hooked by her blog. And with the idea of walking this journey myself.
When I turn 50, I told myself, I’ll walk the Camino.
For 10 years, this shimmered in the back of my mind. I explored the option of a self-funded leave from my golden-handcuff job, but by the time I got around to asking for it, my once-bright star had fallen at my place of work, and I was denied. A few months later, I left the job altogether.
And about a year after that, I turned 50.
For my 50th birthday, my husband threw me another big party. Decades deserve to be celebrated. No gifts, I stipulated, but if people wanted to contribute to my Camino journey, I’d welcome that. $600 later, I had enough to cover a flight.
These things take time. There’s research to do, decisions to be made about whether to do the trip as a solo traveler or to join a group. Reach out to friends to see if they know anyone who has walked the Camino, ask for an e-introduction so I can pick their brains about the logistics. Which country do I start in? Can I carry a pack myself? How much money do I need?
You don’t just set out walking 20-25km a day, every day, without doing some sort of training. I’ve been walking about an hour a day, most days, but I really needed to do something longer. I hated the idea of doing 20km in the city, so planned to walk the Avon Trail from St. Mary’s to Conestogo, about 20km at a time.
My own mini-Camino.
The Avon Trail is about 113 kilometres long. Volunteers look after it – keep it groomed and well-marked, and publish a guidebook.
I’m not great at doing things on my own. I need someone else to agree, to keep me accountable, to show up when I do. Deciding to walk the Avon Trail means I need to find people to walk with me. I need two cars – one to leave at the end point, and one to drive to the beginning point. Two people, at least. Two cars. These things seem bigger in my head than they need to be. They become insurmountable problems that occupy my waking hours until they take up so much space, I simply have to do something about it.
I sent an email. Four friends and two strangers – two people I’ve never met in person, but who kindly answered many questions about my Camino plans because they’d walked it before. I got three responses for four different dates. This meant I would have company on every walk I did on the Avon, at least for four hikes.
The writer in me, the one with whom I’m trying to reconnect, is thinking about the relationships, the opportunity to make new friends, to be out in nature, walking in the autumn. I am excited about this. I am blessed with friends who say yes sometimes.
I planned, in short order, a hike for a Sunday in September, with my lifelong friend, Karen. She lives in Woodstock and is the curator of the museum there. She is a practical person, someone who is pragmatic, and who calls me “Sweetie.” She’s the only one who can call me Sweetie. We haven’t seen each other in awhile, so I’m looking forward to catching up over a 20km hike.
First task: buy the Avon Trail guidebook or download the hike sections onto my Ondaga app.
I have Myrta to thank for the introduction to the Camino. I wish I could thank her. Her story is tragic and yet a testament to a life well-lived. Executive director of the KW Multicultural Centre for 18 years, she loved our community, especially those who were newcomers. She and her partner, David Cooke, a former Liberal MPP for Kitchener Centre, married in their later years.
Upon her return from her Spanish Camino (she’s originally from Puerto Rico), she discovered a lump on her breast. A biopsy indicated it was malignant, and she began treatments almost immediately. It was an aggressive cancer, and as soon as one round of treatments finished, she began another. Less than a year later, she was dead. David, the tragic story continues, couldn’t go to her funeral because he slipped in the shower and suffered a serious spinal cord injury, essentially becoming paralyzed for the rest of his life.
The Camino is a real thing, yes, but I think we all walk our own versions of the camino every day. Right now, the trails aren’t well-marked for me. My compass is broken, I have blisters and a sore heart, and the journey seems really difficult right now. In fact, I feel a lot like I’m in a rudderless boat, set adrift on some rather rough waves. There’s no land in sight, and certainly not a trail.
And then I think about Myrta on her Camino. Yes, the one she physically walked in Europe, but also the camino of disease that came so soon after. She wrote so beautifully about that journey, too. What internal strength kept her on the path? The tragedy of her life’s end, and the triumph of a life well-lived, influential and given in service to the community and to God . . . such a journey. Did she have regrets at the end?
I think I begin my journey perhaps with a tinge of regret. These years are supposed to be my prime, and yet I feel I’m wasting away, at odds with my family and with myself. My camino is exhausting emotionally. The constant conversation in my head belies my anger and frustration with things as they are, and yet an inability to come to terms with it or to change it. I am full of fear. That I’m failing as a parent, as a wife. That I'm unemployable, full of insecurity about my abilities and choices.
Perhaps the real Camino will provide some clarity, energy and decisiveness. Perhaps my mini Camino will help me move down that path. I know one thing for sure: I do not want my life to fizzle out in ignonymity.
I think that’s a fair expectation, don’t you?