“A part of you will die here,” Francisco from Portugal said when he spoke about the Meseta, the second phase of three along the Camino de Santiago.

It was nearing noon on a Thursday in the second week of July when I spotted the Fuente de Prattore and took rest beneath the small alcove of trees locked between otherwise yellow cereal fields. It was the first day entering the Meseta. My ears rang with hot wind and the tymbal clicks of cicadas. The nearest village of Hornillas was yet another 6 kilometers away and so I was relieved to see the fountain give. The sun had not yet drank too greedily from it.

There was a picnic table where Francisco sat. I picked myself up from the dirt and sat across from him. I quietly peeled an orange—the pith catching beneath my fingernails—as he told me about how he had biked an alternate route from Lisbon the year before. A few hundred yards away from where we sat many pilgrims didn’t stop for shade. I wasn’t surprised. It’s hard to differentiate the journey from the destination. 

I unlaced my boots and winced when my thumb touched my swollen right ankle. It had been two months since I'd quit my three jobs in Arizona, and six since I'd graduated with my journalism degree. I'd been in Europe for a little over a month and found myself for the past two weeks making pilgrimage across northern Spain. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got back to the States and it was more freedom I had ever allowed myself in my 22 years. I was taught you always had to push forward and I thought a lot about whether or not it was a childish and privileged notion that travel could cure you of the rat race.

“The pilgrim route is a very good thing,” Francisco recited, touting the Codex Calixtinus. “But it is narrow. For the road which leads us to life is narrow.”

The Route of Santiago de Compostela was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993. The Camino de Santiago, the Camino Frances, the Way of St. James, dates back to the 9th century following the discovery of Saint James’ tomb.

Francisco—like me—had also started in the southwestern French village of St. Jean Pied de Port. To ancient pilgrims the 790 kilometer route was called voie lactée—the milky way—since they used the stars instead of yellow arrows as their guide to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. ‘Compostela’ itself meaning field of stars. 

“The only way out is through,” a hospitalero said a few days later in Castrojeriz, a village that wrapped itself—like a snake around its prey—around a hill and its castle in ruin.

The sun above the mountains rose like raised yeast. The bottoms of my feet were brown from iodine disinfectant and my right ankle had knuckled itself into a fist since the third day. Lingering at the table of the donativo albergue I helped myself to stale bread and jam. 

“The Meseta is the most important part of the journey,” she continued. “You become an adult here.”

St. Jean Pied de Port

“The only way out is through,” a hospitalero said a few days later in Castrojeriz, a village that wrapped itself—like a snake around its prey—around a hill and its castle in ruin.

It only seemed fitting. In the Meseta, many who talked about it did so without a smile. They spoke only of ways to avoid the hard part, and the uninterested skipped over it entirely. An elevated plateau, there’s little to no shade but crop fields of wheat and barley. The road is flat and straight and for the last three days runs parallel to the highway. It’s the long middle stretch where you begin to face yourself. Time doesn’t hold much meaning here. In the bars the televisions broadcast news coverage of the run of the bulls but not much else. In Spain you don’t move between 2 and 5 pm

In a small church in Granon I was handed a candle to share why I had come to walk the Camino. I said something about the sharing of light. A man from Syria spoke in English, Spanish and French. His family had been killed by airstrikes and he wanted to talk about how we are not different from each other, we must come together. Many kept their head down. Two American sisters from California shook their heads. One was crying. The sister who had been crying later expressed to me how insensitive it was of him to talk about this inside a church. That night I couldn’t sleep. The stone floor was so cold I shook in my bed liner. Deciding instead to repack my backpack I noticed the sister who had been crying the night before had discovered bed bugs where she slept. She tore at her skin, “I have to get out of here!” 

There was no light when I left. My stick pointed close to the ground.

When I arrived in St. Jean Pied de Port two weeks before I arrived on a bus with Brian, Chad and Jeffrey—all in their 30s—all of whom I'd met earlier on the train from Paris. They said they were from Michigan, that they surfed and did other things like make things out of wood but also cut hair, play music but also work at a non-profit.

The bus had dropped us off just outside the old citadel walls where I then made my way uphill to the pilgrim’s office. I was asked which country I came from and was given a pilgrim’s passport where you collect stamps from the albergues and villages for proof of how far I walked upon arrival in Santiago five weeks later.

“We are advising young women who are walking the Camino for the first time,” a volunteer at the long table before me said, “to not.” I had prepared myself for this having read about the missing woman weeks before. I held my hand and picked at the corner of my thumb. “Because of the American woman who went missing,” she explained. Denise Thiem from Arizona had been missing since April. Her body wouldn’t be found until September. “We’ve never had a problem like this before, but we are letting people know.” But I couldn't leave, not then. 

That evening the sunset broke across the valley, runny like egg yolk. I drank my cup of burgundy wine with the three boys from Michigan atop the Citadel. They pointed southwest to the Pyrenees, a shade darker than the wine. It was raining slightly to its right. “That’s where we’re going,” Brian said.  

But I ended up delaying by a day, and it surprised me how attached to them I'd become. The next morning, I started the climb with Bridget from South Africa. She said to imagine yourself safe and protected like you're in your own bubble. “You want to attract good things,” she said. “It's important to do this.” When I looked up I couldn't see the top of the Pyrenees. The incline was steep but it was the push inward, the thinking that Roncesvalles was always just over the next peak that got to me. I said goodbye to Bridget then; she was faster than me and I needed to heed my own pace. 

Crossing the Pyrenees

“We are advising young women who are walking the Camino for the first time,” a volunteer at the long table before me said, "to not."

Roncesvalles

Alexandra

Downhill and through dense woods my toes pressed against my hiking boots but I did not stop.The mud felt good beneath my feet where it had never done so before. Like cattle, you stop swatting flies away because they just end up coming back. When I broke through the last of it, there was no surface the light did not reach. I had started in France and ended in Spain. The albergue in Roncesvalles gleamed stories high and before it a green hill where cleaner pilgrims sprawled.

Alexandra, a familiar face from St. Jean, found me. Starting near Paris, she had already been walking for two months and four days. I had met her on my first night walking the old citadel walls with the boys from Michigan, and then the next day when we both happened to stay behind, both of us walking up and down the same street but in opposite directions until the albergues reopened. 

"I want to know Alexandra," she said. "I've learned that you can change anything in life if you move."

She said crossing the Pyrenees was her easiest day. She ran down the mountain and through the forest. In my broken French and her broken English she would talk about running and how she needs to; how she doesn’t know where she is going but that her answer is in the Way until she can’t anymore. Every morning I'd awake thinking I'd been hit by a train but with those words in my head.

Alexandra outside of the albergue municipal in Zubiri

Leaving Roncesvalles, the vegetation was prehistoric. Liisa from Queensland walked a little ahead of me, fast and with conviction. She’d reach Santiago in only 24 days. She’d fall in love with a man also named Santiago, a hospitalero she had met and who would serendipitously offer me a cup of coffee in return for her contact information. Liisa left me as we left Pamplona. She pressed a piece of rose quartz into the palm of my hand. 

“You will know what to do with it when you get there.” Her hug was warm and her words prophetic. 

I’d end up giving it to Vanda from Hungary whoseeing me struggle down a mountaingave me her walking stick. She told me about her boyfriend who was a day behind her and how she didn’t know if they would stay together after this. There paths seemed to be taking them farther apart than closer together.

The further into Spain you walked the drier it became. Taking a break not far outside Pamplona and near the small village of Zariqulegui, I met Lorena from southwest Florida. She had recently retired from military life having served two tours.

“Life isn’t easy. It’s hard,” Lorena said. I had offered her a few of my dates. “My feet reminds me everyday that you have to work your ass off to get what you want. She showed me her blisters that had forced her to delay a day in Pamplona. She had to say goodbye to those she started with too, including the Michigan boys. “But this is my way,” she told me. “Not anyone else’s.” 

Like Lorena I had been trying to keep up with a pace that was not my own. Because of it, it had taken me an hour to knead my bruised ankle. The first two days, I walked 47 kilometers, 83,000 steps and climbed 4600 feet. Walking for 7 hours and approximately 20-30 kilometers every day breaks you down physically, and even more mentally. I’d leave behind something of mine almost every stop for the day. Foot care became a religion. But after every rest I was back to following yellow arrows. 

With scattered possessions there were always new people, kind people. 

"I've been living in a bubble and not making connections. I want to change that,” Luzie from Germany said. It was raining hard and she was wearing shorts. “It’s not the people that are passing me that bothers me, but the connections I miss because I can't keep the same pace as the people I know.”

Susie from Cologne talked about hearing God. She said she hadn’t felt like God loved her, but now she sees it everywhere. She said she prayed to God about whether she should do the Camino. When her friend asked if He answered she said she didn’t know. “Then why not go?” Her friend asked of her. 

Whenever Alex from Austria saw me he would sing the song “Jessica” by Adam Green. In the small village of Najera I stayed behind since my feet were infected and wrapped in gauze. Down the wall he hummed “Jessica, Jessica Simpson,” stopping before my room as he left. Each time someone left I felt bereaved.

Luzie

Iolanda

Lorena and Kaisa

I must have been carrying more than 10 percent of my body weight because my right shoulder hurt too. I looked to the ants. They carried pieces of wheat on their backs larger than their bodies and I carried a backpack larger than mine. It's just the ants and I walking so early in the morning—the sun still an orange that is enveloping rather than subsisting.

“I can’t believe how strong my body is,” Jessica from the Czech Republic said as she tapped a cigarette over a jar of piquillo pimentos. “Even when in pain it still walks.”

It's the 'leading to' that I found to be so essential. How my feet learned through walking that purpose is revealed through impulse. That you can hold onto strong connections made, even if brief. That people keep even if they are far away. And that my own company wasn’t so bad. 

”I have the impression it's my birthday,” Alexandra would tell me after a day’s walk. She'd listen to my music and we'd trade cameras. “When you walk for two months, coffee, a smoke, a shower, a simply prepared meal, and a bedit's good you know?”

I met Jacqui from Sydney as I left Leon and started the last leg of the Camino. She had quit her sales job three months before and was traveling the world for a year. She told me about how she felt like she had wasted six years trying to be right for the wrong person. Everyone fell into a similar pattern of washing, sleeping and repacking here, and it was through routine that unacknowledged truths finally become bearable.

Sasha from Croatia had been living in London for the past 24 years. He wore a tattered cowboy hat unblended sunscreen on his nose and shoulders. At one point he turned to me and said, “You will have a beautiful family. Three kids. And when you do you will remember the moment this crazy man on the Camino told you so.” Another yellow arrow, another fortune telling. 

Back in the Meseta I was lost and hungry on my way into Carrión de los Condes, but there was a man whose shirt had a yellow arrow that pointed the way. I arrived in town where the singing Augustinian Sisters touched their thumbs to my forehead and offered gentler direction.

One of the last times I saw Nicklas from Denmark, he was telling me about how the color blue didn’t exist until modern times. How Homer in The Odyssey described the ocean as red as blood. We perceive water as blue because the sky is blue. Water is the reflection of the sky. We are a reflection of another. I laid back in the grass and squeezed the sun between my thumb and index finger so that a halo would splinter the branches above me. I talked of home to Alexandra: the orange tree in my backyard, and my mother. 

“I’m going to miss the people, these moments,” I told Alexandra. It surprised me how much I already did. There are people you cannot know and you must let go of those you've seen before. 

Emma from Washington was a teacher. She had walked the Camino before and said it was near the end of the Meseta where she witnessed Camino families really take form. I had seen many form quite early on. For me, most burned short but very bright throughout. 

The second phase of the Camino de Santiago from Burgos to Leon, the Meseta

The Cruz de Ferro marked the final descent into Santiago. It had started with four rocks but had grown into a mid-sized hill beneath an Iron Cross. Traditionally, pilgrims carry a stone to unburden themselves. The tiger-eye crystal I wore around my neck was enough, and when I left it among the rocks, I felt two years lighter. It took leaving to witness how much stronger I was without certain comforts: the walking stick Vanda had given me, the tiger-eye crystal.

Passing through Portomarin I read that in the 13th century, the village built the Belarus dam and flooded the old town to rebuild the same exact churchstone by stoneonly on higher ground. We possess the power to change nature and yet we can't completely shake the familiar. Nature doesn't resist. And water certainly has no space for where it's been, only where it's been directed to go. 

When I passed into Galicia, I fell in step with Nelly from France, Marina and Iolanda from Barcelona, Anna from Sweden, and Fermin, our grandfather from the Basque country. My last family danced when they walked. In this part, I allowed presence to fill where I was going. Marina said that Galicia's weather is as unpredictable as the people. We sang marching songs in the old forests to pass the time like children, "un kilometre, deux kilomtre, trois kilometre.

The Cruz de Ferro

Trying to find a bed past Sarria was hard because the last 100 kilometers was congested with students. It was an unsettling transition back to reality, like a defibrillator taken to your chest to restart.

I said aloud how I thought the return of my blisters were in some way significant. Alexandra said that life is a circle. Nothing dies but we transform.

I started alone but found complements. Even where the shade is thin in the dry place. In such liminal space my feet moved closer into my body. The wind would push me forward when I didn’t want to take another step. The backs of my arms were hot to touch. My sunburn was four fingers wide.

I said aloud how I thought the return of my blisters were in some way significant. Alexandra said that life is a circle. Nothing dies but we transform.

“We are made for a lot more than what we see,” Sister Bendita from a convent in Brooklyn had said to me just a few hours outside of Santiago. “There are a lot of things that go on in your life," she said. "You just need the time to see it.”

I'm not religious but I walked 500 miles to watch a giant incense burner swing at noon mass. Having arrived minutes beforehand, the pews inside of the Cathedral de Santiago were taken by clean tourists and days old pilgrims. We were stark in comparison. Unwashed and carrying with us the last five weeks, I took my seat on Marina's lap. "Gracias Mama," I said. "De nada, hija," Marina cooed.  

Walking a fair distance behind the group a few days before, Iolanda spoke of how important it was to not wait. “When something comes along—run with it.” Like being convicted when you take the step to being who you are and not who you were.

"There is a magic to the Camino," Francisco from Portugal had said, hefting his backpack over his shoulders as he left me in those cereal fields with citrus beneath my fingernails. "If we are meant to, we'll see each other again.”

In Finisterre, a voice tapped me on the shoulder, singing, “Jessica, Jessica Simpson, you've got it all wrong.” I didn’t think I would see Alex again but there he was near that final cut of the Atlantic Ocean. 

At the 'Ends of the Earth' I felt lovable. In my last journal entry I wrote, "I can interact with people who've hurt me or have made choices that I have had to detach from and still laugh, still hold their face in my hands and hope that they can feel how much they are loved in the end too." 

Finisterre

At the 'Ends of the Earth' I felt lovable. In my last journal entry I wrote, "I can interact with people who've hurt me or have made choices that I have had to detach from and still laugh, still hold their face in my hands and hope that they can feel how much they are loved in the end too."

Not all reminders are loud. I feel it in the slight twinge in my right ankle—even still, months later; in jars of piquillo pimentos; how a thirty-minute walk across the city fails to be enough. I think I can say that with each step forward the Camino is put into practice. When you give yourself to places, they're supposed to give you yourself back. Your terrain doesn't cling to you, it's always shrinking behind you. I'd never fully existed within my own story because I was looking too hard and too possessively at living. 

There's no perfect way in getting there. You may veer to the right or to the left. You might do it slower than most, but you will get there. 

There will be a time when you feel you need to leave everything behind and start over. Whether or not we're asking, our newsfeeds are instructing. Maybe walking 500 miles across a country is necessary, maybe your Way can't afford to and that's okay too. Buo matter the destination, we're all yellow arrows: guiding and guided. 

Pilgrimage becomes tangible first through action. It’s then that you find yourself making introductions with the Universe. 

"Santiago isn't a destination,” Anna had said to me. “It’s here.” And pointed to her heart.