My fiancé was diagnosed with cancer on Valentine’s Day of 2018. I still think of the day as “Diagnosis Day.” A day when everything about our lives changed. A day that foreshadowed the darkest day that I would ever know when – just four months later – Jeff took his last breath at the age of 40.
In the days following Jeff’s death, I wandered about our Chicago apartment with its shelves lined with his books and its balcony overlooking the park where we once shared bottles of wine and plates of cheese during outdoor concerts.
I couldn’t stay there. And, as it turned out, I couldn’t stay much of anywhere for long. I quit my
job, packed a suitcase and traveled the world for 18 months, through 22 countries, traversing 70,496 miles by way of 39 flights, 39 trains, nine buses, six cars, five ferries,
— and one very long walk.
It was that very long walk that finally brought me home.
The Camino de Santiago is a 500-mile Christian pilgrimage that involves walking over an actual mountain range from France all the way to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.
If that sounds crazy to you, it’s because it is crazy.
At least that’s what I thought when I first heard about the Camino. At that time, I wasn’t religious, I didn’t even own a backpack, and I hadn’t camped or hiked in double-digit years. Besides that, the idea of staying in bunk beds at the pilgrim hostels – called albergues – that line the route sounded horrifying.
It’s safe to say that walking the Camino de Santiago was not at the top of my bucket list.
What was on my list? Reading all of the 407 books that Jeff left on those bookshelves lining our apartment back in Chicago. I was in Indonesia when I picked up one of those books, a work by Paulo Coelho called “The Pilgrimage”. As I thumbed through its pages about finding inner peace while walking the Camino de Santiago, I felt called.
Before I knew it, I was strapping on a borrowed backpack and setting out for Santiago on a hike that led me through four regions of Spain over 35 days of walking 12 to 22 miles. And, yes, I slept in bunk beds.
The first 10 days were excruciating. I had to leave my right boot untied to relieve the pressure on my aching Achilles heel, and I developed multiple blisters between and beneath my toes. I spent more money at the pharmacy than I did on my lodging.
But then the pain faded into background noise, replaced by the muted, meditative sound of walking sticks against paths cushioned by fallen leaves and carved over the centuries by the footsteps of the pilgrims who walked before me. As I turned inland, away from jaw-dropping coastline views and toward mountainous, windswept ascents dotted with wild horses, my mind adjusted to the scenery and even the extreme beauty become a backdrop.
I didn’t have to think about directions, since the Camino de Santiago is waymarked with yellow arrows painted by local volunteers onto fences, trees and buildings all along the way. And with everything I needed for 35 days strapped to my back, life was simplified.
Suddenly, answers to the complicated questions I had been mulling about life and love, and whether I deserved either, seemed clear. Questions about where I belonged seemed obvious.
Somewhere between the autonomous regions of Asturias and Galicia, I decided that it was time to go home. Not home to Chicago where I had lived for the better part of the 20 years that passed since leaving Vancouver, Wash., but home to where I grew up and to where my family still lives.
The grief fog lifted and I was able to see all that I had gained in life from my short time with Jeff rather than focusing on all that I had lost when I lost him. I saw that life is too short to be apart from our loved ones for long. And I felt from somewhere within me that I would love again and that I could accept the risk of losing my partner because every bit of the pain is worth the love in the end.
These realizations were as momentous for me as the moment when I finally walked into the end destination and sat speechless in the courtyard of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
I don’t know when I will fall in love again, but I do know that walking the Camino de Santiago gave me the courage to come home and to take the first steps down a new path.
This post was first published in The Columbian, my hometown newspaper.
Related: For more stories about hiking or life lessons or Europe or Spain. For stories about how I used to travel to heal after the death of my partner. For a complete resource guide on walking the Camino del Norte, which is the “Northern Route” on the Camino de Santiago, start here.