in lieu of a loo


young white bull
standoff over the fence
eyes dare me


I experienced my first blatant hostility from an odd source – other trekkers. I didn’t say peregrinos because now, since we were within the 100 km range of Santiago, all the young Spaniards were doing this short stretch, the limit to get a compostela. They seemed to be similar to young Americans, backpacking while drinking beer and bragging about their fabulous and immature lives.

These particular young Spaniards overheard that I was American. I was generally friendly to everyone, tried to remember to smile, said buen camino. I ignored the first cold shoulder, which was not talking to me at all as I got a cup of coffee. I figured, people were tired, maybe they were just about to leave, maybe they spoke no English, my Spanish was terrible, the usual ways I let people off the hook. Live and let live.

But at the second run-in with them, as I reached a rest area, they left singing some song about Americanos, and made sure to sing loudly and clearly enough to be understood as I passed by.
I pursed my lips and said nothing.

HOWEVER – as I arrived at the only bar in San Román for a coffee later in the day, there they were, their gear and themselves spread out in all the best seats, as always, and I overheard them saying to each other, “Es la Americana – ‘Buen Camino, Buen Camino!’ Pfft – Mal Camino.”

I looked over, and in that instant, two of them realized I had not only heard them but understood them; one looked away, the other looked down. The look I gave them, THE LOOK, as my children used to call it, made it very clear that I was not impressed.

Seventeen-year-old me wanted to play dumb, walk up grinning my best shit-eating grin, saying, “Hola! Ha ha, soy Americana! Ha ha – FUCK YOU.” She made a really convincing argument for this response, but cooler 51-year-old heads prevailed as I said to myself, “Nice, peregrina. Your old ladies in black would be very impressed with your humble pilgrim behavior.” So I ignored them, and that was the end of that. Would have felt good, though.

The albergue I reached may have had some dirt, and mildew, and ants, and flystrips covered with flies while more flies kept coming in the open windows and doors, but my ten euros was getting me supper, a bed, plus breakfast, which made it as cheap as any other, cheaper than most. So she who eats beef and salad with pleasant travelers laughs last, you arrogant asshole young backpackers; ha ha – fuck you.

the middle of the road
is trying to find me
I’m standing in the middle of life
with my plans behind me
well I got a smile for everyone I meet
long as you don’t try dragging my bay
or dropping the bomb on my street

— The Pretenders, “Middle Of The Road”

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My fiery temper had been a source of destruction and survival for years. It had become a joke, to blame it on my red hair; but it didn’t feel fun. So much work – I had put in so much work to tame this beast. I had lifted weights, run miles, hiked mountains; when that didn’t work, I did an about-face and looked eastward, practicing tai chi, zazen, yoga. While I could exercise through all the adrenaline and physical tension, it took more than postures and poses to rein myself in. I read a library of books, and behind all of those disciplines, I finally found mental training I’d never heard of as a kid: mindfulness. It was a practice of its own.

Mindfulness was a way to get out front of my immature, reactionary behavior. When I coached soccer, I used to tell the girls on my team, “The way you practice is the way you’ll play,” pushing them to give their best effort even as we ran laps or scrimmaged. In my own youth, I had practiced explosive reactions for so long that at first, I didn’t get it. I thought reacting was natural, and responding thoughtfully was fake, a gimmick people used to hide their real feelings and thoughts.

Over the years, I practiced mindfulness. I practiced hard, often exasperated as I watched my mind wander and freak out and grab self-righteousness like a child grabbing a toy away from another.
It was so godawfully embarrassing to be me so much of the time. Even after I confronted my childhood abuser and yelled back at my mother and barked at my father for supporting my mother, the flashpoint anger didn’t slow its ignition. I was just a hothead trying to be cool.

It was by teaching mindfulness that I finally learned some mindfulness. As I met with homeless people in my office and we talked about the life choices and behaviors that seemed to be in the way of their goals, we talked about “The Hole in the Road.”¹ I would tell the story as if it was about the person before me:

“You walk down a road going home, and you fall into a big hole you don’t see. You climb out, shaken, and carry on. The next day, you walk down the road going home, and as you get midway, suddenly you remember the hole – just as you fall into it. You climb out, frustrated, and carry on. The next day, walking down the road going home, you see the hole, and make a hard stop – whew! – just before you fall in. You breathe another sigh of relief, stepping carefully past the edge of the hole, and carry on. The next day, walking down the road going home, you swing wide, wide around the hole, and smiling to yourself, you carry on.

“And the next day, you take a different road. Because there’s a hole in the middle of that road.”

This was how I explained the change process, and the key to change: noticing. It was about learning to pay attention. It was about learning to build a small space between your perception of an event and your response to it. The hope was to create a gap in which to take a breath, and then to gradually widen the gap, until you could take several breaths, with a calm mind, and choose the way you wanted to respond.

It wasn’t faking – it was crisis management, self-control, possibly even self-mastery. And I readily admitted that we all had easier and harder days with “minding the gap.”

Here I was now, walking on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, getting all pissed off about young people being rude. How many times had I said at work, “They’re just doing their job” about our clients – “Their job is to bring the chaos, and our job is to bring order and safety.” Now I had somehow forgotten that the job of young people was to test limits. They were just doing their job. It seemed I did not know my job, in my new role, in this new environment. I kept falling into the hole in the Camino.

For every epiphany I gained, I fell back a step. Or several. I couldn’t seem to keep my balance, and down I’d go, tumbling into that hole. Finally being able to pursue this adventure into the world had unleashed 17-year-old me at last, in all her furious sweet punk glory. She was all over the map, emotionally as well as physically. I kind of adored her and kind of wished I hadn’t brought her along.

As if she weren’t a part of me. As if she weren’t the core essence of me. I’d built my entire adult life around her, fearing her rage, managing her reactions, the center of my spiral. She was the one who first left home, set me free. She was tough, a survivor. She didn’t take shit from anyone. I needed to get it together and give the kid a hand. I needed to learn what my job was, fast.

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The next day started out as one of those easy, ordinary days where I walked a short distance without incident and arrived early at an albergue in As Seixas, all smooth as could be. I really had to pee, that bellyache need – and lucky stars, the hospitalera was there! Relieved, I went to speak to her. And when I told her, clearly, I needed the bathroom, she said, clearly, too bad, go to the bar. My face registering a mix of confusion, discomfort, urgency, and astonishment, I walked miserably to the bar which, being such a tiny, TINY village, I knew she KNEW was closed. Such a jerk! on my Camino.

I have peed along the trail in remote places easily enough. But now the Camino was always fairly close to a farmhouse or road or crappy little village where they don’t give a crap if you have a place to crap – so it was harder to stay hidden, to preserve any shred of dignity.

Like I was doing now, with my beautifully poetic language.

Luckily, I only had to pee. But even as I was taking a breath and saying, easy, kid, 17-year-old me won her day. She had hiked quietly for weeks, had bitten her tongue at “Mal Camino,” but now, she’d be damned if she’d pay money for shelter to that woman who would deny another woman
17-year-old me was right.

So we walked 15 km more, and NOTHING was going to stop us, as we finally rested at 2pm and took off our boots and socks and put our feet up on an outdoor cafe chair and BASKED. IN. THE. SUN. And still made it to Melida by 3:15pm.

At this very nice, not-crappy albergue, I started to do laundry and noticed I’d forgotten one of my dirty shirts in my backpack. Without thinking, I ran up the stairs, and as I got to the second floor, I realized I had walked 29 km and now had the legs to just run up a full flight of stairs, no problem. That, plus the angry adrenaline pumping me through the final stretch, I thought. But no, I knew it had faded away easily. This was just strength.

Seventeen-year-old me, and me, we did a good day’s work together. I had allowed that part of myself, allowed her to take the lead, finally, with respect and appreciation for her sense of justice, instead of trying to hold my hand over her swearing mouth and haul her out a side door. It was a small indignity made right, and she did not let me down.

We took the Roman road like soldiers, but without all the fighting and bloodshed and hurling foul curse words like spears. I felt ridiculously victorious.

Some things are hard to give up
Some things are hard to let go
Some things are never enough
I guess I only can hope
For maybe one more chance
To try and save my soul
But love is a long road
Yeah love is a long long road

— Tom Petty, “Love Is A Long Road”



¹Based on the poem “There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: An Autobiography in Five Short Chapters”
by Portia Nelson