Travel transforms me. It transforms me from a happy person to a horrible person. I start long travel days with affection and fresh eyes for Sea-Tac (“Oh, they’ve installed new bad art in Terminal A!”). My hair looks good and my clothes are clean. When I see my reflection, I see a woman who is going to Spain by herself for two months.
On the flight to Newark, I listen to the start of G. K. Chesterton’s The Invisible Man (“What lovely writing!”), and then I eat a Clif bar (“So yummy! I am sated!”) and I pore over John Brierley’s famous A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago.
Brierley tells me that in the mountains, I will see great birds of prey. He tells me that there are 1800 pairs of griffin vultures there, the largest concentration in the world. He tells me I will see hill ponies, which are eaten by locals. He says I may even encounter a rare Pyranean chamois izard. Whatever that is.
I begin the layover in Newark. As usual, everything out the window is poopy beige. Inside, iPads are at every seat, cauterizing any possibility of human connection. I go to Starbucks and the man in line behind me says, “Oh, great, I’m behind a woman. I know what you’re going to order: a decaf, non-fat, sugar-free, VANILLA, mocha, chai, latte.” I tell him I have to change my order now, so he doesn’t have the satisfaction of guessing my drink right.
“I’m just kidding,” he says. “I love women. But if they want milkshakes, they should go to McDonald’s and not get FRAPPUCINOS. I can’t stand hearing women order coffee.”
I am going to Spain, and nothing can get me down. A minute later he smiles as I dump half and half into my coffee and says, “Have a safe trip home, honey.”
I smile with my whole body because I am not going home.
I go to the duty free place and treat myself to a makeover and a spritz of the Dior perfume my grandma wore. I am in the international terminal and already there is less English. I pretend I didn’t just sit on a plane for five hours so I’ll be fresh for the seven that are coming.
I am in the air and watching a movie set in the part of the country I just left, and I had the cup of wine and am feeling calm and epic. The man across from me is watching Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in space and the guy in front of him is watching Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in the Wild West. The lady next to me didn’t touch her entree because both the chicken and the pasta had cheese, which she does not eat. I give her my roll and wish I knew more Spanish. I look at the map and see that we are not even halfway there, even though I’ve had a meal, some ice cream, given up on a comedy documentary that wasn’t funny, and gone to the bathroom. How many times have I done that: looked at the map and then at the illuminated no smoking light, crestfallen: we are not almost there.
I had a big to-do list before leaving: email them, clean that, harvest those, go there, see her, read this. But I did everything on the list so the absence of an agenda has created a vacuum and the vacuum fills with worries: do I have another tumor on the other side of my neck? Have I scheduled my train to Pamplona too tightly? Do I know enough Spanish to get to St. Jean Pied de Port? Is that a canker sore or a harbinger of chronic gum disease?
We eventually land. I’m on some sloped moving walkways in Madrid. I’m confused. I worry that my trekking poles haven’t made it through baggage but they have. I say “Puerta de Atocha” to a cab driver and all my Euros later, I’m at a station with a clock tower emblazoned with FESTINA (HURRY).
I enter and see a forest of palm trees, and then a group of boys with backpacks and trekking poles. Then I see, like, a lot more people with backpacks and trekking poles.
I board the train and someone comes up to me, asking in Spanish if I’m walking from St. Jean Pied de Port and would I like to split a cab with four people. I say I already have a ticket and then I say “Buen Camino!” for the first time.
And now it has been 23 hours since I woke up in Puyallup, and I try to nod off, but mostly I tell my body, “Okay, tonight you’re not going to think it’s bedtime, but it will be, so you gotta sleep, okay? You’re really, really tired.”
The line between Madrid and Pamplona is brown and scrubby. In Pamplona I walk to the bus station and make lots of wrong turns. I find it underground with dripping ceilings and sleepy travelers, and my eyes keep shutting.
The line to St. Jean Pied de Port is steep and fecund. And on the bus there are only pilgrims: quiet ones, happy ones, chatty ones, flirty ones, silly ones, moody ones. And I cannot keep my eyes open but I also cannot be unhappy, because this bus is winding tenderly up hairpin turns into green mountains at golden hour to a very exciting place. I haven’t been social yet. I haven’t introduced myself to anyone yet.
Then it all changes. We get off the bus and I’m walking next to someone from Michigan and we follow a crowd and the crowd is at the pilgrim office where a woman from New Zealand named Karen tells all the English speakers what to expect for the hike tomorrow and then we’re in the last available hostel and there are ten cats four dogs no shoes allowed and Zehra from Holland leads five of us to a French restaurant and I’m sleepy and all of a sudden best friends with her and Igor the bus driver from Bilbao who shares pizza and pasta with me and Oscar from Uruguay and Johannes from Germany who loves Tony Robbins and never buys beverages at restaurants, preferring to save the money and drink bathroom tap water (Johannes is the sort who reads blogs with titles like “Fifty Things to do Before 8 O’clock to be Truly Happy and a CEO”), and then two women who join us partway through dinner from Melbourne and I’m already teasing and not caring to impress people and I can’t imagine my life without them and we wait nicely to use the one shower and in the morning Igor is kicked out for waking up too early and then the host gets angry and we don’t know why and she sends us all out and most of my acquaintances are gone again just like that, walking over the mountains in the rain and fog to Roncesvalles, but I was sort of getting tired of them anyway, and Igor and I are standing bewildered at a shut door. We shrug and go sit in a cafe for four hours. We sit very still.
And that was the first day.