The Receptionist

“Fake it till you make it,” they say. I look around at my scattered wardrobe. Well I certainly haven’t made it. I pull on a pair of old dress pants and a crumpled collared shirt. “Ugh, I definitely won’t be accessing anything in the lower filing drawers today.” I grimace and practice reaching around behind my back to hold down my top while bending at the knees and praying to the saints of spandex and inseams. My worn leggings lie dejected in the corner. “What have we ever done but love you and give you a full range of motion!” they cry. I bite my lip and check my phone. Through the cracked screen, I’m not sure if it’s 7:43 or 7:48. Either way, I’m going to miss the bus.

I run out the door, grabbing a granola bar and a cold chicken pasta that I wouldn’t let my husband eat—for fear of food poisoning. It’s simple, the person with the paid sick days takes the risky chicken. By some miracle, there is someone at the bus stop already. That means it will stop and I will get an extra eleven seconds to jog down the road with my water bottle slapping my thigh like a rider’s crop. I refrain from telling the bus driver how much he means to me and quietly find a seat beside someone who looks like they probably remembered to put on deo. Oh crap. I totally forgot deo.

I adjust my limbs and luggage to fit the square foot allotted to me and glance down, avoiding eye contact with that guy who always asks everyone how old they are. I catch sight of my feet. You’ve got to be kidding me. Between the battered flats, the tacky sneakers, and the bridesmaid flip-flops, I decided to slip my feet into my velcro strapped hiker-sandals last seen nailed to the gas pedal of a Soccer Mom van and sported by that seven year-old who knows a lot about bugs at the park. Whenever I wear these shoes, I spend nearly as much time defending their comfortable versatility as I do my two arts degrees.
I show up at work and begin drafting a broadcast email.

“Hello all,
Please excuse any fashion crises you may notice today. Kindly do not watch as the receptionist picks up the pen you dropped on the floor and certainly don’t look at the floor (where her feet usually are). Sincerest apologies for any inconvenience.

Best,

-The frumpy yet determined person who fills your inbox and makes your copies, MA

I read the email the minimum 17 times to be sure not a single comma is out of place. Hit send. Immediately regret it. Search for sent box. Find sent email. Read again. Nearly suffer a heart attack at the sight of a typo. Read again. Realize it’s not actually a typo. Reward myself with a sip of tea. Spill tea on the floor.

All day, my highly functional mom sandals march to the copier, where I authoritatively solve problems I’ve never seen before, and lunge back towards the phone, so I can offer advice based on my last Google search.

“Where do I send these forms?” “Who can get me into this class” “How should I assemble and equip a brigade of unicorns for battle?”

“To me.” “Me.” “Please write down your email so I can send you the details.”

Not a single person. Not short or tall. Not tenured or censured. Not A+ or C+ notices my sandals. Maybe they do read my emails.

fullsizeoutput_772d.jpeg

Advertisements

2000 Meters Above the Sea

Since moving to Vancouver Island three years ago I’ve heard legends of Mount Albert Edward’s epic alpine views. To be honest, I didn’t take them too seriously. What does an island dweller know about scaling glaciers and taking peak selfies? Sure, I’ll trust their opinions on organic beer and bike lanes. But mountains? Please, I’m a northern girl.

So a couple of weekends ago, I set off for what I was sure would be the most disappointing hike of my life. At least I was going with one of my favourite people: novice mountaineer, master Dutch Blitz player, part-time MEC employee, and full-time cat mom—Bonnie Sawyer.

IMG_3893

Day One:

We left Victoria around 1 pm on Friday. After a three hour Taylor Swift and Rhianna marathon, we found ourselves about 1000 meters above sea level at the Raven Lodge parking lot near Mount Washington Ski Resort. We put our collective Geography receptionist and soon-to-be Social Studies teacher skills to work to assess the park map:
Strath map

We decided that we would stay to the right, passing along Lake Helen McKenzie and the Ranger station, and taking what appeared to be the most direct route to Kwai Lake—our destination for the day.

About 3km and 2 renditions of our hit single “Wilderness Woman” later, we realized we had taken a wrong turn and were somewhere along Battleship lake, and headed towards Lady Lake, Croteau Lake, and Murray Meadows.

Bonnie wasn’t complaining because she’s all about the lakes and meadows. I was pretty content too because I found some alpine blueberries.


Thanks to the frequent boardwalks and beautiful lake views, the 7.5km hike to Kwai Lake flew by. We arrived at camp hungry but happy, about 2.5 hours after leaving the parking lot.

IMG_3914

Our campsite was arguably one of the best in the park, perched on the edge of Kwai lake and just the right distance from the outhouse. Our day ended with chewy rice, Toblerone chocolate, and a few obligatory rounds of Dutch Blitz.

This is when I made two important discoveries. First, our tent spot was beautiful, but certainly not level or root-free. Second, my sleeping bag had a temperature rating of 13 degrees. Bonnie freaked out, “Meghan, the HIGH is thirteen degrees!”
“I’m a northern girl!” I explained with false confidence.

As I tried to fall asleep, I used my elbows to anchor my body against the sloping terrain and juggled a small heat pack between my fingers and toes. Midnight came and went and my brain was still more committed to checking my limbs for frostbite than to falling asleep. I spent the next early morning hour debating the merits of unzipping at least five zippers, risking bear attack, and loosing my precious heat pockets, in exchange for bladder relief. Finally, I went for it. No regrets.

Day 2

Our second day started off with more blueberries!! After a rough night, this cheerful bowl
IMG_3922

and this cheerful face:

(Okay there would be a picture of Bonnie here. But she has a strict “no camping selfies” rule.)

was all I needed to motivate me for a full day of hiking. We got a late start, leaving Kwai around 9:30 am and arriving at Circlet lake about 1.5 hours later. The legendary pristine Circlet lake! We hastily snapped some photos…it was nice, but kinda just an average smallish lake…if we were being honest.

IMG_3930

This is when dudes with day packs started showing up. Yup people do this entire 32km round-trip hike in ONE DAY. We were so overwhelmed with disbelief that we missed the turn off for the Circlet Lake campground and started trekking up the steepest section of the trail with our full overnight packs. We didn’t get far before we noticed our mistake and back tracked. Also it turns out, the lake we had spotted was not Circlet lake at all. We checked the map.
“It’s called Duck Pond.” “Duck Pond?” “Ya it’s not even a lake.”

It turns out Circlet lake is a few hundred meters off of the main trail. It’s also much more impressive than Duck Pond. By the time we showed up, the campground was already teeming with weekend backpacking traffic. We quickly picked one of the remaining sites with a decent lake view, set up camp, and scarfed down lunch.

The next hour of hiking was an intense ascent into alpine with Mount Washington Ski Hill at our backs and the imposing Castle Craig ahead.

Photo 2017-09-16, 12 03 48

Finally, the steep switchbacks and scrambly trail broke out into a breathtaking alpine meadow. We caught our first glimpse of a snowy ridge, but Albert Edward was still nowhere in sight.
IMG_3932
The next kilometer was a welcome break. The trail flattened out, meandering through dried up creek beds and stunted evergreens. We scrambled up the final steep incline, and found ourselves finally on top of the ridge where we caught our first glimpses of the magnificent, Mount Albert Edward.
Photo 2017-09-16, 12 59 51

Photo 2017-09-16, 13 34 05

The peak appeared impossibly far. As my optimism began to wane, Bonnie’s heels began to blister, and I started looking for viewpoints that might offer a rewarding substitute for the summit. But of course, we’re both too competitive to quit.

For the next hour, we picked our way over the otherworldly landscape, finding and losing the path with every step. One misdirection brought us to the edge of a steep crevasse.

The views were increasingly breathtaking (in more ways than one).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Of course, the plan to reward ourselves with treats at the top broke down about 200 metres from the summit. Time for a snack break.
Photo 2017-09-16, 14 47 54

I’d like to say that our final push to the top was self-motivated, but really it had more to do with the sight of other backpackers scurrying along the ant trail below. No way were they going to beat us to the top.

Most mountains have a false summit. You know that rise before the peak that you think is the top, so you pace your energy and willpower to reach that point, only to fall into tears of despair when you realize that the peak is still out of reach? Well Mount Albert Edward is NOT like that. Mount Albert Edward has an honest summit. So when we reached the top, the first words out of my mouth were: “Is that it?” Which mostly just confirmed that I am a total mountain snob.

Bonnie gave me this face:
Photo 2017-09-16, 15 08 37
But in all seriousness, the view was undeniably worth it.

Photo 2017-09-16, 15 17 37

The Strathcona mountains spread out before us. Who knew an island could have such big mountains?!

We had the peak to ourselves for a good fifteen minutes before some one showed up to take our mandatory summit photo. We’re both no good at selfies.
Photo 2017-09-16, 15 26 00.jpg
Then it was time for the long trek down. There was less water along than trail than I had been expecting, which is probably usual for late summer, but my miscalculation meant I had to carefully ration my water intake until we made it back to the tree line. We hit snow before we hit water and I tried to convince Bonnie that I had found a short cut down the mountain. She insisted that I return to the trail.
IMG_3969
The descent was not as quick as we had expected. Finding footing on the rocky mountain ridge was almost as slow going down as going up, and several sections of the subalpine trail were a bit too steep for carefree hiking. By the time we reached Circlet lake, the sun was too low in the sky for the lake dip we had been planning. Bonnie’s blisters had worsened and if that wasn’t bad enough, she was also developing the early stages of a cold. So we whipped up some Pad Thai in a bag and tucked ourselves in for a much comfier camping situation, thanks to the wooden tent pad.
Photo 2017-09-16, 18 52 04

Day 3:

We woke up to the sounds of hungover backpackers eating porridge and bickering over dish duty. Bonnie and I took it easy. We had planned on exploring Circlet lake a little before hiking the measly 11km back to our car. But our timing couldn’t have been worse. The sky had gone to bed as summer and woken up as fall. Thick fog blanketed the lake and the mountains were no where to be seen. Bonnie’s cold had worsened too. Little did I know, but she had been up all night coughing. Still, we’re type A people, so as scheduled we pulled out Dutch Blitz and enjoyed some time in our tent by the lake side.

The rain started as a gentle pitter patter on our tent.
“It’s one of my favourite sounds,” I confessed whimsically.
As the rain got heavier we agreed to make a run for it. We packed our bags and forwent the departing selfie since we were both looking a little worse-for-wear. This time, we took the trail we had intended to take the first day. At Kwai Lake we stayed at the junction and traveled between Mount Brooks and Lake Helen McKenzie. Big mistake. The Lakes and Meadows route had been full of boardwalks and berries. This trail was all roots and hills buried in dark cedar forests. On a sunnier day we may have been able to appreciate it.

“At least I get to use my rain gear and gortex!” exclaimed Bonnie, ever the optimist.
I grimaced, too scared to admit that my aqua rain coat was more fashion than function.

IMG_3971

I thought we might find respite from the gusting wind and sideways rain at the Ranger Station, but the door was locked. Instead we scrambled up an rickety plank and perched ourselves in the covered firewood alcove at the back of the building. I’ve never felt more like an owl in my life.

By the time we reached the car, I was soaked through to my underwear and Bonnie had developed new foot injuries to balance out her blisters…not to mention her cold had intensified. I couldn’t have been more thankful for heated seats and that sweater Jakob keeps forgetting to take out of the car.

The best decision of the day was to stop for hot apple cider on the way home. Without the Bayside Cafe in Courtney, who knows if Bonnie and I would still be friends…but you know what they say: friends who hike Mount Albert Edward together stay together.

What’s Next?

IMG_6599

“What’s next?”
Since returning from Europe, we’ve been asked this question more times than I can count. If you’re a twenty something, then maybe you too can relate. Of course, it’s possible that the awkwardness of living an unpredictable life plagues other generations too. I suspect it does. And maybe you too know how difficult it can be to string together words in some sort of an answer to the “what next?” question.

As a historian, I’m much more inclined to answer this question with stories of my past than with predictions of the future. So this means that if you ask me, I will likely tell you about moments in our trip that convinced us that Victoria is still the best place for us. Keep in mind that when we left it was with every intention of discerning our future direction. Move back to Smithers? Apply for a dream job? Press on towards that lucrative History PhD? Become a professional Instagrammer? It was anyone’s guess. Thankfully, a few key moments along the way brought some clarity to this muddle, like…

  •  That time we were sitting on a gorgeous windswept beach in Greece and Jakob said “Man, I just want to sell a car right now.” Me: “(?!?!)”
  • That time we were sipping pints in a tiny dutch pub and a wise-beyond-his-years homesteader told us how difficult it was to raise his children far from their extended family
  • That time we crashed on the couch of a Canadian english teacher and long-time resident of Istanbul and she shared the complexities of expat life
  • That time I was working in a particularly cozy archive in rural France and I felt a profound sense of acceptance and thankfulness for my somewhat obscure and possibly irrelevant degree
  • That time we stepped off the plane and Jakob took an actual real breath through his nose (thanks to that sweet salty ocean air) and I heard the irresistible call of my hippie grow-your-own-food roots

IMG_0626

But lately I’ve realized that it’s not just my historical training that calls me to ponder the past, it’s also my faith. Throughout the Bible, God calls us to remember our story. The story of God’s faithfulness. The story of human failure. The story of unending forgiveness.

The story I’ve been reading lately is that of a shepherd boy turned warrior king. According to bestselling author, Malcom Gladwell, David was the best kind of underdog: a smart skilled boy who knew his limitations and knew he could win if he didn’t play by the rules. He was supposed to beat Goliath with an honourable bronze age duel, but instead he pulled out militia style wilderness farming tactics and killed the hulking Philistine hero with an average slingshot and a stone no bigger than a paintball. Gladwell even speculates that Goliath had some major vision problems connected to his excessive height growth disorder.

maxresdefault

That’s why Goliath says,  “am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” When of course, David didn’t have any sticks in his hand at all just “five smooth stones that went into the sling and the sling went round and round.” So according to Gladwell, David is a hero because he used his underdog status to his advantage instead of playing by the rules of the powerful. How inspiring. Everyone loves an underdog. But Gladwell missed what every Sunday school kid I’ve ever taught knows intuitively. David wasn’t a particularly talented or even flukey underdog. He was a person of immense honest, gut-wrenching, embarrassing, and courageous faith. He danced undignified in the streets to praise God, he poured out his deepest doubts on paper, and he continued to run to God for refuge no matter how scandalous his family’s sexual drama (hint: there’s more than just the Bathsheba fiasco).

How often do you think people asked David: “What’s next?” amidst all the turmoil of life as a king fighting for a contested throne in a fractured kingdom. How often do you think he whispered to himself with tears in his eyes and blood on his hands: “What’s next?” Most of all, what answers did he receive from God that lead him time and time again to write things that sound a lot like this: “Put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore” (Psalm 131:3), “In God I trust and am not afraid.” (Psalm 56:11), “I will not fear though tens of thousands assail me on every side.” (Psalm 3:6), and “The Lord will keep you from all harm, he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” (Psalm 121:7).

So will I run to God in faith? Or will I plead the arts major underdog victimized by a STEM tech start-up world? Will I look to my creative analytical mind to make myself relevant in a difficult job market or will I look with eyes of faith upon my degree and trust that God called me to this place on purpose?

How do you see yourself as an underdog today and in whose strength will you seek to overcome it? Where will you find your courage? No matter what’s next.

IMG_0557

 

Bulkley Valley

I come from a place
where weddings are in country halls,
grocery stores are attached to ever changing shopping malls,
and the mountain views footnote our conversations
because if you mention them you’re obviously not from here.
IMG_8220
Where each house, each party, each vacation spot
is somewhere down a dirt road or just past a parking lot.
Each lake day, each drive way, each high school play
is filled with some face you know.
FullSizeRender
Where the grade twelve grads can’t wait to leave
and those with degrees, or diplomas,
or with moms who are now grandmas
can’t return soon enough

19814528_10159116883200045_960913662_o
As if when we were born beneath the gaze of a glacier,
our hearts came out as compasses set to here.
East of the ocean, west of the Rockies,
south of the wilderness, and north of the cities.
19807268_10159116966620045_2043900327_o
Here where the mountains begin
and the rivers meet,
where the pine beetle stops
and the winters rarely retreat.
19820849_10159116969015045_1850075452_o
Here we disagree on pipelines, and gender neutral signs,
on homelessness and broken promises,
on downtown cans and traditional lands,
but somehow we always choose the same MP
19814077_10159116854275045_183825497_o
Around fire pits and hockey sticks
these differences somehow fade
they’re still close to our hearts
but most of all we’re just proud to be from this place.
19820823_10159116976845045_216060828_o

O Canada

Since returning to Canada, I’ve experienced some (completely unpatriotic) location confusion. I may have even said something like “when I get back to Canada…” while standing on Ontario soil. What I mean of course is when I get back to BC, because there are just a few things about Ontario and Quebec that strike me as entirely foreign, and even hilarious.

For one, why so much roadkill?? Sure we have roadkill in BC too, but we don’t have maimed racoons, deer, squirrels, beaver, and other unidentifiable furry brown things distributed every few kms along our highways. At this point, I’m not even sure they are real road kill anymore. I imagine it’s some sort of public safety stunt.
“No one reads signs anymore, eh Pete.”
“Ya Pat, but I got an idea. Stay with me here. We get some of ‘em taxidermy animals, rough ‘em up a little and bolt those down to the asphalt every so often.”

Of course there weren’t enough taxidermy deer, so they still had to make a few signs.

In BC our signs read something like this:
*Cute picture of a deer*
Next 20kms

In Ontario the signs read something like this:
*Cute picture of a deer*
NIGHT DANGER
Next 20Kms.

Night danger?!?! Is that some sort of deer gang?

Well before you crap your pants in fear, good news. Ontario is full of adorable roadside attractions sure to fill your heart with an unbearable dose of cheesy country charm. In fact, you literally can’t miss them since each corn maze or goat zoo gets a full size road sign, as if heritage grist mills are just as important as hospitals.

So on your way from Toronto to Ottawa, why not make a quick stop at Pingle’s Fun Farm or better yet, Saunders Country Critters Zoo. Then fill your belly with some of Mrs. Garrigles fine mustard. Finally, finish of your adventure with “The Spooky Wagon Ride” featuring grotesque squash growths and life size models of Kathleen Wynne.

Of course the signs that made me laugh the most were not in Ontario, but in Quebec. There is one street sign that is the same almost everywhere we’ve been: Greece, Germany, Holland, Spain, Portugal, even France. The stop sign. No matter what language the locals speak, it is always a bright red octagon with the letters: STOP. Except in Quebec. And of course that’s okay, because we like Quebec. Just the way it is. Never change (and please don’t leave).
FullSizeRender 19
But signage aside, BC and Ontario, and yes even Quebec, really don’t seem that different at all. Here’s how I know that I’m actually not in Europe any more:

People ask how you are all the time. Grocery store cashiers, the visitor centre staff, the poutine guys, EVERYONE. It puts a smile on my face immediately. I don’t even care that they don’t really care. It’s just nice to be asked.

It takes so freaking long to get anywhere. While driving between Montreal and Quebec City I commented that it looks just like the Netherlands. Big flat farm land and water water everywhere. But then I paused for a second. There was not a single church steeple in sight and I knew we wouldn’t be hitting another town for the next hour and a half. Nope we certainly aren’t in Europe anymore.

Peeing for FREE! While in Europe I got in the habit of scheduling my bathroom breaks around train rides and dinner times, just to be sure that I wouldn’t have to pay a cent for bladder relief. In one moment of desperation, I even snuck into a five star hotel in Rome and explored two floors in hopes of finding a free toilet. In Amsterdam, I shopped around for the cheapest port-a-potty, before realizing that one euro was the going rate. If a pee costs the same amount as a beer, than we’ve got a problem.

The service at restaurants. Yes that’s exactly what I mean, the fact that there is service. In Spain, Portugal, Italy, and most of France usually we had to explain ourselves before sitting down: “To eat? Can we eat?” Nine times out of ten we sat in the wrong section, came at the wrong time, or asked for the wrong menu. It was never easy to trade money for food. So when we sat down for dinner in Montreal and were brought a glass of water and a menu with no questions asked we almost cried with joy. Sure they turned into real tears when we saw the total and remembered that yes tipping is a thing here. But mostly tears of joy, because we are back in Canada. Even if the stop signs are in French and there are no mountains in sight, we really are back in Canada!

19047213_10158957783610045_625391532_o

Wandering On Purpose

For 147 days I’ve been a wanderer. To some that may seem like a small feat, too others it may seem unfathomable. To me it’s a bit of both. The culture I was raised in doesn’t take well to wanderers. We prefer that people have a plan: an education plan, a health care plan, a career plan, a dental plan, an insurance plan, a workout plan…Really we are just a lot better off if we know where we are going and how we are getting there.

So while wandering for a short time may be a component of a plan, it certainly isn’t a plan in itself. And it’s true. Even for me, this current phase of wandering isn’t going to last forever. But what things about wandering are worth incorporating into my otherwise planned life?

1. Relaxing amidst imperfection. Usually, I like for everything in my day to look and feel perfect before I invite others into it. There must be enough food for dinner before inviting guests. The house must be clean before family arrives. There must be a plan in place before going out with friends. While traveling, I noticed that abandoning perfection rapidly increases human bonding. On countless occasions, I found myself invited into less than perfect situations, and learned to embrace the discomfort. In Budapest, a host was adamant that eating alone was rude, so he didn’t hesitate to offer us a portion of his reheated leftovers. In Pamplona, we had gathered a group 20 or so pilgrim friends for dinner, but when we realized that none of us had an actual plan for the event we started a spontaneous fake free walking tour and eventually the laughter overwhelmed our grumbly stomachs and tired feet. In Muiden, a cake was baked with less than half of the required ingredients and both new friends and old took part in the experimental taste-test. Let’s cut the crap. None of us are perfect, none of us live in perfection, so let’s be imperfect together.
IMG_2035
2. Reimagining personal space. Before this trip, I was someone who needed a lot of personal space. While growing up and going to university, I almost always had my own room. On occasions when I have had to share a bedroom I would sigh with relief when my roommate went out for a night of fun, just so that I could read or write in the comfort of my own company. While travelling these opportunities are even fewer. So I have redrawn my personal space criteria: a journal, a water bottle, a soft scarf, my phone, and some headphones. These are really the only things I need to create my own space whether in a bumpy bus, a crowded dorm, or a sub-standard Airbnb. I imagine that my inventory will change with each stage of life, but the truth is: I don’t need as much physical space as I once thought.

IMG_2544
3. Rethinking introductions. In the comforts of planned life, one of the first questions that arises when we meet someone is: what do you do? As in for money. While traveling, this question is rarely relevant. Much more frequently I will find out where some one is from, how many siblings they have, what they like to do for fun, what sort of music they like, how they drink their coffee, and whether or not they snore, before I have any idea if they might work in an office or a kitchen. What a relief! My own career status isn’t exactly a conversation starter.

IMG_0396
4.  Recognizing strangers. Before travelling I usually kept my interactions with passing strangers to a minimum. Of course, I would extended some social effort to the lucky person who occupied a plane seat beside me (and got to monopolize our shared arm rest), but I see no need to interact with every passerby. Until I learned to love the “bon appetite” and the “buen camino.” Both of these are simple phrases, they don’t take a lot of effort and they’re not intended to start a discussion. They are more like blessings than conversation starters. In France, it is considered rude to walk by someone who is eating without wishing them “bon appetite.” Until I learned this, I just thought that everyone was really friendly and happy to see me enjoying my baguette. On the camino in Spain, everyday was punctuated with dozens of “buen camino”s. On a particularly difficult day, one of our pilgrim friends exclaimed, “I don’t want to hear another f***ing ’buen camino’ I just want someone to say ‘I feel bad for you, you sorry bastard.’” But isn’t that what a blessing is? It’s a way to tell a stranger, even if you don’t speak the same language, that you see them, you recognize their experience, and you wish them well for their day, or their journey, or even just their lunch. I think I’d like to share more of these passing blessings, even though I’m not quite sure what that will look like in North American culture.

IMG_2510

I can’t keep backpacking forever: my shoulders are tired, I’m sick of peeing in other people’s toilets, I miss having Q-tips, and I would love to wear shoes that actually match my outfit. But maybe in a few small ways, I can keep wandering, on purpose.

IMG_2658

The Broken

“At first, I was worried there would be a lot of broken people out here,” Marg admitted while sipping a glass of vino tinto under the shade of a bar patio.
At the time, we all laughed and agreed. We were all having more fun than expected. Wasn’t there supposed to be some element of suffering in a pilgrimage?

But then things started breaking.

The first thing to break was Jakob’s phone. We were in San Juan de Ortega. Don’t look it up, I can describe the googlemap view quicker than you can spell the name. Somewhere in the middle of northern Spain there is a church, a bar, and a hostel conveniently located all under the same dilapidated roof. This is San Juan de Ortega. I left Jakob and Louise unattended for no more than 30 minutes and when I returned I discovered three things: Jakob’s iPhone screen was smashed, Louise was slumped over on a bench, and the vending machine specialized in beer. Of course my assumption upon taking in this scene was entirely wrong. The phone smash was an innocent accident and Louise’s was suffering only from a cocktail of asthma medication and muscle relaxants. There was nothing to be done about either mishap, so Jakob cracked open a beer, and Louise took a dignified bench nap in the heart of bustling San Juan. Neither one was as concerned about the unfortunate events as I thought they should be, so after a few minutes, I gave up my panicked attempts at problem solving and sat down on the bench beside them.
FullSizeRender 13
Louise’s situation went from bad to worse. Of course she recovered from her temporary semi-coma, but her muscles and tendons refused to cooperate. Over the next day, her witty trail banter was gradually replaced with the sound of her clicking hip. By the time we hobbled into Burgos (km 285), Louise’s left ankle was also inflamed. It seems bodies like symmetry and if a right hip is in limbo then the left has to sacrifice something as well. After six hours of physiotherapy, Louise still wasn’t trail ready.
IMG_7727
The good news was, Louise wasn’t suffering alone. Only about a week before Burgos, Dave had made some sort of comment about those young kids who wear braces on every joint in their body. “They just need to toughen up,” he said. So when he first started feeling stabbing pain in his shins, there was no way he was going to admit to weakness. Over the next few days, Dave’s trek slowed to a limp and by the time we all reached Burgos, he had no choice but to cuddle up with some icepacks and Netflix for five days. Marg and Anita were all too content to trade their polyester quickdry for some cotton sundresses, while quietly admitting that they needed the break too.

Jakob and I decided to take a rest day in Burgos too. While our bodies rested our minds raced. We couldn’t imagine saying goodbye to our Camino family. Could we laugh without Louise? Could we drink beer without Dave? Could we compose eloquent dinner time poetry without Marg? Could we complain about shitty bar service without Anita?
IMG_7641
Jakob did everything in his power to delay our departure. He complained that his heels hurt. So we bought some foot cream. He complained that his shins hurt. So we bought some shin cream. He complained that MY knees hurt. So I bought some knee cream. After running out of excuses, he had no choice but to crack his head open on the hotel window. So I ran frantically out into the street armed with a google translation of “my husband hit is head. Do you have some ice?”

IMG_7930

After the bleeding had stopped Jakob suggested that this was a sign that we should delay our departure. Why break up the family? I insisted that he suck it up. So the next day we had one final family breakfast and before the tears could water down the orange juice, we hugged goodbye and wished each other a “Buen Camino.”

We managed to cover another 75km before something else broke…or should I say broke out. Somewhere in the endless fields of the Tierra de Campos, Jakob noticed some sort of allergic reaction reddening his arms. As a wife, I of course have inherent medical knowledge, which I assume is some sort of precursor to the natural medical knowledge that comes with motherhood. So I assured Jakob that they looked like hives, probably an allergic reaction to something he had eaten. Which was ridiculous of course, since we had eaten nothing other than chicken, potatoes, bread, eggs, and cheese in the last two weeks.

That evening we stayed in what we assumed must have been an (old?) insane asylum. We had no way of really knowing if pilgrims were the only inhabitants since the fortress like building was an endless maze of halls and doors stretched out over five inadequately lit floors. The nuns gave us each a private room and told us that we had to pay extra if we wanted to share a room. I insisted “no we are married. It’s not a problem,” assuming that we were being slapped with some sort of immorality tax. But they insisted. So I pulled out my big girl sleeping bag, took down the creepy saint portrait on the wall, and assured Jakob that I could fend off ghosts on my own.

That night a cold wind blew into town. The evening air was even colder in the Romanesque stone church where we sat and listened to a beautiful guitar concert.

FullSizeRender 17

While my mind and body relaxed, refreshed by the music, my shins tensed up, resistant to the sudden cold. By the time we made our way back to our asylum accommodation, I could barely hobble. The next morning I rotated and stretched my ankle nervously. Something was not right.

Twelve hours later, we were in the midst of what must be the most purgatorial stretch of the Camino: seventeen killometers with no potable water fountains, scarce shade, and not a single hill or curve in the road to disrupt the horizon. We stopped briefly on the edge of the gravel road to munch on some cheese and bread. Between mouthfuls we muttered half-hearted ‘buen camino’s to the endless ant-like line of pilgrims. At some point, I put my glasses in my pocket and switched to sunglasses to better cope with the desserty conditions. Bending down to pick up my pack, I heard the unmistakable sound of cracking plastic. Sure enough, two hairline cracks ran through the plastic frame of my glasses. My first thought was a vain one: “Shit! I’m totally going to be that nerd with the taped glasses.”
FullSizeRender 18
By the time we reached the village of Calzadilla (km 388), my right ankle had lost almost all range of motion and Jakob’s rash had spread. There were now at least 65 distinct welts covering big patches of both his left and right arms, dotting his legs, and tracing across his waist and chest. It was 10:30 in the morning, we had only walked 17km, but we were ready to call it a day. Jakob explained our maladies at the check-in desk as if we were entering a hospital emergency room. I interrupted just as Jakob began explaining the swollen bites all over his body. No way would they take us in. No way would they willingly invite what must be bed bugs into their hostel. The young man at the counter grimaced.
“I am going to do something special for you,” he began filling out the paperwork, “you can have the disability room. See your rash and leg pain aren’t all bad. Tonight you get a private room.”
We breathed a sigh of relief. Not only were they not going to turn away a cripple and a leper, but they were offering us special treatment.

We spent the rest of the day sitting around a bar table at the edge of town. The scene looked like some sort of sad marathon finish line where the crowds were too tired to cheer, but if you sat down for a drink they were more than willing to commiserate. We watched as familiar faces and people we now counted as friends trickled over the small rise into town.

FullSizeRender 7

It felt like a finale to us. We were able to wish well to our friends who were continuing on that day and we smiled with relief at those who decided to join us for one last night together.
FullSizeRender 10
We technically had time in our travel itinerary for three more full days of walking to cover the remaining 78km into Leon. But we had had enough. We walked the 10km to the next town with bus service and relaxed into the air-conditioned oasis of modern transportation. Out our window we couldn’t help but stare at the long lines of pilgrims struggling under the hot sun and the weight of poorly adjusted packs. I couldn’t believe how miserable they all looked. Hadn’t we all chosen this path? Wasn’t this supposed to be fun? No, not exactly fun. I guess it was supposed to be healing. Yes, healing. Because we’re all a bit more broken than we’d like to think.

FullSizeRender 12