backpacking

Memories from Mount Isolation

Maybe it’s because I missed out on the experience in high school.  Maybe it’s because I come from a competitive family.  Maybe it’s just because I’m a millennial.

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Autumnal color palette

Whatever the reason, I appreciate superlatives.  They help me to remember things, to categorize experiences and file them neatly for retrieval even when Lyme reshuffles and upends up the files.  By this system, the summer that I spent “peak bagging” the high peaks of the White Mountains and sleeping in my old station wagon was the most fun.  And, of those peaks, Mount Isolation was my favorite.

The day I’d planned to hike Isolation, I’d almost chickened out.  In the valley where I’d spent the night, the day dawned gray and overcast; as my schedule was flexible, I considered whether it might be wiser to save the hike for another day.  But, my legs were too eager to get going; I decided that I might as well head out.

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Felting wild-blown evergreens

My ascent began through quiet, rain-soaked birch woods, where golden leaves were strewn all over the ground.  I was alone in the wet woods as I focused on climbing higher, walking quickly to warm myself – and for the shear fun of exertion.  I climbed through thick fog, feeling myself enveloped in mist, and then, just as I cleared treeline, I rose though the fog, too.

I found myself in paradise.

Below me, the day appeared undercast, and neighboring mountains rose through a sea of clouds.  Above me, the sky was that gorgeous Windex blue of northern fall days.  Isolation was adorned in all the brilliant colors of fall, and her Glen Boulder was now in view, perched on the edge of a shrub-covered false summit.

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Canadian gray jay

I don’t know whether I can attempt to describe the elation I felt, the buoyancy of my heart.  Just a few months before, still in bed with an undiagnosed illness and preparing for kidney surgery, I’d doubted whether I’d ever hike again.  And yet, there I was, climbing alone toward the summit of a mountain of a range I’d long considered a home, even while I lived 1000 miles away.  I didn’t want to blink for fear of missing a moment, and I couldn’t stop smiling.

When I reached the large, flat summit, I rested in solitude, enjoying the view of the Presidential Range across the valley.  At least, I did until my solitude was interrupted by a couple of gregarious Canadian gray jays.  Then, with good company, the day was truly perfect.

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“Companion in the Krumholtz”

“Companion in the Krumholtz” and my other felted works are available at wanderstruckstudio.storenvy.com.

Arriving at Puente la Reina

You’d think an historic pilgrimage route wouldn’t need a recently-updated guidebook.  And, for much of the Camino Aragones, that assumption is reasonably correct.  However, on what became my last day on that route, I learned that older guidebooks only work with a healthy dose of flexibility.

After getting lost leaving Tiebas, I planned to recycle my guidebook as soon as possible.  Unfortunately, I’d used the book to make plans for the day before setting off that morning.  I intended to spend the night in the albergue it mentioned near La iglesia de Santa Maria de Eunate, an incredibly beautiful Romanesque church standing alone in a field.  Even to my agnostic sensibilities, the church felt undeniably special and sacred; I found myself deeply absorbed in the act of sitting – and then singing – inside it.

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La iglesia de Santa Maria de Eunate

But, there was no longer an albergue nearby, so it was onward to Obanos.

When I arrived in Obanos, the town was fully involved in a celebration.  A band was playing in the bandstand, people (some of whom were dressed to the nines) danced in the streets, and food stands were set up around the central plaza, near carved wooden statues.  While I enjoyed wandering around and enjoying these eye-level statues, larger-than-life replicas of religious figures were unloaded in the town.  After I’d explored for a while, I headed to the albergue to drop off my bag and eat some dinner.

Big surprise:  It was closed.

By this point, after little shuteye the night before and some 37 kilometers of walking and getting lost, I was very ready to lie down.  Instead, I got what Quiver once called “morale on a plate” (some patatas fritas), shouldered my pack, and headed onward once more.

While I’d intended on sleeping on the quiet Camino Aragones rather than the Camino Frances, the bustling route most people simply know as the “Camino,” I now had no choice:  The next town was Puente la Reina, an important destination on pilgrimages of ages past and today, a town where several routes converge into one Camino bound for Santiago.

And, that’s why at 7:20, 13 hours after I’d set off from Izco that morning and a solid five hours after most pilgrims had finished their day’s walk, I shuffled into Puente la Reina, a little road weary, a little footsore, and a little wide eyed as I took in the town, which was overflowing with pilgrims.  As walkers had for centuries before me, I had arrived.

Remembering the Camino

It feels so long ago, the way that my skin smarted after a day in the Spanish sun, the joyous and multilingual conversation at a communal meal, the quiet of an albergue in the twilight.  My memories of the peaks seem too green; those of the water at the end of the Earth, too blue.  It’s been nearly one year since I left to walk my Camino.IMG_20160724_183350_656

In the year since then, the Camino has remained as dear to my heart as it was when I entered Santiago, eyes overflowing with brine, on the day I celebrated four Lyme-free months.  I’ve looked back with fond memories of the mountains I climbed, people I met, and towns I sought shelter in.

But, as no hike since my Appalachian Trail thru-hike has, the Camino has left me at a loss for words.  When asked about the pilgrimage, I find myself struggling to explain the details of the journey, let alone its personal significance to me.

What I do know is that it was a walk I would repeat in a heartbeat – but also one that I’m sure I could never quite replicate.  In its gentle, patient way, the Camino invited me to step outside my comfort zone, to explore and contemplate and consider.  It invited me to feel and appreciate and wonder.  What I found was unique to myself in that place and time, and I imagine I’d find something different on attempting to return.

And, even while I search for a way to articulate the meaning I found and continue to find in my Camino, I see my quiet, respectful awe shared by others: fellow pilgrims, who, too, struggle to put a journey across a country, a journey back in time, a journey within themselves into words.