They say that the Covid-19 virus came to New York City in January. By looking at the genome, it has been determined that it did not come to New York directly from China, or a lab, or an animal market, but with one of 2 million passengers who came through JFK Airport in January from Europe. By January, the virus had already left the Far East and traveled through Europe to arrive in New York. I was one of those 2 million passengers.
What I did not know then was that we in the United States would not know how to respond to a highly contagious and deadly disease, or that the United States government would not be able to isolate the people who had it from the people who did not. In January, I was simply coming home from walking a very happy, short winter Camino from Sarria. I left Spain and returned to New York on January 20. I have no reason to think I was a carrier.
In the next ten days, I left my job, emptied my New York apartment, and moved to take over a family house in my home state of Michigan, a plan that was in the works before I left for Spain. By moving out of the City, I missed being caught at the center of the outbreak. I unpacked a few things at the house, I worked at the local library every day, met friends for lunch, and enjoyed catching up with my neighbors. Then, my state issued stay-at-home orders and we went out less and less. The library closed, they stopped saying Mass in my church, school buildings closed, and most restaurants started offering carry out meals. And we went out less and less.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to walk even a small Camino this year when so many pilgrims had their flights canceled and the borders closed. Something told me, something pushed me to make plans, buy tickets, pack up my boots and my hiking poles, and walk. I needed to do it. I love that stretch at the end of the Camino Frances and I had started talking about going last fall, that I needed just a short walk and that I wanted to walk in the winter. I have walked in December or January four times now and it is my favorite time of year. There is nothing like a winter Camino. Everything is closed and you have The Way to yourself.
Maybe I knew I was at a crossroads. So many people walk the Camino when they leave a job, in response to an illness, or when someone close to them dies. It’s funny how you can sense these things. Maybe I needed to be reminded of my skills or my ability to get through a day by myself. Or maybe I needed to get comfortable with being alone.
The pull or the need to walk the Camino again and again feels a little bit like Aladdin’s lamp to me. That you are handed something olds and dusty that seems worthless: a hike from town to town that lasts for days. How could that possibly be valuable? But it is. Just as Aladdin learns to pull wonders from rubbing the lamp, each day walking offers something astonishing. You ask for things from this Camino lamp, like being able to find a bar that’s open just ahead, or to find someone at the pharmacy who speaks English. I walked in a rainstorm in January that was so fierce everyone was still talking about it days later. Four hours of driving rain, everything flooded, I was soaked to the skin. But that night, the hospitalera washed and dried my clothes. And the waiter at dinner served just me in the restaurant next door. Just one happy, rain soaked pilgrim for dinner. I had the chicken.
I suppose there are bargains to be made now. I have already stated my “promesa.” That if we get through the virus, I will walk to Santiago. But I will want to walk to Santiago anyway. I love that I can use my skills – all of them – and learn something every day on the Camino. I love meeting people from everywhere and being able to say just a few words in their language. I like to help people who are having trouble. And I adore the solitude. Being alone. Not needing anyone but me. I say a few prayers, I remember the people I love, and I keep walking. Regardless of what I have in my backpack, I bring St. Teresa with me: “Nada te turbe, nada te espante.”
It’s probably why being in my house for so many weeks hasn’t seemed really difficult. Whenever I am faced with something that seems insurmountable in the moment, like not being able to travel or visit with my family, I say simply, “Wait a minute! You walked the Hospitales Route on the Camino Primitivo with a full backpack. You can do anything.” I am glad for WhatsApp and Zoom.
I’m writing a book about the Cathedral in Santiago, but instead of working in the library now, I write on my porch. There are a dozen different birds to watch, I’m out in fresh air, and I’m safely alone. I get food deliveries, I take walks around the neighborhood, and I’m thinking about planting a little garden. I am content.
The Camino taught me that.
Anne Born. Pilgrim, poet, Camino author.