The Howell House

The Howell House: A Novel

Chapter One

I stood at the bottom of the steps, looking up at the old, weathered Victorian style house.  Wondering if I had completely lost my mind.  Again.  Still, I knew that this deeply felt like home for some subliminal reason.  Perhaps I lived here in a previous life.  I looked around the small front yard.  It was covered in acorns, and there were empty patches of dirt in the grass where leaves had laid for too long.

I glanced first up the sidewalk to the right, and then to the left.  The cracks from the roots of the trees were deep in the walkway, but the huge oak in the front yard whose roots were destroying the concrete provided lovely shade and was probably well over a hundred years old.  At least a few things would be older than I was.

I heard a bird singing.  Glancing up into the tree, I gazed at the branches, looking for the source of the music. Finally, I spotted a cardinal high up, half hidden by the emerging spring leaves.  He sang his heart out, hopping to another branch.  Gradually, I remembered a story my grandmother once told me. Cardinals showed up when changes happened, bringing with them hope, joy, health, rejuvenation and celebration. I delighted in the symbol of the bird in what was now my tree.  I decided to find a special bird house and plenty of bird feed.  I needed as much of that as I could get, and I made a mental note to google the best birdfeed for cardinals.

“Hello, Red,” I said softly.  “We’re gonna be great friends, you and me.  I want you to stay so I’ll feed you well.”  I smiled to myself, and wondered if anyone was watching me talking to a bird.  I also recalled that my grandmother mentioned cardinals could live fifteen years.  I deeply hoped this was a young cardinal.

I closed my eyes and inhaled the fragrance.  A bit of honeysuckle tickled my nose.  This prompted a memory from my childhood, walking through the woods and blackberry picking with my grandmother, and here it was again in what I believed would be my last home.  A bit of earthy leaf rot mingled in the fragrance. It smelled like what heaven must emit.

I could imagine flowers being nurtured by this fertile loam.  For a brief moment, I could see the many hands that had lovingly tended this yard, planting flowers, watering and fertilizing, picking them to place in vases in the house, old gnarled fingers of timeworn women, young smooth fingers of youthful mothers. They were all part of the memories that created this home.

The wind blew slightly, and my hair tickled my face.  When I opened my eyes, I saw shadow dappling beneath the tree, and the illusion of an elf appeared in my imagination.  Briefly, I wondered if ghosts inhabited the home. Were there souls who chose to stay here in the lovely home rather than heading to some unknown after-life destination?  If so, I hoped we could be friends and get to know each other.  Ghosts carried earthly pain.  I wanted to be familiar with their pain. Perhaps they could help me with some of mine.

I gazed at the mauve chipped paint covering the exterior and the faded deep oxford green shutters.  The front door was still black, but I intended to change that.  I likely would repaint the house, but before I did, I would take lots of pictures of how it looked now.  It was vital that I keep records.  I shook my head, and wondered again if I was losing my mind.  I stooped to pick up my suitcase, and glanced back at the car.  Nodding at no one, I tentatively stepped onto the first step, and slowly climbed the few steps that would lead me to my new home.  To my new life.

“Here I go,” I thought.  Memories threatened like storm clouds, but I shook my head resolutely.  No bad memories for today.  Honeysuckle memories, yes, bad marriages, no.  Today was about the future.  I stepped onto the front porch and stopped to look around again.  The old boards groaned slightly under my weight.  Mental note to have this checked.  No matter how old or what the shape, this was mine.  My home.  Mine to do with what I wanted, and I knew exactly what I wanted.

The world had changed for me.  I was now sixty-six years old, and beginning a new life sans husband or children.  Grandchildren were also part of my life, but they, like their mothers and fathers, lived busy lives now.  It was time for me to move on, to develop a world that I loved and envied when I saw it for others.  I still deeply wanted a connection with my family, but I needed more. I was no longer needed as a baby sitter.  My grandchildren were beyond that.  I couldn’t simply sit at home and wait for them to have time for me.  That wasn’t who I was.  I understood that it would be difficult, a challenge, sometimes horribly challenging.  But what hadn’t been in my life?  This was my plan.  And if it didn’t work, then so be it.  I unwaveringly believed it would.  The clock was ticking, but this was a plan that was long overdue.   I decided to become my own clock, and make the later moments of my life good for me.  Here goes.

I walked to the front door, dug into my pocketbook for the house key, found it by its very size – I had chosen a particular key for my own reasons – and pulled it out, a vintage key to go   with a vintage home.  I looked at it carefully.  I had resolved that every action I performed today, I would do with purpose.  I wanted to remember every moment, every movement, every fragrance, every sight because this was the first thing I had done in my life with total purpose, complete forethought.  April 1, 2015.  So many past choices had been about just keeping the boat between the two shores, often navigating in hurricane like winds, just trying to stay afloat.  I was now the navigator, the captain of this ship.  My life was no longer a small canoe being shunted back and forth in the storms of my life.  I now had a motor, and I planned to use it. This had been in the works for months now, and I believed that it was to be – hopefully – my last move.  My final home.  The place I planned to live for the rest of my life, however long that was.

The first time I discovered Saluda, NC, I was taking a ride from Greenville to Hendersonville when the road that forked off of Hwy 25 looked like a shortcut.  It was so much more.  This is a disregarded road by the state of South Carolina.  Pockmarked and patched, in some places there are no yellow lines, and in others, there is a hint that one used to exist.  On either side of the road, you see acres of farmland, and an occasional mobile home along with lots of signs imploring you to love Jesus.  As I rode, I wondered if there was a company who produced large wooden crosses with the words, “Jesus Loves You,” “Jesus died for your sins,” or “Jesus Saves.” These signs are ubiquitous along this stretch of road.

The lawns are well kept, with lots of deep green ivy, flowers of many colors, and luscious flowing green ground covers.  The farm lands are even rows of well-tended crops – tomatoes, cucumbers, soy, peppers, and corn. Old tractors dot the landscape.  A few miles up the mountain, and the brilliant blue and green Greenville Watershed appears on the right.  Because it looks like a lake, there are signs preventing one from accessing it. From here, Greenville’s award winning water flows. In the early 2000’s, during a particularly dry season, Atlanta wanted to tap into this watershed.  The paper was full of stories of water rights and water wars.  Fortunately, the rains came and the battle was delayed. I’ve no doubt that this will rear its head again during future droughts.

I saw a sign to Saluda, NC, and thought, “what the hell?”  I was simply joy riding.  I turned right on the same kind of poorly kept road.  However, once I left South Carolina and entered North Carolina, the care of the road changed dramatically.  It was now an even light grey, with the distinct yellow lines well painted.  There was no patchwork.  I passed bikers going up and coming down.  I couldn’t imagine how grueling this ride had to be on the way up, but these people were determined and, based on the numbers I saw, the road must be a well biked route.  Once I passed from Polk County into Henderson County, the charming mountain homes appeared each one lovelier than the next.  There were terra cotta painted houses, deep green ones, and an occasional light blue home.  The yards were overflowing with azaleas of all colors – brilliant reds, deep corals, and light and hot pinks, along with beautiful rows of blue green hosta, bright yellow and orange day lilies, purple peonies, rows of lush tomato plants, varying kinds of ivy and divine deep green carpet grass.  I found myself mesmerized.

Then I saw The Howell House for the first time, and even in its disrepair, I was smitten.  Of course, that wasn’t the name then.  I knew nothing of the area, the tiny little hamlet of Saluda, which I discovered later, was a stopping point for people traveling from the coast to Hendersonville or Asheville in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to escape the summer heat.  Sometimes they came in wagons, and sometimes they took the Carolina Special, the train that ran through the small hamlet.  In the town, I found The Purple Onion, a café of great fame (and equally great cooking), Pace Hardware, which had been there since 1899, and beautiful artisan shops full of gardening items, stunning paintings by local artists, and history books of the area. My personal favorite became I Remember Saluda, by Charles Hearon, a local man, now gone, who was begged by his children to write the stories of the old Saluda before they were lost.  He did so, and in a quaint, mountain vernacular, he weaves you into the historic stories of Saluda now long gone.  I was hooked.

Upon doing some minimal research about the area, I learned that Saluda is probably the Anglicization of the Native American Creek word, Suale-te, which means Buzzard People. The language, “Itsate,” was the predominant language spoken in the Piedmont and western Coastal Plain of South Carolina.

All of the names of the original “Lower Cherokee towns” in South Carolina are actually Itsate Creek words.  Local histories in the region claim that Saluda is derived from the Cherokee word for “Place of the green corn,” Tsaludi-yi.  It is quite possible that the Xuale People were descendants of the Hopewell Culture and a division of the Shawnee. The buzzard was considered especially sacred to the participants in the Hopewell Culture. It is believed by some anthropologists that the “Hopewell” fed their deceased love ones to semi-domesticated buzzards. This macabre tradition is still practiced by some Tibetan Buddhists. Rather disgusting, but that doesn’t preclude it being true.  I shivered at knowing this could be the entomology of the name of the town.

I am a very social woman.  I discovered that through two marriages, four children, and many moves.  My job as a mother was not finished (was it ever?), but was no longer a label that continued to define me.  I had a good relationship with three out of four children, and I felt that was as much as I could hope for.  I had several good friends, and had managed to remain on friendly terms with one of my exes.  Again, as much as I could hope for.  Now it was really going to be my turn to develop the life that I wanted, to seek the support I needed, and to do something good for other women in the process.  It was a calling of sorts, or so I believed, and I was ready to make it happen.

But to tell this story well, I must go back.  Go back to how I ended up at this point in my life.  I was interested in knowing myself as well as I could, so I resolved to write about this journey, not an unusual choice for me. I have battled myself for my whole life, between being a writer who wrote and one who talked about writing. I was forcing myself to write this story in depth and with a willingness to face the past, the current, and the future.  We all have some of this – that part that we either choose to ignore, forgive, or forget.  But do we really do any of that? I was determined to find out, and I would do it here while creating the world I wanted, or at least giving it my best shot.

I became a young southern bride at the age of twenty.  Not terribly young for southern brides.  But I left behind much potential with a strong curiosity and a deep desire for education.  A child of divorce, I had many emotional scars, battle wounds that I attempted to stitch up with tar and feathers. Most of the time, the wounds festered, the cuts came open, and pain oozed out like infected pus.  I settled for marrying my first husband’s family – hugging to me an in-law mother and father who deeply cherished their brood, accepted and embraced me into their exclusive group.  Let me make that clear.  It wasn’t my husband I fell in love with, it was his parents.  My father in law was a jovial man, given to telling jokes – bad ones mostly – about women and blacks.  Of course those were not the words he used.  That part of my world was not too different from any other southerners’ in the early 70’s.  I was, of course, pregnant when Phillip and I married.  I thought of this as a romantic way to start a marriage – puking my guts up at every stop sign and rushing from any room at the sight of a Campbell’s tomato soup commercial to the nearest toilet.  No close toilet? Then I had to get outside quickly.  As I today ride around the town of Lincolnton, NC, I can still point out the spots where I lost my lunch or my dinner or the inner lining of my stomach. The odor of a rotten potato or bad meat in the refrigerator could send me to bed for a day.  Nothing was digestible during those nine months, and I look back at pictures of a pale waif like woman with a protruding stomach.  No makeup and stringy hair.  Who could guess how I would change.

My world had not prepared me for motherhood.  My own mother had ruled with a hard hand, and used beatings to keep us under control. This was my example of how to parent.  Our first son was a challenge from day one, and I had few friends in the newly built neighborhood in which we lived.  Phillip, Jr. cried constantly, had tons of ear aches, switched his days and nights for a very long time, and generally loved to pee on me when I was changing his diaper. Again, my example of how to parent didn’t prepare me to handle this well.  And there was no internet.

My young husband had no idea or desire to be a husband or young father, and he spent his days building houses for his dad, and many of his nights playing poker with his buddies.  Weekends for him were for golf, regardless of whether I was sick, we had a funeral, or the children were hungry.  I was expected to be at home for his beck and call day and night, regardless of whether he was there with me or not.  I was to cook, wash clothes, clean the house, and care for Phillip, Jr.  If he wanted to come home in the middle of the day to have sex, I was to be ready for it.  It was hell for me.  I hadn’t realized that I was to become my husband’s mother in a manner of speaking.  She was willing to offer this kind of life to her husband, and her children. I was not.

I grew up surrounded by my father’s extended family and customers from my grandfather’s store. This young marriage was a lonely and static life with little conversation and less stimulation.  Soap operas became my best friends, and I slogged through many depressing afternoons gazing at perfectly cleaned houses and even more perfectly groomed women.  Mornings were spent feeding Phillip, Jr., cleaning my house – daily – and dressing.  Who needs to clean their house daily?  I could take a walk with the Phillip, Jr. in the stroller, but few women were available to offer me comfort or conversation or to teach me how to be a young wife and mother. Many of those women worked, and those who didn’t had their own lives and friends.  I wasn’t willing to reveal my inadequacies.

Finally, I made friends with Joan, a back door neighbor who incessantly looked at me with terribly sad eyes.  I couldn’t understand why she felt so sorry for me, and it was years before I discovered her sadness was for her own pain and loneliness with her distant and unresponsive husband.  After months of getting to know each other, we were finally able to commiserate about our shared unhappiness, but it took a long time to develop that trust.  Once she became a close friend, she also became one of my closest allies, and in fact was my witness in court when it was time for me to dump Phillip.  I’m not sure she ever forgave me for that.

I lasted four years in this marriage.  I look back at the woman in that life and I don’t recognize her at all.  I see the pictures of a quickly aged twenty to twenty-four year old.  I don’t know where she came from, or where she went after it was over.  But she continues to be an enigma to me.  In many ways, I felt that she was one of the several personalities that reside inside of me.  The personality with the least amount of self-esteem, the neediest one who traded in everything she believed in for what appeared to be a support system.  Someone else’s support system.  I have never regretted her demise, although I have thought that there were parts of her that offered some tenderness and vulnerability that I could likely use.  However, I believe that she brought me through an extremely difficult time and was terribly wounded in the process.  The important parts of her were lost for many years.  Lost to the more brittle and cynical sides of my personality.  I have endeavored to discover the better parts of her – of me – and bring them back to life in way that I can cherish.  I still struggle with that.

In the third year of this awful marriage, my second son was born.  He was the antithesis of his brother.  We expected a girl.  I thought the reason was that my pregnancies were so different, but now I think it was simply because I so desperately wanted to have a collaborator.  I didn’t want more men to control me. Foolishly, I felt that a little girl would be on my side.  I don’t know what side that was now.  But it felt necessary, and the discovery at his birth that the new baby, Bobby, was male threw me into a deep depression that lasted for months.  I didn’t learn for many years that this was likely also post-partum depression, the baby blues, and that I probably could have received some much needed help.  But I didn’t, I struggled along with no preparation for motherhood, less preparation for being a wife, and knowing that I was sinking ever so slowly into the abyss of a difficult and male-dominated marriage, and that the person I strove to be was not in any way related to who I really was.  The effort to get up on some days took all my energy, and I wept through many afternoons.

The marriage itself had taken a deep dive during my second pregnancy, and by the time of Bobby’s birth, my husband was spending most of his evenings drinking, playing cards, and partying.  On one occasion, I showed up at the bar where he had gone for his usual Saturday night binge, and was quickly and frantically escorted out to my car, while he angrily explained that I should be home with the children.  I meekly left without considering why he shouldn’t also be home with his children.  Years later, I began to wonder who he was meeting there and where she had hidden while I was walking into the bar.  Even after the divorce, no one came forward to tell me that he had been involved with other women.  But a week after we separated, he moved in with a big haired blonde woman who owned a great sports car, and even I was smart enough to know that a relationship like that rarely develops enough in one week to be a living arrangement. The marriage ended long before he left our home.

Because I was still frightened of how he could hurt me, I remained quiet about my depression after our separation and entered my first therapy.  When Phillip found out, he accused me of being crazy.  I think it was then that I finally found my voice, and I assured him that indeed I was crazy.  Because I had lived with him for four years, I was completely loopy.  I allowed the hatred and anger to surface, and I found that I could say things to him that I had only imagined a few weeks before.  I became angry and bitter, and lashed out at him every chance I got.  It took me year to stop cursing him out every chance I got.  After six weeks of therapy, I convinced my therapist that I was cured, and I left the mental health department knowing that I had a long way to go to be mentally and emotionally healthy.  But it was my first effort at becoming healthy.  Little did I know how many years it would take.

What scares you …. the most?

I’ve faced a lot of fears in my life.  My father was mentally ill.  My parents divorced when I was 10.  My mother wasn’t stable. I went to live with my father and my grandparents.  There, I learned to depend on me.  Later, I went through my own divorce, the loss of my father, and a bought with thyroid cancer.  But, while I was still young, I had an ace in the hole. My older sister was also there.  She became my surrogate mother.  She attempted to instruct me on life.  She tried to explain menstruation to me, but I had already ordered the kit.  She expounded on her understanding of sex.  I had already read the book. She pushed me to bathe, to comb my hair, to ask before I wore her clothes (which I rarely did), to roll up a quilt and put it between us when we slept (there weren’t many beds at our house), to improve my grades.  She encouraged me to work harder in my classes, to be a better basketball player, to be part of her life. In short, she was often my life.  I admired her so, and still do.

Fast forward from the late 60’s and early 70’s to 2014.  I received a call in December of 2014.  The day our business had a company luncheon to celebrate the oncoming Christmas season.  This would not be a reason to celebrate. Ovarian cancer was the diagnosis.  She was to have surgery within a week.  I screamed as I ran through our warehouse.  This cannot be happening.  I had cancer – thyroid – at 18.  I paid the dues for our family.  Cancer doesn’t work like that.  It is a creeping, stealing, hateful disease.  I’m so sick of driving by new cancer facilities.  New places to go to get your cancer taken care of.  New hospitals.  New wards.  New types of chemo that will kill every emerging cell in your body – not just the cancer but all new healthy cells as well. That is how chemo works.  I hate it so deeply and so purely.  Why are we covered up with cancer?  Why do we see commercials and new locations and new types of treatment?  Why not just get rid of cancer altogether?  Think about that.

This is not happening to me.  And yet, a visit to the American Cancer Society will tell you that cancer happens to everyone in the family.  Really?  I’m not the one throwing up, dealing with the pain and the exhaustion.  How exactly is it happening to me? Do I sound angry?  I’m furious.  This is a cat and mouse game. After one series of chemo, you’re announced cured.  Until 3 months later, when it’s back…insidiously.  Now, how do we deal with the roller coaster emotions of fear, loss, pain, and anger? How do we deal with how much we love our family member?  How?

Once a family member tells you he/she has this life threatening disease, everything else becomes so petty.Who cares about your need to be in shape?  To lose a few pounds?  Or your desire for a new car? Dig deeper, please.  On a level such as this one, material gain and personal desires take a decided back seat.

Occasionally, I have the great misfortune to sit at lunch and listen to conversations. Today’s petty words had to do with fights over who got the most loving message from a daughter.  Really?  I have a knife that will go right through your eye.  Possibly both of them.  Don’t talk about your sad need to be loved more than your sister.  About where you will vacation and who will get the best bedroom.  Get a life.  I can’t take this.

All else pales in the perspective of a battle for your life, or your siblings, or parents, or children.  And it isn’t your battle.  Ultimately, no matter how hard you fight or how mad you get, you can’t make a real difference.  It is up to him/her – the decisions they make, the medicine available, the laws in their state or country, the doctors’ concern and input, their body’s ability to fight, their immune system’s strength, and so on…ad nauseum.  Nothing I do, think, or say will make much of a difference.  And still, I have to try.  Personally, I have nothing to do with any of this.  If you don’t count your worries, your pain, your fear, your need to take over and control the choices – and the  desperate fear that (if you did)  you’d totally f..k it up and cause exactly what you’re terrified of – the loss of that person that gives you a rope, a hammock, your entire identity- would be gone because you chose wrong.  It is their choice.  I must have the respect to understand and abide by that.  This is so terribly hard, so terribly wrong, and so terribly real.

How does a person totally rethink who they are in the face of dealing with such a disease? Because that it what it takes.  The ability, the calm, the terribly difficult ease of reconsidering who you are with this disease?  I have no ability to imagine this.  None whatsoever.  Because this is what it takes for a person to survive this debilitating disease if you’re a thoughtful person.  If not, it won’t matter.

Now, I’ll shake my fist at the heavens – are you there, God?  Why would this happen to a person who is so loving, carries you so deeply in their heart, works hard at being a good person, does all the right things?  Why not me, who has made so many bad choices?  What are we to learn from this?  I wish I understood.  Perhaps I don’t really want to.  Perhaps I would simply get angrier. Maybe that’s my lesson.  How not to get angry about incredibly unfair treatment.  I may have to go around a few more lives before I get that one.

By the way, Cannibis oil is doing a lot of good for people with aggressive brain cancer.  There may be better choices than chemo.  Just maybe.

 

The Religion of Tennesee Football

Spending a Saturday in Knoxville amid thousands of rabid Vol fans is an experience like…no other.  Over 100,000 head to Neyland Stadium, where first many gather at Calhoun’s on the Tennessee River to see just how much beer they can consume, and to await a table for hours to have the chance to eat the famous ribs cooked here, known far and wide.  They truly are the best I have ever eaten.

7Calhouns_RiverKnox

Next to Calhoun’s, rolls the Tennessee River.  There the Vol Navy is out in force.  In front of us, we see the Orange Pearl yacht docked.  We wonder aloud if this belongs to Bruce Pearl, the “fired” basketball coach from several years ago.

Vol-Navy-

The different orange and white costumes vary from striped orange dresses, sundresses with cowboy boots, elegant orange scarves and frilly white jackets, to the proverbial orange and white checkerboard overalls.  Other options include the ubiquitous t-shirts with saying that proudly depict the University, the state, the hatred of opposing teams, and simple UT logos.  The caps are everywhere, in all kinds of styles.  Some are camouflage with a Tennessee logo proudly embroidered.  We saw a pair of cowboy boots with the Tennessee logo embroidered on the toel.  In front of the stadium, Johnny Majors is idolized with a huge bronze statue of the ex-coach and football player.

Before the game, there is the honorary walk of the football players.  Fans gather in crowded formation to have the opportunity to see their gods up close.  The band comes in, heading down a small hill from the campus to the stadium. They pause, and inflame the fans by playing Rocky Top.  Fans gathered in the thousands sing along and discuss the likelihood of winning.  The majorettes strut and twirl batons to the fascinated stares of little girls who want to grow up and be them. Stats are exchanged.  The local radio station is there in force to keep everyone up to date on the expectations for the players and the coaches.

Vol Walk

After the band, the rush to get in is on.  Find the correct gate, pay exorbitant prices for pizza, hot dogs, peanuts, and chips with melted cheese.  Then find your seat, and get ready for the big game.

Yesterday’s game against Oklahoma had a checkerboard theme.  The fans could check the Tennessee Football website to see what color shirt they needed to wear based on their seats to assist this checkerboard theme.  The student section is loud, with the band sitting next to them.  Everyone wearing orange and white is ready to win, to urge their players on, to yell at the referees, and to second-guess every missed play.  It is intoxicating.

Checkerboard

I sat next to a very nice, elegant woman, with a beautiful voice.  She made the Star Spangled Banner sound like its supposed to.  There are service dogs in the stadium wearing orange football jerseys.  Peyton Manning is spoken about with reverence.  Many are wearing the football jersey with #16.  This indeed, resembles a religion, if you don’t listen to the words used after the game when they lose.  The kind woman said good bye at the end of the game, and commented that if she never saw me again on earth, she would see me in heaven.  It very much feels like a southern denomination.

I do get caught up in the passion.  I have three sons who love sports, and a husband with an avid love of anything Tennessee.  His friend was there with us, and he, too, is rather a lunatic fan.  They discuss games that happened in 1967.  To be clear, it is now 2015.  Sound like a religion to you?

At the end of the day, the Vols lost to the Oklahoma Sooners on the last play.  This of course pleased those in Red, and deflated the massive Orange group.  Oh, well, there’s always next week.  The fans rise and leave in a parade fashion.  Every moment of the game is up for discussion.

The game is rehashed by all the fans on their drive home, along with the radio talking heads, and the sportscasters on TV.  For today, the service is done, and thousands head home from the game.  Some head to hotels, where they will catch a flight home on Sunday.  Many will return for the next home.  Most will watch it on TV.    Welcome to the religion of Tennessee Football.  Change the colors and the location, and the same thing is happening in stadiums all over the United States on Thursday nights and Saturday afternoons.  I would hate to have to explain this to aliens.

Rocky Top

Wish that I was on ol’ Rocky Top
Down in the Tennessee hills
Ain’t no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top
Ain’t no telephone bills
Once I had a girl on Rocky Top
Half bear, the other half cat
Wild as a mink, sweet as soda pop
I still dream about that

Once two strangers climbed ol’ Rocky Top
Lookin’ for a moonshine still
Strangers ain’t come down from Rocky Top
Reckon they never will
Corn won’t grow at all on Rocky Top
Dirt’s too rocky by far
That’s why all the folks on Rocky Top
Get their corn from a jar

I’ve had years of cramped up city life
Trapped like a duck in a pen
Now all I know is it’s a pity life
Can’t be simple again.

Rocky Top you’ll always be
Home sweet home to me
Good ol’ Rocky Top
Rocky Top Tennessee, Rocky Top Tennessee

“Rocky Top” copyright 1967 by House of Bryant Publications
Written by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant

Y’all come!  Ya hear?

smokey

My Walk on the El Camino – or “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

The Shell of the El Camino

“James, the brother of Jesus, was killed in Jerusalem for his convictions about his brother. James had spent some time preaching on the Iberian Peninsula, and after his death, his bones were mysteriously transported by a ship with no crew back to the Iberian Peninsula to the Northwestern province of Galicia in Spain.

A wedding was taking place along the shore as James’ ship approached land. The young bridegroom was on horseback, and on seeing the ship approaching, his horse got spooked, and the horse and rider plunged into the sea.

Through miraculous intervention, the horse and rider emerged from the water, covered in seashells, and galloped off into the distance.

To this day, the scallop shell, typically found on the shores in Galicia, remains the symbol of the Camino de Santiago.”  http://otherspain.com/pages/writing/scallop.asp

In May of 2014, my middle son completed a goal.  He walked the El Camino, the Way of St. James, in northern Spain with two friends.  When he returned home, the subsequent discussions about the trip piqued my interest.  I didn’t have the idea – at first – of attempting the walk.  I simply found it rather fascinating, and somewhat incomprehensible.  At a cookout, a friend heard about the trip and challenged me to take it with her.  Wediscussed walking the trail during May of 2015.  The discussions were brief and random.  Life took over, and we rarely met to discuss it further.  However, my imagination grabbed the idea, and I began saving money. Other than that, I didn’t plan much.  I didn’t prepare physically at all.  This didn’t matter in the fall of 2014.  I was teaching, and dealing with family stuff.  But I kept saving.  Something drove me to do this. If you understood just how poorly I save money, you would understand more clearly.  During my life, I’ve rarely dealt with the financial side of things.  Even when I was a single mother living on the poverty level, I didn’t do it.  Of course, at that point, I had very little income to pay the bills, much less save.  Today, I’m much better off, yet it doesn’t seem to matter.  

I wish I understood my desire to take this walk and could explain it to you in depth, but I can’t.  I kept the small flame alive in my imagination.  I’m sure that you, like me, have heard the quote, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.”  This quote is attributed to William Arthur Ward.  I’ve no idea who he is, but he is so right.   The flame stayed burning in my imagination, and at some point in the saving process, I believed I could do it.  My husband and I spent the night (one night only) in Barcelona a decade or so ago in preparation for going on a cruise.  I loved it.  The sights, the sounds, the aromas.  I knew returning to Spain would be greatly satisfying.  I was so right.

The last couple of years, we have seen a lot of illnesses, deaths, and declining parents.  This takes its toll, as anyone who has experienced it will tell you.  I was ready for an adventure and two weeks away from the difficulties that were my life.  That may have been part of my desire.

Let me help you understand why I’m writing this.  I turned 60 in November of 2014.  I don’t want to take the chance of waiting too long for great physical experiences and challenges.  Yes, I’ve heard that “60 is the new 40.”  Sure.  With enough plastic surgery, exercise, and self-care, perhaps.  Perhaps not.  At that time, I also believed I had a partner in the trip.  This helped me believe in it, I’m sure.  My friend assured me (way back during the first conversation) that she expected to get a large Christmas bonus which she would use to pay for her trip.  At the time, my research showed that airfare was between $1500 and $1800.  Because my son had been on the trip, I knew that daily expenses were low.  If you choose to stay in hostels on the trail, you can do the trip for less than 18-20 euros (at the time I went, the dollar was $1.11 to one euro). I had no plans to stay in hostels.  I’m way too old for that.  Likely, I was born too old for hostels.  I need sleep and I need privacy.  Now, having taken the trip, some of the hotels in which I stayed weren’t much better than hostels.  Three were magnificent, and cost less than 65 euros.  I’ll take that. In two, I shared a bathroom with other rooms.  In one, I bathed in the sink that was in the room to avoid the communal bathroom, shared with nine rooms.

I saw this as an opportunity for a spiritual walk, as well as a physical challenge.  I’d never considered anything like this before.  I’m not a religious person.  Having completed the walk, I am now considering so much more.  Traveling, pursuing a goal, accomplishing it, and returning are great instigators for pushing yourself to do and see more.  I have the travel bug, and I don’t mean taking a trip to Charleston.  The bug is pushing me to go to places where I’ve never been.  I’ve been bitten hard.

In December, I received the staggering news that my sister had ovarian cancer.  This ruled my life for the winter semester (I teach at a community college).  Prior to returning to school on January 15, I made four 5-hour trips (one way) to be with and assist my sister. My youngest sister did the same (I’m the middle of the three sisters with an older and a younger brother as well).  Getting such horrendous news changes your thought process, your priorities, and your world.  In some ways, those changes can be very good.  I realized just who had the most importance in my life, and what I was willing to do for those I loved.  I’m deeply grateful for that realization and the opportunity to spend that important time with her.

I got through the semester.  At the end, I told a group of students (several of whom had taken my class before) just how easy they had it because the emotional effects of my sister’s illness caused me a lot of attention difficulties when it came to preparing for class.  Two of them (who were previous students) laughed out loud, and said they had just been discussing this.  I warned the rest that this was the last time that this would happen. I meant it.

Finally, my friend and I met for dinner to discuss the trip.  I believe this was in late March of 2015, possibly early April.  I knew we were on a deadline to get the best flight prices.  At dinner, she informed me that now she wanted to go in July, not in May, because her employer would be out of town for two weeks.  I didn’t respond properly because I was rather stunned at this news.  I deeply despise heat and humidity, and having discussed this with my son, I simply knew I couldn’t do a July trip.  I didn’t say this.  I wonder why now.  I think it was because I didn’t believe she really wanted to go on this trip, and that if I didn’t do it in May, I would not get the chance.  She also shared that she was hoping to get a free plane ticket from a friend who has a lot of miles from plane flights.  This didn’t sound like planning to me.  This didn’t sound like a plan at all.  Again, I didn’t respond the way I felt.  What I asked for was that she find out if she could get the ticket, and let me know by Sunday evening.  This was a Thursday night.  By Sunday, I had heard nothing.  Tuesday night, again nothing.  I began looking for others who would consider the trip.  I found one friend who thought it interesting and would think about it.  I sent a text to the first friend that I needed to know something, and that if she wasn’t interested or able, I had another who may be.  She told me to go with the other friend, and that she intended on going on the trip in July.  I booked my plane ticket.  As it turned out, the 2nd friend felt that she simply wasn’t ready for such a walk.  This is a 75 mile walk in six days, depending on the location of your hotel, which can extend a day’s walking by a couple of miles.  I believe I added at least an extra three miles walking to hotels at the end of the day.  I understand not feeling like you are ready.  I surely wasn’t.

In April of 2015, I had a plane ticket to Madrid, Spain, where I had never been.  My son assured me I needed no hotel reservations on the trail.  However, he also told me that I could send my luggage daily to the next hotel, provided I knew where I was staying by placing a provided tag on the luggage with the name of the next hotel, along with three Euros.  This appeared to be a no-brainer to me.  I had no interest in carrying my luggage on my back. For mother’s day, my youngest son gave me a journal, along with a lot of encouragement to use it on the trip.  I am doing so with this story.  My middle son, the one who had been on the el Camino, provided me with a book about the trail, and the location.  I took it along.

The week before I left, my husband and I went online to reserve hotels.  I booked all but one, which my husband later found and booked.  Actually, I got all but two hotels, but that part of the story comes later.  I didn’t reserve a train ticket from Madrid to Sarria – the beginning location for my walk (there are many places to start) – because my son also assured me I needed no train reservation.  In addition, he told me the trail was mostly flat.  Here’s what I suggest to anyone listening to my beloved son.  Do your own research.  He is well traveled and has been to many amazing places.  Just don’t listen to him about what you need to do before you follow in his footsteps.  Follow gratefully and happily, but do your own research.

My husband began encouraging me (pushing me) to walk lengthy miles daily several months before I left.  I assured him I would.  Next week.  And then the next, and then the next.  The one thing I did in preparation for my trip was go to REI and buy boots.  Amazing boots, which did the walking for me.  I would highly recommend them.  I also listened carefully to my salesperson at REI.  I purchased a hat, special underwear, several dri-fit shirts, and a pair of shorts with the zip off bottom legs.  Thank you, REI.  If you watch the movie, Wild, or read the book, she didn’t listen to her REI rep.   It was a huge mistake.  I still lost two toe nails.  She lost several more.

As an instructor in a local community college, the end of the semester crashed on me.  I can blame no one but myself.  My last exam was on Friday, May 8.  I had to have exams graded, grades into the computer, by that night (a Friday).  My flight was on Saturday, May 9, at 3:30 PM.  I wondered more than once why I had pushed the flight so soon after the end of the trip.  It didn’t matter.  The plane was booked, and so was my trip.

A week before the trip, the realization hit me.  What the hell was I doing?  A 60 year old woman (I keep emphasizing that but most of us at this age will tell you we don’t feel the age – I think I was trying to be aware) traveling to Spain alone to go on a 75 mile walk, also alone.  Alone is a relative term here.  Thousands of people walk the El Camino.  I saw many of those thousands on the walk.  But when it came to traveling, getting to a train, hotels, I was alone.

By Saturday morning, May 9, I had exams finished, graded, and in the computer.  I awoke and packed.  I began to get quite nervous, so I convinced my husband to go to lunch.  We briefly visited my youngest son before we left, then went to Barnes and Nobel, and later headed to the airport in Greenville, SC.  He sat with me for about 20 minutes, and then I walked alone to the gate.  I had something to eat, where I met a photographer who stated that, during his military career, he was one of only 13 Americans on the ground during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  I teach history.  American history books state that no Americans were on the ground during this mission.  He agreed that was true, and said if they were caught, the military had advised them they would not be recognized as an authorized military force.  I’ve heard this before, and have no doubt it is true. That was the beginning of the experience.  I tell my students, and anyone else who will listen, there is nothing like travel to broaden you mentally, culturally, physically, and emotionally.  As Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” The adventure began.

From Greenville, I went to Charlotte.  There I made my first exchange for Euros.  The ride to Madrid was uneventful.  I slept a bit, and only conversed with one exchange student who spoke English (My son also assured me that everyone spoke English.  I cannot emphasize enough – do your own research).  An eleventh grader, she was coming home from a year as an international exchange student in Akron, Ohio.  She had a trash bag full of clothes and worried about what her mother would think of her purchases.  I suggested that she tell them she bought them in Walmart.  She laughed and said that would mean nothing to her mother.  Imagine that.

On the flight, we were served two meals.  I included this because I never get fed on flights in America.  This was a long flight.

In Madrid, I walked through an enormous airport.  I got my one piece of luggage (I carried on a backpack), and found a taxi.  From there, I went to the Madrid Airport Hilton.  My husband and I agreed we needed to do this to sleep before heading to Sarria.  I’ve made a few international flights, and I generally don’t do well making the time change.  I was determined this would not impact me on this trip. Once arriving at the Hilton around 1 PM, I slept for six hours, got up, showered, ate, and returned to bed.  I believe I watched a movie.  Quite frankly, this is rather hazy.  The flame in my imagination burned to get me to the El Camino.

The next morning, around 10:30 AM I took a cab to the train station.  The train to Sarria was at noon.  I found the information booth.  Because I took five semesters of Spanish in college, I can read a bit and understand less in Spanish.  Fortunately, here the clerk spoke English.  Unfortunately, the train was full.  I called my husband in the states, he found the bus station on the internet, and gave me the location.  I could have done that on my phone, but the internet connection didn’t work in the train station.  How in the world did St. James make this walk centuries ago without help?  I took a taxi to the bus station, purchased a ticket, and walked around a bit to orient myself to the location.  My ticket said Alsa.  I had no clue as to what that meant.

My bus left at 3:00 PM.  About 2:30, I began looking for it.  What I found is what immigrants to America (and other countries) experience when you don’t speak the language of the locals.  I asked what obviously appeared to be bus station employees where the bus was.  One guy said Alsa.  He then pointed.  My response – no hablo Española.  He said it louder.  I shook my head.  He yelled it.  That really didn’t help at all.  Finally, another employee unlocked a door and pointed to buses – on the side of which stated “Alsa.”  Think Greyhound in America.  I raced to the buses, and found the one going to Lugo.  There were no buses to Sarria.  The bus driver laughed at me.  I’m okay with that.  The train trip was six hours, the bus trip, seven.  I took the train on the return trip to Madrid.  I really think the bus trip was more comfortable and much more interesting.  The bus station itself was extremely clean with people reading books instead of staring at their phones.  The exceptions were the teenagers.  How refreshing.

The city of Madrid is covered in graffiti.  Think of someplace in America where you’ve seen graffiti (I believe it first started in Philadelphia).  Now quadruple that amount.  There is graffiti everywhere it can possibly be painted.  What you don’t see is litter.  I was amazed with the lack of litter, so I googled it.  In Spain, if you are caught littering a cigarette butt, you can be fined $1,000.00.  Another friend recently returned from Singapore.  There, you can be fined $500.00 for chewing gum (they know many people don’t dispose of it properly, but stick it under seats, and other public places).  What I don’t understand is why we, as Americans, seem to care so little for our environment?  I saw all of this as the bus headed out of the city.

On the bus trip through northern Spain, I saw wind turbines, solar panels, more graffiti (almost no litter), and little old men in berets with canes.  I think that could be their national motto.  On the bus, I met no one who spoke English, including the bus driver.  Everyone (with the exception of the bus station employees) was helpful.  The countryside is gorgeous.  I saw two castles.

We stopped at about five to six towns.  One stop in Labaňeza was simply to allow us to eat.  If you don’t eat bread, don’t go to Spain.  We arrived in Lugo at 10:00 PM.  Earlier in the day, I received a text messaged from my first hotel – 108 to Santiago – in Sarria.  The employee inquired as to when I expected to arrive.  I explained what happened, and said I would arrive in Lugo at 10 PM at their bus station.  She (I believe it was a woman) said she would pick me up there.  When I got to Lugo, the bus station was empty.  I walked around the station, looking for my ride. Nothing.  My phone died an hour before because I was so intent on taking pictures of the countryside.  There I was in Lugo, Spain, with no ride, no phone, and no contacts.  I discovered then just how kind and helpful Spaniards are.  I found this to be true throughout my trip.  It must be cultural.  I’ve never experienced anything like that.

The towns in which we stopped were tiny.  Passengers were quiet, some sleeping, and some reading.  The fields outside were surreal with beauty. At one stop in Ponferrado, the outside looked much like the Shenandoah Valley.  I was blinded with the beauty.  In the middle of small groups of homes scattered all along the road, I saw a church steeple.  I saw this over and over.  These churches looked medieval in architecture.  The cities had few stoplights, with mostly roundabouts and traffic that kept moving. I saw a lovely bridge with a round arc between the lanes.  In the larger of the towns, I saw lots of graffiti.  When do the street artists paint?  This last stop was where most of the passengers disembarked.

A man walking through the station approached me.  There was a pay phone which I couldn’t read because everything was in Spanish.  I pointed to the number I received from the employee at the hotel.  He kindly made the call for me.  It took me a week to figure out that I needed to put a “00” before the country code.  The learning curve never ended.  I got in touch with the employee who was supposed to be at the bus station.  Once I told her what happened, she stated that she was at the Sarria bus station, and because I had to go to Lugo and was in the bus station there, I needed to take a cab.  The phone died – it was a pay phone.  My helpful person disappeared.  I went out to see if I could find a cab.  Nothing.  Two people pointed me to where they thought the cab station was located.  No.  I re-entered the station.  I discovered a bar on the end of the bus station.  There again, was my earlier helper.  I simply said, “Taxi.”  He looked around and pointed outside.  There sat two cabs.  I almost fainted with relief.

I approached them and asked for a ride to Sarria.  I showed my piece of paper with the name of the hotel on it.  With incredible fortune, one driver was raised in England, and spoke impeccable English.  Unfamiliar with the hotel, he called to get the location.  The ride took about twenty-five minutes.  I hit him with question after question.  The government in Spain, the health care, their gun laws, the economy, taxes, and more.  Once we got to a turn, he paused, and said he would like to take me for a drink.  If we were to do that, he would need to turn left.  Right turn took us to the hotel.  I tried not to panic.  Calmly, I told him that I was very tired and needed to get to the hotel.  He respected my request, and took me there.  Turning down a very small road, I was first terrified that I was going to be murdered.  How American.  We drove up in front of the hotel – which was really a building with two rooms and an office on the bottom floor, with four rooms and one bathroom on the 2nd floor.  I shook his hand, thanked him, paid him (the most expensive ride I had in Spain), and hurried to my hotel, bouncing my luggage up the stairs to a corner room with two twin beds.  It was close to 11:00 PM in Spain.  I prepared for bed and collapsed.

The next morning, I bathed in the communal bathroom.  I only heard one person the night before, who banged on the wall when I was too loud on the phone.  That morning, it appeared that everyone had already left.  When I peered out the window, I saw pilgrims already walking on the trail.  After showering, and putting on my new walking clothes, I placed the tag somewhat uncomfortably on my luggage, put it in the small alcove, and took off.  I had no idea if I would ever see it again.

At the beginning of the walk, you are supposed to pick up a “passport.”  This is a booklet which you get stamped as you walk (much like a passport is stamped in airports) which is a way of proving that you completed the walk.  Then you take it to the passport center in Santiago, and receive a certificate as a source of approval.  I didn’t think about this until day three, so I got one stamp in my journal.  I don’t need the certificate to prove I did it (although I would like to have one).  I have 250+ pictures, and a memory that will persist, hopefully, until I pass into the great beyond.  The other “required” souvenir is a shell.  On the first couple of days, farmers and merchants sell these along the trail.  I purchased one for 3 Euros, and placed it on my backpack.  I believe I have enough proof.  I lost two toe nails, and a tooth.  I think that is proof enough.

My son warned me in advance that attempting to explain this walk to anyone would only frustrate me, as it apparently had him.  I still want to try.  I want as many of you as are interested to take this walk, or something similar.  Especially in todays technologically dominated world.  This takes you to a place that most of us don’t have available in this day and time.  He also suggested I put away my phone.  Being a single woman on this walk, I didn’t want to do that.  I also used it for over 250 pictures of this incredible experience.

The first day of walking was Monday, May 11.  I started at 9:00 AM. The beginning of the walk was mostly uphill.    Where was that flat trail my son described?  He taught me to say, “Buen Camino,” to each walker before I left.  This is what pilgrims say to each other, as they walk along.  “Good Walk.”  I got my first “buen camino” at 9:15 AM that Monday morning.  I was also immediately assaulted with my son’s second warning.  If you can’t tolerate the odor of cow manure, you can’t take this walk.  Almost constant and some days much stronger than others, the odor was pungent and powerful.  I heartily suggest you take essential oils to dab below your nose in order to mask the odor.  I don’t want to imagine what it is like in July.

I left my hairdryer in Sarria.  Along with the free converter I received from the Hilton Airport in Madrid.  When I realized it, I called the hotel.  I was told I could send a cab to pick it up.  I figured for what the tiny dryer had cost, it would not be economic wise to do that.  Fortunately, every other hotel in which I stayed allowed me to borrow one.

I would like to take a moment to write about the small differences one finds in Europe.  It is a never ending learning curve for this American.  From the electrical outlets, this requires a converter for all American electric items, to the faucets on the sinks and bath tubs, to the need to ask for ice in drinks, to the language barriers.  I discovered that I could point and overcome those in many instances.  I also improved my Spanish greatly in the two weeks I was there.  I’m convinced that a visit of a month would allow me to become semi fluent.  That could be wishful thinking, but the need to communicate overcomes a lot.

The walk relaxed me.  Again, I found the beauty of the countryside intoxicating.  Occasionally, the path leads walkers through tiny villages.  I don’t even know if you would call these villages.  They are more like neighborhoods of dairy farmers who live close to each other.  The barns are ever present, as are the crops.  I confess to not knowing what many of those were.  There was a recurrent kind of elevated structure, which I later discovered was a tiny building where they keep the corn to dry.  I discovered that the elevation of the building is to keep the rats out.  Some things are more than you really want to know.

Each day along the trail, a couple of hours after beginning the walk, I found a number of small restaurants.  Cafes, bars – whatever you would like to call them.  These locations prepared sandwiches, had lots of beer and wine choices, and on occasion, great salads.  Pulpo (octopus) is a favorite of the region.  I discovered it is much smarter to get pulpo in restaurants in the small end-of-the-day towns than on the trail.  It’s Europe there are many smokers.  Lots of drinkers as well.  I love people watching, so this was an exercise in delight.

Everyone I asked during the first two days whether or not they spoke Spanish (“hables inglis?”) responded “poco.”  A little.  This included the waiters and waitresses along the trail.  Where were those English speakers my son spoke so heartily about?  I would discover on day three why I had discovered few so far.

On Day 1, I walked along, with my new boots, my new clothes, my son’s backpack, and the realization that it is much colder in Spain in May than it is in Greenville.  I wasn’t prepared for that.  I didn’t do that research.  I wore a long sleeved t-shirt under my shirt and jacket, and took it off in restrooms at lunch.  That helped, but I was still quite chilly in the mornings.  Day 1 was quite a challenge.  I almost gave up around 1:30, when I came upon a cab stop.  I determinedly didn’t allow myself to wait for a cab, even though I looked back longingly at it at least two times.  I kept saying, “You can do this.”  When I arrived at Portomarin at the end of the walk, I was beat.  There was a steep hill down to a long bridge.  The day had gotten progressively warmer, and I was sweating bullets.  During the day, I received a call from my previous hotel, 108 to Santiago.  They couldn’t locate my hotel in Portomarin, so they sent my luggage to a bar.  (I discovered later that I had booked a hotel in Switzerland.  How I hate paying for rooms I don’t use).  I wrote it down as she spoke, then she offered to spell it.  Wisely, I agreed.  The spelling was nothing close to what I wrote.  Once in Portomarin, the first hotel I spotted was the Villejo Marin.  I went inside, and asked if there were any rooms available.  One.  Only one room.  I took it.  The clerk told me it was 70 Euros, but since I was only one person (which I knew) she would only charge 60 Euros.  I wouldn’t have cared at that point what the price was.  I then told her I needed to get to the bar first where my luggage, and passport, should be.  She gave directions (three blocks away), which I followed and entered the bar.  There sat my luggage.  This amazed me.  Each day after that, the same thing happened, except the luggage was in my chosen hotel.   Three times, it was in my room, like it had been spirited there.  And this for 3 Euros (about $3.33), well worth the price.  I returned to the hotel, got my key, went to the room and collapsed.  Everything I was wearing was completely soaked with sweated.  I rested awhile, then bathed and went out to eat.  The middle of the village was like a Hollywood backdrop, with a court and the requisite medieval Catholic Church in the court.  I took a video of it and sent it to my son.  Absolutely amazing.  I went to a small restaurant, ordered food (pulpo) and wine.  I did hear one group of English speakers, but they were sitting at another restaurant.  I ate, walked around a bit, purchased some fruit from a small market, and returned to hit the sack.  Walking the trail is not complicit with partying.  Later I learned that like me, many pilgrims were in bed by 9:00.  I also heard many English speakers later laugh when I shared that my son told me everyone spoke English.

On Day 2, I started walking at 8:30.  Many were already walking.  The trail has yellow arrows, so it’s hard to miss the direction.  Even so, I missed it a few times where the arrow was faded, or painted on something unexpected.  You can find it on the road, on concrete walls, on trees, on signs, on posts – almost anywhere it can be painted.  You can also ask, or watch for fellow pilgrims. I slept very well the night before, and felt quite rested as I began.  Day 2 was not as picturesque as the first day.  I encountered one or two English speakers, and those were 2nd language speakers.  I began thinking about my life, and my choices, and how each choice moved me from a previous path.  Some of those paths have circled back around, and I found myself returning to an earlier direction.  Some have not.  I feel it is time for another goal in my life, and I’m seeking those open windows.  I considered many things as I walked along.

I sent the following text to my son:  “This trip reminds me that we must keep our eyes on the two steps in front of us – glance up occasionally at your goal.  But not for too long because if you aren’t watching your steps, you’ll trip and fall.”  I wrote this because on some occasions as I walked along, I wasn’t watching the path, and I almost tripped and fell.  Seemed apropos for life.

Day three, I almost talked myself into taking a cab to Santiago – the end of the walk. I didn’t listen to me. Or, at least not to that particular voice. I did listen to the one that said, “You didn’t come half way around the world to take a cab.” So I got up and walked. I discovered later that many pilgrims almost quit on day three. My knees and hips ached. My ankles hurt. I was sick of wearing the same clothes. I still had met almost no one who spoke English. Day three was overcast and chilly. Every day was cold in the morning. Some days, extremely cold. I didn’t prepare for that.

Day three something very special happened. I was alone much more than the first two days – walking miles with seeing few in front of or behind of me. So I began talking to God. Sounds like something Pat Jobe would say. I’m not Pat. But this happened. It was a back and forth conversation about many things. I learned to recognize why I didn’t trust people (think childhood stuff). But I took another step. I talked about the many hurts I had sustained in my life – probably both real and imagined. And the God of my understanding asked if I wanted to keep carrying those around with me. A 75 mile hike in 6 days mean you want to jettison everything you can to make the load lighter. I did so with a book and an airplane pillow.  It really isn’t terribly different in life. Get rid of the things that keep weighing you down. Or so I was told. And I grabbed hold of that idea. God told me I could bury all those pains right there in the rich black soil of Spain.

I looked to my left and to my right. There it was. Rich, loamy soil that could take anything I could bury in it. Soil that grew the beautiful crops of Spain. So I did exactly that. I took all those things that I ruminate about in my head, and allow to drag me down and make me hurt. I realized what I’ve known for a long time. Victor Frankl was right – you can choose your attitude. You can choose what you think about. You can choose to hang onto those hurts or to let them go. I had a lot of help that day. Since I’ve returned, I keep throwing things in that black soil. I can see it now. I hope I always can. If I can’t, I will return and see the soil that is stronger and smarter than me. I will rid my life of these hurts and focus on the kindnesses and help that I have received. And I’ve received so much. Throughout my life. And in Spain. This is a trip I will never forget. I will keep burying those things that want to bury me. I intend to enjoy this life.

An abundance of thanks for those of you who continue to enrich me. This is real. I feel it. And I’m so grateful.

It was at this point, that I stopped writing in the journal.  I see now why that was so important.  It’s easy to lose memories, and where you were and what you did.  Now I can fill in with the memories that stayed.

Along the walk, I met two 71-year-old women who had walked together 3 miles a day for twenty-five years.  I kept running into them, and walking for a bit each day after day three.  That gave me a measure of connection when I heard my name called out in different locations.  On the last day, we walked together for a few miles.

I met a couple from Florida.  This was a walk that she wanted for years.  He wasn’t so keen on it, but did it to appease her.  On the last day, when my husband joined me at the end of the walk, we bumped into them in a tiny restaurant in Santiago.  There are easily a hundred restaurants there, so seeing them was quite an odd – but pleasant – turn of events.  During the walk, they shared some of their life experiences, which included living in St. Petersburg, Russia, for months at a time during work projects.

I met two Chilean couples on the fifth night, in a beautiful hotel.  We shared wine and discussed our experiences along the trail.  One of the husbands lived in Florida as an exchange student much earlier in his life.  Here, I also met a couple from Australia who had been walking for five weeks.

On the last day, as I walked into Santiago, I met a young Irishwoman.  We asked each other questions about our countries, and how things worked.  We took turns taking each other’s picture at the welcome sign to Santiago.  She left to eat while I headed to find the cathedral.

At this point, my husband had arrived in Santiago via train.  He didn’t do the walk due to feet problems.  But he came to Spain to meet me at the end of the walk.  It is amazing to have this kind of support.   He called and said he was in the front of the cathedral.  I couldn’t find the front.  The cathedral is massive, and easily takes twenty to twenty-five minutes to circumnavigate.  I kept trying to find him, but the sheer beauty and history that unfolded around me kept grabbing my attention.  The medieval look of this town is astounding.  The Cathedral was built in the 12th Century.  The oldest thing in America is the Liberty Bell.  This simply took my breath away.

I located a guide, and asked her where I could find the front of the Cathedral.  She showed me, and I took off.  Finally rounding the massive court in front, I spotted my husband.  This was truly a surreal moment to see him standing there in front of this building.  It gave me such a feeling of belonging to see his face and hear him.  From there, we went to lunch. Another pilgrim told us about an English speaking tour in the Cathedral.  We also walked in briefly for the Pilgrim’s mass.  I cannot describe the look and feel of the building.  If you’ve had the opportunity to visit a medieval church, you will know what I mean.  If not, the best I can do is ask you to google the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostello.   It is truly magnificent. We were freezing at this point, and decided it was simply too cold to stay.

Cathedral in Santiago

I discovered I was emotionally and physically depleted.  He kindly agreed to return to the hotel where I could rest.  We returned that night for dinner (where we ran into the couple from Florida).  The next day, we came back for the tour, and did some shopping.  The day after, we left for Madrid, where we spent six days.

What did I keep from this trip?  I kept the memories, but more importantly, I kept that black loamy soil in which I have thrown a number of further hurts or conversations in my head.  When I find myself ruminating on a past hurt, or having that argument with someone in my mind that will truly take place, or feel lonely or left out, I take that and toss it into the black soil.  The thought disappears as soon as I do it, and I’m able to focus on more positive thoughts.  It’s a great gift I’ve been given.  I do wonder if I could have done the same thing had I taken a seventy -five mile walk on the Appalachian Trail.  I don’t think so.  I think I had to be where I truly couldn’t communicate with anyone to force me to communicate with the God of my understanding.  And to listen.  What a truly phenomenal gift to have been given.  I plan to keep it forever.

Would I walk it again?  Right now, I don’t think so.  There are so many other places I want to go.  I also had the belief that travel broadens a person more than most things do.  Travel when you can. Don’t put it off for material goods.  It is the greatest gift in itself.  If we all regularly traveled, we would likely understand each other much better.  I appreciate what I have and where I live, but I can’t wait to go on the next adventure.

Perhaps one day I’ll be a travel writer.

30 Years Later, We are Moving

I live at the base of Paris Mountain in Greenville, SC.  Next Monday, the movers are arriving to take us to our Lil House close to downtown.  In the meantime, we are packing, sorting, selling, trashing, and going through 30 years of our lives together.  We’ve color coded the boxes so we know which ones go with us, which ones get stored, and which argoing to The memories have brought tears and decisions.  One son suggested if an item is not “Hell, yeah”, then it’s no.  That has worked quite a few times when deciding what to keep and what not to.

Last evening, my husband remarked, “why do we keep all these things.”  Why do we order multiple pictures and then not give them away?  Why do we buy souvenirs of events we attend just to pack them away?  Why do order hundreds of books (not all at the same time) then read them, and put them on a shelf?  What we truly need to live is actually minimal, but the human quality of wanting to remember and “save” a moment is deeply inherent.

Tonight, many boxes will be taken to our warehouse, and more will go to the lil house where we will live until we decide on the next step.  This is the house where my youngest son was born.  He’s now 29.  This is the house where my middle son spent most of his growing up years.  He’s now 39.  This is the house where my oldest son spent several years and returned for family celebrations.  He is 42.  This is the home where I spent the last 30, wrapping Christmas presents, studying for college, bringing family and friends together for Thanksgiving.  This is what we dryly refer to as the Hoffman Hilton.

The couple who have purchased the house plan on making significant changes.  They will create their own memories here.  I asked if I could return to see the changes at some point, which they assured me I could.  I’m not really sure if I want to see those.  I do want someone to love the home and care for it as we have.  I simply don’t know if I want to see what was actually done.

When I first walked into this house, I was dating my spouse.  When I saw it, it was mostly white.   White walls, off-white carpeting, white cabinets, and white bathrooms.  At the time,  I had two rowdy young sons.  I took a look, and knew I would never live here.  Thirty years later, I somehow managed to make this my home.  We made substantial changes.  There is very little white here now.  We added on 600 square feet, making it a 3 bedroom instead only two.

I believe I will like the lil house.  It is 1150 square feet, so the sorting and boxing is a must. I wonder who would have done this for us had we stayed here until the end of our lives.  Our children need to thank us!

It is time to make new memories and to create a new path for our lives.  I will miss the Hoffman Hilton.  I’ve experienced a few anxiety attacks over moving.  But, as we make our way through the sorting, I know I’m ready to do this.  Hoffman Hilton, you will be missed and I hope my excitement at this new life will not hurt your feelings.  It’s time for “Hell, yeah,” I’m ready to create new memories.