In 2015, my 21-year-old daughter Juliet and I walked 500 miles from St. Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago in the northwestern corner of Spain called Galicia.
It took us 35 days to walk 500 miles El Camino de Santiago, a 1000-year-old pilgrimage to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela where believers say the remains of St. James are interred.
This mother-daughter journey wasn’t always easy, and Juliet and I didn’t always walk together, but it was one of the most rewarding expeditions of my life. For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to deepen my relationship with my daughter who was in transition between childhood and womanhood. The journey also provided a chance for me, at age 51, to step away from a stressful corporate career and reset my own course.
For Juliet, wanting to walk the Camino and return to a part of the world she once called home wasn’t a big stretch. When Juliet turned 17, she left for Spain as a Rotary International exchange student. She spent her high school senior year in Baiona, a lovely port city in the same northwestern corner of Spain as Santiago de Compostela.
When Juliet returned to us in the States, she was fully fluent in Spanish and had a new kind of confidence from her year abroad. We were not greatly surprised when she announced after college that she planned to return to Spain, walk the Camino, and put her Spanish into practice. She loved to speak the language and still had her charming Galician lisp. Juliet didn’t have any concrete job prospects upon graduation, but she did have her next step.
So how did Juliet’s decision to walk the Camino become my next step too? How did I get from the hallways of Corporate America onto the byways of rural Spain?
Well, the first thing I did was ask, “Can I join you?” Juliet will tell you that she didn’t know what to think at the time about how my involvement would change the nature of her trip. By having the grace to say yes, Juliet gave me the permission I needed to take the next inspired step in my own life’s journey. I still find it a bit remarkable that she agreed. Not because we didn’t love each other but what 21-year-old wants to walk 500 miles with her mom?
How exciting for me to take this adventure with my daughter, whom I loved dearly but didn’t always understand. El Camino offered a chance to find common ground with Juliet and carve time out of my busy life for personal reflection and introspection about my own path.
In early June, Juliet and I flew to Barcelona, Spain, where we spent a few days in one of Europe’s signature cities. From the balcony of our apartment on Sicilia Street, we peered into neighboring gardens and a local schoolyard where kids passed a soccer ball. Our front door led straight into the still-unfinished Sagrada Familia.
As Juliet and I explored Barcelona, we lost count of the Catalon independence flags hanging from wrought-iron balconies. An anti-establishment sentiment was on the lips of every Catalonian. Juliet struck up conversations with the locals who complained that the government in Madrid took all of the revenue from Catalon giving little back and sparking calls for independence.
Sitting high on a hill overlooking Barcelona, Juliet and I smiled for selfies in front of whimsical buildings, sculptures and mosaics and stopped to enjoy a variety of musicians, dancers and street vendors found in alcoves and bits of shade. We visited La Boqueria, one of the most famous and colorful food markets in Europe. After ambling down Las Ramblas, the tree-lined artery through the Old Gothic Quarter of Barcelona to the Mediterranean Sea, Juliet took a dip in the Med while I people-watched along the maritime promenade.
As good as it sounds, I was wracked with worry. All I wanted to do was start walking. I was not good at this in-between time, too ripe for second-guessing and worry.
In fact, I was sleeping only every other night despite the over-the-counter sleep aides in my med kit. I laid awake and grilled myself. Did I make the right decision to leave my job? Would l be able to walk 500 miles, especially with so little sleep? Would my relationship with Juliet deteriorate instead of deepen?
We women are champions at worrying. It colors our worlds and our lives. We worry about our children, our parents, our weight, our jobs, our friendships and marriages. We scrutinize, internalize, and in some cases, become paralyzed with worry.
Stepping away from my constant companion – worry – was a big assignment for me. I kept repeating to myself that worrying was praying for what you don’t want. Intellectually I understood that worrying was not helping but it was impossible to shake.
When Juliet and I arrived in the picturesque St. Jean Pied de Port, the medieval streets were teaming with pilgrims. We were easy to spot with our backpacks and scallop shells, the symbol of the Camino. There are many colorful stories about the symbolism of the scallop shell but it certainly served as a fitting metaphor for many roads that led to Santiago de Compostela, just like the many grooves of the scallop shell converge at the tip.
Juliet and I picked up our Pilgrim’s Credential on the rue de Citadelle. In the corner of the Pilgrim’s Office, a basket of scallop shells sat below a sign requesting donations in French, German, Spanish and English. Some of the shells were painted with the Cross of St. James; all came with a piece of twine strung through a hole in the tip for tying to your pack. Juliet and I brought our own scallop shells to Spain, smaller grey shells foraged from the sands of Assateague Island, where we spent many happy family times.
On our first day of walking, we set out early from St. Jean to the Refuge Orisson, a welcome mid-way point on the French side of the Pyrenees’ crossing. My personal “proving” point was the village of Roncesvalles on the Spanish side of the mountains. I was worried sick about the crossing. The fact that the forecast was calling for mistrals and unpredictable weather was one more reason not to sleep. As it turned out, the fog in the morning kept the temperature comfortable and provided an atmospheric backdrop to our two-day crossing.
We start out walking on a paved road – single file, staying left – then eventually turned off onto rutted, stone-filled pathways. Griffin vultures caught updrafts high above lush green valleys and, after a short first day – 3 hours but all up – we reached our destination. There was a lively mix of languages on the deck of the Refuge Orisson, with stunning views overlooking small farms and the village of St. Jean, now tiny in the distance.
We enjoyed a delicious dinner of stewed chicken and rice followed by post-prandial song. The tables were filled with French, Swedes, Koreans, a Japanese couple celebrating their second wedding anniversary, one singing Belgian, a smattering of English speakers and two father-daughter teams. It was a lovely introduction to a community of people with whom we will walk some or all of the way. Finally I slept.
The heavy weather that had kept me awake with worry finally arrived on our way out of Roncesvalles. Only later did we learn that two pilgrims crossing the Pyrenees during that time lost their way in the fog and died. A German couple related a harrowing story of a storm that hit the mountains and how they were stranded in a small hut used for emergency shelter at the top of the pass. I was reminded that no journey is without risk, and the risk accompanying this journey was not completely benign.
Just beyond the village of Roncesvalles, buckets of rain were falling. We dodged puddles on a muddy path alongside the Arga River, which had jumped her banks and was raging only a few steps away. Juliet and I were only a few days into our pilgrimage and we I had been arguing on and off as we slogged our packs through the rain. We had exchanged angry words one evening as we tried to find common ground. We both had a tendency toward bossiness, so finding equal footing was difficult. We barked at each other, and I hoped that our relationship would survive the walk.
At the time, we still had more than 30 days of walking ahead of us – perhaps even 40 – to reach Santiago. This trip was meant to bring us together, not drive a wedge between us.
We finally dragged our sore feet and soaked packs into Pamplona, an old walled city with great charm and Spanish lore. My immediate destination after securing lodging was the 15th-century Catholic church, where I needed to say a prayer to the Virgin Mary for patience and strength. The church, the Catedral de Santa Maria, was fittingly named in honor of Mary, who was quickly becoming my confessor.
This mother-daughter trek included more baggage than what was in my pack so I didn’t miss a chance to shoot Mary a prayer. I thought Mary would be inclined to hear a mother’s plea for guidance. Mom to mom. She also embodied for me everything that is good and hopeful, giving me the confidence to continue when I was faced with my own limitations and fears.
I had a little cry about how lost I felt on my birthday. Yes, it was my birthday.
Birthdays are moments in time that beg reflection, and I was struggling. I wondered, am I happy with who I am at age 52? Why do I struggle so to be a good mom? How can I get my relationship with Juliet back on track? Juliet and I were not having an easy time of it, and I worried about how things might worsen over the next days and weeks.
Juliet, wanting as much as I did to set straight the argument from the night before, wrote me a lovely birthday note:
To Mom on her 52nd birthday:
I didn’t want to write you a card on one of the tattered pages I’d ripped out of my journal, so here is the title page from my favorite book, Breath, the title itself a convenient reminder of the most vital of ingredients for our lives.
We’ve just finished our fourth day on the Camino and I spent a lot of time today thinking about the promise we made last night: to leave all the shit we’ve worried about behind and just focus on the walk. It’s a very good goal I think, and we can work to help each other as our journey continues.
Like you said last night, I only get one mom. The mom I got is charismatic, strong-willed, warm-hearted, intelligent, and loving. I’m so glad I have the mom that I do.
Happy birthday, may your next year be less rainy than these last few days and more enlightening than you could wish for.
My pen is running out of ink and I owe you one drawing.
Love you, J
Mothers and daughters have a special place in Heaven, although I’m not sure that they are always seated right next to each other. There is nothing wrong with a healthy distance. It’s not easy to be a mother nor a daughter, untangling the emotions that come with the territory.
As I walked, I thought about all of the things I loved about my daughter. Juliet is passionate and experiences life deeply. Her intellectual curiosity keeps her thinking and her zest for adventure brought us to Spain. She gets such joy out of speaking Spanish with the locals. In fact, the baker in Granon told me she spoke better Spanish than most Spaniards after they shared a conversation about philosophy and the order of the universe.
I love my daughter’s guts and grit. I love her tenacity with a capital T and her unwillingness to back off. But her stubbornness hadn’t always been easy to parent. It’s true that our greatest assets are also our greatest weaknesses. Early on in the Camino, Juliet suggested that she be the team leader, since she had the most experience backpacking and a fluent command of the language. I preferred to think of us as teammates, not in great need of a leader, but able to make decisions together as the situation warranted. Her tendency toward bossiness did not sit well.
Juliet came to her bossiness honestly. I too needed to learn how to back off and let my daughter get on being who she wanted to be. There were times that I was in full mom-mode, giving advice to help Juliet grow up healthy, productive, well-adjusted and respectful. While I preached that she didn’t need to be like me or even think the way I did, I was actively engaged in telling her what to do and how to do it. In my attempts to mold her still young forming self, I knew that I was sometimes rougher with my lessons than I intended to be. I said that she should find her own way but I was pretty inclined to give her my map.
So I had plenty of work to do on me. When we reached the highest point of the Camino at 5,000 feet, the Cruz de Ferro, I had plenty for which to seek forgiveness.
The Cruz de Ferro or Iron Cross is not grand or ornate but has become an enduring symbol of the Camino. The tradition is to leave behind a stone that signifies what’s negative in your world and should be left behind. Before Juliet and I left on the Camino, Rick gave us each a piece of coal he had found washed up on the beaches of Assateague Island.
Since coal turns into diamonds under pressure, Rick’s sentiment was a lovely metaphor for a tough journey that would polish and make us sparkle like diamonds. Juliet and I reached the Cruz a day apart, but we both left our pieces of coal at its base along with our deepest desires.
It was not without a few scrapes but I certainly saw my daughter in a new light on this adventure. I witnessed her resilience and strength, carrying a 30-pound pack for 500 miles, her sheer and utter fearlessness, her compassion towards others and her effervescence for life. I know she learned a few new things about me too.
Being a mom is a special gift and sharing a 500 mile walk across Spain with my daughter is unforgettable.
Throughout the Camino and especially as we approached Santiago, feelings of gratitude overwhelmed me. I was so thankful for a respite from work that gave me the time to reflect on what was important and that my body was strong enough to walk 500 miles. And to top it all off, I was thankful to get to spend this time with my daughter creating a shared experience and memories – some good and others hard-fought – that would never be forgotten.
If you plan to walk the Camino de Santiago, check out my book, A Wild Woman’s Guide To The Camino de Santiago. I share everything you need to know before you begin your Camino. Read at A Wild Woman’s Guide To The Camino De Santiago or click the link below.