Looking Back

Bringing Back the Boon


Now I am back home. For the last stretch of the trip, I began counting down the days until I could be here again. I tried to enjoy myself as much as possible (and I did!) but I missed all the people I left behind, and my cat. Once we stopped moving, and settled into Santiago, the homesickness really hit. Here again in my living room, I can’t help but remember that this is where I wrote my first blog post before I left. I was worried about leaving home for so long. And though that worry stayed with me the whole way, I brought something back as well. I can’t exactly articulate what it was. It’s not photos or souvenirs, or even just memories. It’s something else.

Sculpture of Doubting Thomas Santo Domingo de Silow
Doubting Thomas, Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos

On the Camino, I made new friends and engaged in so many new experiences. I almost began to wonder if I was even myself anymore. Five years ago, I would have never imagined an opportunity like this. It wasn’t in the stars for me. Between paying rent and working as much as possible while maintaining my grades, it just wasn’t possible. But somehow (with the help and support of family and friends), I made it. Maybe that’s what I brought home: a sense of pride and accomplishment in having pulled this off!

At work, a short bio sits next to our ID photos on a wall. Mine reads: “Savannah. Likes being outside and talking about dead people.” I remember learning about this study abroad program years ago. “Hiking and medieval churches?” I thought to myself. “This trip was made for me!” It turns out I was right. Every rolling hillside and stained-glass window pulled me in. I walked across Northern Spain with what my girlfriend calls “just-born face,” wide-eyed, entranced, taking in as much as humanly possible.

A longing for home pricked at the back of my mind, but I still found myself able to be present. That’s what the Camino is about. If it were simply about the destination, people would fly straight into Santiago, see the sights, and go home. But it’s not. It’s about getting there. I tried to remind myself of this during our rough start, delayed for over 24 hours in Charlotte, and again when our bus broke down in Roncesvalles, and when our train was cancelled in Leon. On the trail, as blisters raged against the inside of my sneakers and my legs burned up every hill, I told myself over and over, “I’m getting there.”

Hiking in the Pyrenees

Rooming and interacting with the same nine students every day for three weeks also presented some challenges. I’m a social person, but I do need some down time to unwind. I found myself emotionally exhausted some days. After the first week or so, I began to adjust. I found little moments to myself to bask in solitude, sitting in the hotel courtyard or wandering to a nearby cafe. It was enough to recharge myself to keep going, to keep getting there.

One of my biggest complaints is visiting a gallery or museum with someone and not being allotted enough time to read all the plaques. I’m big on plaques. With Dr. Sheffler and Trent, I was never left behind as I stopped to inspect each painting, contemplate each sculpture, reflect on every landscape. Some days, I would slow down and walk with Ms. Marnie, listening to her incredible stories of previous study abroad trips and other travels. I bonded with Monica early on, since we were often roommates. Sarah and Jessica would stop by our room in the evenings to play cards and laugh.

Group Photo of University of North Florida students in from of the Cathedral in Santiago
UNF Pilgrims arriving in Santiago de Compostela

Along the way, we got to know the others better as well. We fell in love with Wes’s big heart and hilarious one-liners. We got to know Maureen’s sweet nature, Bri’s ability to see good in everyone and everything, and Nadia’s big contagious laugh. We marveled at Chad’s ability to talk to anyone. Because half of us started in Charlotte while the other half were already in Barcelona, the group dynamic was divided at first. But as we settled into the dorms in Burgos, those walls began to come down. We weren’t fully integrated yet, but we were getting there.

Dr. Baynard introduced us to kite aerial photography (KAP). We spent several evenings on the edge of whatever town we were staying in that night, trying to catch a breeze, running around fields, avoiding trees, and sometimes forgetting to take the camera lens off before putting the kite up.

UNF Student flying kite at Muxía with stone cross behind him
Flying kites at Muxía, our last stop on the Camino

Somewhere between the second and third weeks, I began to feel a sort of claustrophobia being landlocked for so long. I yearned for the ocean. I knew we were travelling west towards the Atlantic, but not soon enough for me. I needed the salt air, the stench of low tide, the sound of waves crashing. I knew we were getting there.

On the last day in Finisterre, I found relief. Travelling along the Costa da Morte, I caught my first glimpses of blue. In Muxía, under the freezing mist of glacial waves on the rocks, I felt alive again. If I had been able to jump in, I believe it might have revived me enough to go another three weeks. But our trip was at its end.

The bronze boot at Finisterre (The End of the World) marks the end of the pilgrimage

The bus ride to the airport was dark and quiet as dawn broke over Santiago. We were sleepy and silent, but as we neared our stop, Trent and I began singing:
I’ve got my ticket for the long way round, the one with the prettiest of views
It’s got mountains, it’s got rivers, it’s got site that give you shivers,
But it sure would be prettier with you.
When I’m gone,
When I’m gone,
You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.

After some silence, Wes started us up again:
Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River,
Life is old here, older than the trees, younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze.

This was the mood of the moment. We made the journey, saw the sights, and collected new experiences to bring back, but it was time to go home. We still had a long day of travel — three flights — ahead of us, but we were finally getting there.

Country roads, take me home, to the place where I belong,
West Virginia, Mountain Mama, take me home down country roads.

Ink drawing of houses along the Camino de Santiago
Sketch of houses along Camino between Arzúa and O Pedrouzo.