“And into the woods I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” -Unknown
A tattoo adorns my left wrist. The curved series of small black dots does not follow a particular pattern but instead marks the beginning of a trail. Just as I continue to explore mountains throughout the world, the number of dots on my wrist increases as both a tribute to, and a map of, the places I have been and the lessons I have learned while walking.
The birth of my tattoo tradition came to me almost as an answer to a prayer. It was the day after I’d completed my Camino de Santiago trek in the fall of 2016. That last day of walking had brought me to the shores of Muxía in Spain, where I spent the final hours of daylight sitting at the ocean’s edge watching the region’s famously wild waves reach improbable heights. My fellow pilgrims sat scattered among the craggy rocks, and I felt a sense of deep reverence for our combined journeys mingling with the ocean air. Although I’d expected this final evening to be filled with joyous laughter and congratulatory banter, the night was quiet, save for the sounds of one solitary flute. Its music embodied both the sweet and the melancholy, and I felt like it reflected the feelings in our collective hearts.
I did not want my journey to end.
My Camino Frances was not a linear one. I’d started my first major solo international hike that May with all the wrong intentions and goals guiding me. I wanted to be one of the fastest to complete the 500-mile trail and prove my awesome hiking prowess. Simultaneously, I wanted my kamikaze hiking pace to make it impossible for anyone to keep up with me and engage me in conversation. My greatest Camino fear wasn’t about the long hours or arduous climbs but instead about the possibility of having to confront my extreme social awkwardness. I figured that if I started early, walked quickly, and took only necessary breaks, that none of the other hikers would be able to keep up with me—freeing me from being trapped in labored chitchat. So I hiked far too fast, and for that I paid dearly.
Ten days into my journey, I felt an intense pain explode in my right leg. Walking soon became unbearable, and though I’d sought medical attention on the trail and then rested for five full days (I even submerged my leg daily in a freezing river on the banks of Burgos to reduce inflammation), my injury—most likely a fracture from overuse—did not heal. Eventually, I had to admit to myself an agonizing truth: my Camino was prematurely over.
I returned home to North Carolina feeling physically broken and emotionally defeated, having not achieved the dream that had burned so brightly in my life for years. It had taken so much for me to make my Camino happen: hours of intense training in the mountains, figuring out how to take off a month from my life, countless evenings poring over packing lists, reading endless books on the journey, and mentally preparing myself to take on this challenge as a solo hiker. I realized once I was home that if I’d just slowed down, listened to my body, and embraced humility, then perhaps I would’ve been able to complete my journey. Instead, I’d limped back into my home and my life to try to put the pieces back together.
Eventually, the fog of self-blame lifted, and the resolution to do my next Camino differently took root inside me. I began the challenging process of healing both my fractured leg and broken heart. A knee-high walking boot forced me to slow down and begin to take stock of what had happened. I used my time in therapy to investigate why I possessed an internalized need to push myself so hard and thus override the cues of my body. I analyzed my fear around interacting with strangers. And I spent time journaling and getting my head in a better space so that when my leg had healed enough to walk again, I would be ready not just on a physical level but on a spiritual one as well.
Four months later, I once again found myself on the Camino—with just the slightest whisper of pain from my leg fracture to remind me of my previous attempt. As a personal encouragement to attempt my trek differently this time, I went so far as to write a contract…with myself. I agreed that I would stop every two hours to take a break whether I was tired or not. If I felt lonely, I would reach out to nearby pilgrims to ask them if they wanted to walk with me. And in recognition of all that my body was doing for me, I would send it love and appreciation every step along the way.
Not surprisingly, my second journey on the Camino was radically different than that first failed attempt. I deepened my mindfulness practice and therefore relished taking in the details of my surroundings. I drank leisurely Americanos in small cafés in medieval towns and even invited strangers to join me at my table. And, most importantly, I sought connection with others, making friendships that I still treasure today.
Reaching Santiago de Compostela at the end of my journey was nothing short of electrifying for me. Seeing the cathedral’s spires outlined against the blue Spanish sky felt like a homecoming. And celebrating with my Camino family over lemon beer and tapas in the town square felt like a tribute not just to our walking journey but also to the person I had become thanks to my pilgrimage.
Instead of ending my journey in Santiago de Compostela, I decided to push on to the coast of Spain, where in ancient times people believed the sun fell off the edge of a flat earth every night only to be resurrected in the east the next morning. At the conclusion of that three-day journey, I found myself on the edge of a cliff in Finisterre on what happened to be the Jewish New Year, the holiest day in my tradition. As the sun made its final descent beneath the ocean’s expanse, I felt a profound sense of completion.
My walk was over. I had reached Muxía, watched her roiling waves create a barrier between land and sea, kissed a cute German pilgrim, and fell asleep with the crashing of the Atlantic for a lullaby. In the morning, I boarded a bus back to Santiago de Compostela feeling disoriented and sad. It was almost like I was in mourning. Something inside me had been ignited on the trail, and I’d felt more alive while walking than perhaps ever before. Leaving the Camino felt like I was leaving a part of my heart behind.
And so, on the day before my departure from Spain, while waiting for my dad to meet me in Santiago de Compostela to celebrate my grand accomplishment, I once again set out on the Camino’s path to be with the trail one final time, however briefly. I walked through gardens and old waterways until I reached the hilltop, with views of the Cathedral of Saint James behind me. My tears flowed freely as I thanked the Camino for all she had given me, for the opportunity to return to her trails, and for the person I’d become throughout this experience. And then, almost as if in response to my prayer, I heard an unmistakable message: “You need to remember that in your life, you are always walking your Camino. No matter where you are, no matter what the journey, you will forever be a pilgrim in this world.” Then I had a vision of getting a dot tattooed on my wrist so that I would never forget this truth.
I found the local tattoo shop and, with the help of an interpreter, asked for a solitary dot to be tattooed on the inside of my arm towards the outside of my left wrist. I instinctively knew where the spot had to be without understanding exactly why. After I’d returned to the United States and asked an acupuncturist friend about this particular location, she told me that in Chinese medicine it represented spiritual growth in the heart.
Since my Camino, I have continued to be a walker across the world, traversing the trails of some of the most magnificent landscapes imaginable. I have pushed myself past physical limitations, shed my fair share of tears when I didn’t think I could go farther, and yet somehow continued on. I’ve also learned things about life—and myself—that would have been unavailable to me through any other way. I’ve eaten mouthwatering meals in mountain huts, survived on cans of chickpeas when vegan food was impossible to find, and imbibed glasses of wine with fellow walkers from every corner of the world. I’ve experienced rainstorms, injuries, lost luggage, broken gear, and countless other practical challenges. And I have seen sunsets that left me breathless, glacial seas that brought me to tears, mountain vistas that opened my heart, and wonders that forever changed me. Each trail has taught me a specific, significant lesson, and these lessons are the dots that continue to multiply on my wrist. They serve as a reminder of the pilgrim I continue to become in this world.
This book emerged from a time when walking the world was no longer possible. After the pandemic hit in March 2020, I had to find new ways to feel that sense of awe and earth connection without boarding planes and discovering distant paths. And though I deeply longed for the mindfulness and joy that I always experience in the mountains of foreign lands, this pause was an invitation to fall in love with the mountains of my home in the Southern Appalachians. They have taught me that I do not always need to go far from home to find an expanded version of myself. As long as I can still walk, listen, and wander along a mountain trail, then I am still honoring the Camino inside me.