My walking stick was my constant companion on the Camino. I thought about this a lot as I moved through my walk: the cities and towns would always change, the scenery would change, the people would change- nothing on this Camino seemed to stay the same. Nothing except my stick.
It might seem a little ridiculous- and probably is- my attachment to a piece of a large branch that I found in the woods several kilometers past Deba on my fourth day of walking the Norte. But after I spent the first hour with that stick in my hand, it felt unnatural to walk without it. And it was my companion, it was this thing that helped me, day in and day out, the thing that was always by my side, the thing that I would never, ever, leave behind. (Some people might describe an actual person in this way- a real companion- but for a solo-walker like myself, I think a walking stick takes on a pretty significant role on a long distance journey).
I didn’t actually find the stick, it was Richard, back at the beginning of the Camino when he was part of my first (but brief) Camino family. Have I already written about this? I had told the others about wanting to find a walking stick, and had spent a good part of the morning’s walk looking off to the side of the trail as we passed through wooded areas, hoping to find the perfect fallen branch. And Richard found one, cut it to my exact specifications, shaved off the ends with his pocket knife and even put a ring around the top.
The stick became so perfect to me during my walk- the oils from where my hand grasped the stick caused the wood to become smooth and shiny. The stick was straight and strong, and more than once, people mistook it for something I bought in a shop, rather than something I found in the woods.
Others on the Camino named their sticks, but I never did. Or, rather, I just called it ‘Stick’ (clever, I know). A few times it got stuck in between large rocks and it would tug me backwards. I’d feel a quick shot of panic, that the end might snap off, that my stick could get hurt in some way. “Stick!” I would exclaim, before extracting it from the rocks and moving on.
But it remained perfect, all through my Camino, all the way until the end. It pulled me forward up that last hill in Muxia, when I was tired and exhausted and finished. That stick was part of my Camino.
At some point, I knew I would take it home with me. I’d had a walking stick last year, too, one that I bought in a shop in St Jean Pied de Port, one that look remarkably like a stick you might find in the woods. I loved it, and it was incredibly hard to leave it behind in Santiago at the end of my Camino. I’d considered trying to bring it home with me, but somehow it felt right that I leave it behind.
I’m not sure what was different this year (I suspect one reason is that I walked a more difficult Camino, and the walking stick aided me so much more); in any case, I was determined to bring it home. I strategized with others, I talked with a post office employee in Santiago, I got a list of companies that could ship things throughout the world. In the end, it seemed that the easiest way to get my stick back to the US was to simply check it as a piece of luggage on my flights.
So at the airport in Santiago, I walked over to a stand that wraps and secures luggage. I presented my stick to the man working there, and he laughed. He pulled large sheets of fluorescent green cellophane from a giant roll and carefully wrapped my stick in multiple layers. I’d payed extra for a checked bag, and dropped the stick off at the check-in counter. And when I arrived in Paris, there was my stick, sitting with a few other pieces of over-sized luggage, in the corner of the baggage claim area.
It was easy, and I was delighted that I’d found a simple way to bring my stick home. So I didn’t think twice about checking it on my flight home to the US- but this time, it wasn’t quite as easy. When I made it up to the check-in counter in Paris, the man looked at my stick and said, “You want to check that?” He seemed doubtful, and then gestured over to a blue cart that was far, far across the crowded room. “Put it on there,” he said.
The cart was empty and after confirming several times with other employees that this was the over-sized luggage cart for American Airlines, I laid my stick across the cart and I walked away. I had a heavy feeling, and wondered if I would see the stick again.
So when I arrived in Philly and stood with the other passengers of my flight at the luggage carousel, I was not surprised when I didn’t see my stick. Everyone else got their luggage until it was just me, watching an empty conveyor belt circle around endlessly. A kind employee was helping me- someone who seemed genuinely concerned about my lost ‘luggage’- and he spent a lot of time checking all the possible places where my stick could have gotten held up. Finally he looked at me with sympathy. “It must still be in Paris,” he said. “You can go downstairs and file a claim.”
Arriving back home after being away for 5 weeks should have been exciting or, at the very least, a bit comforting. But instead I went home feeling like I’d left something important behind. “It’s just a stick,” I told myself. It’s one of the lessons of the Camino- that our possessions don’t actually matter that much, that we need far less than we think, it’s the experiences that count- blah blah blah (I do think all of that is important, but when you lose something that’s important to you, even if it is just a piece of wood, it’s okay to feel sad and to feel that our possessions do, in fact, matter a bit).
Things have been a whirlwind since I’ve been home. I stopped at my apartment briefly but then headed right back out for a long road trip to South Carolina, to go to a good friend’s wedding (and I just need to note: the distance I spent 9 hours driving in one day equaled the distance I spent walking for one month). It was when I was in SC that I got a flurry of emails and phone calls about my walking stick. It had been found, made it on a flight to Philly, and was now being delivered to my apartment by a driver named John. He left me a message to confirm that he would be dropping off my ‘luggage’ (when he said luggage he laughed); I called him back and he asked if he was delivering a walking stick to me. “Yes, it is a walking stick!” I told him. He said that all the guys were trying to guess what it was.
An hour later I received a text from him. “I dropped it off by the mailboxes.”
So I sent a text to my landlord, asking if they could look for it and bring it inside, keeping it safe until I made it back home.
I knew I wouldn’t feel completely settled about it all until I was back to my apartment and had that stick in my hand. I finally came home last night, and when my landlord saw me, waved me over so I could get the stick.
He handed it to me- it was definitely my stick, still wrapped in the bright green cellophane- but when I held it I instantly knew something was wrong. The stick wasn’t straight. Back in my apartment I began tearing off the wrapping, worried that I would discover that it had been snapped in two. But when I finally uncovered the stick I realized it wasn’t broken at all. It was just warped. Really, really warped.
I have to laugh about it- all the care and worry about getting that stick home with me- and now that it’s here, it’s not the same, perfect stick that I walked my Camino with. It’s no longer straight at all, but bows out at the bottom half. It’s crooked, it’s changed. It’s my stick, but it’s different.
It’s propped against the wall now, in my living room. I like that I have it back, even though now it’s simply a souvenir, no longer a fully functioning walking stick. And I suppose it’s okay that it’s changed. Part of me wonders- was it meant to be left behind all along? Or, perhaps, maybe it served its purpose, and now it’s done. Finished, retired. “You weren’t meant to walk another Camino with me,” it’s saying. “Find another adventure, and then find another stick.”