Monday, January 28, 2013

The Long Journey Home

Dscn5054bOctober 16: It poured rain all night which continued into the morning, and the weather forecast I looked up for Santiago showed rain every day for the next nine days. Looks like I picked a good time to leave the trail. =)


For kicks, I put on my tie. I carried a tie the entire distance from Le Puy in case I ever wanted to “dress up for a special occasion.” I had meant to wear it on my walk out to the Finisterre lighthouse but forgot it in my hotel room. I figured I could still be the best-dressed pilgrim headed back home, though. =)


I caught the 11:45 bus out of Fisterra to Santiago, a rather depressing feeling. It was the first time I stepped on any form of modern transportation since I exited the trail in Le Puy-en-Velay more than two months earlier. I wondered if it would feel “weird” to be moving at speeds faster than I could walk, but it felt no different than it would had I ridden a bus every day for the past two months. But it did give me the blues. I just didn’t want to ride it. If I had a car, I’d need a bumper sticker that read “I’d rather be walking.” There was a certain appeal to just walking back to Santiago, but it would just be putting off the unpleasantness. And I’d be walking in the rain which would be unpleasant in a different way.


I felt sad to leave the trail, though. Usually, I’ve always been happy when my long-distance journey has come to an end. I’d be worn out, tired, and ready to leave the trail, but I didn’t feel that way at all this time. The trail was, admittedly, shorter and easier than any I had done before, and I guess I just hadn’t grown sick of it enough to want to quit yet. I felt I could go another 500 miles. I wanted to go another 500 miles, but I didn’t have time for it.


The bus ride took nearly three hours to get back to Santiago. I sat in a window seat where I could watch the ocean views, but it was often fogged up and hard to see out of.


Back in Santiago, I headed down to the trail station and bought a ticket for the train to Madrid that would leave town at 11:30 at night. There was an earlier train that would get me into Madrid that night, but there wouldn’t have been any flights out of Madrid until tomorrow requiring me to find accommodation overnight in Madrid. I figured I’d save a few bucks by going overnight in the train and arrive in Madrid in the morning. My train ticket would be both my lodging and transportation for the night.


This gave me about nine hours to goof around in Santiago, though. I picked up a few souvenirs and gifts for some folks, wrote and mailed off postcards, and loitered in the square in front of the cathedral cooking the last the cookable food in my pack. Another pilgrim came by and warned me that fires weren’t allowed in the square and that the police might come after me for cooking. After that, I went ahead and finished cooking my meal, but I positioned my pack and body to mostly hide the meal I was cooking. =) After I was done, I threw the rest of the denatured alcohol I had into a nearby trash bin. I wouldn’t be able to fly with it, and I wouldn’t be cooking anymore meals before I left the country.


I didn’t find any pilgrims I knew loitering in town—everyone I knew was already off the trail. Except for Karolina, who I figured I was taking a zero day in Fisterra to wait out the rain or was plowing through the rain on her way to Muxia. Either way, though, she wasn’t in Santiago, and I loitered around town a little bored and spent most of my time reading my Kindle.


The seats on the train were terribly uncomfortable and I didn’t sleep particularly well, but it arrived nearly nine hours later, arriving on time in Madrid down to the minute. But a restless sleep is still better than none at all, and I did get a restless sleep.


In Madrid, I checked the routes and figured out that the train to the airport was on a different track. I plodded over there and boarded, which whisked me away to terminal 4. I couldn’t exit from the train station there, though—you know how subways and light rail stations often have machines that you scan a card on your way in, then scan it again on your way out? It was like that here, except I had nothing to scan. By riding the train in from Santiago, I entered the “secure” area without the ticket to go around on the local train. Which wasn’t a big deal—until I tried to leave! My train ticket to Madrid, however, also covered the local stops, and I only had to show my train ticket to an employee standing by the exit gates and he wave his card on it so I could exit without any additional charge.


So I made it to the airport, but this train only stopped at terminal 4. My flight was leaving from terminal 1. So then I found the free shuttle bus that would whisk me away from terminal 4 to terminal 1.


At the ticketing booth, a US Airways employee questioned me before I even got to a gate agent, asking how long I had been in Spain (about a month, I told her, not bothering to mention I had actually been in Europe for closer to two months). She looked at me suspiciously when I told her that. “How many bags are you checking?” she asked. “None,” I answered truthfully.


Now she really looked at me suspiciously, and I could see the next question on her face already: Why does a guy who’s been in Spain for a month not have any bags to check? That’s probably pretty unusual! But before she could ask, I told her that I had walked El Camino de Santiago and only had what I could carry on my back.


She visibly relaxed after that, and asked me a little about my walk before starting to question the next person behind me. I noticed two people who joined the line behind me, carrying nothing but a single backpack each with scallop shells hanging off. I recognized them from the train I had rode to Santiago. Pilgrims. I wouldn’t be the only pilgrim on this flight out of Madrid. =)


Once I was in the airport and through security, I did some window shopping to use up the rest of the euros I carried. I still had about 20 euros on me. I only managed to spend about 5 euros on knickknacks and candy, though. Not a big deal, though. I could just give the rest to Amanda. She’s always going to Europe and would no doubt find a place to spend the rest of the euros.


I also got online to check flights out of Philly. I hadn’t made any reservations for flights out of Philly, and was trying to work my way to my mom’s house in San Luis Obispo. Ideally, I’d fly from Philly to Phoenix, then from Phoenix to SLO. All flights to SLO go through Phoenix, no avoiding that!


Except all of the flights from Philly to Phoenix were full, as were all of the flights from Phoenix to SLO. And they were completely full for the next two days. So then I started looking at round-about options to get me to Phoenix. Philly-Indianapolis-Phoenix? Philly-St. Louis-Phoenix? Philly-Charlotte-Phoenix? Philly-Boston-Phoenix? Philly-Los Angeles-Phoenix? Philly-DC-Phoenix? All of these options did have seats available, although with only one or two open seats on one of the connections, it was possible I could wind up stranded in Indianapolis, St. Louis, Charlotte, Boston, Los Angeles, or Washington DC. The flight to Seattle was wide open, however, and it would have made a lot of sense to go direct to Seattle then head down to visit my mom when flights weren’t so full. Except I had relatives in town I wanted to see who’d be leaving in a couple of days.


I wrote out long lists of available options trying to decide the best way into SLO, but regardless of which route I chose, I’d still wind up in Phoenix at the end of the day with every flight to SLO booked at capacity for the next two days. Oh, sure, someone was bound to miss their flight for some reason and I might get on, but who knows how many flights I’d miss before that happened?


I listed myself for several options I had selected, including the flight direct to Phoenix because… who knows? Maybe I’ll get lucky?


I boarded the flight which left on time, and arrived in Philly earlier than expected. I made it through customs and immigration without any trouble, although two different uniformed officers saw me walking through the baggage claim without picking up any luggage and told me I needed to pick it up before I left. “I don’t have any checked bags,” I told them, “Just what I’m carrying!” They seemed surprised at this, but let me continue out anyhow. I guess it’s very unusual for people to travel internationally without any checked bags.


During the flight, I was looking at my flight options when I had another idea…. what if I didn’t fly in to SLO, but rather I took the train? If I could fly to Los Angeles, there’s regular Amtrak service from LA to SLO, then I could get around the whole Phoenix-to-SLO bottleneck. Brilliant! But I would need to buy a train ticket….


So upon arrival in Philly, I checked in for the Philly-Los Angeles-Phoenix listing I had created earlier, then pulled out my laptop and checked train tickets from LA to SLO, so confident I’d get on the LA flight that I booked the train ticket immediately.


I had a couple of hours to kill in Philly before the flight to LA left, so I first hit up an ATM. I had no American money—not one cent, and I figured it might be useful to have at least $20 in my pocket. Then I hit up the Chic-fil-A—my first fast food chain visit in over two months. =)


The flight to LA was uneventful, and arrived late at night. The next train to SLO wouldn’t leave until early the next morning, however, which left me with about nine hours to kill in Los Angeles. I didn’t really want to pay for a hotel for such a quick stop, though, and lingered at LAX for most of the night, sleeping on the chairs there. It’s great for a free place to stay—you have restrooms, water fountains, and food all readily available. Yeah, well, most of the food options were closed that late at night, but there were always vending machines if push came to shove.


By around 5:00 in the morning, I figured it was time to get to Union Station—quite a ways from the airport. There was an airport shuttle that would take me there for $7, but since I had many hours to get there, I decided to go for the city bus which cost a mere $1.50. I took a free airport shuttle to one of the parking lots, where I jumped off the bus to catch the city bus which would take me the rest of the way to Union Station.


The city bus was an interesting experience. It took about 1 1/2 hours to travel 19 miles, and I felt a little uncomfortable after about a half hour when the bus was packed with standing room only and I realized that I was the only white guy on the bus. Where were all the other white guys? I’ve seen white people in Los Angeles before. I know they exist! Or at least they used to…. What happened to them all? Not that I have any problem with people of all sorts of races and nationalities, but people of all sorts of races and nationalities would have also included white people too. Why did they seem to be excluded? I had this strange feeling like I wasn’t supposed to be there, and it didn’t help matters when a guy carrying a large painting he made got into a loud argument with someone who accidentally bumped it on the crowded bus. There was a lot of anger and yelling going on, and I worried that one of them might suddenly pull out a knife or a gun and my little bus journey would wind up on the morning news.


Fortunately, they both got off the bus, at separate stops, without coming to blows, and I finally got off the bus myself near the end of the line at Union Station where I had another couple of hours to kill before my train to SLO departed.


I bought a sandwich, and read my Kindle while waiting for my train to depart, which it did. The train from LA to SLO is absolutely wonderful to ride if you ever get a chance. It follows along the Pacific Ocean for much of the route with amazing views practically the entire way. Although it seemed strange to be admiring the Pacific Ocean. It took me two months to hike the Atlantic Ocean, and now two days later, here I was looking at the Pacific with barely any walking at all.


The train route also takes you through Vandenburg Air Force Base—where they launch rockets and satellites on a fairly regular basis. The west coast version of Cape Canaveral. I wouldn’t be riding on any spaceships getting back home, but it seemed like that was the only form of modern transportation I wouldn’t be riding on this journey.


I finally arrived in SLO, a few minutes early, about 60 hours after having left Fisterra, covering a wide range of modern transportation options: Bus, train, train, bus, plane, plane, bus, bus, train. My mom picked me up in her car, rounding out my travels with a personal vehicle. Truth be told, though, after so much time in buses, trains, and planes, I could have been perfectly happy walking the rest of the way to my mom’s house from the train station. =)


My adventures were done.


For now. ;o)


strollerfreak - Mel said... what am I supposed to do?! I've been reading these since the beginning and now they are done?! :( Sounds like this was a really great trip. ~5reikids~

Kristin aka Trekkie Gal said...

Ok, time to go on another hike! You know you need to keep us supplied with blog entries, right? :)

Ryan said...

I know you just want more postcards, TG. You can't fool me! =)

As for everyone else... fret not--I still have a couple of more follow up posts to go! But admittedly, the end of this journey's blog is nearly over.....

-- Ryan