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HEALING TOUR 2024: WRITE. WALK. RETREAT. RIDE.

May 3rd, 2024
On my last pilgrimage in 2022, I wrote in my journal, “Once humans stop striving to create certainty, they are able to find meaning.” At the time, I was a baby. I knew it to be true but I had not yet learned what it means to surrender.
A year of losses has left me broken but also, in a way, living a life more beautiful- one unburdened by needing things to go well. The last time I embarked on a trip across The Pond, I was living a carefully orchestrated life. I had horses, carried long-held dreams, and was following a predictable path toward a normal, empty nesting life. If you had told me then that within a year, my kid would be paralyzed, I’d be living in my barn, and horses would no longer be part of my daily life, I would have been devastated; brought to my knees by the idea of a life that looked nothing like the one I’d planned. The path before me continues to crumble under my feet. I clamber to put pieces of it back together, strong enough to keep walking on. Coulter just celebrated his 21st birthday, and has crossed into an adulthood he did not expect. But one in which he holds his head high and meets each day with courage I only have to imagine having. So I am leaving for Portugal now, in search of new dreams, armed with a year of experiences that have left me fundamentally changed in some sad ways but also in some miraculous ones.
And I leave today, one instead of two. Emily, in my heart and on my phone rather than by my side. Instead of climbing mountains in Spain with her, I’ll be navigating the ones in my psyche by myself. This is not the adventure I had planned, but it is the one I have prepared for. When uncertainty becomes a way of life, magic happens. And I’m here for it.
WRITE
When it became apparent that our once-postponed Camino would be put off a second time, I had a decision to make. I knew I would not do the pilgrimage that Emily and I had planned because that will always be ours to do together. I had the month of May blocked off in my calendar. A ticket to Europe had been paid for on a sunny day last spring when everything seemed possible. Should I stay home? Should I unblock my calendar and let May fill up like one more glass of water I would drink and forget? The thought of not doing something remarkable with May made me feel like a bird with clipped wings. I needed to fly. But what should I do with an empty month?
When I couldn’t make a decision, I realized I was asking the wrong question. What did I want to do with an empty month? That felt like an unfamiliar and much scarier question. It took a few days, but the answers came in a series of hesitant little whispers. I would write. I would walk. I would retreat. I would ride. WRITE. WALK. RETREAT. RIDE. It would be my own version of Eat, Pray, Love, but in a single country and a single month. So, here I go! This week, I write. In one of the most vibrant, colorful, art-filled cities in the world!
May 10th, 2024
It’s been a cathartic week. The Vila Nova de Gaia district I’m staying in is, fittingly, called WOW. The sun rises on one side of my little apartment and sets on the other. I’ve spent mornings exploring Porto, days writing, and evenings finding the best spots for music and sunsets. I sleep whenever I feel like it. There’s a pastry shop next store, a little grocery store across the street, and a wine bar downstairs. I got a tattoo yesterday. Then ate an entire pizza for lunch, in an old castle built over the Douro River. I’m living my own personal lil’ dream. Waves of worry come and go. Sadness comes and goes. But the seagulls (which are everywhere here) cry out over and over that all is well. And I believe them. Last night, I talked to Coulter as he was driving to Salt Lake City for leather supplies. We exchanged stories about how beautiful it is in each of our spots in the world. Tonight I’m wandering along the waterfront one more time. Not sure I’m ready for this leg of my healing tour to end but my legs are itching. Tomorrow, I leave early to start a fifty-mile, three-day walk. Onward!
WALK
I could have not walked. I could have left 118,223 steps untaken. I could have waited to confront the edges of my own bipedal mobility until it has been longer since Coulter lost his. The opportunity came, almost as if it were taunting me, to not walk right now- while fresh pain would inevitably hide behind every tree and lurk around every turn.
But I do walk. Compelled by an instinct to move. “Movement releases emotion,” I tell my clients. Do you ask a nervous horse to stand still? Or do you ride forward? Fear and grief manifest in the same way in our bodies. I need to move. And take in gulps of fresh air. For months, I’ve been in a kinetic crouch, an animal ready to spring into action. My mind knows there is no more action to take now. The threat has left the room. But my nervous system flutters in preparation for its return. Like a rabbit who still tremors in the safety of her den, once the chase is over.
On the morning of Day One, I order up an Uber to take me to the shore. I’d rather start walking beside tides than through traffic. The Uber driver grins as he loads my pack into the trunk of his car. “Luis Mario?” I ask even though he’s already back in the driver’s seat. “Si! Will you go on the Camino de Santiago today?” “Si!” He spends our short trip telling me about his plans to walk the Camino Portuguese himself in October. “I will celebrate a not-good time in my life,” he says. He takes his hands off the wheel briefly, puts them together, and swooshes them apart in a fleur de lis shape. A split. “Me and my wife. 20 years. No more.” “Will you walk alone?” I ask. He nods his head sadly and points to his temple. “I will look for tranquility. Tranquility of the mind.” “Maybe you’ll also meet your next wife,” I suggest, unhelpfully, as we pull up to a big municipal building near the beach. “Oh no, no, no!” He laughs. “I am done with wives!” He gets out and fetches my pack. Handing it over, he says I have reminded him it’s time. He will start training tomorrow. “Why are you walking?” He asks as I wrestle with straps and snaps. I point to my temple. “To find tranquility in my mind.” We laugh, and he waves me off with a “Bon Camino!” I set out.
RETREAT
One month ago…
I google retreats in Portugal. There are plenty of them. Enticing photos of delicious-looking food, luxurious accommodations, and peaceful people doing yoga characterize them all. I’m not sure what I’m looking for. I crave a reset. Months of traveling between Washington and Wyoming have untethered me from my daily routine, and I’m struggling to get it back. Feeding horses and riding have always grounded me each day. Now my mornings lack purpose. When I look in the mirror, a mask painted by worry stares back at me. The effort to return to my old life and routines isn’t working. I need a reset I don’t feel equipped to give myself.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the word retreat means “To recede when you are unwilling to fight any longer.” Wow. That strums a cord. I’ve started releasing the immediacy and tension that has built up in my body since Locke’s diagnosis and Coulter’s accident, but memories have started to crowd my dreams. The empty space Locke’s death has left in my life gapes bigger than ever. Grief is welling up. I feel like I’m trying to plug a volcano with my thumb.
Retreat also means “a place or period of time used to study quietly or to think carefully, away from normal activities and duties.” I get a little giddy at the thought of this. It’s time!
Of course, the retreat in Portugal I’m most drawn to has an opening on just the dates I’ll be between walking and riding. It’s in the Algarve, a region in Southern Portugal I’ve not yet visited, famous for warm weather and rich history. The retreat center itself, Wild View, was built from the ruins of an abandoned village. I’m inspired by the creator’s adherence to his vision through hardship and I long to look out over the hills from the edge of the infinity pool in the photos. A sense of relief washes over me as I click submit and commit.
This week…
Leaving northern Portugal for Wild View, I’m a little nervous about finding the right “trilho” at the train station. The last time I was at this station, Emily and I had frantically lugged our packs up and down stairs, then back and forth along tracks in search of the train to Porto. But today, I have time. A young guy, Coulter’s age, dressed for a day at the office, notices me squinting up at the signage. I must look more confused than I feel because he asks me, in English, where I am going. “Faro,” I say.“ Follow me,” he says. When we get to the right train, he asks, “What is your car?” Huh? The train from Viana had been almost empty and I’d just climbed aboard and grabbed a seat. He takes my ticket and points out there is a “vagão” number and an assigned seat. He smiles kindly and takes my suitcase. “Follow me.” He says again. We wind efficiently through a gaggle of Canadians trying to decipher their tickets and climb onto car 34. He lifts my suitcase over his head and places it neatly above seat 22. “A pleasure to meet you!” he says with a wave and disappears into the next car before I can thank him. This would have been a mess without his intervention. The Canadians pass by in a stream of confusion, pushing their luggage along the narrow aisle in search of their seats. I stow my pack as the train starts to move and sit in the right seat on the right car, just in time.
Wild View Retreat is exquisite. The first evening, I walk around, blinking in disbelief. The sun falls dramatically beyond the edge of the infinity pool and I take what are maybe my first truly deep breaths in ten months. The first evening begins with, “Whatever story you have come here with, now is your chance to leave it behind.”
For the first couple of days, I find it difficult to set down my story. I sit restlessly for meditation. Tears stream down my cheeks in shavasina during yoga. Calm feels illusive… until day three. A hush settles around me on my mat, and I start to feel free.
Santoshana
Loosely translated as “contentment,” Santoshana is a theme that, introduced during our first morning of yoga, is woven for me throughout the week. Contentment has a quietness to it. In a culture where striving is conflated with thriving, we often think we’ll be happy when… something. And then when… something else. Released from making decisions about eating, scheduling, and the trappings of daily life, I feel space open up in my veins, and contentment seeps in under my skin. What if contentment is not contingent upon some thing happening? What if it has no cost and is not a reward, but a state chosen in every moment? Having witnessed Coulter’s inexplicable acceptance of his difficult circumstances, I am learning. It is not that I seek or am able to find contentment in shit-show situations. It is that I understand the value of it as a practice. As a thing to fall into by trust- again and again. Santoshana feels a little like a ropes course for my soul. I practice contentment here, on the regular. The grief and worry that have been knocking incessantly on the door to my mind, grow quiet.
The routine at Wild View feels a bit like riding a bike. By day three, I’ve slipped into gear and found a circadian rhythm. The food is vibrant and delicious, like eating rainbows for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I wake with the sun and go to sleep as the moon rises behind the hills. I figure out what activities to skip and which ones feed my soul. My happy place is in the hammock outside my room. I go there every chance I get. The boot camp workouts in the yoga hut are a blast. Familiar music fills the sun-baked space, and I feel strong from days of walking. The fitness guy, Danny, is a pro footballer from England. It’s like he’s arrived here, right off the final season of Ted Lasso.
This morning, as I grab my last cuppa tea, I thank Ricardo, the chef, and ask him how he does all the cooking and shopping. He says that every morning, he lights a candle, meditates for energy, and then spends the day putting that energy into the food. He has been cooking and baking for 25 people for seven days in a kitchen the right size for a small house. Yet he is the epitome of zen. Like “water for chocolate” we’ve been eating the calm he’s been serving up for seven days.
I’ve taken my thumb from the volcano. My grief is not gone, but it lies dormant for now, and I’m ready for the next leg of my journey to begin. It’s time to head north in search of horses.
RIDE
It has been a year and a half since I’ve ridden. Yes- I’ve been on a handful of horses but riding has not been woven into the fabric of my life since Locke’s diagnosis in February of 2023. Until now, I have not had time to analyze my horselessness. People ask me, do I miss riding? The answer to this question is complicated. There is no question I miss horses. I miss their calm, their playfulness, and their humor. I miss the presence of equine majesty in my life. I miss the punctuation of every day with the sound of munching hay and my morning practice. I miss the skin-dirt under my nails and the smell of well-used leather. For ten years and for many reasons though, I have become Sisyphus in my horse life. The cloud of magic that used to show up every time I climbed on a horse has dissipated. My passion for riding has turned to stone and become a boulder I’m not sure I’ll ever get back up the hill.

 

I’m a little nervous about this last leg of my Portugal Pilgrimage. I’ve scored a serendipitous single spot at a venue that is otherwise booked out for the rest of the year. Monte Velho is difficult to describe. It is an “equo-hotel”, a stud farm with an internationally recognized breeding and training program, and a riding school. But when I climb out of my little rental car, I’m not sure if I’ve just wandered into the Portuguese version of The Shire or onto the set of Out of Africa. I’m startled by the vast beauty of the place. The jarring post-retreat re-entry I’m expecting doesn’t come.

 

I’m not here on holiday. I’m not here to dust the rust off my riding or experience upper-level movements on beautifully trained Lusitanos. I’m here on a quest. I’m showing up, stripped down and strong from the retreat, to find out if I still love to ride. That is all. I will not be distracted by my long-latent skills or get pissy with “not-good-enough” inner chatter. I will bring a beginner’s mind and a cracked-open heart and just RIDE.

 

I had a client say to me recently, “This is definitely not the conversation I want to have, but it is certainly the one I need.” My first ride at Monte Velho is certainly not the one I want, but it is definitely the one I need. I get a horse that pushes all my buttons. I am Sisyphus again. Sweating and awkward. Negotiating and falling short. Here is my answer, I think. I am done. I’ll ride the rest of the week and go home with closure- in more ways than one.

 

I learn over and over in my work that breakdown always comes before a breakthrough. That first horse has given me this gift. He stripped me of expectation and I’m a little surprised when I start to have fun. Each horse I ride, from day two forward, puts a little magic back in my pocket. They remind me who I am and I forget to lament who I am not. My final ride culminates in slow motion on the horse I like best because he is complex but requires simplicity. The less I do, the more he gives. It’s the same lesson I learned at the retreat: To sit quietly and stop striving. To invite rather than insist. To wait, not rush. To breathe instead of hold. The answer I thought I’d found on day one is gone. And my quest carries on.