Runaway Mom

At age 55, I set out alone to hike the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James). Like so many pilgrims who walked the Way, I came home both reflective and giddy, eager to share my experience about walking the Camino solo, and what it meant to me.

Here’s what I never talk about: I left my 16-year-old son home alone while I did it. 

That’s right. I left the country, strapped on my backpack, and left my teenager to fend for himself for 24 days.

In my defense, it was all his idea. Cameron adamantly refused to spend that 3 weeks with his grandfather. We’d recently moved into a quiet subdivision, where his school bus stopped right in front of the house. Staying with relatives would have made getting to school in the morning problematic, he said, never mind his part-time job at the burger joint, his speech competitions on Saturdays, and his endless theater rehearsals.

So I ran away to Portugal and Spain, and left him home alone.

It wasn’t the first time I’d run away. The year before, when he was 15, I’d spent weeks hiking my way through Argentina, Chile and Paraguay. When he was younger, I’d left him with family for long hikes, long weekends and cross-country escapes.

The youngest of my children, Cameron never wants to join me on these trips. He hates missing even one day of school, and exploring the Japanese market in Chicago on weekends—a 45-minute train ride away–is plenty of adventure for him.

His sister, on the other hand, started traveling the world solo at 18. She was 28 went I went to the Camino, and living in South America. Because of her travels, I’d already learned to keep my fear in check. This was not always easy. Over the years, she’d found herself in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, in Nicaragua during a small rebellion, in India during a flu quarantine, and in Cairo, locked in her apartment because of civil unrest.

Cameron’s older brother isn’t a wanderer; he’s more of a serial mover. With no warning, he’ll announce he’s leaving. When? Tomorrow. Why wait? The first time it happened, he was 25; he simply got up one day, sold his car and moved to Hawaii, for no other reason than it looked like an awesome place to live.

Cameron is our family wild card. He has never seemed to understand or share our wandering genes. He’s a practical kid, so before I left home, I planned for as many contingencies as I could imagine. I bought snacks, froze meals, filled the fridge with things he knew how to cook like rice and eggs and pasta with veggies. I deep cleaned the house and did all the laundry. I filled the linen closet with extra toilet rolls and toothpaste and cold medicine. I loaded his school food account, so even if he forgot his lunch at home, he could use his ID to buy a sandwich. I put an extra house key in his bookbag, and gave another to a neighbor.  I upgraded my travel insurance in case I needed to get home fast.  I left cash, a credit card, his insurance card, his doctor’s phone and address, my detailed itinerary, and big sign on the fireplace that said Don’t Even Think About It.

Then I took off.

Once I was gone, I honestly didn’t worry much. My daily routine on the Camino was both physically and emotionally challenging, and I didn’t have much energy left for anxiety. Cameron and I talked via text and Facebook almost every day. Roaming charges were outrageous, so we kept phone calls to a minimum. I sent him pics of the tiny hostels and the majestic cathedrals, and relayed funny things I heard and did. He kept me up to date with his social life and school stuff and how the neighbor’s dog pooped all over the sidewalk again. My dad checked in on him every day.

If the Camino changed me, it also changed my relationship with Cameron. It helped me start seeing him as a man instead of a child. It helped him learn to trust his own judgment, and to be more independent. He was very proud that I’d completed my journey. I was very proud that he’d been so self-reliant.

Not long after, he came home from school with a pile of paperwork and a note from the teacher in his Japanese class. “Hey mom,” he said, “we’re going to Japan next summer. Here’s all the stuff you need to read.” He dropped the pile on my lap and headed back out. “Gotta get to work. Love you bye.”

I sat in stunned silence for a few minutes, then I called my other kids, who were then in Mexico and God-Knows-Where, respectively. “He wants to go to Japan,” I said breathlessly. They laughed long and hard, and finally I did too. We spent the next few months getting him ready for his adventure.

When he returned from Japan, Cameron re-taught me to make rice. (Apparently, I’ve been doing wrong all these decades.) I learned a Buddhist meditation and how anime will change the world and what to say in Tokyo if I want a whiskey instead of a beer.

He’s headed off to college in the fall in Chicago, at a school with an East Asian Studies program, and a Japanese study abroad option. He says he’s staying close to home for college, because he doesn’t think I’m ready to stay home alone.

As usual, I find his logic unassailable.