Buen Camino

I’ve been back home for a day and I’m still trying to process the amazing past two weeks I had in Spain. Two weeks that seemed to go by fast and slow at the same time. Two weeks that kicked off with a week-long trek down the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

I didn’t know much about the Camino before this trip. I knew that a movie starring Martin Sheen had been made about it; and I read The Pilgrimage, at my husband’s request, before our trip.  I won’t go into a lot of details here, but in a nutshell, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela is a network of routes all leading to the tomb of St. James, patron saint of pilgrims, in the town of Santiago de Compostela. The Camino also goes by another name: The Way of St. James. Aside from religious history, there is a lot of mysticism wrapped up in the Camino, which is why it has captured the imaginations of generations of pilgrims. This is just a half-assed summary of the Road; I suggest reading up on it if you’re curious for more details, as it’s really very interesting. Anyway, all I knew is that we were walking the last half of the French Way (one of the more popular of the Camino routes) for a few days, and could party in Madrid when we were done. Here was our itinerary:

  • Day 1 – Sarria to Portomarin: 13.7 miles
  • Day 2 – Portomarin to Palas de Rei: 14.9 miles
  • Day 3 – Palas de Rei to Ribadiso: 18.2 miles
  • Day 4 – Ribadiso to Amenal: 11.6 miles
  • Day 5 – Amenal to Santiago de Compostela: 11.6 miles

Easy enough, right?

WRONG.

Being from Florida, here is what I am used to trails looking like (and what I assume all trails are like, no matter where their location in the world, because I’m a masochist and don’t like to research important information beforehand):

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…and here’s what a trail along the Camino looks like:

steep uphill
Courtesy of Cayou on http://www.caminodesantiago.me

Not even kidding. NOT EVEN KIDDING. This particular hill wasn’t on my leg of the Road, but there were spots just like it. Steep uphills. Steep downhills. Gradual uphills. Gradual downhills. Paved. Dirt. Dirt with rocks. Cobblestones. I feel like CrossFit and running helped me loads with my strength and endurance, but I don’t think any amount of training can fully prepare a person for the Camino. It is by far the toughest thing I have ever done. My feet were killing me at the end of Day 1, and I still had four more days. Day 2 my right hip flexor was screaming at me to start stretching properly. Day 3 (and the day with the most mileage) my husband and I were promising leg rubs, foot rubs, and all other manner of creature comforts we had no intention of keeping once we got to our hotel for the night just to motivate each other to keep going that last hour. But that’s one of the beauties of the Camino: you find out just how tough you are. You find out that you can do it because you have no other choice but to do it. Some parts are very remote, and dialing up an Uber or a taxi just isn’t possible. If you walk with a friend or a partner, you learn very quickly how each of you handles being in a situation where you’ve been walking for hours, you’re tired, hot (or cold, depending on the time of year), hungry, and all you want is a hot shower and a long sleep – but you’ve still got another hour or so to go.

Even if you’re walking alone, though, you’re not truly walking alone – another Camino beauty. During the course of the pilgrimage, Tony and I saw the same groups of people over and over again. Sometimes they would pass us up and we wouldn’t see them until we got to the town we were staying at for the night. Sometimes we would pass them up and not see them again until our paths happened to cross at one of the many cafés along the route. We may or may not all have spoken the same language, but that didn’t matter – we all had the same goal, that of getting to Santiago de Compostela. That shared sense of purpose created a camaraderie, and a smile and well-wishes of, “Buen Camino!” was usually all that was needed to create a sense that we were among friends, even if they happened to be total strangers.  But you still get to know people, get to know a little of their stories. We met a weird amount of people from Cleveland. There was a couple walking their five dogs and who ended up being trailed by a stray St. Bernard. When we caught up to them the next day, I asked how long the St. Bernard had been with them, and they told me they actually drove the dog back from where he came earlier that day. There was a father walking with his eleven year-old daughter, who made him promise they would do another Camino in the future. A pair of friends who promised each other that once they “got in shape” and “weren’t so fucking fat” they would do the Camino again. And so on and so forth.

Did I mention how beautiful the Spanish countryside is? Yet another beauty of the Camino. All of those uphills, all of the panting and sweating to finally get to the top of yet another fucking UPHILL, your legs burning as your eyes are searching for where the uphill FINALLY levels out – it’s all worth it once you see the view:

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Sometimes the view is a little village that looks like it’s straight out of the Middle Ages. Sometimes it’s a humble stone church in one of these villages that seats maybe 20 people, but is still beautiful in its simplicity. Sometimes it’s the welcoming sight of a bar or a café where you can get off your feet for awhile and enjoy a cold beer and a bocadillo before resuming your hike. Whatever the view is, it’s always worth it.

I started the pilgrimage without knowing much about it, and without a lot of expectations, but now I see why so many people walk it, and why so many more dream of walking it at some point in their lives. There is magic in the Camino. I felt it when walking through the Galician forests. I felt it when crossing one of the many old stone bridges leading into one of the many towns in which we rested. I felt it when both my husband and I pushed past our physical limits and continued walking, even when it hurt. For me, the Camino was a very real reminder that we are capable of so much more than we think we are. The saying, “God doesn’t give you more than what you can handle” may be trite, but there is truth to it. The hardest thing I’ve been dealing with lately has been processing my mother’s death. Moving from the “disbelief” phase I’ve been in since it happened to the “holy crap it’s starting to sink in that she’s really gone” phase I’m just now getting into. Sometimes it hits me, and the grief is so overwhelming, I can’t put it into words – I can just feel it. In all of its terrible, scary, and sorrowful abundance. And all I can do is just hang on until the wave passes and I can resume some sense of normalcy. Grief is an isolating experience; every single person in the entire world can offer an ear or some comforting thoughts, but the only way to truly heal is to just endure it until time makes the pain less acute. Sometimes I feel like this will never happen, but the Camino reminds me that I’m much stronger than I give myself credit for, and that on the other side of every obstacle is a beautiful view: a green meadow, a stronger body, a healed heart.

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