Monday, September 20, 2010

The Long, Hard Road

Walking the Camino has been more of a challenge for me than I anticipated. I knew, behind my cheerful enthusiasm which seemed to spring up beyond all reason as soon as I heard about the Way of St James, that walking every day for over a month would be difficult. 800K, give or take, is not a weekend stroll. But I never expected the other challenges I´ve faced.

Like being sick before I even began, with a cough that still sometimes troubles me 20 days later. (I have had it checked out, don´t worry). That cold cost me 2 days in St Jean Pied-de-Port before I even began and 2 more days in Pamplona.

Or like being feasted on by bedbugs in my sleep - not once, but twice - in St Jean and in Grañon. My sleeping bag was sprayed against them after the first time but the second time they pòinted out to me that I sleep with my arms outside the bag. The bites are red spots that, at least on my sensitive skin, swell up and out and itch annoyingly, so you look as bad as you feel. So I take an antihistimine, slather myself in cortisone foam, and keep walking, usually covering my spotty arms with a long-sleeved shirt. And I try desperately not to scratch. For days afterward, as you lie in your bed, you imagine you feel them again, biting you as you sleep.

The thing I worried most about before I came was blisters. Every morning before I put my socks on, I slather my feet with petroleum jelly and, so far, I have only peeling, callused feet - no blisters! I know that doesn´t sound like cause for celebration but, when you see the other pilgrims walking around with huge, disgusting bandages on their heels or the bottoms of their feet, when some of them are stuffing sanitary pads into their shoes for cushioning and absorption, you feel very lucky. And calluses, while not good in tiny, pretty shoes, are protection for your feet from the constant pounding of the camino.

The unrelenting weight of walking for 6-8 hours, carrying all your worldly goods on your back, takes its toll on your body. The bottoms of your feet begin to feel as though someone has been beating them with a stick. The tendons in your ankles stiffen up, shorten, and then seize up altogether. The ones in the backs of your knees twange unexpectantly, liked plucked strings on a guitar. Once in a while, although luckily not often for me, the muscles in your back begin to grumble about your pack not being adjusted properly.

So, you massage your ibuprofen gel into your legs and feet at the end of each day, stretching your feet and toes gently. You remember the exercises you learned and never did to stretch your hips, legs, and ankles, and now you do them. You think of your body as an ally in the fight to get to your goal and you begin to treat it more kindly, with more respect.

And when your mind begins to doubt you can do this, whispering its misgivings and then getting louder and louder, when it tells you it´s okay to quit, you are kind to it too. You give yourself little breaks and treats and you think about how far you´ve come. You look around yourself at the legions of walking wounded, carrying on, encouraging you to do the same, and you are in awe. Awe of what people, including you, can accomplish when you set your mind to it.

Then, early one morning, you´re walking out after a good rest and food and sleep. You are part of a procession, with people stretched out along the path in the semi-darkness behind you and in front of you. It´s quiet except for the birds celebrating the brightening sky. You stop and look behind you and you are momentarily unable to carry on. The sun is rising, painting the white clouds a brilliant pink in the blue, blue sky. And you know that this day, this journey, is a gift. And you are grateful.

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