For thirty eight days, I walked.
Each morning I would wake up, try not to be a crabby bitch to my father who so graciously shared his time and patience and experiences with me for five weeks, pack my possessions into a blue Gregory backpack, lace up my
torture devices best friends hiking boots, chug a cafe doble, and walk. Somewhere between the coffee hitting my lips and the end of the first kilometer, I like to think that I became a pleasant person to be around.
On our first day I felt like a kid on her first day of school, high on endorphins and giddy from sweeping views of God’s Green Earth. We climbed roughly a thousand vertical meters and then descended steeply, blisters and fatigue appearing like unexpected and unwanted houseguests. The next five days felt (physically) like torture, each step a reminder of the silver dollar-sized blisters on my heels, a clear result of my own stupidity. (Or, perhaps, the fact that I was wearing brand-new socks and carrying a 25 pound pack.) The only thing that helped was walking long enough that I forgot the pain, or conning my father into giving me lessons on subjects ranging from Shakespeare, to history, to our family’s past. The man can tell a good story.
Then, finally, walking became a comfort. It was what my body wanted to do. It was a relief. My heels were no longer raw and my calves had gotten bigger and my pack and my boots felt like a part of me rather than a burden. Each day, after the choreographed dance of packing and coffee and breakfast, those first few steps felt like a breath of fresh air. It felt so natural to get up and go each morning, to move my body, to keep on the path towards our final destination.
And then – once I was fully and completely in the groove and I felt like I could live like this forever – we reached Santiago. It was unreal. We celebrated, we saw friends I never thought I’d see again, and I lent my voice to a rousing rendition of The Proclaimers’ “500 miles” at an impromptu pilgrim party outside a nondescript bar. A random Spanish man joined in. (He didn’t know the words.) Some of us were friends, some strangers, but we all joined together to celebrate the miles we had walked, the blisters we had nursed, the certificates we had received to commemorate on paper all we had done on foot. We celebrated our shared identity before it faded, before we turned into pumpkins at midnight, before some boarded buses the next day and returned to work and their old routines.
After two nights of “celebration”, my body was ready to walk again.
So I walked towards the sea. At first alone, or sporadically with new acquaintances. On my third and final day, I was joined by friends. Friends that had recently been strangers, friends whose conversation occupied my mind for thirteen uninterrupted kilometers of walking in the early afternoon over endless hills. As we climbed each hill we hoped to find a view of the ocean at the top, but instead were consistently greeted with more green hills, more grey clouds. At last, we saw what might be the sea. Was it the ocean or another cloud? It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s the Atlantic. We jumped and hooted and hollered and hugged and I yelled “hey mom!” due west. I felt like I was seeing the ocean for the first time.
Our boots finally made it to sand. It was grey, and chilly, and the Atlantic didn’t look too inviting. But it looked like the Atlantic. It looked like home. So, along with two friends, I dropped my pack in a conveniently located beachside restaurant, stripped off my stinky hiking clothes and hid them under a dinghy to protect them from the sky’s drizzle, and ran in, screaming like a little girl. It was refreshing and it made me feel alive and I couldn’t have been happier to be in the water.
We recuperated in the restaurant with red wine and a few hours of conversation with the owner slash bartender slash adorable old Spanish man. The next morning, we walked to the lighthouse at the end of the earth, finishing what we had come to do and relishing one last opportunity to lace up our boots. That afternoon, my dad came and picked me up in a rental car, freshly rid of his Camino beard. He looked different. Being in a car was weird. It was so easy, so clean, so fresh smelling. We stayed another night in Finisterre. It felt like an in between place, where pilgrims turned into regular humans, or at least tourists, and we all traded in our legs for wheels. Again, like Cinderella at midnight.
We finally drove away, covering mileage in a few hours that would have taken us weeks to walk. The coast disappeared in the distance and I said goodbye to the Camino: at least for now, at least physically. These sorts of experiences are impossible to hold onto the way we want to, like children refusing to give up a security blanket or a favorite toy. It’s denial, really. I didn’t want it to end, didn’t want to be in that car, didn’t want to wake up the next morning and not walk to the next town. But I’ve got to trust that the Camino has changed me, that I have absorbed certain lessons that I can hold onto without such a tight or fearful grip. Things that will stay with me regardless of where I go or how I get there. Because at some point, I have to go home. At some point, I’ll drive my own car again, and I’ll get a job (hopefully?) and I’ll regain some level of normalcy. I just hope that my own personal version of normal has changed since the last time I got in my own car, ordered a coffee in English, or slept in my own bed. All we can ask for, I guess, is that these experiences change us in lasting and positive ways, and that we can not only benefit from them, but share our lessons with others.