For the final 30 days of my twenties, I am writing one personal narrative a day that has impacted my life until now. To read more about my challenge, feel free to check out the first post.
Also, this 30 Day challenge is also to support a wonderful charity, Zara Aina. Please check out my fundraiser here and if you’re able, please consider throwing a few dollars toward this amazing cause. It would mean the world!
I’m running out of days, and appropriately, running out of Camino stories. And although the following began as an insignificant day in the scheme of the hike, I look back on this evening as the moment I first realized how beautiful this pilgrimage truly is–and how much I’d long to go again someday.
It was only the fourth day of hiking, but day one had taken such a toll on our bodies that early physical ailments were beginning to rear their heads. Courtney was particularly suffering. Due to the positioning of her shoes as we hiked over the Pyrenees, she had bruised a bone on the top of her foot–a painful ailment only curable with rest, the one thing we didn’t have. But we were newbies to the journey, and stopping this early in the game went against our schedules.
But by the end of day 4, after cresting an arid mountain in direct sun, Cortney began to lag behind in terrible pain. I gave her my more structured flip flops, as she felt better carrying on without anything pressing on the bruise. Still, her groans and curses echoed through the Spanish desert as we searched for the next town on the horizon.
Before reaching our destination–still a solid ten kilometers out–we came across a small bar surrounded by two or three other homes, but nothing else. The bar did have two rooms for rent but they were booked; this was not a common pilgrim stopping point. As we sat with a cold soda, Cortney was beside herself with pain. And so we had to make a decision. We could either A. Take a taxi–thus breaking our transportation fast during the first week of the trip, or B. beg for a place to stay and delay our trip, risking missing our booked flights at the end of the five weeks. If there is one piece of advice I could give hikers, its not to to put yourself in this situation. Go when you have some sense of wiggle room at the end of your hike. You do not want to choose between a plane ticket and your health.
In a moment of chance, the bartender overheard us and cut in to say that he had a small attic where we could lay down sleeping bags in we didn’t mind squishing. We assumed this would blow our budget, this not being a standard albergue for hikers, and he shrugged his shoulders and said, “10 euro?” Great! The new plan consisted of staying in the bar attic, waking up late, walking to the town we meant to arrive in today, and then resting there until the day after. This would break up the 28 Km days for the healing foot without completely laying low for 24 hours.
We headed upstairs to a winding stairway and found a slanted-ceiling annex-type room, with a bathroom and small space to the side to lay down our things. It felt like a cozy three-person sleepover after nearly a week of sleeping in a room of 100 snoring hikers. Without anywhere to go, I grabbed a book and sat out on the stone patio in the sunlight until dinner came. This was the one of the only times I can say our trip felt like a “vacation”–as everyone seemed to love calling it back home. Our days were surprisingly structured, and messing up the timing of your pace or plans could leave you without a bed for a the night or walking as the sun goes down (which is highly discouraged for young women). Sitting and pausing for a few hours, just with the task of staring out in the Spanish countryside, was a much-needed moment to step back and remember why we were doing this at all.
By dinnertime, the 10 people or so (including us), decided it was time to start drinking the copious amounts of time that is lovingly pushed on you at all times of leisure in Spain. Most bottles are unlabeled or cost a Euro or two at the nearby store–if there is one. Sometimes it just comes from a mysterious tap in the bar owner’s backyard. I hadn’t had this much solitude in a week, and knew that it was a fleeting moment.
A the sun began to set, that magic, energetic buzz that fills that air when you’ve had just the right amount of wine, turned the evening into a majestic haven of breezy serenity. Our group’s rhythm of storytelling began to pick up pace and for the first night of the trip, stories from all over the world began to pour across the table, void of self-consciousness or fear of judgement. We were surrounded by miles and miles of empty land, only looked over by the towering wind-powered mills that line the Spanish hills.
Before the bartender told us to go to bed (something the is often dictated on the Camino), I stepped away from the table and threw my head back toward the untainted night sky. I recently read that the Camino produces the feeling of total freedom for many hikers. With very little financial requirement, and surrounded by the fiercely supportive community of your fellow peregrinos, the part of your brain that clings to safety and responsibility simple releases. All you have is the land around you, the kindness of others, and the absolute basic need to get from one place to another. I was hit with a wave of appreciation that my life allowed me to feel such a freedom, and turned to face my friends to pack up for the night.
Once in our attic nook, additional bottle of wine in hand, Cortney, Claire and I exchanged stories that are often saved for the third bottle of wine, for the wee hours of the night when rules of secrecy are lifted and you feel that you are no longer bound by parameters of social acceptance. With the hardest stories of our lives off our chests, we passed out on our sleeping bags without a care left to weigh us down. I finally felt that I was there, really there.
But oh what a hangover. This was one of two hangovers I had on the whole trip–something I do not recommend setting yourself up for before a day of hiking in the sun. To say the least, it was a quiet morning, and the reality of our responsibility to get to the next town in one piece, was very apparent.
I look back on that night as the breaking point for our tight grasp on plans, schedules and expectations. It’s like the Camino gave us a good shake and yelled, “Let go!” Cortney’s foot began to heal and we did make it to Santiago without the help of anything transportation other than our feet–though we were once tempted to hop on a hot air balloon. But that’s another story entirely.