Zubiri to Villava

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Photo cred: Christina (I didn’t take photos on really bad days)

My therapist recently told me that the Camino was easy living–an escape from it all–and that reality back home presents the true challenges. I’d like to disagree.

As my roommates’ alarm clocks activated one by one, I delicately tested out my ankle which had spent the night throbbing and occasionally spasming depending on my position. Nope, can’t move it.  I knew that I’d finally hit my limit. Without a solid night of sleep in seven days, I had to make a call, something needed to change.

I let everyone else trickle out to gather their stuff before I attempted to get down from my bunk, but the moment I hit the ground I burst into tears. I’d never had pain like that before. I immediately crawled back up into bed.

When the twins came in to tell me about breakfast, I turned around and they saw the state of my red and tear-soaked face. I explained to the two of them–and then to Christina–that I wouldn’t be able to walk for at least an hour, if at all. Christina was willing to wait until 8am, and if I wasn’t in good shape by then, I’d call a cab. I was too afraid to get stuck somewhere on my own without a phone signal.

I am a stubborn human, especially when I tell myself that I’m going to complete something. A few minutes after 8, against all logic, I slipped my swollen foot into my boot and flipped on my backpack.

The extra-strange part? This was the day I struggled with on my first Camino as well. Perhaps it’s something to do with day three–it’s when the universe offers me a way out.

I hobbled, very slowly, and way behind anyone I knew, for nearly two hours. Just before the area of massive, smelly magnesium factories–a less-than-scenic addition to day three–I stopped at the top of 30-40 steps built into the side of a hill. I will get down these steps because I have to. I turned my body to the side, sometimes even backward, and took the weight off my Achilles. A kind man passed me as asked I was okay, but I nodded and sent him on his way. I may not be Christian, but I kept hearing that parable in my head when god keeps sending boats to the guy in the middle of the flood and he keeps rejecting them.

The irony of the magnesium plants wasn’t lost on me either. During my weird illness the year before, magnesium was the only supplement that made me feel better. There it all was, all of the magnesium, and me feeling like hell. Screw you, magnesium plant. I don’t need you.

I hit my worst about halfway through our morning. I wasn’t supposed to be here. Maybe this was meant to be Christina’s trip and hers alone, I was just meant to get her here. My body was too tired, too messed up to get to the end. How would I explain that to everyone at home–that I barely made it three days before stopping? I could tell my exhaustion was wearing on her, and I didn’t know how much more of my own mind I could take. I spent most of the morning in tears.

Still, I kept trudging. We stopped for a slow lunch at a bar underneath some grapevines and next to a chicken coop, and I broke out the facetime and data plan that I saved for such emergencies. Seeing Ben’s face was a reminder that everything was really okay. I’m just walking, that’s all this is. I showed him the chickens, said goodbye and prepared myself to phase two.

I took a few Advil after eating, and the brief respite from the pain allowed me to catch up with Christina’s adjusted pace. We chatted along a river full of swimmers, and eventually tucked into some tall grasses alongside a steep, sun-drenched mountain.

Even though this was a shorter day for us, purposely planned this way to avoid the running of the bull in Pamplona up ahead, the final 5-6 K seemed to torture me with its taunting sluggishness. But with some conversation to keep me distracted, I focused away from my ankle and back to the road. I grasped onto anything that made me feel normal.

Entering Villava, the unrelenting heat of the day bore down on our exhausted minds, which desperately searched for our hostel in the empty town. Siesta, and the intense heat, kept everyone off the streets.

We’d booked this public hostel–open non-pilgrims–as a last resort when Pamplona’s room prices soared from the famous festival that brought people from all over the country. From babies to grandmothers, proud Spaniards decked themselves out in different combinations of white clothing and red accents filled the courtyard of the hostel.

After such a trying day, and for somehow surviving my injuries, we grabbed an early beer.

For the rest of the evening, we spent our time with Sean–a Pixar director–and a young girl from the states whose name I can’t remember (Let’s call her Jen). We exchanged battle stories about our aching muscles, my difficult start to the morning, and yet again, the Pyrenees.  Jen had taken the steeper route, the one we avoided, and upon reaching the bottom, came to a massive, locked fence. Balled up on the ground in tears, without a clue of where to go next, she gathered her last bit of strength and charged the fence, with all intention of scaling it with a final burst of energy.

“But as soon as I grabbed hold of the fence, the gate just–swung open! I’d be sitting there, staring and crying at an open gate for nearly an hour!” We all burst into laughter as Sean grabbed us another round.

Before the sun went down–which doesn’t happen until about 10:30pm this time of year–we bought tickets to the nearby community pool for 3 Euros a pop. After the lifeguard instructed us how to make our hiking clothing look more like bathing suits–yes, he basically yelled at us until we stood there in our underwear–we dipped our feet in the crisp, cool water and looked out over the families of Villava leaping into the cool water.

Mountains still surrounded us on all sides, some we’d crossed, others still to come. How far we’d come in just one day, not to mention three days. I sat with my fellow warriors, taking in the bizarre and wonderful places life can take you if you let it. The water was medicinal on my feet, perhaps blessed by pilgrims before us. Whenever I need to find my happy place, I keep this memory on file.

When we settled into our beds, hot, sticky and within earshot of the pre-gaming St. Fermin revelers, my body finally gave way to sleep. It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t instant, but it was enough. At last, the seemingly endless streak of insomnia had broken.


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