When I woke up in Portugal for the last time as a hiker, the aroma of brewing coffee wafted in from the common room. Someone out there is my true hero, I thought. The rest of the albergue was starting to roll out of bed and the familiar sound of backpacks being packed and teeth being brushed commenced.
My body hurt. I may have slept better, but things were really starting to ache. Your body waits for a weekend on the Camino, but it doesn’t come. My old ailments–a sore ankle, plantar fasciitis, a funky swollen knee, and hip that doesn’t feel screwed on the right way–began to complain.
Some of my laundry was on the line outside and because of the dew from the cold weather, was still a bit damp. I attached a sports bra and a pair of socks onto the back of my backpack with safety pins. It was the pilgrim way. The sun would dry them as I walked.
After checking in with my friends and making a plan to meet up for lunch, I got moving. We were in the mountains again! In the first hour, I came across so many works of natural art. Massively woven spider webs catching the morning light, horses waiting in a field to cheer me on, and large-horned cows that I tried to speak to. They were disinterested.
As I passed a sign post, I noticed some odd graffiti in permanent marker. Someone–someone very unhappy in life–had written anti-woman, anti-LGTBQ, and anti-democrat phrases every few hundred feet. Based on their references, they were clearly American but wanted to put it in Spanish and Portuguese to get everyone’s attention.
Can you imaging going on a spiritual pilgrimage and taking the time to spread hatred across the beautiful land that’s taking care of you? I hoped this person encountered terrible blisters and loud snorers, but then I remembered they were miserable enough already.
I realized I was a bit too far ahead of my friends, and though I saw them briefly at second breakfast (when you stop after an hour of hiking and eat a lot of potatoes or croissants), I headed out on my own again.
The day began to heat up and I couldn’t seem to get in a comfortable rhythm. After several more hours of lone walking up and down hills, I was ravenous for lunch. According to my map, the nearest option was a kilometer OFF the Camino, something I tried to avoid doing. But if I didn’t stop there, it would be another hour or so without food or a bathroom.
I decided to take the detour and saw the restaurant across a country road up ahead after a few minutes. It was a busy lunch spot, turns out, but not for hikers. The construction workers–all 50 of them or so–had clearly just taken a break and filled the diner.
I timidly walked in and asked for a table and the room turned to look at me. It was a record-scratch moment. The large faces of men who spend their days in the sun glared at me. Don’t they see hikers every day? What’s the big deal?
The waiter was kind. He showed me a table and I ordered the special, which everyone else was eating. I didn’t want to be fussy since it appeared they all assumed I was going to be. It was, like the nights before, a piled of stewed potatoes and some sort of pork in tomatoes. And wine, of course, which I ordered with the special by accident. Lord, I was gonna want to get to bed after this meal.
I slid my backpack clumsily off my shoulders and froze. I saw what the problem was. I saw what everyone was looking at. My sports bra and socks were still attached to my pack from the morning. I had never packed them away after they dried. Here I was in a room of burly old men with my undies swingin’ in the breeze!
I ate quickly and carried my now-overstuffed and embarrassed self back onto the trail.
Luckily, I ran back into my group before we hit the last major city of Portugal. You could tell we were entering true Camino territory the further north we got. People took pictures of us as we passed and more stores were selling pilgrim tchotchkes.
At the end of the ancient village of Valenca, you exit through an epic stone fortress. Portugal wasn’t going to go out quietly. And then, all together, like a line of proud ants, we walked across the bridge to Spain.
I’d be back in Portugal in a week, but it felt bittersweet to leave it behind. I was excited, however, to speak Spanish again. My Spanish is better than my Portuguese.
Walking into Spain from France on the Camino Frances is so exhausting that I missed it last time. The border is in the middle of the Pyrenees mountains somewhere, marked by a rock that says Navarra (or so I remember). This way was far more obvious.
Still, my body was struggling. The fall air was filling with that chilling moisture that creeps up as you get into the depths of October and I just needed to collapse. After weaving through the beautiful city of Tui–which is right out of a Medieval daydream–we checked into an old monastery-turned-hostel and collapsed into bed.
All I wanted in the world was to explore–to have my favorite Spanish beers, to find Spanish Tapas, and get to know this playful city clearly ready to greet its pilgrims. I was in my favorite area of the world and felt like garbage.
After a giant pile of patatas bravas and a big beer, my body had enough. Get yourself in a bed, now, it said. I traced my way back down the ancient stone alleyways and back into the hostel. Other than Maria, the rest of the group went out for a wild night. I was thankful to have someone there, I didn’t feel right.
Once in bed, I couldn’t seem to get warm, despite the extra blankets they left out for us. Barbara had left out extra sausage and tomatoes from an earlier snack and I used that to tide me over without dinner. I couldn’t seem to get my body from shivering.
I also knew the longer days were coming. Maybe the stress of all this had caught up with me. You can call yourself an adventurer all you want, but eventually your body makes you return to your old life if you don’t take care of it.
I’d spoiled myself for the first week with 17 to 23 K days. If I wanted to make it to Santiago in time, I’d have to start pushing that up to 28. But I was tired, I missed Ben, and I needed a day to be me without being a pilgrim. How did I ever do this for 35 days in a row?
I didn’t know how to wrap my head around what was to come for the next 5 days of walking. Instead, I crawled into my bunk, wrapped my headband around my forehead for warmth, and fell into a coma of a sleep.