How to Walk 15 Miles When You Feel Like Hell

It’s raining and chilly in NYC today. This morning, I went on a walk to honor the end of my Camino in my hiking boots, raincoat, and hiking pants. I came back to a warm apartment with a fridge full of food and a cozy cup of coffee topped off with nutmeg. Life back home is far easier than on the Camino. But that’s not why you go on a pilgrimage.

I’ll never know how I got through that last day of hiking the Camino Portuguese, especially when I’m still chilled from my brief walk outside for 20 minutes. While I’d like to tell you I arrived in Santiago with my head held high, in reality I nearly crawled, and it’s a shock I made it at all.

October 13, 2019, Padron to Santiago

I woke up later than I wanted to, but I was grateful that I’d slept. By the time I wrapped myself up in my rain layers, I hobbled downstairs and saw some friends from the night before, also hurting from our adventures. I couldn’t help but feel like I was suffering from more than a hangover. I hadn’t felt right for days and I knew my hormones were still playing a prominent role. I chalked it all up to a perfect storm of health issues all coinciding with this important day.

In the regular world, I would never have left the house feeling how I did. But there, I was going to walk 15 miles through the rain with a 14-pound bag on my back.

The final day was supposed to be a celebration and I was going to make it one whether it liked it or not. The rain had slowed significantly as I walked through the still-dark Padron. We may have lucked out with the rain so far, but it was threatening to get worse.

About 24k Left

Throughout the first hour, a mass of 50-60 people in a Camino tour group marched up ahead of me. They looked warm, dry, and full of energy and wore matching shirts. There is nothing wrong with a group like this. For many, walking with a professional group is the only option–or the safest option for them. Do I want to hike next to them and listen to them sing songs about Jesus? No I do not.

When they all stopped for a water break, I picked up the pace, despite my aching stomach, and took the lead, cutting off into a field to follow the yellow arrows.

I was lucky to spend most of the morning walking up and down hills of splendid forests. I knew I still had to pick a place to leave Michael’s music, but the right moment had yet to arrive.

About 20K Left

The first town of the day was in a village called A Escrivatude. This gave me a much-needed giggle in my exhausted state. What do you call a Spanish writer with too much attitude? Escrivatude. Tired Ginny is not that funny.

I ordered a plain croissant to test the limits of my stomach and settled down at a table outside the cafe. Before I could take the first bite, “Boom!” the daily festival explosions had begun. I covered my ears in shock and exhaustion and carried my breakfast inside.

“Americana?” the bartender asked. I nodded with a laugh, recognizing that we were known to be a jumpy culture.

“Soy de Nueva York,” I explained. “Ah!” she said, now nodding at my understandable fear of gun-like noises going off without warning.

The news on the television talked about a hurricane over the Azores. Didn’t I have to fly home that way?

Back out on the road, I latched onto the small amount of energy from the croissant and breathed in the fresh, post-rain air. Despite the impending weather, Galicia was as beautiful as ever.

Neha and I crossed paths and walked through the lush green forests together, laughing each time we heard a firework in the distance. It sounded like the Hunger Games and even when we parted, I sent a WhatsApp message her way every time there was an explosion. “We lost another one!” I’d write.

About 16K Left

The highlight of my late morning was coming across a small cafe I’d followed on Instagram for the past year. Mamba Jamba Avocado Cafe is like seeing a mirage at the end of the desert. It has a garden for resting, a cozy indoor dining room, a small gift shop, and a wide assortment of freshly made vegetarian deliciousness. Finding an avocado dish on the Camino is like finding Taylor Ham outside of New Jersey.

I’d waited for this moment for most of my trip. I went inside and ordered a bowl of gazpacho and a small avocado toast. I also snagged a Camino bracelet from the gift shop. The kind owner said his wife ran the social media after hearing I’d been following their posts for months. Outside of the restaurant, I wrote a “wish for the world” on a ribbon and added it to the collection on their fence.

In my mind, this was the final major stop of my day. It was time to get to Santiago. But I still have four hours to go, and I was still pushing through dizziness and exhaustion.

Yet again, the small amount of food boosted my energy enough to get me over the next large hill. I could tell that we were approaching the outer suburbs of Santiago and pretty soon, we’d be in the industrial outskirts of the city.

About 10K Left

I forgot to mention that I’d been walking with a rather mystical looking stick for the past several days. I’d found it walking up La Bruja in Portugal, and had been my saving grace on difficult mornings. Since it was technically a branch, I knew I had to let it go and return it to nature.

Deep in the forest, I found a good spot and said goodbye. For the first time since the beginning of the trip, I wanted to burst into tears. I wasn’t ready to let go. I had no idea when or if I’d ever return to my precious road, and I projected this burst of emotions into a piece of gnarled wood. Thank heavens I didn’t know what 2020 would bring.

“Hola!” I heard behind me. I turned around to see a young woman I’d never met before. She was German and wore a green raincoat.

“I was just saying goodbye to my walking stick,” I told her, explaining my tear-covered face. “I’m fine though!” I laughed and trying to make it less weird. It was still weird.

We walked together for the next half hour, and though she was incredibly kind, I watched the kilometer markers tick down on my epic journey. I didn’t want to miss it all. When we stopped to tie our shoes, I garnered up the courage and told her I needed to walk into Santiago alone. She more than understood and gave me a kind wave before heading off into the distance. I often wonder if my walk into the city would have been easier if we’d stuck together.

About 6K Left

I was starting to feel shaky, and the rain threatened to get heavy. It had drizzled so consistently throughout the day that I was more soaked than I expected to be. My hair and clothing were wet and the familiar chill of the past week returned.

Heading up a suburban road, a man stood with a sign pointing left toward a cafe. I thanked him and walked over, hoping I’d be able to get one more thing in my stomach despite my growing nausea.

As clearly one of the final stops on the train, the cafe was swarmed with pilgrims. I didn’t have the energy to wait. I just needed to see the Cathedral. We were so close. I saw Sophie and another hiking buddy sitting outside and gave her a wave.

“You’re not getting anything to eat?” she asked.

“I’m too excited to get to the end!” I answered. I should have grabbed anything to hold me over, but I stubbornly pushed on.

About 4K Left

In the next section on my map, something strange happened. My dependable Camino app, which had never steered me wrong, told me to follow a set of old arrows that would keep me from walking along the highway. I followed the instructions, even using GPS to follow my path along the little dotted line on the map.

But as I traversed down the rocky hill, the rest of the pilgrims dwindled. There were still yellow arrows, but they were faded and confusing. A very tense 30 minutes passed and I saw no one. I passed under highways, walked through neighborhoods, and headed back into the woods. No one. I started to worry. I was exhausted and wet and starving.

About ????K Left

At the peak of a hill, the clouds cleared, and I saw it–the Cathedral. Right there, all along. As beautiful as she was, I was still befuddled. How was I all the way up here and the city was all the way down there? It had been over an hour since the cafe.

You can see the cathedral if you look WAAAAY in the distance

I pushed on, following a seemingly endless road down a hill and around a set of railroad tracks. At long, LONG, last I entered the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela.

With my body starting to shut down, I was far from able to celebrate. I climbed the sidewalk through the outer circle of the city, past the university and up a hill through a modern portion of town. I couldn’t find a single arrow and now my map wasn’t loading. It was Sunday, so the cafes were closed. I scraped into the bottom of my backpack for the ends of a pack of cookies. How much further could it be?

I saw heard some English-speaking hikers pass me, walking in the other direction, clearly long-done with their Camino. “Do you know where the Cathedral is?” I asked, “I think I took a wrong turn.”

“Oh yeah, you much have missed that arrows somewhere back there but you’re close. Just follow this up and you’ll see the entrance to the old city.”

Less Than 1K Left

I walked, worried I was going to have to stop and call for help with less than a kilometer to my destination. When I reached the old Roman perimeter of the city, a group of men were enjoying lunch outside a cafe.

“El catedral?” I desperately asked, pointing.

“Yes! Keep going! It’s right around the next corner. Buen Camino!”

It was my fourth time in Santiago between my three Caminos and the original trip I’d taken in college. I knew this city better than parts of my own. I waited for things to look familiar through my haze of illness, but I’d never hiked into town from the south before.

Finally, at last, I recognized an intersection. The fountain, the side of the cathedral, the pilgrim museum. I knew where I was! I walked toward the Plaza do Obradoiro, the traditional end to the walk.

There was a homeless woman sitting on the group with a hat, and I reached in my pocket and pulled out a 5 Euro note I’d found on the ground the day before.

When I bent my head down to drop it, the world spun around me. It felt like someone had dipped my body in a sea of dark gray fog. A curtain started to come up from the bottom of my vision. “This is it,” I thought.

I leaned my head on the side of the building and took three deep breaths. I just needed to find someone I knew. I got my bearings and shuffled into the plaza, tears streaming down my face.

With the rain starting to fall, I tucked underneath the covered walkway and sat directly on the ground, staring up at the cathedral, unable to move.

And then I heard a voice, “Ginny!” It was Neha. It was like a spell had broken. I was no longer alone, on the wrong road, sick and panicking. I told her how lousy I’d been feeling and about getting lost and she handed me a bag of trail mix that I devoured.

We’d made it. It was over. I didn’t pass out. I didn’t walk alone. I didn’t get attacked. I made it, by myself and with a family.

Not dead!

But it wasn’t time to process it all. It was time to get to my hotel room–my beautiful, beautiful hotel room with a balcony and warm fresh sheets. I parted ways with Neha and we planned to meet up later that night.

After checking in with the front desk, the owner of Casa da Balconada showed me upstairs to my little room. When the door closed behind me, I collapsed onto the soft bed. I took a shower, pulled on all the dry clothing I had left, ate a massive pastry I’d gotten from the lobby, and fell into the deepest sleep of my life.

The rest of the night was rainy and chilly, and because of my health scare earlier that day, I only saw my Camino family for a brief moment. We had all day tomorrow to celebrate. For now, I wanted to revel in the silence, in the soft blankets, in the TELEVISION, in the private bathroom. I was a queen in this room!

I smiled and looked out over my loving city of Santiago, catching a glimpse of the mountains in the distance where I’d just spent the past day desperately wandering. I was home.

I may have reached Santiago, but I will keep posting until I get back to NYC, so, more tomorrow! Thank you for making it this far with me, friends.

5 responses to “How to Walk 15 Miles When You Feel Like Hell”

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