I want to start this post with a note about burnout. We’ve all been posting and talking about it recently, especially at this incredibly confusing and exhausting phase of the pandemic. I’ve been finding that I’ve been living at a 9.5 out of 10 recently, even if I’ve learned to put on a calmer face. And if one minor thing–or a major thing–happens, my stress level well overshoots a 10 out of 10. This was a particularly hard week, but I’m relieved to say that everything has settled down.
It’s easy to get so used to the word burnout that we learn to push it aside as another thing to simply overcome with our capitalist determination. But if this past week–and this particularly hiking day below–is a reminder of anything, it’s that burnout is not just about taking a nap and pushing forward.
If you don’t make peace with how to slow down, check your rage, or request additional support, your body won’t give you the option to move on. I say this fully knowing that not everyone has the option to do these things whenever they like, and that that’s hard. If you’re struggling right now too, I wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you and hope you have the space to take a step back when it’s more than necessary.
I woke up the next morning with a sore throat. While the very real possibility of getting Covid on this trip was something we spent months considering, waking up with a telltale sign was scary. I reminded myself, however, that I’d recently been putting my body through absolute hell and there are plenty of other reasons why I could be feeling this way.
The albergue slowly filled with familiar morning sounds. Crinkling bags, swishing sleep sacks, general zippering. A man to my right who came in late last night seemed to forget that anyone was still asleep and moved about like he was determined to become a one-man band with hiking gear as his chosen instruments.
Ben and I slowly dragged our stuff into the well-lit hallway where we found most of our crew from the night before. Lynn and I laughed as I told her about a concept from my 2017 trip–Richard Peregrino. Created by my hiking buddy Christina, Richard Peregrino (AKA Dick Pilgrim) is just that. Richard Peregrino showers without shower shoes. Richard Peregrino uses up all the phone charging outlets. Richard Peregrino lectures you about why people walk the Camino. Richard Peregrino is rude to waiters and puts his muddy boots through the dryer.
We debated which people in the hostel–or which one of us–could be the secret Richard Peregrino and this lightened the mood before heading out into a very dark morning.
“Has anyone seen Sally?” Lynn asked. Claire went back into the dark sleeping area to look for her but there was no sign of her.
“Maybe she left early because of all the snoring,” I suggested. It felt terrible leaving without one of the pack when we’d planned to leave together–particularly in this dark–but she was nowhere to be found. And we didn’t have her contact info. We waited a few more minutes and then decided she must have headed out on her own.
This is the only reason I didn’t change Sally’s name. Sally if you read this, we didn’t mean to bail!
Anyway, the dark morning brought a near-vertical incline. I was grateful that we had a group to walk with in the dense woods and such difficult terrain. I sensed that this was going to make an already long day longer, and was frustrated I hadn’t accounted for it. Ben’s knee was giving him trouble and I told him about my general exhaustion.
We came upon the famous fountain in the center of the woods that I remember discovering in 2009. I call it the Tuck Everlasting fountain since I’m pretty sure you end up immortal if you drink from it. But the sign says to stay away, so we just snapped some spooky photos in the dark.
At some point in the climb, Lynn, Susan, and Claire waved us on and said they’d catch up later. Ben and I climbed in silence and eventually made it to a much-welcomed plateau where we watched the sunrise above the farms before us. We’d come so far. We were so far from that canceled flight, the rainstorm the night before our hike, or the first night in Molinaseca.
As often happens in Galicia–and would continue for the next four days–the descent came pretty soon after the ascent. The ups and downs play tricks on your joints. The other issue is that we were growing increasingly hungry–which was not ideal for already exhausted bodies that were at the end of their ropes.
According to the map, we wouldn’t come across a town with food for hours, perhaps not even until Sarria–the major city of the day. I could tell Ben was struggling with both his blood sugar and his swollen knee. He limped behind me, navigating a rock-filled downhill and occasionally waved me on so he wouldn’t slow me down. His knee was getting worse.
We walked through a small village and my hopes of an open restaurant were dashed once again. All I could see up ahead were miles and miles of winding fields. I took a deep breath and thought about how long we could stretch the leftover mint-flavored chocolate from Astorga.
And then I reached the large barn at the end of the road. Even three feet away from the barn door entrance, you wouldn’t suspect anything different about this place. But in the final split seconds–I saw it: a massive buffet of bread, cheese, fruits, trail mix, coffee, tea. Everything you could imagine. The area behind the table opened up into a massive oasis of flowers, couches, chairs, and a place to sign and leave your Camino shell–something that everyone carries on the walk–if you felt it was time to leave it behind.
I turned around at a loss for words. “Ben!” I yelled, “It’s a miracle!”
Ben, who looked a bit like Shadow from Homeward Bound stumbling in at the end of the film, brightened at the sign of hope. He was just as shocked as I was when he saw the spread.
A young guy of maybe 30 greeted us and asked how we wanted our coffee. The whole thing was donation-based. He welcomed us in and we took a seat in the garden next to a large cat with one ear. I sat on the ground to welcome him over.
“That is El Jefe,” the owner said, “He owned the place before me and he’s still my boss.”
El Jefe decided that my lap was now his property and climbed into the crook of my knee, perched outwards to survey his land.
Claire, Lynn, and Susan caught up shortly, equally as amazed at the place. Even condescending Hippie Man appeared and chatted with another Hippie Dude sitting on a couch in the back playing a guitar. We all found our place at this unexpected surprise.
With over 20k to go and noon approaching, we said goodbye to our three ladies and hit the road once again. The next 5 kilometers of up and down and direct sunlight switched between “I can totally do this,” and “I really need to lay down on the ground.” While the oasis cheered us up, there’s no ignoring that I woke up with an immune system in the pits and that Ben woke up with a messed-up knee.
Reaching Sarria was momentous, but exhausting. The final climb into the old part of town is straight up approximately 100 steps that ended in a church that had just let out for mass. A few older women with delicate scarves wrapped around their hair gave us a wave as we passed.
While the kind from snacks earlier in the morning helped, we still had yet to eat a real meal and were fading fast. Right at the top of the hill, we found a lunch miraculously–though begrudgingly–selling hamburgers. Ben grabbed a table and I went searching for the bathroom. I was exhausted. I could tell just by looking at my face that we were pushing ourselves too far. I could barely keep my eyes open. And I knew from 2017 that we had at least another 15k of mountains through the woods.
When I got back to the table, it was time to make a difficult decision. “What if we called it for the day?” I asked Ben. He knew how serious this question was for me. In my nearly 90 days of walking the Camino, I’d never taken a taxi, a bus, or a train to skip a section mid-trip–even when I probably should have. This was different. Everything in my body told me it was time to stop. And if we didn’t stop, our bodies may stop everything for us.
Ben agreed wholeheartedly that it was time to rest. We would eat a big meal on our own schedule, WhatsApp a taxi, and head to our hostel to start fresh in the morning. I spent the lunch dreading the moment it would pull up and take us away with all these pilgrim onlookers. When the car eventually arrived, I flung my back into the trunk and ducked into the car without looking back at the restaurant.
There is no justification for my shame, but I do know where it comes from. Distance is often the first question people ask when you get home. Do you tell them you jumped in a cab and skipped several miles so that you wouldn’t pass out? Does that make the trip less challenging? Or does it simply mean you weren’t willing to keel over on the side of the road to make a point?
We had a kind and understanding taxi driver who listened and chatted with us to pass the time. Halfway through the journey, we came to a standstill to let some moseying cows cross the street. I looked at the steepness of the road and felt justified in our choice. At the same time, it’s disorienting moving so quickly past the yellow arrows after 6 days of walking.
We bid our kind chariot goodbye and checked in at the front desk. “No tarjetas.” They didn’t take cards because the machines were down. I handed nearly all of our remaining cash for the room and there was no ATM for miles. I was too tired to debate about the situation or figure out how we were gonna buy dinner and walked up to our room.
I passed out the second my head hit the pillow. It was one of those time-traveling naps–you’re stumbling and taking off your shoes one moment and it’s 6pm the next. When I opened my eyes, I had a clear view of my green-tinted water bottle sitting on the nightstand next to me.
“Ben??” I hollered. Ben slept as well but had since woken up and was futzing in the bathroom. He popped his head out. “I think there’s something floating in my water bottle.”
“Is it the funk of a thousand years?” he asked playfully. I mean, it could have been. It is very easy to forget to properly clean your water bottle when one day on the trail transitions to the next.
He picked up the bottle and analyzed the collection of black specs floating around the bottle. “Oh this is from the albegue last night,” he explained, “I had this happen too so I didn’t drink the water there.”
My stomach turned. There is a solid chance that my water bottle was just dirty or the stuff in the water was just relatively harmless dirt. Either way, it definitely added to how awful I’d been feeling all day. I took it to the bathroom, waited for the water to get to steaming levels, and scrubbed it like my immune system depended on it.
Most importantly, I felt worlds different than I had just three hours earlier. My throat was a bit better and I no longer felt woozy. We took our time, gathered up any remaining Euros we had, and walked back to dinner. The restaurant/albergue sat right on the edge of a cornfield and was the only building for miles. I had no idea where the other pilgrims were–most of them would end up arriving later that night. Perhaps the climb really was that rough.
I couldn’t figure out why the owner of the hostel hated us so much, but I chalked it up to her own exhaustion and likely burnout from hosting thousands of people during a pandemic. We ordered a simple collection of things that they had left in the kitchen and sat on a picnic bench outside to take in the hot afternoon sun.
My heartbeat slowed down to a calmer pace. I no longer felt trapped in a schedule we couldn’t possibly keep up with. For the first time since our flight not taking off back at JFK, I fully exhaled.
The sun filtered through my–now clean–water bottle, casting a green hue on the table across an incredibly fascinating bug. I leaned my head down on the table so I could be at its eye level. “Hello creature,” I greeted it.
We ate dinner slowly and enjoyed the unseasonably warm fall air before wandering back up the hill to the building with our private room. The albergue also offered a communal space with bunks, which was now filling up with chatting pilgrims doing their laundry and cracking open bottles of wine.
We were too delirious to try and break the ice with new faces, and either way, we had plans to leave before sunrise–this time in much better shape and ready to take on our final days.