Camino de Santiago: Only 22.8km to go!

Distance walked: 24.7km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 22.8km

I hadn’t intended to walk as far as Santa Irene but the hostel I’d planned to stay in earlier on the trail had already closed up for the winter. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it was one thing to deal with hostels that were full but it was something quite different to come across hostels that had already been boarded up for the winter. Even when a hostel was full, there was human contact and the possibility of asking someone for advice. A hostel that’s been closed up offers none of that comfort or connection. With each passing day, I felt (acutely) that it was time to go home. My body was tired. My mind was full of reflections I didn’t have time to process. My heart was full of immense appreciation. The landscape around me was preparing for the colder weather and it felt like the right time to leave. I was glad to have a plane ticket and a home to go to.

It was almost mid October, and the trail between Boente and Santa Irene was busy and bustling with pilgrims walking the final 100km. There in Galicia, I could smell the damp, the moss, the clay beneath my feet. I could smell the dairy cows that grazed in the small, bumpy fields around me. I could smell the oncoming winter and the occasional waft of smoke from a wood fire, somewhere. The cafés sold hearty stews full of chorizo and kale, and the food became more like north European food – perfect for warming up in the autumn chill.

The hostel in Santa Irene was clean and comfortable, and I got a top bunk in a shared dorm. Most of the pilgrims around me were fresh-faced and excitable – clearly, they were walking for just a few days at the end! In the next bunk, an older man (in his 70s) sat on the top bed, alongside mine. Is it relevant that he was dressed like a medieval pilgrim with a brown cloak and a wooden staff? Is it relevant that he was openly hostile to his walking companions but his head literally swiveled to give me 1000% attention? I was not the youngest or prettiest female in that room but he zoned in on me for some uncomfortable reason.

He wanted to chat. More specifically, he asked prying questions and when I answered vaguely and tiredly, he peered into my face as though I’d given him a fake name and was only telling lies. Maybe I would have been better off… as he then started undressing, flexing his abs, and snapping his underwear a bit too enthusiastically, looking for my reaction. He revealed a bit too much and seemed to want my approval or shocked response. He did this in full view, in a crowded dorm with all the lights on, but while everyone around us absentmindedly tended to their sore feet and dirty laundry. No one noticed a thing. He seemed rather pleased with himself.

I think he was a bit of an exhibitionist. I also think he was on some sort of weird power trip, trying to rattle me in plain view but while no one was paying attention. It was one of the most surreal moments in sharing a space with random strangers, and it was *quite* uncomfortable. If there had been another hostel or room to go to, I would have gone. I’m not sure exactly what class of “crazy perv” he belonged to but I promptly got out of there, took the evening by myself, and returned only when the lights were already off and everyone was asleep for the night. Did I feel at risk? No, not with so many people around. But I wouldn’t have liked to meet him on my own, or somewhere quieter. He was a creep – thankfully, the only creep I’d met on all camino – and I wanted to get far away from him. I ignored him the next morning and walked out of there promptly and without looking back.

With so few kilometers ahead, my thoughts drifted to Santiago itself and when I would arrive. I could walk the remaining 22.8km in one day but with my feet feeling so sore, it would be a slow walk into the city. And what then…? Unlike (what seemed like) every pilgrim around me, I hadn’t booked private accommodation in advance. I’d spend the day walking but on arrival in the city I’d have to do what I’d done every day previously – I’d have to find accommodation, have a shower, wash my clothes, go get something to eat, and only around 8-9pm would I get to relax. It would turn a very special day into a kind of routine run-of-the-mill day. After so many weeks trying so hard to get to Santiago, I was tempted to make the final push in one day and just get there.

And yet, some other part of me wanted to arrive in a different way.

Every day for six weeks, I’d lived a nomadic sort of experience and felt that everything was sort of cobbled together. I didn’t book accommodation in advance at any stage of the journey – not even in St. Jean Pied de Port, at the very beginning. For six weeks I’d walked as best I could, and trusted that I would get food and bedding when I needed it. I’d arrived at many hostels feeling beaten and sore. Pushing myself to the limit had exposed a raw vulnerability and gratitude. I’d certainly been humbled. But Santiago was my last stop. I wasn’t going to walk on to the coast so it felt important to really “arrive” in to the city in the right kind of head space. I didn’t want to arrive feeling sweaty and spent: I wanted to arrive with a certain presence. I wanted to arrive and really feel the finality and achievement of walking those 800km. I wanted to arrive well.

This was the day to finally decide: would I walk to Santiago in one final push and find my friends? Would I split the remaining distance over two days instead?

I made no plan, no presumptions, no promises. I laced up my shoes, heaved my backpack onto my shoulders, and walked out into the cool morning air. The day would reveal all.

 

For All of You Preparing for Camino…

Everyone, hello.

At last, hello!

I don’t know about you, but this feels like one of the longest winters ever. I can’t say that I was snowed in for long periods or that my home was lost in winter storms. Thankfully neither of these things is true – although they would help explain my disastrous absence. Instead, it was a winter of family and personal illnesses. Lots of different ones, sometimes neatly, one after the other. Other times, not-at-all-neatly, in an unforgiving cluster. There has been a lot of “coping” and “day-by-day”-ing around these parts!

I am, of course, excited that the spring has sprung and I feel the potential of a dozen new projects all at once. It’s always the same with me when the light gets a bit higher from the horizon and the birds start nesting in my garden. I am distracted trying to do everything all at once and, it would seem, to make up for “lost” time (including the time I lost here with all of you.)

I’ve been reflecting a lot on this twitch in my personality – this expectation for excellence and fulfillment almost all of the time. It’s a lot of pressure! I want a bright and beautiful life as much as anyone, and at the same time I acknowledge that I sometimes have trouble seeing the brilliance. When I’m spending all my energy on staying afloat, it can be hard to manifest any extra magnificence.

It reminds me a lot of walking the camino. I’ve written at length about how difficult I found it – the crowding, the noise, the sheer scale of walking 500 miles not to mention the lack of arch support for my feet! So many other blogs, books, and verbal accounts swoon about how great and amazing it all is, so to admit to anything other than that feels like a personal defeat. It *was* great and amazing…and I also struggled. I won’t go into it all again but one of my trail friends revealed to me afterwards that she was worried about me along the way and thought I pushed myself too hard. Her words caught me by surprise. This isn’t a woman I’d known for years beforehand so I didn’t expect her to share such a personal perspective but as it turns out, she was absolutely right. She spotted it a mile off but I didn’t see it at all.

I didn’t know how to push myself any less. I was so dogged on my vision that I just kept going. I was worried that if I stopped long enough to take stock of my exhaustion, I’d lose the nerve to keep walking and I very much wanted to keep walking.

Was it a joyous way to experience camino? No, not really, but here’s something that not everyone will admit: not every day is about big, expansive joy. I know that jars with what the self-help books say but talk to anyone who’s survived something significant, and they will tell you it’s true.

Sometimes, it is a monumental success to get to the finish line in one piece. For me, that meant getting in out of the elements, having a hot shower, food of some sort, and a clean and secure bed for the night. I couldn’t hack the extra pressure of feeling immense joy and connection with all the universe as well – my hierarchy of needs was pretty inflexible that way! 🙂 Was I selling myself short? Perhaps, but those tough days were a test of my grit and I needed that to keep going. Others around me swooned about what a great time they were having. I took that to heart and then felt even more rubbish about my experience – clearly, I reasoned, I was “failing” when I didn’t feel immense joy from morning to night.

What a load of crap.

So. For all of you preparing for camino here are two small tidbits to do with what you may:

  1. Someone else’s experience (whether physical, emotional, or whatever) is a changing thing…as is yours. Try not to compare yourself, your ability, or your experience with anyone else’s. It’s a slippery (and speedy) slope to self-righteousness and misery, and it’s a no-win.
  2. There will be tough days – so acknowledge them now. Like me with the 6 months of winter illness, the tough days are exhausting and bleak, and it can feel like the feel-good happy party has left for good. It hasn’t. When the going gets tough, go back to basics – food, water, shelter, rest. The hierarchy of needs is a basic reminder but sometimes the basics are what’s needed. The other stuff comes after. Cut yourself some slack and acknowledge the days survived in one piece 🙂

That’s it!

More to follow soon, especially now that I have my ID and password unlocked again! Thanks for reading and Buen Camino to you all, irrespective of whether you’re walking!