Halfway down the mountain, some of us rested. Some called it a day and took off their packs and boots for the evening. Others simply waved as they continued to the valley floor to find their beds, too weary to stop, too weary to sit. The descent of the west side of the mountain was to everybody’s surprise, harder on the joints and thighs than the climb up the east side. Knees and hips cried for a soft place to sit, muscles begged for glucose.
The Doctor sat down at the cafe table next to us with a grin on his dusty face, twisting the cap off of a bottle of Coca-Cola, “Voila, le doping!” he said as he greedily consumed three hundred and fifty calories of sugar, just enough for the next hour of hiking.
“How are ze boy’s feet? Are ze dressings still intact?” the Doctor asked.
The Dutch boy gave the French Doctor a silent thumbs up and a chipmunk smile across the table, his cheeks stuffed full with complex carbohydrates cooked in olive oil.
“So, I will meet my wife at ze bottom, in Molina Seca, and then for me…c’est finis! I go home,” he said as he slowly stood, testing his feet. He waved a warm goodbye, “And you will go all ze way to Santiago, non?”
“Yes, but we will sleep here tonight,” I answered, “Buen Camino!”
There are no rules, no expectations of those who choose to walk the Camino de Santiago. It is a choice. The only person pushing you forward is yourself. It is as much a spiritual journey, a soul searching, as it is a nine hundred kilometer trek over mountains and across the golden expanse of la Maseta. If the pilgrim could look through purely spiritual eyes she would see the hillsides leading to Santiago de Compostela strewn with discarded grudges and insecurities, disowned sins and vices. The self-induced suffering of the pilgrimage strips away pretences, exposes the raw nerves of the ego. Limits are discerned, both physical and mental, weakness and infirmities are accepted. We learn to be comfortable with being naked in front of the world. We accept help and encouragement from strangers whose names we never learn. Comradery forms quickly through mutual suffering.
“Did you leave a rock at the Cruz de Ferro?” Ireland’s wife asked me.
“I emptied my backpack a few summers ago. I came to take something away more than to leave something behind,” I answered.
“You are walking with your son?” she discerned.
“Yep. It’s his last summer with us. Thought we could turn off the phones and the tablets for two weeks and talk.”
“I wish my husband had done this with our boys when they were his age. It’s a life changer,” she reminisced, “He’ll go home a man after this.”
“That’s what I am afraid of,” I said blinking the tears from my eyes, “or was hoping for. I’m not quite sure yet.”
“Where did you start from?”
“Léon. We’re only walking three hundred kilometers.”
We consciously choose to be “WI-FI free” for those two weeks on the Camino. We broke that rule only once, in a hotel room in Porto Marin, where burst blisters sidelined us for the afternoon and we couldn’t bear to watch terrorists in London on television causing panic and death in the street; It seemed all so far away, so implausible as if from another planet. Having emptied ours heads of worries by reducing our activities to walking, eating and sleeping, the immediacy of the television news and the worried faces of the broadcasters were just too much to take in.
“What would you keep?” Matthew asked me.
“Not much.” I answered huffing up the hillside, “One really doesn’t need that much to be happy.”
“What about comfortable?’
“I think the things we own say more about our fears than our desires,” I replied looking out over the valley we had just climbed out of, “fear of boredom, fear of being uncomfortable, fear of having to face ourselves, our motives, how much time we waste. We clutter up our lives to stay distracted.”
“I can see that.”
“What’s in your pack?”
“Yeah. It’s hard to beat this!” Matthew answered as we stood and gazed out over the heathered valley and the Cantabrian mountains as the morning sun peeked over the hills opposite.
During our journey, we learned that one can walk ten kilometers before breakfast while still sleeping. We learned that one can walk through just about any pain, and that a good night’s sleep will take care of any pain that one cannot walk through. Metaphors for life. Reminders that most of the time life is just hard, but that one can enjoy the journey so much more if you find good people to share the journey with and have good walking poles. Metaphors.
“Who’s pushing? Dublin? Is that you? Am I walking too slow for you?” I said looking over my shoulder.
“Yes, yes, she says I can come home now! Can’t talk, gotta go quickly. Booked me a flight from Vigo tomorrow afternoon.”
“We’re sixty kilometers from Santiago. You’ll never make it.”
“I’ll walk all night if I gotta. She said I can come home again.”
“What did you do anyhow?”
“I really can’t talk about it. I’ve done my penance now. I’ve done my Camino. Goin’ home tomorrow, whatever it takes.”
The release and elation that we felt when we finally arrived to gaze on the Cathedral of Santiago is something you, the reader, must experience for yourself. I will not attempt to describe it for fear of making it sound banal or cliche. There were tears of joy because tomorrow we’d be home, instead of strapping on our boots before sunrise again. There were also tears of regret because tomorrow we would be home, in bed, instead of strapping on our boots to go meet the sun on the mountain side before the church bells can ring six o’clock.
Did you enjoy this story? Find it and others like it in V M Karren’s short story anthology: The Tales of a Fly-By-Night.