As I hobbled in to El Burgo Ranero, my right knee had mostly healed, but four new blisters had formed on my feet after several days of walking in the rain. And what had started as a slight tickle in my throat in Hontanas had now turned into vicious fevers, aches and chills. So in need of a good night’s sleep and to be sure I didn’t spread my germs to the other pilgrims, Tom and I decided to take a break from the albergue and get a private room.
After unloading our bags, Tom took off his shirt to take a shower. I squirmed when I saw his entire back and arms still covered by itchy, small, red bumps. Bed bugs attacked him a few nights prior in Fromista. The bites were itchy, but that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part about bed bugs was fearing them.
Climbing into bed at night after a 25km+ hike should feel like a warm hug for a tired pilgrim, but because of these little pests, going to bed was now a fear-ridden ritual of checking seams and praying that we make it through the night bug-free. We were completely defenseless against these microscopic nocturnal monsters and we knew it.
I unlaced my boots to assess the damage to my feet and saw that one of my ill-cared-for blisters was looking pretty irritated and possibly infected. Tom came over and attempted to empathize. He put his foot up next to mine to show me he had a blister too. Tom always jokes that he has “perfect” feet. After seeing his one little blister, no bigger than the size of a raindrop on his big toe, I began to believe its true. Over 300 miles in to this trek and that’s all his feet had to show for it! I couldn’t believe it.
While Tom took a shower, I did a quick google search to figure out once and for all how to best care for my ever-increasing blisters. WebMD and Mayo Clinic turned up this useless advice: “discontinue activity that caused the blister.” With no option but to keep walking, I felt deflated and beat up.
This particular night we were on our own. It was an odd time on our trek. Some friends, feeling stronger, were pulling ahead, and others, still suffering from various maladies, were falling behind. So, stuck in the middle with a lot of unfamiliar pilgrim faces, I was thankful to at least have Tom by my side. And fortunately, when the going gets tough, Tom becomes a hard ass.
So with a kick in the butt from Tom the next morning, I did what every pilgrim does when they hurt; I got up, I bandaged my feet, stuffed them back into my damp boots, and I walked. I walked slowly, but I walked.
That next day was one of our longest at 36km. I reminded myself of all the encouragements I had carelessly doled out to fellow pilgrims early on in my journey, when they hurt and I didn’t. As I walked by them with ease, I had said “Don’t give up, you can do it.” “Just a little further.” “One foot in front of the next.”
It’s hard to swallow your own medicine, but we all have to do it from time to time. Like in life, you can say you believe one thing, but at the end of the day, your actions reveal your true character. And the action is the hardest part. It was now my turn to “not give up” and to just “keep putting one foot in front of the next.” Left. Right. Left. Right.
So with a strong purpose to walk, to finish the Camino, I diligently cared for my feet, realizing they were vital to accomplishing my goal. I could hear Lieutenant Dan’s instructions to Forrest ringing in my ear:
“There is one item of GI gear that can be the difference between a live grunt and a dead grunt. Socks. Cushioned sole, O.D. Green. Try and keep your feet dry.”
Lucky for us, we had a little more help and a whole lot more hospitality than Gump and Bubba experienced in Vietnam. During the toughest days of our Camino, we found comfort and refuge in the humble service of others. At one of the albergues a warm hospitalario greeted us with a smile and insisted we sit down and take off our packs and boots before we registered. He then handed a tray with tea and cookies to us, the “tired pilgrims.” My heart melted and a cup of tea never tasted so good.
Another day, on our walk to Astorga, we took the “alternative path” (a few kilometers longer, but twice as good of views according to the reviews). As we came over the crest of the hill, we approached a little food stand. Rainbow colored signs indicated the food was free for pilgrims. We approached cautiously, reluctant to believe the food was really free. While we looked for the catch, a guy greeted us and asked where we were from. When we told him we were from California, he exclaimed, “Ahhhh! Americans! We have peanut butter!” It doesn’t take much to please a pilgrim.
Side Note: If you haven’t traveled outside of America you may not have realized that peanut butter is uniquely American. Be proud, my fellow citizens.
So thanks to the hospitality of others, time, and our bodies’ incredible ability to heal itself, our condition slowly improved and we eventually caught back up with some of our friends in time to walk our final days of the Camino together. As we crossed into Galicia, the weather got worse, but our fun multiplied.
During these final days of constant wind and rain, we started our day tip-toeing around puddles and mud, adding minutes to every kilometer. But after about two hours the Gortex on our boots would give way, and our shoes would flood. What a relief it was to reach saturation point! We could not get any more wet, so we spent the remaining hours trudging, running, and skipping through puddles, often to music or the sweet (okay, not so sweet) sounds of our voices singing together.
We still had aches, pains, and blisters. Our jackets and shoes never fully dried and we walked more kilometers than ever in those final days, but the fun had returned to the Camino. We finished in style, celebrating each remaining kilometer with a “kilometer dance.” We learned to have a good time in the midst of the most challenging of circumstances.
In fact, on my absolute favorite day of the Camino, it poured rain non-stop, we had our longest walk at 38km, and we dropped our iPhone and shattered the screen (notice I said “we;” let’s not point fingers now). At the end of the day we were tired, wet and bummed about our phone, but it didn’t matter. We can rest our bodies, dry our clothes and fix our phone, but when else will we have the opportunity to walk for 30 days across Northern Spain with new friends? So like our shoes soaked up the rainwater, we absorbed every final moment of our Camino trek.
Some people warned us that they had been disappointed when they arrived to Santiago. We didn’t experience disappointment at all. To us, it was a huge reunion. We stayed three days in Santiago to watch our friends arrive and we all celebrated together with a huge tapas and wine party on Friday night after watching the botafumeiro at mass.
Note: The botafumeiro is a huge censer in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. It is used to spread incense during mass. It hangs from the dome by a large rope and swings all the way across the length of the church. One tradition states that they began using this large censer because pilgrims arrived to the cathedral tired, unwashed, and smelly. I have included a video of the botafumeiro that our friend Ken took. Enjoy!
As we sat around the dinner table and discussed the Camino, we reflected once again on why we walked. One friend said he walked to find a wife; he didn’t. One said he wanted clarity for his career; it was still hazy. One wanted inspiration for his music; he came away with no new songs. But none of them were disappointed with their experience of the Camino. They might not have got from it what they came for, but they gained something nonetheless, for example, new friends, repaired relationships with family, or clarity of mind.
I don’t think it matters so much why you walk the Camino, just that you walk.
I'm Jaime. My husband is Tom. Suburbanites, backpackers, and expats...we've been them all!