There's an elephant in the room and it's called, the Camino

I've been trying to reflect on the last year and decade, but kept getting stuck with my words. Perhaps it's because I have done little to dwell on one of the most major journeys I completed last year: the Camino de Santiago. I don’t want to bore you with just another Camino story. The same one you’ve heard over and over. Whether you know about the Camino de Santiago or not I’m just going to tell it like it is and start from the end. It’s something that changes you. You finish it after several weeks of walking on the trail and the weeks seem like just a few days. It’s hard to comprehend how long you’ve been on the trail in the end. It had become a lifestyle. You got up, packed your bag, ate a quick bite, carried on the road, had coffee and food along the way, looked for an albergue (hostel for pilgrims) to stay for the night, showered and washed any clothes, ate dinner, journal-ed, slept and repeated. Everyday started and ended this way and so life was very simple. You didn’t have to make many hard decisions or carry huge responsibilities. 

You just had to keep going. One foot in front of the other.

That in itself was difficult most days for me though. I suffered from a bad knee injury and extreme Achilles tendinitis in both feet that left me in a lot of pain on most days. I would get up, take some anti-inflammatory medicine, and push through the pain and let the tears come if they did. I was determined to finish because quitting was never an option for me. I had walked every day in Hawaii. I thought that the Camino was just a long walk that was just a wee bit more compounded daily. I could do it. 

It was much more difficult than I had imagined. I never thought that my old knee injury could flare up to the extent that it did. Getting Achilles tendinitis wasn’t even on my radar of possible bad things to happen. I woke up one day and I couldn’t even put on a sock. The day before we had walked a brutal 33 kilometers with a lot of it on hard pavement. The pressure of the elastic in my sock touching my ankle caused me excruciating pain. It felt like a knife was slowly slicing off the back of my heel. After trying to suffer through putting shoes on and attempting to walk, I had to realize that I could not walk on the Camino that day. I am a stubborn lady by nature, but it was beaten out of me that day. I cried a lot. I felt like I had failed, but I knew that if I carried on trying to walk that day that I would cause more harm than good. I could possibly ruin my chances of finishing the Camino at all and potentially cause long-term problems. 

Getting back to the last day, I was walking backwards from the coast by myself this time. It’s not a lonely way, but different. I was walking on the familiar path but in reverse, allowing me to see everything in a different light. I took my time on the last day. My knee wasn’t causing me as much pain, but my Achilles were very much still a problem. I made several stops that day and wasn’t in any hurry to get to Santiago de Compostela for the second time. I walked slowly through the forest - the one just before getting into the Santiago de Compostela city center. 

The sun finally broke through the thick overcast morning to reveal a beautiful blue sky through the trees. I could feel the warm sunbeams on my face. It felt like I was having a movie montage in a scene where someone is seeing their life flash before their lives. Only I wasn’t going to die and I was only seeing moments from the Camino. All of the events that led up until that very moment in the woods were going through my head and a heavy sadness came over me. I didn’t want it to end. But all things must come to an end and I chose to end my camino on that day. I got to the end of the wood and before me I could see the cathedral in Santiago from afar. I was nearly there and it would be done. 

I had to walk through another small forest patch where there was a highly-decorated kilometer marker. I teared up and had a moment before forcing myself to keep going, I was just outside of the town. I was passing other peregrinos (camino pilgrims) going the opposite direction, starting their journey to the ocean all fresh. I had finally become one of the crusty peregrinos that had clearly been on the trail for awhile. As I got into Santiago, I started to see the sprayed-painted footprints on the ground that were pointing the opposite direction I was walking. I could see glimpses of the cathedral and it was a much different experience than I had going into the center for the first time. 

I had started the Camino de Santiago alone and I had walked most of it with other people, but here I was to finish for the second time and I was alone again. I could hear the faint sounds of the familiar bagpipes as I walked up the stairs into the square in Santiago de Compostela. They stopped for a moment and I hesitated to finish my walk into the center because there was something anticlimactic about finishing without them. But they started again and I was finally able to proceed until I was standing in the middle of the square facing the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. I had just walked over 1000 kilometers/630 miles over 42 walking days and was on the Camino for 51 days with a lot of rest days by the ocean. 

It was done.

I didn’t cry because I was in Santiago, I cried because it was over. The pain, the endless stories on the road, the terrible pilgrim meals, the uncomfortable and noisy albergues, the coincidences, the deep conversations about life, the hugs, the moody struggles, the birds chirping in the woods, the sound of the ocean and the breeze blowing through the trees - it was all over. I wept and realized that I would never have this moment again and I needed to feel it. No matter how many times I could tell my stories, I could never make anyone understand the Camino unless they were on it AND GOT IT. It was a long walk, but it was also more than that. 

There were other peregrinos walking in too, most of them finishing up from walking the last 100 km of the Camino. I had three groups of people come up to me while I cried in the square. They asked me if I was okay and then asked me how long I had walked for. Another woman told me she wished she had had her camera because my emotional moment looked like something for the National Geographic magazine. I had no idea what to say. I felt like my moment had ended and I had turned into a tourist attraction.

I would return to the square a few times before I left Santiago hoping for some moment of clarity and I guess - what all of us peregrinos call, our “ah-ha” moment. My moment would never come. I would go on to continue traveling Europe for a couple more months. As the weeks went by, the feeling of completing the Camino never became real. Walking the Camino felt more like a dream to me more than a memory. It’s hard to explain and I’ve only found one other person that walked the Camino that understands and has felt this too. 

I’m not sure if the ah-ha moment is real, but what I do know is that the many micro moments that happen all the time along the Camino are real. Through stories and conversations with other peregrinos, through solitary walks in silence, through long conversations with locals, and by dreaming - you discover things all the time. 

I came back to America and expected to become the storyteller that I had hoped to be, but discovered that people weren’t ready for this story. So I’ve been stuck trying to decide how to revive this blog of mine and formulate the words to tell you. I had hoped to have blogged the whole time during my travels, but I got too caught up living.  I hope you understand a bit more now and I want to keep sharing with you. This might not be the Camino story you were looking for, but it’s mine, and it’s definitely not the last. 


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