It was bound to happen at some point during the hike: total meltdown.
All the PMA that I had channeled on the previous days wasn’t going to get me anywhere today. Not meditation, not smiling, not listening to the wind flowing through the branches or the birds singing in the trees. Uh-uh. None of it was working.
The 21-mile day yesterday had taken its toll. Neither of us had slept well, and my joints and feet ached so badly that I felt as if I had the flu. Plus we had to sleep in separate bunk beds. Phooey.
But we moved forward anyway, packing our backpacks and, after a quick bite in a cafe, started day 3.
The Camino del Norte, while not as difficult as, say, the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail in the U.S., is no walk in the park. The trail passes through various Spanish regions on its way to Santiago del Compostela, and the region that we’re currently in, Basque country, is one of the most difficult. The trail takes us through coastal mountains and has frequent, steep ascents and descents. We had total elevation gains of around 2000-3000 feet over the first few days. I’d compare this portion of the Camino to a moderately difficult multi-day hike in the Cascades of Washington. Today’s hike was the most challenging, with the guidebook listing its difficulty level as a 5 out of 5.
Not that I paid much attention to any of it. We had a steep ascent almost immediately, and it took immense effort just to put one foot in front of the other. You’d think that once I got warmed up, I’d be OK, but my attitude just got worse. I couldn’t stop my mind from racing from one worry to the next: What if we can’t find housing tonight? What will we do with our lives when we get back to the States? Why does this hurt so much? Am I doing permanent damage to myself by climbing all these effing hills? How will I ever get to Santiago if I can’t even get through the next hour? And when I wasn’t worrying, I was perseverating on my discomfort. Each step hurt, and I was moving at a snail’s pace to try to avoid the pain, which, ironically, only made the pain worse and also prolonged the hike. So things weren’t going well.
I tried to think noble thoughts, bringing to mind about all of the brave patients I’d worked with and the monumental struggles that they’d endured and overcome. I thought about Dale’s aunt, who had a stroke in June and is still in recovery. I thought about all the people who have suffered enormous challenges and overcome them. I knew I should feel nothing but gratitude; I had worked with people who had lost their ability to walk, talk, swallow, and even breathe on their own. They had demonstrated immense courage in overcoming the most massive of obstacles, and here I was, merely walking on a trail. Putting things into perspective helped motivate me for a while, but then my mind and its focus on my visceral pain shoved the inspiration away. My attempts at humble gratitude just pissed off the part of me that wanted to feel sorry for itself.
But the fact that I’m writing this is evidence that we did eventually finish the hike and make it to the next town. Here’s what finally got me through the hike:
1- Dale. He was hurting just as badly as I but was stoic as ever, keeping his suffering to himself. He gave me frequent pep talks and encouragement and, after I’d stopped to rest for the umpteenth time, reminded me that if we didn’t start to move faster, we’d be hiking all night (to which I responded, “I see a nice place right over there where I can lay down.”) But I finally took his encouragement to heart and realized that by focusing on myself I was increasing his pain and discomfort, and that wasn’t fair. I’ve since started to learn that when I focus on things outside of me, especially the needs of my husband, it makes it easier to forget about my own pain for a little while.
2- Wilson. That’s what I now affectionately call the stick that I found part way up a tough hill. It was the perfect thickness and length to be a walking stick, and it has been with me ever since. I have since acquired a second walking stick as well. Life is good. (Side note: To understand the nickname, think of the volleyball that kept Tom Hanks company in Castaway. Dramatic, I know, but it makes us laugh.)
3-Music. Screw listening to the wind and the birds and the delightful ring of cowbells. I popped my headphones in and listened to iTunes playlists most of the day, as did Dale. This is probably cheating, and some might say that peregrinos should convene with Mother Nature at all times when on the trail, but some days it’s just about getting to the end of the hike. Plus, there’s nothing like singing along to Journey in a pathetically small, out-of-breath voice to help power you up a hill.
4- Ponies. Today we saw an inordinate amount of ponies. This is definitely pony country. It delighted us to watch these adorable little fellows munch on grass and swish their lovely tails. They were so tame that they often walked toward the fence when they saw us, thinking that we were going to give them food. Somehow I resisted the urge to pet them!
5-Acceptance. Focusing on and accepting the present is not always pleasant. The Camino is not meant to be fun or easy; it’s meant to be transformative. I’m starting to accept that whole “be in the moment thing,” which seems so cliched, but sometimes you just gotta put one foot in front of the other and not worry about what lies behind or before you, what’s around the next bend or at the top of the hill, or how many miles there are to go. It’s not an easy lesson to learn, but it’s the perfect lesson for how to live life.
We finally reached Markina around 6:00. It wasn’t a pretty victory, getting through that hike, but it was a victory nonetheless.