(Blogger’s Note: This is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of my book in the works, #PilgrimStrong, based on my experience of pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago.)
Chapter 1: Did I Just Do That?
It wasn’t until a three-hour, winding bus trip back from Fisterra to Santiago that my head cleared enough to realize the full-blown state of exhaustive delirium with which I’d entered the square at St. James’ Cathedral two days earlier.
Somehow, it already seemed an eternity past, and was yet so predictably consistent with every other single day of my camino experience where time repudiates the notion it must somehow quickly pass.
On the Camino de Santiago, time actually decompresses. Camino time stretches on endlessly as the Old Roman Road leads trudgingly westward through the infinitely skyscape-defined Meseta. Camino time is unbounded. Without constraint. It lives.
With the first leg of the three-day journey home now well under way, it was a peaceful, restful sensation heading southward through the coastal Galician villages, and there was the bonus of a warm, Mediterranean, crystal clear azure day. It was gorgeous. Truman Capote loved writing here. I understood why.
I kept thinking I should feel differently. I should feel victorious – the triumphant, conquering pilgrim having claimed his prize at the zero marker once believed the End of the World. Far less than a fraction of 1 percent of everyone who’s ever lived experienced the magnitude of what I’d just done. But as we made the turn from the coast eastward through the twisting mountain valleys en route to Santiago, and as I sat watching the kilometers click effortlessly past the window, all I could honestly think about was how completely relieved I was that the walk was over. I kept telling myself I should be on my knees thanking God for granting me this experience. All I could truly do from my heart was thank Him the 500 miles was finished, that I wasn’t completely cold for the first time in nearly three weeks, and that with massive amounts of fabric softener, my clothes might take on at least the smell of neutrality by the weekend.
So after two days of transitioning from weary pilgrim to recovering tourist, it was as if my mind finally gave my body, now 29 pounds lighter, permission to know the degree to which it had taken over, masking the pain of an inflamed, hemorrhaging shin that dictated my gait every single, aching step of the final 100 kilometers from Portomarin to Santiago de Compostela.
The original “plan” to arrive on Thanksgiving Day was clearly blown a week earlier. And by that time, any preconceived goals of time or state of being no longer mattered. I just wanted to make it, and finish strong, even if I had to fake it. And then, I wanted to go home.
My wife and mother were sending me consistent messages to listen to my body. “Nothing is worth hurting so much,” they said, as wives and mothers do.
I remember laughing about the reply I wanted to send them, but didn’t:
“My body says it wants a queen-sized bed with clean sheets, fluffy blankets and a western omelette with wheat toast around 7 a.m., por favor. I stopped listening to my body two weeks ago. If I hadn’t, I’d already be home, y’all.”
The leg honestly hurt like hell, I was beyond exhaustion and my camino sleep pattern never allowed much more than five broken hours a night (which could’ve had something to do with other stinking, snoring pilgrims less than two feet away from my head).
But the very suggestion of not finishing what I’d come to do was completely hateful. I can think of no other word. I abhorred the mention of anything other than a respectable finish on two legs. I’m the one who had to live with how this turned out. No one else, so don’t tell me how to finish – just pray God will carry me a bit further. I already knew He would. We’d had that talk.
From Portamarin on, I would’ve crawled 100 kilometers through the cold, sticky Spanish mud before I’d have given up on planting my walking stick at the foot of the resting place of St. James, Son of Thunder, apostle of Jesus. I’m so glad my mind took over to mask how much those last miles hurt. I just wish I could remember more about it, and have enjoyed more of it. Arriving in the square wasn’t the glorious moment I’d imagined.
Alas, that’s what happens when a certain, special instinct takes over on the Camino.
Maybe you already know it, or maybe you will one day.
I call it – #PilgrimStrong.