“At first, I was worried there would be a lot of broken people out here,” Marg admitted while sipping a glass of vino tinto under the shade of a bar patio.
At the time, we all laughed and agreed. We were all having more fun than expected. Wasn’t there supposed to be some element of suffering in a pilgrimage?
But then things started breaking.
The first thing to break was Jakob’s phone. We were in San Juan de Ortega. Don’t look it up, I can describe the googlemap view quicker than you can spell the name. Somewhere in the middle of northern Spain there is a church, a bar, and a hostel conveniently located all under the same dilapidated roof. This is San Juan de Ortega. I left Jakob and Louise unattended for no more than 30 minutes and when I returned I discovered three things: Jakob’s iPhone screen was smashed, Louise was slumped over on a bench, and the vending machine specialized in beer. Of course my assumption upon taking in this scene was entirely wrong. The phone smash was an innocent accident and Louise’s was suffering only from a cocktail of asthma medication and muscle relaxants. There was nothing to be done about either mishap, so Jakob cracked open a beer, and Louise took a dignified bench nap in the heart of bustling San Juan. Neither one was as concerned about the unfortunate events as I thought they should be, so after a few minutes, I gave up my panicked attempts at problem solving and sat down on the bench beside them.
Louise’s situation went from bad to worse. Of course she recovered from her temporary semi-coma, but her muscles and tendons refused to cooperate. Over the next day, her witty trail banter was gradually replaced with the sound of her clicking hip. By the time we hobbled into Burgos (km 285), Louise’s left ankle was also inflamed. It seems bodies like symmetry and if a right hip is in limbo then the left has to sacrifice something as well. After six hours of physiotherapy, Louise still wasn’t trail ready.
The good news was, Louise wasn’t suffering alone. Only about a week before Burgos, Dave had made some sort of comment about those young kids who wear braces on every joint in their body. “They just need to toughen up,” he said. So when he first started feeling stabbing pain in his shins, there was no way he was going to admit to weakness. Over the next few days, Dave’s trek slowed to a limp and by the time we all reached Burgos, he had no choice but to cuddle up with some icepacks and Netflix for five days. Marg and Anita were all too content to trade their polyester quickdry for some cotton sundresses, while quietly admitting that they needed the break too.
Jakob and I decided to take a rest day in Burgos too. While our bodies rested our minds raced. We couldn’t imagine saying goodbye to our Camino family. Could we laugh without Louise? Could we drink beer without Dave? Could we compose eloquent dinner time poetry without Marg? Could we complain about shitty bar service without Anita?
Jakob did everything in his power to delay our departure. He complained that his heels hurt. So we bought some foot cream. He complained that his shins hurt. So we bought some shin cream. He complained that MY knees hurt. So I bought some knee cream. After running out of excuses, he had no choice but to crack his head open on the hotel window. So I ran frantically out into the street armed with a google translation of “my husband hit is head. Do you have some ice?”
After the bleeding had stopped Jakob suggested that this was a sign that we should delay our departure. Why break up the family? I insisted that he suck it up. So the next day we had one final family breakfast and before the tears could water down the orange juice, we hugged goodbye and wished each other a “Buen Camino.”
We managed to cover another 75km before something else broke…or should I say broke out. Somewhere in the endless fields of the Tierra de Campos, Jakob noticed some sort of allergic reaction reddening his arms. As a wife, I of course have inherent medical knowledge, which I assume is some sort of precursor to the natural medical knowledge that comes with motherhood. So I assured Jakob that they looked like hives, probably an allergic reaction to something he had eaten. Which was ridiculous of course, since we had eaten nothing other than chicken, potatoes, bread, eggs, and cheese in the last two weeks.
That evening we stayed in what we assumed must have been an (old?) insane asylum. We had no way of really knowing if pilgrims were the only inhabitants since the fortress like building was an endless maze of halls and doors stretched out over five inadequately lit floors. The nuns gave us each a private room and told us that we had to pay extra if we wanted to share a room. I insisted “no we are married. It’s not a problem,” assuming that we were being slapped with some sort of immorality tax. But they insisted. So I pulled out my big girl sleeping bag, took down the creepy saint portrait on the wall, and assured Jakob that I could fend off ghosts on my own.
That night a cold wind blew into town. The evening air was even colder in the Romanesque stone church where we sat and listened to a beautiful guitar concert.
While my mind and body relaxed, refreshed by the music, my shins tensed up, resistant to the sudden cold. By the time we made our way back to our asylum accommodation, I could barely hobble. The next morning I rotated and stretched my ankle nervously. Something was not right.
Twelve hours later, we were in the midst of what must be the most purgatorial stretch of the Camino: seventeen killometers with no potable water fountains, scarce shade, and not a single hill or curve in the road to disrupt the horizon. We stopped briefly on the edge of the gravel road to munch on some cheese and bread. Between mouthfuls we muttered half-hearted ‘buen camino’s to the endless ant-like line of pilgrims. At some point, I put my glasses in my pocket and switched to sunglasses to better cope with the desserty conditions. Bending down to pick up my pack, I heard the unmistakable sound of cracking plastic. Sure enough, two hairline cracks ran through the plastic frame of my glasses. My first thought was a vain one: “Shit! I’m totally going to be that nerd with the taped glasses.”
By the time we reached the village of Calzadilla (km 388), my right ankle had lost almost all range of motion and Jakob’s rash had spread. There were now at least 65 distinct welts covering big patches of both his left and right arms, dotting his legs, and tracing across his waist and chest. It was 10:30 in the morning, we had only walked 17km, but we were ready to call it a day. Jakob explained our maladies at the check-in desk as if we were entering a hospital emergency room. I interrupted just as Jakob began explaining the swollen bites all over his body. No way would they take us in. No way would they willingly invite what must be bed bugs into their hostel. The young man at the counter grimaced.
“I am going to do something special for you,” he began filling out the paperwork, “you can have the disability room. See your rash and leg pain aren’t all bad. Tonight you get a private room.”
We breathed a sigh of relief. Not only were they not going to turn away a cripple and a leper, but they were offering us special treatment.
We spent the rest of the day sitting around a bar table at the edge of town. The scene looked like some sort of sad marathon finish line where the crowds were too tired to cheer, but if you sat down for a drink they were more than willing to commiserate. We watched as familiar faces and people we now counted as friends trickled over the small rise into town.
It felt like a finale to us. We were able to wish well to our friends who were continuing on that day and we smiled with relief at those who decided to join us for one last night together.
We technically had time in our travel itinerary for three more full days of walking to cover the remaining 78km into Leon. But we had had enough. We walked the 10km to the next town with bus service and relaxed into the air-conditioned oasis of modern transportation. Out our window we couldn’t help but stare at the long lines of pilgrims struggling under the hot sun and the weight of poorly adjusted packs. I couldn’t believe how miserable they all looked. Hadn’t we all chosen this path? Wasn’t this supposed to be fun? No, not exactly fun. I guess it was supposed to be healing. Yes, healing. Because we’re all a bit more broken than we’d like to think.