When I look through the Facebook group, American Pilgrims on the Camino, I feel like I am the only one who wanted to quit. I know there are those who needed to quit because of physical problems, but somedays it feels like I am the only one who wanted to quit. Let me set it up for you.
We had been planning our Camino for about 6 years. We couldn’t contain our excitement the closer it got to our departure date. I, Michelle, am a Professor of Communication so the thought of interacting and engaging with people from all over the world filled me with joy. We are hikers with 10 years of hiking experience including quite a bit of long-distance day-hiking and some backpacking so we were looking forward to the physical elements of the walk. I was a bit anxious about the food because I have an auto-immune disease, can’t eat gluten, and I am a bit of a picky eater but hate to admit it. Though I tried to have an open mind and share Brian’s enthusiasm for embracing food culture, I quietly struggled with the thought of it. Though it took forever to get there, June 2017 arrived and we set off on the Camino filled with excitement and a small case of anxiety.
I took the photo above of our first “second breakfast” as it’s affectionately called on the Camino. Second breakfast is what you have after hiking about 5-10 km. First breakfast is typically bread and coffee. So begins my first challenge, I can’t eat bread and I don’t drink coffee. I wish I liked coffee, I do, it’s just not my flavor so I usually found a Monster energy drink at a store the night before and started my day with it. Next, I initially loved Spanish tortilla. It’s eggs and potatoes, what’s not to love. On a side note, Brian wasn’t a big fan of bocadillo, he called it a baseball bat of bread with a thin layer of ham and cheese. Fortunately, Brian usually had a lot of other choices. But this isn’t why I wanted to quit the Camino.
Challenge number 2, oh how we both hate early mornings. We had to leave our albergue by about 5:30 – 6 a.m. for most of our Camino because Spain was experiencing record heat. When we didn’t leave so early in the morning the heat was so bad we had to quit early so leaving early was a better alternative. But this isn’t why I wanted to quit the Camino.
Then there is doing the laundry by hand, day after day. After a long day of hiking in the heat, all I wanted to do was take a nap. Brian had to talk me into showering and washing the clothes with him before passing out on the bed. Some days it took a lot of convincing. But that is not why I wanted to quit.
I don’t know where my husband got so much energy but his drive to see every inch of every town after hiking an average of 13 miles a day and hand washing our laundry astounded me. He was so happy – all the time – happy. I was tired, exhausted, crabby and weak. That is why I wanted to quit the Camino but I hadn’t hit rock bottom yet. I felt so inadequate. It wasn’t Brian’s fault.
I also felt very isolated. I didn’t have anyone else to talk to on the Camino. We were hiking together, so yes we had each other, but after Pomplona, we went for several days without meeting anyone who spoke English. Feeling isolated in our room one night I even looked up flights. I was ready to max out a credit card and fly home the next day. Brian convinced me to give it one more day and if I wanted to quit he was ready to come home with me. What? He would quit too! Ugh, the pressure of not wanting to end his Camino. But I agreed to give it one more day and I was convinced we were going home.
I really don’t remember the next day except that it wasn’t as hot, the shade was plentiful, the hills weren’t too bad, and we walked into a town to have second breakfast only to find a group of pilgrims all speaking English. The signs were everywhere, I knew by the end of the day we were to continue walking on the Camino.
I was re-establishing a good rhythm on the Camino again until our third day on the Meseta and our 17th day of walking. The Meseta is a week-long stretch of flat hiking from Burgos to León where you feel like you can see the entire week ahead of you because it is so flat. It is also normally the hottest part of the Camino but for us, it was the coldest, wettest, and windiest part. We had awful winds, up to 25 mph.
Then we walked into Carrión de los Condes. When we arrived, we walked into a convent where cloistered nuns were sitting in the back singing. It left us speechless. A fellow pilgrim was sitting in a pew, crying, so I sat with her. Later that evening she saw us again and she told her friend that we were her angels. Apparently, we helped her out a few different times but didn’t realize what we did was so meaningful.
That evening we met a different order of nuns who are affectionately called, “the singing nuns.” We knew this was an evening we could not miss. There was also a priest who we had been following on and off all day. We first met him chanting in a church earlier that day. He brought us to our knees in that church. That evening he led mass and we learned he was from Poland, delivering the mass in Latin, Spanish, and English. Wow.
The best part of the evening was when the nuns asked everyone why they were walking the Camino. When they learned we were walking to celebrate our 10 year wedding anniversary, they dedicated a song to us. Sobbing in an overcrowded room full of strangers, I realized this was my rock bottom. I knew I needed to continue on the Camino. I had to complete this walk. I felt so broken and so energized all at the same time. We left that room full of friends to find our dinner and ran into a group of Spaniards celebrating a reunion. They invited us to dance with them. I wanted a do-over with the energy I was feeling that evening. I started my Camino over again the next morning, renewed.
It was that evening when we opened ourselves up, sharing our story with strangers, that everything changed. From that day forward we met friends from all over the world, people we are still friends with today. I don’t know what took us so long, but I am so very thankful for that evening and finally hitting my rock bottom.
Only a short 8 days later we left the weight of our burdens at Cruz de Ferro. We even shared this moment with two new friends from Hawaii who kindly took the photo above. Please don’t wait to connect with people. They are a big part of the Camino. I continued to struggle with the food, hand washing the laundry, and heat exhaustion, but I had new friends to help us along the way as I hope we helped them.
I am thankful to have Brian walking by my side. We pushed each other, lifted each other up, and we know when it’s time to be patient with one another. It is my hope that you have someone to walk with along your Way or find someone faster than I did.
Buen Camino friends, see you along the Way!