It has taken me quite some time to write this personal post, a story of determination on the Camino de Santiago. To this day, almost six months after completing my Camino, it still fathoms me that I managed to complete it, completely solo, driven by my own strong will and stubbornness to prove all those who said I could never do it right. I’ve probably also found it hard because when I look back through my past, I don’t think there have been many things I have been really determined to do. Well certainly not to this level anyway.
Deciding to walk the Camino was a very sudden occurrence. Up until 6 months before I left for St Jean Pied de Port, I had never heard of the Camino de Santiago. But one night while flipping through the television channels I began deeply absorbed by the infamous movie “The Way”. It wasn’t really so much the story line I was focusing on, but the beautiful landscapes and the feeling of being “free” that sold the trip to me. I remember as soon as the filmed finished (if not even while I was still watching), my iPad internet tabs were full of information and I spent the rest of the night reading as much as I could, although already in my head I was going to walk the Camino!
So I guess my determination began right then. I think the news came as a shock to my boyfriend who couldn’t quite understand the sudden need to disappear for a month by myself to “just walk”. It took weeks of convincing to persuade him and my family that I wasn’t going crazy and this was just one of those weird things I had to do. I’m pretty sure that even up until the day I departed for my trip that he had some doubt that I wouldn’t complete the journey. After all, I had 6 months to prepare and I think I dragged my ass to the gym all of 3 times to do some “pre-camino fitness training”.
My body had never been put through anything like this before, so even though my strong head said “you’ll be fine”, I burst into a panicking, teary mess just minutes before I jumped into the taxi for the airport and I clung to my boyfriend before I headed through security. I began to doubt I could do it before I even started and he assured me that I could go back home and forget about the trip if I didn’t feel up to it. But I preserved through my tears, said goodbye and mopped through security. I don’t think my heart has ever raced so fast in my entire life. What the fuck was I doing?!
It must of been the initial shock that I had actually followed through on a plan and idea that made me a bag of nerves, because as soon as I entered the Pilgrim office in St Jean Pied de port the following day I was both calm and ready for the strenuous hike that laid in front of me. In all honesty I was thankful to meet other pilgrims of similar age that afternoon who mentally helped me up the steepest ascent I think I have ever done. I mean seriously 4 hours to do 8km! I remember thinking to myself “If it is all like this, I am going to die”. But I made it to my first albergue, a tired, sweaty pilgrim who looked like they had been dragged through a bush backwards and plunged into a bucket of hot water, red faced and bulgy eyes. So much for looking like a glamorous blogger on this ye old walk!
The next day was another uphill battle (quite literally) with side wind stinging my face as it threw micro pellets of water on my cheeks and calves. My neck scarf that was meant to keep sweat and sun off my forehead became the barrier between the miserable mountain weather of the Pyrenees and my poor throbbing ears. If it wasn’t for my amazing ipod playlist I don’t know how I would of made it up that mountain. Can’t some install one of those automatic walkway things you find in airports?!
But again, I made it to my second albergue, this time wet and muddy. And this continued (although the weather and terrain improved two fold!) for several days. In fact by the end of my first week my backpack felt like a bag of feathers, my legs had started to become much stronger and I was flying through my 25km a day. I remember the day I finished in Villamajor de Monjardin. I arrived to find familiar pilgrim faces and I enjoyed one of the best meals of my entire trip. I felt good and super confident that the journey would only get easier.
I set off the next morning departing just after 6. I had organised for my backpack to be transported to the next stop (Viana) because I had some bruising on my shoulders that needed a day’s rest and I had the beginnings of tendonitis in my right foot, so the less weight I carried the better. I had 30km to complete and I wanted to do it with speed so I set off extra early and completely solo, the first time I had departed from an Albergue without other pilgrims with me or behind me. Not a soul was to be seen as I began strolling through the vineyards that sat 2 or 3 km outside the village. The sun rose over the hills and I could see in the far distance the wind turbines that my guide book mentioned. I’d have to walk to those and further so I speeded up a little more so that I could make it to Los Argos before 10am. I got into a fantastic rhythm and I was again flying through what felt like heaven on earth. The colours in the sky were glorious, the sun was on my back and it felt good to be alone. I’d been alone on my travels before, but to be alone in the middle of nowhere was thrilling.
Then as quick as a flash I found myself a bleeding heap on the floor. Covered in dust with a strong taste of blood in my mouth I sat up 100% convinced I had broken something. I now had full blown tendonitis and I must have twisted my ankle as it had become weaker and weaker throughout the morning. My palms were cut open and my knee was gushing with blood. My face hit the floor with such an impact that my braces pierced through my bottom lip. It was at this point that I looked around, pulled my daypack and threw it off my body. I don’t know how long I sat there, but I know I sat and cried for a good ten minutes swearing and hissing as I evaluated the damage. I had already fallen twice before due to my shoe laces getting caught in the hooks of my boots and tripping me up so I already had a few grazes on my legs, but this time I had really hurt myself. I don’t think I cried because I was in pain, I cried because after a week of walking my body was tired. I was having such a great time but my body was weak. I cried because again, I really began to doubt whether I would make it. I was a little over the 150km mark but I still had a long way to go.
I pulled my day pack towards me, delved into it and pulled out my medical kit. I used all my antiseptic wipes cleaning the mess up and thankfully the heat in my backpack had caused the plasters to be extra sticky! I whacked them on, tied my boots (my ankle was super swollen) and somehow pulled myself up. At first I took a few stumbling steps checking to see if my ankle had broken or if it could take my weight. I glanced around to see if I could spot any pilgrims coming up over the horizon behind me but it was still far too early. “Tough shit girl, this is a situation you have to get yourself out of. No one is here to save you.”. With that thought I buckled up and began hobbling down the chalky track.
About an hour and half later I stumbled into Los Argos. By this point I realised my right hand had begun to swell. Within an hour it had swollen to a point where my fingers were no longer fingers, but sausages. Being a Sunday there was no bus service running, and there were only two taxis in town and neither were picking up the phone. Consulting my map, it was another 6 hours walk until I’d reach Viana. I don’t know why I did it, but I tightened my rucksack and set off again.
Over the course of the morning my hand was beginning to cause me pain. I could no longer grip anything with my fingers and my wrist and right ankle were also increasing in size. I was in real trouble and a glance at my guidebook showed there was no hospital in Viana. Someone up in the heavens must of heard me cussing at volume. In my hour of need a young woman approached me named Athena. She was from Greece and she asked what was wrong. After explaining my morning’s ordeal she offered to walk with me to Viana and she even lent me one of her walking poles. Kindly she stopped when my ankle could take no more and she slowed her pace when she sensed I couldn’t keep up. I don’t know if I would of made it to Viana without her. But somehow, hours later we both strolled into Viana a little worst for ware but nonetheless in one piece (just!).
I said my thanks and good byes and I collected my bag that had been shipped to the albergue I had hoped to stay in, and set off on the additional 15 km to Logrono Hospital. In hindsight, I probably should have taken or at least asked for a taxi to the hospital but rather stupidly continued my suffering for another two and half hours before I strolled into the hospital in the early evening. I’m pretty sure the doctor thought I was crazy for having walked so far, with what turned out to be a broken thumb. She prescribed me some painkillers and anti-inflammatories, bandaged up my hand and sent me on my way. She advised that she couldn’t set my hand in cast unless I gave up on the Camino. Determined not to give up on my Camino, I explained that I would continue by journey.
Numerous pilgrims over the next few days offered their sympathies as they passed me on the road. In fact, I became famous as the “girl who broke her hand”. As I arrived in albergues further along the Camino, people would tell me how they heard about a girl still walking the Camino, despite being in pain with a broken hand. Some applauded me for my bravery, nicknaming me “a tough old one”, while others shamed me and told me I was being ridiculous to carry on, with the risk of the bone not healing properly and ruining my hand and thumb movements for ever. Regardless, I struggled on and luckily after a week the pain decreased and I was finally able to pick up my average speed and walk normally, minus my hand in the air to decrease the risk of swelling!
Exactly 22 days after my hand incident, I walked into the city of Santiago de Compostela, arriving at 9:46 am with the biggest smile across my face. The moment I saw the church steeples rising above the city buildings, my eyes welled up with tears. The true sense of accomplishment was a feeling I had never experienced in my life. Pure determination had brought me to the doors of a church that I really never thought I’d make it to. At first I was ashamed of my tears, wiping them away so that no one could see my cry. But once I was standing in front of the church, my emotions ran away from me and I was unable to contain the relief that I had finally, safely arrived. I was no longer afraid to show how I truly felt, and I think the Camino taught me that. I called my parents and burst into inconsolable tears. To this day, I still well up when I think of how I felt in that moment.
While the Camino taught me many valuable life lessons, there is one lesson that stands out. No matter how hard something might be, whether it’s losing weight, grieving for a lost loved one, studying for an exam, going through a divorce or walking the Camino, with little steps, patience and determination, anyone is able to preserve and reach their goal. I deeply believe we all have an inner strength that some of us may not be aware that we possess, and we are more powerful and stronger than we might ever imagine.