One of the low points of my Camino happened somewhere around the middle of week two. We were in the (shadeless, merciless) meseta region; to get a head start on the unforgiving sunshine, Jim woke me at 4:30 a.m. As soon as I realized where I was — in an alburgue dorm room stale with thirty people’s nighttime exhalations — I felt an upwelling of dread. My muscles ached. My joints were stiff. My blistered feet looked like a novice fire-walker’s.
Another thing: I’m not a morning person. I’m a mid-morning person. Provided with a carafe of coffee, that is.
The dormitory was soaked in darkness. I dressed by feel inside my sleeping sack, wriggling into my shorts and t-shirt, gingerly pulling a pair of clean socks over my wretched feet. After packing everything back into my pack, I limped to the bathroom and brushed my teeth. The only other woman in the ladies’ room was as grumpy as I was, and as puffy-eyed. We didn’t speak.
Before leaving Texas, I’d been annoyed when people referred to our upcoming Camino as a vacation. I was quick to correct: “It’s not a vacation, it’s a pilgrimage.” After all, I wouldn’t be lying on a beach sipping fruit drinks and reading trashy novels. Yet in so many ways, I’d underestimated what the Camino would require. The necessity of physical stamina was a given, but strength of spirit is just as — if not more — important. This is what I lacked. In hindsight, I can see that this is what I lacked generally, and was perhaps part of the reason my marriage had crumbled: I’d let go of my initial vision.
That morning, I was irrationally angry at Jim for imposing a state of awakeness upon me, even though we’d agreed the night before to get an early start. When I found him outside the alburgue, lacing up his shoes in the darkness, I realized I no longer wanted to be doing the Camino. Neither did I want to be in Spain — its charms at that moment evaded me. Desperately, I tried to remember why I was doing this, but I couldn’t think of a single reason. I’ve spent thousands of dollars for this experience, I thought to myself. But the Camino didn’t feel fun or sacred, it only felt hard, and kind of pointless — a unique method of self-torture. If the alburgue had been equipped with a Star-Trek style transporter, I would have beamed home and crawled into bed with my kitties.
It’s an anecdote now, but at the time, I was on the verge of despair. I thought I needed to be seeking some answer or artifact, some hope to which I might fasten my spirit as I hobbled among the yellow arrows — but I had no such thing. I’d come to the Camino without a well-defined question, compelled only by a musical performance and an intense but nebulous desire — one the Camino’s difficulties had withered.
There was no Star-Trek transporter. My only real choices that morning were: 1.) Stage a Camino-coup by planting my butt on a bench and refusing to walk, or 2.) Strap my pack on my back and take a step. And then another step. And another. Of course, this is what I did.
They say that the Camino gives you what you need, be it water, inspiration, an answer — or even the question. That morning, the Camino became both question and answer for me. Silent but side by side, Jim and I walked through the streets of that tiny, drowsing village, to its edge. And then we walked into the gloom beyond. The black-velvet sky turned sapphire at the edges. Behind stuccoed courtyard walls, sleepy roosters cleared their throats. The pre-dawn air was cool as water on our faces, and as we fell into a rhythm, my endorphins kicked in to mask the pain in my feet. I reminded myself that all I had to do that day was put one foot in front of another. The sun came up, and Spain flushed pink and gold. There was coffee waiting for me a few kilometers ahead.