I wake. I sit up in bed. I put my feet on the ground. OW! WHAT IS THIS PAIN?? OW OW OW! Oh my God, OW!
This, dear reader is the day after walking 15 miles without training. My feet hurt. Every muscle in my ankles, calves, shins, thighs, glutes and even those I cannot name scream out at once as I attempt to stand. I lose my balance and lurch forward.
I let enthusiasm and adrenaline yesterday carry me much further than I should have. It hurts with every step. I hobble to the bathroom in astonished misery.
But, I’m not staying another night in this cold, echo-y hotel where the staff barely acknowledged me.
When I check out, the lady behind the plexiglas divider seems annoyed at me personally, answering my questions in a most clipped and unhelpful manner.
I hate Neigreira. I’m glad I’m leaving. Even if every step out of this town hurts.
I’m hoping to see the three ladies from Madrid again. But I don’t. In fact, I walk alone.
My only company is my brain. And, y’all, that’s not a good thing. See, like a lot of people (maybe you too), everyday life is full of input. Things to watch. Things to do. Things to see. Input all the time. I’ve done enough retreats and pilgrimage to know that the first few days can be mental misery.
Without constant input, the mind is free to bounce from topic to topic, going to uncharted places. For me, this usually means revisiting past errors in great detail, thinking of things I could or should have said, and “catastrophizing” possible worst case scenarios in a variety of life situations, real or imagined.
I know that this is part of the process. I know it because it’s happened before and if I can hang in there, the brain eventually quiets. Output purge complete, I become serene.
But it can take days. And, as the saying goes, it’s hell in the hallway between one door closing and the next one opening.
In short, I’m walking through beautiful countryside not long after leaving Negreira, but my brain is being an asshole. The woods are plantations of eucalyptus trees, fragrant, tall, and colorful with their peeling, reddish bark. But to me? I’m mad they’re not the native oaks once so common in Galicia. I’m annoyed by the drone of distant chainsaws. Cutting down oaks, no doubt.
I feel jumpy with no other pilgrims around. When there’s a rustle in the leaves nearby, my brain jumps to the worst. “A wild boar about to attack and protect her piglets!!” No, just a bird hopping in the dry underbrush. A long leaf flutters across the trail, “A POISONOUS SNAKE!!”
In this state of mind, it’s just as well I’m alone. I would be horrible company for even the most patient of companions.
I stop to stretch out my calves and glutes, but it’s pointless. Everything still hurts from yesterday.
For a little while, silence settles in, but then the hill appears. And with it, the full-on crabby catastrophe.
Why does there have to be a hill here?? The nerve of it to just go up and up like this! And why is there all this blasted corn everywhere?
I think I’ve got at least three blisters forming on toes that have never had problems before. What the hell?!
My brain is the worst hiking companion ever. If it were a real person, I’d abandon ship right now. But it’s firmly attached to the rest of me, churning up this infernal hill.
At some point, I realize what is happening: I’m focusing on the negative. I am making myself miserable! What a revelation this is, because now I can do something about it.
I try singing. That helps my mood a little. Since I dedicated today’s walk to my dear friend Nancy, I talk to her aloud and say a prayer for her. Still somewhat crabby, I imagine what my friend Marissa would say to me at this moment. She’s often warmly empathetic with me, and somehow this helps. Be kind to you. You’re doing something really hard with minimal sleep and a lot of pain. Of course you’re not in a great mood. Embrace it. Make friends with it.
Softer. More peaceful. I can make things kinder for myself. I guess we all can.
The last time I was in Spain, it was April-May and the flowers were spring-y. Now that it’s summer, the variety of blooms are new and different. Deciding to focus on the beauty around me (oaks or not), I notice purple heather, fuschia foxglove, yellow daisy-like flowers with dark centers, tiny blue “sheeps bit” scabiosa, and bright blue gentian nodding happily in the grasses.
By the time I walk into Vilaserio (a handfulI of houses and two places with pilgrim lodging), I’m in much better spirits. Eight miles is enough for today, I decide.
I go into the bar at the front and ask if they have private rooms. Even though I’m vaccinated, private rooms feel like the safest option. The last time I was here, the welcome was tolerably harried at best, so my expectations are not high.
“It’s my second time here,” I add.
“Really? Thank you for coming back!” His reaction sincere. Folks that run albergues for pilgrims probably don’t get a lot of repeat customers.
“Look,” he says. “Mira, there are not a lot of pilgrims right now. We don’t have any private rooms, but I have one room with four cots. It has a private bathroom. I can give you a key so only you can use it. Usually four beds costs €48, but I will give it to you for €30.”
“Seriously? Yes! And thank you. What a generous offer!”
We both look pleased.
After a shower and a little nap, I change into my “good” clothes (a black cotton tee, quick-dry skort, and strappy Crock sandals). My toenails still look cute from the pedi I got with my sister-in-love a few weeks ago. I feel good. I’m only limping a little.
When I go up to the grassy area with umbrella-covered tables, there’s a big group of French pilgrims sitting together nearby under the covered area. I’m not feeling super social, but I eavesdrop and grin at their commentary while I write in my journal and sip some local white wine.
What a change from this morning!
Looking up from my writing, there they are! The three wonderful ladies from Madrid coming down the path toward me!
My happiness at seeing these familiar faces is immediate. “Hel-looo!” I sing out to them.
“Hel-looo!” I hear from the French contingent, mocking my loud American self. Phooey on them.
“We’ve just had the most wonderful lunch,” P shares.
“Sí,” chimes in M, “A cream of vegetable soup, and the most delicious dessert! ¡Que rico!”
“I really should just follow you wherever you go. You find the best places to eat dinner and stay!”
What’s amazing to me is how convinced I was of my solitude all day. They couldn’t have been more than 30 minutes behind for the entire time.
“We only left Negreira at 9:30. We were so close to you. I’m surprised we didn’t see you!”
I debate inviting them to join my solo room tonight since I have enough beds. “Where are you staying tonight?”
“We’re going to Olveiroa,” A says. She’s the planner in the bunch, a second-time pilgrim.
“Only 18 kilometers more.” A shrug. It’s nearly 3:30pm and I have no idea how they’ll make it, but I decide not to meddle and trust they know what they’re doing.
And it’s one of the hard moments of the Camino when you meet people you click with but your agendas or speeds don’t match. I won’t be able to catch up to them. Not at my pace and pain level.
“I’m sure I’ll see you out there,” I say. “I’m so glad I met you!”
We say farewell and buen camino, and they walk down the hill and away.
It starts to mist a little, but I’m dry under the big umbrella. Two people, a husband and wife, walk by and say hi in passing. Their converted Mercedes van is parked across the street. Envy isn’t a noble emotion for a pilgrim, but I have coveted such a van for years.
B and L introduce themselves from a distance, then come closer to my table to chat. They’re from France and absolutely lovely. B has been walking the Le Puy route for several months through southeastern France and across Spain. Her husband has been driving the van and parks it where they sleep at night. It’s a perfect Camino solution during a pandemic.
They listen with interest as I share about my attempt at the same route with Nancy, interrupted by a heart attack en route in the plane.
“One day, I’ll try again,” I say.
“Oh, you must! It’s so beautiful,” B says, while L nods in agreement.
“I think every French person is required to say that, but I know it’s true!”
We swap details about where we’ve been today, where we’re going tomorrow, and how our bodies feel. B “feels wonderful!” In fact, she seems to glow from the inside out, radiant from daily exercise and the joy of exploration.
They join the rowdy French group, and I concede that they’re probably all nice people, even if they did mock me.
At dinner, I eat alone at a table indoor — part of Spain’s covid restrictions. Soon after, the French contingent shows up. I’m exhusted, but smile in acknowledgment as each one passes me to sit at a safely-distant table.
B and L arrive and take pains to introduce me to the cast of characters. I wave hello to each, and, avoiding a conversation about US politics, I turn back to my soup. (Aside: Caldo Gallego is the perfect food especially on a rainy day — potatoes, ham, white beans, kale-like greens called grelos, a bit of Spanish chorizo sausage. Instant YUM.)
One of the men passes my table, and we have a brief exchange in French.
He stops in his tracks, looks me in the eye, and says in astonishment, “Mais, vous parlez bien le français!” (You speak French well!)
“Not really, but thank you for the compliment,” I say shyly.
When they give their order to the host, I hear them say, “We’ll have the soup the young lady is having over there.” As in me. This too feels like a compliment.
My carafe of white wine is still half full when I’m done with my meal. I turn and ask (in nearly perfect French) if anyone would like to taste the local white wine.
First there’s a murmur of surprise, then an assessment of the current fullness of their respective glasses of red, and looking up at me, a unanimous yes. Everyone drains their glasses as I pass the carafe over.
I’m ridiculous happy to share with them. They all seem equally pleased. It’s just one of those sweet Camino moments where former-stranger become friends.
“Today was HARD,” I write in my journal before bed. “HARD, HARD, HARD! And OW! Tomorrow I will take it easy. Just 5 miles. Three fewer than today. That will help my blisters and my attitude.”
A knock at the door.
“¿Sí? Uno momento.”
A pillow and kind eyes from the sister of the man who checked me in.
“For you.” Such small things mean so much. “It’s better than using your jacket,” she says warmly.
After a day of complaints, I’m miraculously grateful.