Lessons Learned on The Way to Santiago

Deborah Kevin #AspireMagI was ten hours and 20 miles into the first day on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela with four and a half miles farther to go until reaching the B&B. I’d waited years to begin this journey and planned to trek for five days with a small group of like-minded women, only one of whom I’d met once and barely knew.

I teetered across a balance beam of hard-packed earth, waist-high fronds on my left and a gully of mud to my right. My foot slipped. Ankle twisted. Ping. A shockwave ran up my left leg. I paused. Sucked air deep into my lungs. Not my knee! No! But I said nothing, pushing through the pain that grew with each footstep. I fell behind the others as we plodded toward Montcuq.

“Debby, you’re really limping,” Roz said. She waited for me to catch up to her. “Do you need help?”

I said, “We’re almost to the hotel. I’m sure I can make it.” In truth, doubts about my ability to finish not only the day but also the entire Camino ping-ponged inside my head. “I have a knee brace I can put on once we’re there.” My knees were riddled with arthritis from years of ski and bike injuries. Doctors had suggested surgery but I was determined to avoid going under the knife for as long as possible. My knee pain mirrored my internal scarring, making visible the spiritual hurt I limped through life carrying.

Roz insisted that I stop to don the brace. “You’ll only cause more damage if you wait.”

I knew she was right. Dropping my overstuffed daypack on the road, I ruched around until I unearthed the neoprene brace, which I clamped over my wonky knee. Using my walking sticks like crutches, I hobbled along, Roz by my side the entire way.

Daylight waned as we twisted down narrow streets. I gritted my teeth and prayed with each step that we were nearly to our B&B, which was on the far end of town. Each turn revealed only more stretches of road lined with centuries old houses. Lights flared to life inside windows as it grew darker.  

From L-R: Deborah Kevin, Triza Burke, Linda Everett, Rosalind Halifax, Celica Coram, Heather Waring

We turned a corner to finally find our hotel. It had been an exhausting day, more grueling than any of us had expected. We arrived at 8:30, an hour after dinnertime. On the Camino, if you were late for meals, you typically didn’t eat. To our intense gratitude, the owners had waited for us.

By the time my roommate Linda and I retired, it was nearly 11. We still had to elevate our legs to drain the lactic acid, a hikers trick to avoid cramped muscles. When I pulled off my hiking boots and peeled away my thick socks, I discovered a blister the size of a quarter on my left heel. Never before had my feet blistered like this. I searched in vain for Band-Aids in my backpack’s main compartment. In a side pocket, I found blister plasters! Heather had given them to me a day earlier, and I’d taken them just to be polite.

The next morning dawned sunny and cool. After a pilgrim’s breakfast of freshly baked bread and jam, we hit the trail. My knee remained supported by the brace, my blister was plastered, and I felt determined to keep up despite the dull throb of my knee. Periodic worries about permanent knee damage snaked their way into my otherwise cheerful thoughts. I pushed them aside and focused on the bird calls and warmth of the sun. After about five miles, we came upon a small chapel whose doors were open.

We ditched our packs on the picnic table outside and wandered into the cool, dark church. A placard indicated it had been built in 982 C.E. Peeling frescos in shades of umber and mustard covered the walls. A midnight navy ceiling was sprinkled with golden stars. A thick layer of dust adorned the silk flowers tucked into an alcove. An emaciated Christ hung on a freestanding cross next to the raised altar, photos, shriveled flowers, and candles at its base.

I sank into one of the hard wooden chairs and silently said a prayer. “Thank you for bringing me this far. Thank you for helping me to continue. Please ease my pain.”  And most of all: “Help me understand what my lesson is.”

I felt a hand on my shoulder and opened my eyes. Heather indicated I should follow her outside.

“Debby, I’m really worried about your knee. Would you be okay with me ordering a taxi to take you to our hotel for the night,” Heather spoke with a kind voice. “I don’t want you to get worse. Perhaps having a bit of a lie in will make you fit to continue tomorrow.”

Tears formed at the corners of my eyes. I didn’t want to give up. I wanted to walk. But I knew my desire was putting everyone else behind schedule. I also knew Heather was right. The pain was excruciating. I couldn’t speak, so I nodded my agreement.

Heather folded me in her arms, whispering in my ear, “You of all people. You’ve been so looking forward to this trip and you trained so hard. I’m so sorry.” She hugged me tighter.

It turns out finding a taxi in rural France isn’t easy, especially on a Saturday afternoon of a holiday weekend. After some finagling, a taxi arrived. I hoisted myself into the van’s front seat, waving at the rest of our tribe as I drove away, tears leaking from my eyes. My friends waved back until the van disappeared around the bend.

 Upon arrival at the farmhouse where we’d be spending the night, I lugged my suitcase upstairs with the help of the elderly hotelier, popped a painkiller, and slid between crisp sheets under a plump duvet. Thoughts thumped through my brain to the rhythm of my heartbeat: My ex husband was right: I couldn’t walk the Camino. My weight is too high to manage this kind of trek. I should have done more preparation. I don’t understand why I got blisters – that’s never happened before. I let everyone down. I let me down. My eyes closed and I fell into a dreamless sleep.

The sound of children playing woke me late in the afternoon. I lay in bed, feeling the breeze come through the open window. I recalled my last thoughts before napping, and felt embarrassed at having given in to them. Stop ‘shoulding’ on yourself. You did your best in preparing. No one could have predicted that you’d slip. Of course you can do this. You WILL complete the Camino. Tomorrow’s a new day.

The next morning, I rubbed muscle cream liberally on my knee, slid the knee brace back on, and donned hiking pants and tee shirt.  I felt ready to be back on the trail.  Days three through five started the same way: rising by 6 a.m. to breakfast and hit the trail by 8. We hiked up and down a total of seven mountains, passed through ancient towns that had been Roman fortresses, walked along a canal for an entire day, and slid down wet leaves and mud paths. The smell of freshly mown grass lingered in the air with the song of countless unseen birds.

Late in the afternoon of our last day, we arrived in Lectoure. After showers, we met in the bar for champagne and celebration before our last dinner. Heather asked us how we felt having accomplished the 77-mile hike.

“I felt like giving up,” Roz said. “I thought, there’s no way I can take one more step. But then I saw Debby hobbling along without complaint and thought, if she can do it, so can I.”

Tears ran unabated down my cheeks. “Here I was feeling so bad that I hiked so slow, throwing everything off schedule. I’m so grateful for each of you cheering me on and showing me such kindness. I truly couldn’t have done this without you. Thank you.”

We raised our glasses and toasted, “To the Camino!” 

Someone else toasted: “To us.” 

I said, “We did it!”

Trekking the Camino was the hardest physical activity I’ve ever undertaken. My blisters grew to the size of silver dollars and my knees twinged the entire way. But the peace, quiet, and time to reflect was a priceless gift. Completing this adventure with women who completely supported each other, bonded over a shared experience, and achieved a hairy audacious goal together was the gift of a lifetime. By putting one foot in front of the other, I now know anything can be achieved!

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**Heather Waring of Waring Well (www.waringwell.com) runs the Camino Experience twice a year, in spring and fall. Her next trek will be in October 2017 where she’ll lead eight women on a life-changing journey. A few places remain at this writing.

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Deborah Kevin About Deborah Kevin

Deborah Kevin (pronounced “key-vin”) loves helping heart-centered entrepreneurs attract their ideal clients and grow their businesses by creating and implementing a compelling blog strategy. A graduate of State University of New York at Geneseo, Stanford University and a Penn State University alumnus, Debby is an associate editor with Inspired Living Publishing and a former editor of the Little Patuxent Review. She’s a member of the Association of Writing Professionals. Her passions include travel, cooking, hiking, and kayaking. Her in-process novel, Finding Grace, is under revision. She resides in Maryland with her family. Visit www.DeborahKevin.com to learn more and to download your free eGuide, 5 Steps to Publishing Client-Attracting Posts.

  • Susie Breaux McShea

    Very inspiring!