“Harden the fuck up, mate!” In three non-consecutive parts.
You clung to the toilet bowl like a ship-wrecked sailor to a raft, gasping for air, inundated by hot, wet flashes. You might as well have been trying to breathe underwater. Retching, twisting, contorting, straining just to breathe—the final gags gripped at your throat with murderous intent.
“Maria, como estas?” Raoul’s gentle voice echoed softly within the tight confines of the toilet stall.
You wanted to cry, wanted to lift your face from your folded arms, look up at some kind, divine light and be delivered from it all—but the waves of heat and sweat stifled your sobs. You moaned, rolled your head away from your vomit-soaked hand, and tried not to slide face first into the bowl.
“No… no mas… never… fuuuu…. shhhhh….” noises from your mouth, without the slightest cohesion. Cough! Spatter! Pull it together! “It doesn’t–” gasp “–get better!”
No relief. You were down to the bile, and just when you’d been sure you’d been emptied dry, some cruel unseen hand was reaching down your throat for a secondary evisceration, plucking and tugging.
And that wasn’t the worst of it.
Roaul would later find you in a pathetic little ball, shivering in a thick hostel blanket, face plastered against the tiles, reeling, shifting, kicking like a strangling animal. Kicking for warmth, kicking for position as you wrestled with your own guts.
“Quieres agau?” Roaul whispered, shoving a pillow under your head.
“Si!” Kick, squirm. You sucked down the deliciously cool aqua and fell in a heap. Roaul produced another.
After a final round of vomiting, you were washed to the calm shores of some frigid island. You shuffled down the deserted hostel hallway to your bedroom, legs guaranteeing nothing.
Your hit the bed, groped blindly for your sleeping bag, the blanket, the pillow—wrapped, unwrapped, and re-wrapped yourself. Katie lie in the bed next to yours, face hot, lips red, brow smoldering. Her head rolled side to side—“No, no more!” to the fevers that consumed her. Katie is a burner. You are a squirmer.
It was the worst stomach bug of your life.
Jesus Christmas, you’d thought it was food poisoning at first, for that very morning, Katie had come whimpering to your bed after her own night of vomiting. The accused: a shitty porc and cheese bocadillo.
The poor girl, kicked out of her hostel on a morning that threatened rain. Under slept. Under fed. Like a frightened, battered child, she managed two teeny bites of stale white bread and a few gulps of juice before her stomach said no more. You’d thought the worst had been over.
She projectile-vomited just off the highway overpass. Golden peach juice sprayed from her mouth against the backdrop of a sunrise, like a commercial in reverse.
You gagged. You retched. Sympathy gags, you thought.
“Here,” you said, “Rinse your mouth out, and wipe your face.”
Other pilgrims passed you on the road without a second glance. Everyone passed you. Katie dragged behind you like the walking dead.
It was an arduous 17 kilometers. A 7-up at the first bar. A few arresting stomach-cramps. A Coke at the next bar. A final hour-long stretch before Katie wavered, “I need to stop.”
Just in time, for that haven of a donativo hostel was only 100 meters from the path. Raoul, your silver-lined hospitalero, welcomed you with a sympathetic smile.
“Enferma,” Katie said. “Yesterday, I ate a bocadillo with pork. It wasn’t good. I was sick all the night. Very sick.”
You nodded along, feeling relieved for Katie. Relieved that she could finally sleep it off—and not only that: make up for three consecutive nights of terrible sleep.
Raoul led you up to the warmest room in the hostel. It seemed that you would have the place to yourselves. Katie muchas-graciaced herself out of her clothes and into her bed like water spinning down a drain. You followed her down with a kiss, tucked her in, and draped a blanket round her bunk to shield her from the daytime.
On the bunk above hers, you began to read, feeling inordinately tired. The book turned your stomach. You put it down, curled into a ball, and slept against a stomach hard like a shaken-up, carbonated drink.
So yeah… your illness came exactly 12 hours behind Katie’s, defying the strictest rule of a travel partnership: when one party is down, sad, sick, or crying, the other party has to suck it up for the both of them.
Sick. Writhing. Utterly incapacitated. Together.
With Raoul. Sweet, understanding Raoul who brought in chamomile tea and the heater. Who patiently watched over you in the deserted hostel, ready to call the hospital the moment Katie’s brains gave off the scent of fried eggs.
“I think I’m going to walk on, but I think the two of you should stay here. You guys have some like… some stuff… a lot of stuff.” This was Gerrit’s way of breaking up with you.
You’d called it an hour before it happened. Hell, you’re an expert at being dumped.
You couldn’t blame him. Fuck. Your face was bloated with tears. You’d been crying all morning. But with good reason!
You shall explain…
In Burgos, the city in which you’d crumpled to the floor of your hotel room with wrecked a back, you’d taken some time off. You had no choice. You couldn’t walk. Lefty was back at it in full force, gnawing her teeth like a mutt on a frozen steak; and Low Back had reached a state of apathy. All you could do was lie in bed with cocktails of red wine and ibuprofen, and write your story.
That’s when Gerrit showed up.
Gerrit, your charming, bearded, South African buddy from a week before. He’d motored on ahead of your group, only to find himself slowed by his own knee complications.
You caught up for a few minutes, and after exchanging news about your uncooperative body parts, toyed with the idea of taking an additional day off so that you might walk together. It was his suggestion, and you bit your lip anxiously at the thought of leaving Niny for a guy who’d already ditched you once.
Needless to say, you and Katie ended up walking with him, and it was all fairly pleasant to start with. You and Katie chatted excitedly at him, about anything and everything. You were curious to get to know him on a deeper level. Gerrit impressed you, after all. Only 24 years old, but with a calm, mature demeanor of someone twice his age. Gerrit had a purpose of walking The Camino to figure out how to be—where to invest his energy—and also to embrace as many aspects of The Art of Manliness as could be found, inwardly and outwardly.
Outwardly, he was very masculine. He grew a long, unkempt beard which measured his time abroad. His backpack was a relic of his father’s youth: blue, external steel frame, canvas. His hat, canvas. His walking pole, a stick he found and fitted himself. His stuff: high quality, some old, some new, but all timeless.
And inwardly, Gerrit was about as much of an intelligent, polite man as one could ask for, and this made you unusually weak in the knees, for though you are strictly a lesbian on every fathomable emotional level, you cannot help but appreciate the Platonic form of a man, as though some iota of a possibility of straightness lurked within you, if only in form. He often walked alone, deep in thought. He frequently positioned himself behind his camera, as though trying to view the world through another dimension of abstract masculinity, where one appreciates things in the simplicity of what they are, without distraction.
Compare this to his walking pals, you and Katie, who talk animatedly and incessantly, about as much as he will allow through reciprocated commentary. Though even when he remained silent, you were not deterred from pummeling him with words. You suspect he listened to your feast of words like one who must sit and digest slowly after a large meal, trying to make sense of it all.
Of course, you dug into him with many back-handed compliments—your indirect way of approving of him as a man while you slandered men. You also dared him to reveal any lurid aspect of his sex life by openly sharing your own, wondering whether he harbored even an ounce of douchebaggery. As far as you could tell, he was a saint.
You became consumed by the idea of pushing his boundaries, perhaps to corrupt him—maybe give him on opportunity to earn some bragging rights.
But none of this would transpire, for Katie had a hard day. You chalk it up to PMS, for the content of her complaints was still the same—only the magnitude had changed. The weather. The cold. The mental anguish. Same old story.
And then there was you, the next day, a sobbing mess because your back, despite two days of solid bed red, had begun to hurt in ways not felt since college. The ghost of your old injury was haunting. Daunting.
(Katie informed you that your previous blog entry described your experience of other people, and your experience of pain—and nothing of your experience of The Camino itself. This may or may not be true. For you, pain has been a persistent feature of The Camino, and you had described it consistently, but you never once took a moment to explain why the pain was so troubling.)
Most people, when gripped by pain, are not arrested by fear.
“What are you afraid of, Maria?” Katie asked after you’d relinquished your tent to a pedantic Gerrit.
You broke into deep, woeful, punctuated sobs. “I’m afraid I will not be able to walk. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to walk under the weight of this backpack anymore. That no matter how strong I keep my body, how flexible, how healthy, that gravity alone will prevent me from walking.”
You have, in your life, twice lost the ability to walk.
“What I want to do is so simple. I don’t want money, I don’t want fame. I just want to be free to walk. Free to go wherever I want. Free to move.” You were nearly incomprehensible, you were crying so hard.
An entire book has been written about the emotional trauma you have suffered on account of your bad back, and later your bad knee. Years of effort were thrown in the bin. This kind of thing is not exactly rare, and yet very few people can deeply relate.
It was an intense cry—one which you shared with Katie, privately.
You caught up to Gerrit, who sipped a donativo coffee served on the side of the trail. He was unusually quiet, seeing the aftermath of your tears, and deep in thought. You made an effort to clean your face, slightly embarrassed, but beyond really caring. Your feelings, your fear, your emotion were visible—not merely articulated.
You stretched your back at every possible angle, hoping to relieve yourself from the lightning strikes that occasioned the backs of your legs.
“Sit down here for a moment. Just stop stretching for a moment. Sit here,” Gerrit said, gesturing to the seat across from him. You sat. “Now close your eyes. We’re going to do a thought experiment.”
Sure. No problem. It could have be reiki, chi-gong, or four dimensional healing. You would be first in line to any booth that doled out relief.
“Okay, Maria,” Gerrit began. “Imagine you have an office. You have on a white doctor’s coat. The room is brightly lit, clean, fresh-feeling. You can hear the bubbling of a fountain outside the window. It’s all very peaceful. You realize your 11 o’clock appointment has just arrived.” It was 11 o’clock, and you gave him points for blending so much of your immediate environment into the thought experiment. “You see a beautiful girl walk into your office, and you are struck by her immediately. She is tall. Blue eyes, long blondish hair. She’s very, very hot. Athletic. Supple. You probably want to sleep with her.”
“Sure,” you said. “She is very hot.”
“Yes,” Gerrit continues. “She is very hot. But you put your attraction somewhere else, because it is time to be professional. She has come to you because she has pain. You probably already know what kind of pain she has. She can describe it to you in perfect detail. Then she tells you that she has this goal: she want to walk this long walk in Spain, with 50 pounds on her back, but she is concerned about complications. She is afraid that she will not be able to do that walk, for she has begun training for it, and already has pain. In your professional opinion, in order to help this girl accomplish her goal, what do you tell her? What do you think she should do? You don’t have to answer me. You just have to think about it.”
Smooth, Buddy. Fucking smooth.
You reflected—attempted to quiet the scores of follow-up questions, but decide they are mostly irrelevant. He was simply trying to get his point across. Keep it simple, stupid.
But you can’t!
“Is my clinic a pain management center, a sports therapy clinic, or a physical therapy office?” you asked.
You imagined Gerrit’s face-palm.
Fuck his face palm! There are differences in these clinics!
“Your office is for your specialty, for you, with your knowledge. Whatever it is that you do and talk about with your clients now,” Gerrit added.
And what did you do? Did you stretch people? Make them bad-asses? Make them perform? Tell them to back off? Give them pep-talks? Get them to beat their personal bests? Tell them what they think is impossible is truly possible?
You did it all. It depended entirely on the client.
And this tall, blue-eyed girl in your office was intelligent and thoughtful, hyper-focused on her goals. She knew how to ride a fine line between injury and elite-performance; she could work around almost any injury; she’d done it before. Even when they cut into her back to remove the bio-shrapnel from explosive energy thrown behind an oar, she would not be stopped. And she was haunted by this pain, by the dark places she went to endure it, and by the even darker places she went to cope with her failure.
It was a smooth mental exercise, but it was bullshit. You talked to yourself constantly–all day long–and no practical answer would exorcise your demons.
Once on the path again, you spoke up with forced joviality. “If I had to tell my client something, from a 100% unbiased point of view–” impossible “–I would suggest she carry less weight.”
Gerrit nodded, as though approving.
You added, “I would tell her that based on her size, her strength, her previous experience, her method of travel, and all other factors… her desire to thru-hike the one and only hike that could possibly accommodate these other factors is every so slightly mis-aligned. She got it wrong by about ten pounds.”
Gerrit probably wanted to face-palm again. “I think you should talk more with your client.”
Fuck you, Gerrit.
Wasn’t it supposed to by your professional point of view and not his?
Within the hour, Gerrit broke up with you and Katie. “You guys need to take some time to figure some of your stuff out.”
Stuff—meaning the differences in your innate strengths. Katie had an unwilling mind in a strong body; you had an over-willing mind in a too-weak body. Rain, wind, cold, wet, creepy Spanish men, hitch hiking, wild camping—these were things that didn’t care much about anymore. They were old news. Katie was still steeply ascending her learning curve.
Alas, you had learned it all and were eager for new heights. But your scum bag body wasn’t having it!
“Well then, I suppose I should take that tent back from you,” you said in a steely voice. Having allowed him to take it from you in the first place, three hours earlier, had been the ultimate defeat—one which set you off into tears in the first place. It was all a sham! His act of goodwill had gone sour; to offer to carry another brittle person’s gear was a sign of long-term intent, so you thought. How ridiculous it seemed to have allowed him to unencumber you for a meager three hours.
The sonofabitch flaked.
“You guys have a lot of stuff,” he repeated.
You looked him straight in the eye. “Yes, we have stuff. We have our challenges. We have emotions. We don’t have much choice but to experience them when they come. There’s just The Camino. Everyone has stuff. Ours is simply visible right now.”
And this is what scared him off, you think.
Before you parted ways, you added. “Gerrit, I appreciate your honesty with us, and I think your points are valid. Katie and I do need some time alone, to sort our shit out, and figure out how to stay on track with everything and still find compromise. But next time, when you decide to part ways with someone, don’t just address what you think it is they need. Make sure to be honest about what it is that you need.”
Namely, Gerrit did not need to walk with two crying lesbians. He cut out without courtesy.
And frankly, you didn’t need the stress of bending and stretching your travel strategy to accommodate other people when is was fashioned so perfectly for two.
It didn’t take very long to realize this. The entire struggle of your journey was “how to afford to spend time with others.” People would come and go on The Camino. You realized that, now. You needed to welcome, accept, teach, learn, and release.
Yes, learn to release!
That evening, you and Katie sat in a restaurant for a couple of hours, talked about your feelings, and created a travel strategy that met both your needs. Katie needed to know that she could always sleep in a hostel if she wanted to, especially if it was cold and rainy; you needed to swap a few items from her bag to temporarily lighten your load (by about 7 pounds), to play it safe, and you needed to set your own pace—not be subjected to the whims of others—for you believed most strongly that it wasn’t the distance or the weight… it was the joint-slamming pace set by others who carried bags half the size of yours.
So let The Camino present a new one: the stomach flu.
The Camino Stomach Flu: It begins with a stomach that dosen’t feel quite right. Then vomiting. Normal vomiting, but you don’t feel any better. It’s a true struggle. Perhaps if you vomit with more effort, and then you will feel your horrible twisting guts, for hours at a time. Restless legs. Doubling over. Vomit. Violent bile-producing vomit. 6-7 bouts of it, most of which offer no relief before the next. Just visceral misery.
Then there come the fevers and chills. Teeth-chattering and full-body convulsions. The type of cold that makes you run your legs over the sheets to create some friction—any type of heat.
And then the in-and-out not-so-satisfying sleeps, curled in a tight ball.
In the morning, you are fairly that you are all done vomiting, but you must content with the weakness. The Bambi legs. The reeling. And then…
…the stomach cramps. You imagine the walls of your stomach are sandpaper. They try to rub and pass against one another, but get stopped by their own coarse texture. You have no appetite, and the idea of food sickens you. The cramps, too, are utterly unforgiving. They come in waves, with mild to great intensity, some of which leave you unbuckling your belt, or your waist strap, or bending over your hiking poles.
From your journal:
The Camino isn’t hard. Walking 15 miles a day with the big bag ≠ hard. W/ tendonitis, frustrating, but not hard. W/ tendonitis + sciatica, risky. But not hard. In wet + cold temperatures w/ no money, plus body problems… nope. Still not hard. But all of this with stomach flu, plus the weekend, plus the wind chill, plus middle-of-nowhere-farmland, plus nothing open, plus no food, plus stomach cramps + weak legs… This is officially hard. There, you admit it.
The stomach cramps were just the worst. They weren’t all the time, but when they came, they were enough to make you want to throw in the towel, shell out cash in advance and just spend the next day or day curled up in bed, like a dog—holding tight to your guts.
But you didn’t. You sucked down a little water, liberally applied salve to your splitting, parched lips, and pressed on. When would you get to eat again? When you found affordable food? Or when you could actually consume it?
“You learn a lot when you travel,” you said to Katie. “I always want to challenge myself, so that I don’t take the things I have for granted. So that I am continually reminded of what I have.”
Katie began to comment, but you cut her off.
“We take things for granted every day. Like digestion.”
God, how you wished you could consume food again. Without repercussions. Wouldn’t that be nice?
So you went, day after day, unable to eat much of anything. Sometimes barely breaking a few hundred calories over the course of the day’s walk. On harsh, windy, lifeless, flat terrain. Without any other pilgrims. Nowhere.
One day, you took shelter in a deserted albergue with a key left in the door. Not even a hospitalero to sign you in. You and Katie pushed two bunk beds together, draped blankets around them, and pointed a space heater into your little fort, making sure to lock yourselves in before sleeping.
Another day, you had another albergue to yourselves, save a speechless man on the other side of the room.
They blurred together, really. Those days of solitude. You thought of very little besides how eerily silent everything was, and how no one was around.
“You think maybe people took a bus through all of this?” you asked.
You also thought about your “poltergeist.” It’s the only word you think appropriate for it. Stated simply, it was evil energy that inhabited one part of your body, only to shriek away and possess another.
Your back pain evaporated into vomiting and stomach-cramps. Those, to splitting and tearing sensations in the back of your left calf. That, to the tightness on your left medial ligament, then tension in your left adductors. All this faded and manifested in your arches, and finally in your anterior right ankle.
Pain, pain, go away. Please come back another day.