It did end, of course. That streak of challenges. You’d nearly weaned off ibuprofen. Your pain subsided. You found an appetite again, though not before having lost another belt loop. You even started to see people again. It was then that a familiar face appeared in one of the unremarkable municipal albergues. Achim, an older, cynical German fellow, notified you that Jenn and Fred had been through that hostel, not more than 15 minutes ago. Unenthusiastic about the accommodations, they’d decided to move on.
By then, you’d already paid your entry, and your heart sunk in disappointment. What you would give to find them again! Just for the lively energy, the familiarity, and the conversation.
“We’ll wake up early tomorrow and catch them before they’re even done packing their bags,” Katie said.
And then you executed the plan. In the early hours of the day, when the mind is rested and energy is high, you locked onto an aggressive talking and walking pace, determined to catch your old buddies. It was Fred who popped out of his hostel and onto the foot path and intercepted you.
Jenn attacked you and Katie like a hyper puppy, kissing your face and squeezing the life out of you, and telling all about how she and Fred had missed you. Twelve days! Not a clue where you’d gone.
“We ran into Gerrit in Lyon,” Jenn explained. Lyon was two nights prior. “He told us all about how you’d stayed on with him in Burgos and that you’d walked with him for a few days.”
Your eyes narrowed at the mention of Gerrit. “Oh yeah? Anything else?”
It was summed up as, “The girls had an emotional meltdown.”
“He told us that after you’d parted ways, he’d walked on ahead. He said he figured he was two to three days ahead of you. When we heard that–”
Fuck that guy.
“Two to three days!” you exclaimed. “Did he think we were going to hole up in some hotel or something just to cry?”
It was infuriating. Why? Because after Katie had walked more than half a day’s distance, vomiting and all, and that even after you’d gotten to a slow start the next day, you’d covered enough distance to realize something: Gerrit, the day after dumping you, had motored on ahead more than 34 kilometers—the evidence of this manifested on the bookshelf of an albergue, where he’d left his familiar paperback. Maybe he’d done it to put distance between himself and your disapproving visage; maybe he wasn’t as injured as he’d claimed to be; maybe he suddenly wanted to walk 30+ kilometers a day, instead of the conservative 20 or so, and eat himself sick in restaurants along the way.
Whatever his reason for the distance, he clearly never owned up to why he so abruptly dumped your duo. The reason still evades you.
“Well that’s what he said. We had dinner with him in Lyon. He was really happy to see us. Said he really wished he could walk with us, but that he really needed to take a day off because of his knee.
Right, that “injured” knee.
It would take you another week to fully unpack why the whole episode with Gerrit pissed you off so much. Firstly, you’d stayed behind for him, only to lose Niny. You idled another day because he had made a point of coming by your “quarters” three times in the municipal albergue to ask you to walk with him. He’d been earnest, and after the agreement was made, Gerrit spouted on about his quest to “harden the fuck up,” maybe even camp with the two of you some night. Rough it, or something. He seemed very keen on the camping stove: “This outdoor cooking rocks.” Perhaps he was keen on other aspects of your survival strategy.
When you began to walk together, he somewhat thoughtlessly inserted himself into your meal plan as through the idea were natural to all of you. When you digressed about your budget (at that time, you and Katie had only four euros for food per day, for the both of you), he insisted that it would be enough, and that he must always have meat, and he was prepared to pay for it as long as you and Katie covered the cost of starches.
Not a bad plan. But suddenly you were carrying calories enough for three people, rather than two. And little money remained for a few essential vegetables (fruit was out of the question), and Gerrit balked at your foraged greens.
But these matters were merely petty. Despite the financial awkwardness of the handful of communal meals, you very much liked walking with Gerrit. He talked much less than you would have preferred, but it was a character trait and not a short-coming. Gerrit tended to speak on matters with the impartiality expected of a journalist, and steered clear of conflict. You had a great deal of respect for him.
This is why when, three short hours after realizing that you might just show your feelings, and not just talk about them, Gerrit dumped you, and you felt so indignant. Not only did he rapidly reverse out of an arrangement with an intimated commitment, he took a handful of mud and rubbed it into a raw wound with flippant disregard. It was insulting, with unfortunate timing; Gerrit achieved offense.
“Oh well,” said Jenn, “Come on, he’s young! He’s only twenty-four.”
“Why do people say that like it’s an excuse?” you snapped. “Twenty-four is not too young. You’re out of school. You’re working. You’re supporting yourself. You’re a grown-ass man at that point. I think it’s bullshit.”
When people you respect—whom you hold in high regard—disappoint you, you take it as a personal failure.
“He’s not some young, dumb kid. He’s a very thoughtful guy,” you added. “But it’s clear to me that he doesn’t know what the hell he wants. He ran off from our group once. Came around and asked to walk with me and Katie—then practically sprints away from us. Keeps hurting himself. Then sees you and thinks it’s the next best thing.”
You gave up on the subject.
With the reunion came another fellow: California Paul, a gregarious, 50-year-old former beer salesmen with a passion of alcohol and an energy for conversation that put yours to shame. He was like a sweet, liquored-up Santa, who celebrated early-morning walking breaks with a beer and a shot of Jack. Every time. He drank something fierce, but was all laughs and smiles and rounds for the gang.
The end of that first day saw your party in a kick ass albergue with a sunken floor and a private room for you all, finagled by Jenn. By the evening, all the other familiar faces you’d missed for so long came out of the woodwork, and you all hugged one another and got to jumping up and down, dancing in place, pouring wine, and snapping off squares of chocolate for one another.
You gorged yourself on salad, drank yourself drunk, and the last of your pain faded away.
California Paul dropped out of your group on great terms, and much sooner than you would have liked. He had a tricky ear that didn’t take to walking in wet weather. He offered to pay for yours and Katie’s hostel that night, if you wanted to stay on with him, but you insisted on sticking to your itinerary.
He slipped you a 20 euro note.
“You will pay me back by coming to Bend, Oregon and cooking me a dinner,” he said.
This money went into a little plastic bag and mingled with the rest of the “Camino money,” that is, cash received from others since beginning your trek. Contributions from the Australian woman, Niny, Maggie, Paul, and the 5-euro note found on the side of the highway amounted to over 100 euro, which, when divided in two, was a 20% raise in The Camino budget of 245 euro.
It was a strategy hatched the day of the dumping. Katie needed a guarantee out of cold weather, and so you took the average cost of all albergues through the end of The Camino (6 euros) to see how much help you could squeeze from your “Camino money” after paying 4 each from your own pockets. The gently trickled money was just enough to raise your “standard of living.”
Jenn and Fred had zipped back into a walking groove with you and Katie as though nothing had changed. Your happy little foursome worked, even through Katie’s intermittent weather-induced cry-breaks and your occasional whimpering about your poltergeist; it worked through Jenn and Fred’s most interesting relationship dynamics. Jenn had feelings—lots of them, as predictable as her circadian rhythm—and they punctuated the day with comic relief. She would shake her hips and beat hear fists against the air to the tune of her favorite wake-up song, or swing her head like a crane side-to-side in search of her albergue, Fred shuffling along with stiff legs and ankles trying to smooth down any wrinkles—whilst not tearing the fabric of the moment.
Those days were marvelous. Jenn proved the proverb “ask and you shall receive” again and again, and finagled near-private rooms along the way. On one occasion, she managed to obtain an entire hostel, just for the four of you. It was on this brilliant evening that you drank yourself silly playing stupid word games before finally settling on more serious topics.
“Do you every feel weird doing such a religious walk as two lesbians?” Fred asked.
You felt unsure how to answer. Sure, now and again you felt like avoiding the look-ee-loos.
Katie was quick to respond. “Knowing how Christians think and behave—you know, because I used to be really involved in the church, if I were walking this walk for religious reasons, and I encountered two lesbians, I would think it was some kind of sign or challenge that I was meant to deal with on the trip. Not a lot of Christians knowingly encounter gay people in their daily lives.”
Fred made a few disclaimers about not wanting to be offensive. “I’m just struck by how normal you guys are. I mean, you act and behave just like any normal couple. You hold hands, you kiss each other, you’re playful the way that I’m playful with Jenn. And you do it so naturally. It’s not like you’re thinking about it. I just think it’s really cool. You show others how natural it really is. I think it’s a good thing, that you are walking The Camino in this way.”
It was an interesting and totally unexpected observation to hear.
Gerrit resurfaced eventually. You saw him ambling uphill towards your cafe, where you all waited for Jenn’s morning trifecta: cigarettes, caffeine, and caca.
“Heeeey, stranger!” she called to him.
Your eyes narrowed. You’d often wondered how you would feel if you saw him again. Answer: not at all good.
Out of politeness, Gerrit joined your party for his own morning coffee, but avoided looking at you and Katie very much, feeling the tension already. None of it came from him. All of it was yours. Eyes like daggers. You eventually found reasons to leave the table.
He’d walked 50 kilometers the day before—presumably in hopes of catching up with Fred and Jenn. And there you were, already sitting at their table. A fivesome was out of the question.
Gerrit, always conscientious, found reasons to hang back, and your group was off without him.
You spent the rest of the day bitching about him. Says a lot about you.
You would bump into him the next day, again and again, with your blood sugar perilously low and your fangs out and waiting to strike at any reconciling gesture. At last, at the end of a long hot 24k climb, when the five of you found yourselves stranded in the same albergue in what amounted to little more than a ghost town in the mountains, Gerrit opted to walk an additional 14 kilometers to the next town, “It’s still light out. It’s only 14 kilometers more.”
You suspected it was less demanding than your and your feelings.
The Camino Stomach Virus, take 2.
“Baby,” you whimpered to Katie after lights-out, “I feel pukey.”
She shushed you. “No, you’re not pukey. Just go to sleep.”
“Don’t panic, baby. It’ll all be fine.”
No. It wasn’t. You vomited every 30 minutes for the next nine hours. Worse than that was the fact that you were in a crowded albergue—which just so happened to be in a picturesque monastery—the oldest in Europe! But the bathroom, like the sleeping quarters, had high ceilings, and your pterodactyl shrieks from the farthest stall escaped no one.
Disorienting would be the understatement of the year. The vomiting was relentless and so frequent that you’d simply ceased making the round trip from toilet stall to your bunk. You curled into a wretched little ball and folded your 6-foot frame within the tight square-footage at the foot of the toilet.
Brreeeeaaaaaaghh!! Gggaaack! Pterodactyl noises…
Collapse. Curled up. Wake up. Head was in the northeast corner.
Bllllarrrrrgh!! Bllleeeeg! Blaack!
Hit the floor. Dig another hip into the tiles. Head in the southeast corner.
Your body clung to its rhythm of rising, puking, and falling—then spinning on the tiles like the hands of a clock, measuring time elapsed in that toilet stall.
Nine fucking hours.
And when you did make it back to your bed, people were damn near awake and packing—not quite furious with you, but certainly sleep-deprived.
Too sick to move.
Another hour passed. You drank some water. Vomited more violently then you had in all the hours prior. Then shit. Then tried to go back to your bed. Nope. Clothes-lined by the nausea on your way out. Dove to one of the sinks and let her rip, feet sliding away from each other in the process, splitting you down the middle, driving you deeper into the basin.
Back in bed, it took about, hmmmmmm, 15 seconds to shit your pants.
Just the worst.
Your hospitalero found you scrubbing your undies, head lolling from side to side.
What the hell can a doctor do for you now?
You spent the entire day in bed, tossing, freezing, whimpering, fighting nausea. Your skin hurt. There was no getting warm. Ever.
Jenn arrived with stern authority.
You were happy to see her, but a little surprised, for just the day before you and Katie had amicably parted ways with the Canadians, intent on sticking to your itinerary. Then you’d made a wrong turn and had ended up in the monastery. As luck would have it, Jenn and Fred made the same wrong turn.
“I keep telling Fred, everything happens for a reason!” Jenn gushed. “Now here I am, and I can force you to go to the medico.”
You shook your head violently.
Jenn smiled down at you in a manner that said, I don’t give a fuck, Maria.
People seem to have a hard time understanding why you don’t want to go to the doctor. It’s simple. In America, getting sick = bankruptcy.
Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration for a case of gastroenteritis, but once you were charged $1,100 by a hospital just to pee in a cup.
She dragged you by the hand to the clinic. “Don’t worry. It’s free.”
You have a hard time believing medical care can be free.
You gagged and retched and moaned and sighed and wobbled and teetered the whole way there, wishing for calm waters in you body. They didn’t really come. The doctor, after determining that your blood pressure was 110/70 and your resting heart rate was 95bmp, and perplexed by your unimpressive diarrhea, suggested you had heat stroke and had his nurse shoot some anti-nausea medication into your butt cheek. They sent you out the door with a dietary protocol for pre-schoolers.
The rest of the day was spent sleeping on a bed of nails, and feeling rakes dragging over your skin. You sweat through every article of clothing you owned.
The next morning, your did not feel any better, but you could at least stand, and so you stuffed your emaciated, deflated limbs into your hiking clothes and shouldered your backpack, which had been relieved of some of its weight, thanks to Katie.
The walk was miserable.
“I feel like I’ve been kicked mercilessly by a mob of pre-schoolers for the last 24 hours.”
Everything hurt. Every joint. Every square inch of you body. You were winded. Dizzy. But you walked. And after 30 minutes, you curled up on a picnic table in the manner you curled in the bathroom stall and cried. Later, a car would double back to inquire if you were okay, seeing your limp form in a heap on the side of the highway, Katie nowhere in sight.
You nearly puked at the 100km-to-go mark. Jenn and Fred insisted on group photos to commemorate the moment. You played along, wondering how many pilgrims had decided to die at that point.
By the time you found your albergue, 24 strenuous kilometers later, you had consumed little more than juice. You were feeling better and were able to sit up at a table long enough to share a few bites of Katie’s lentil soup before weakly gnawing at your plain rice and part of a hard-boiled egg.
“I’m sorry. I have to lie down.”
You left the table.
Sleep overtook you.
Then you awakened, in the middle of the night, to the next challenge: raging diarrhea.
Diarrhea isn’t “runny poop.” It’s water. Your asshole turns into a secondary urethra and you expel more liquid than you think your body can spare. But more unsettling than that is the sounds your guts make. The bubbling, and draining, the churning. It sounds just like plumbing—your plumbing. And when it comes, it comes on fast.
Your diarrhea was award-winning. It was so intense that you felt like the shit water was back-flowing into your stomach. This sensation made you feel as though your stomach was full of septic shit water, and you retched uncontrollably.
At 4:20 in the morning, Katie found you in the toilet stall; you were blowing sewage from your ass while simultaneously vomiting and crying into a little sink. All she could do was bring you water.
Three nights in a row with no sleep. You lay in bed, disappearing in your clothes, and focused on breathing. Yes. Breathing. It was the only think you could do that didn’t hurt. And crying. Crying felt good.
You left your hostel two hours late, at 10:30am. But you walked. Fuck The Camino! It has to end!
Every 45 minutes, you collapsed on the side of the trail and breathed like someone going down with a ship, stealing last gasps of air before water meets the his ceiling. A sip of juice. A few retches. Bubbles in your stomach. Roll onto all fours. Stand on rickety legs. And carry on.
Katie did not tell you that she had taken nearly half the contents of your backpack and carried them herself, in addition to her own stuff.
At midday, after more violent diarrhea, you face-planted on a cafe table and cried for 20 minutes, especially when period cramps kicked in.
Everything all at the same time. Leave it to your scumbag body to give you your period two weeks early, on top of all of this.
“It’s hard now,” you whispered while walking. “The Camino is hard. This is hard. This is hard. Hard! Hard! Hard!”
Weeks ago, you’d challenged Katie never to use that word again, in an attempt to help her toughen up against bad weather. “Hard” is a word you don’t use lightly. “Hard” is a word for special occasions. Once, when you buddy complained that keeping up with you and Alexis on a hike was “hard,” you’d snapped back:
“Hey! Cancer is hard! Depression is hard. Single-parenthood is hard. This is not hard!”
“Hard” is a state of mind. You either “can” do something, or you “cannot.” The “hard” is simply how challenging your brain makes it for you.
“How are you going to walk today?” one of your albergue-mates asked that morning.
“By putting one foot in front of the other,” you breathed back.
And that’s what you did.
People might think you’re stupid. Hard-headed. Stubborn. Whatever. You wanted to walk. You would rather have walked and suffered than remained bed-ridden for another day. You hate being confined to a bed. Perhaps more than anything else.
You face had shrunken and hollowed, like the rest of your body. When you looked in the mirror, you saw less of your mother’s sweet, plump-faced daughter and more of your father’s hardened, determined daughter. And through your father’s features, you saw familiar traces of your sister, Susie.
Susie died two months ago. Her death did not come as a surprise to anyone except, maybe, to her. Susie, whose health had been so long in decline, never stopped fighting. She refused to even acknowledge that she might not recover, always saying things like, “As soon as they let me out of this hospital, I’m going to do/travel/see…” She had shit to do. She wasn’t done. Hepatitc C, liver cancer, diabetis, septic heart, yeast-loaded blood, full-body edema… “Once they let me out, I’m going to do this thing!”
She, like your dad, never stopped fighting.
Despite your misery, you could still put one foot in front of the other.
The Camino is an allegory for life.
On it went, in such a fashion. Obviously, you recovered, but you’ll remember those last days on the Camino as a montage of dehydration, nausea, stomach cramps, and balking at food. It was the longest week of the Camino. It was sunny and beautiful. But nothing ruins good weather like gastroenteritis.
Santiago sat nestled a mere 5 kilometers away. You could see the city. And you felt calm. Totally calm. You could float there, if you wanted.
The bag, which still weighed the same, felt light. Felt almost non-existent. Felt like part of your skeletal system. And your legs moved, one after the other, with ease. You needed no food. You wanted no food. Air and water were enough.
All kinds of thoughts entered and exited your head on that walk. All conversations were had. All emotions felt. It was crazy to think that all of it had reduced down to a final hour, in which you felt nearly nothing at all.
Santiago is just another day in your trip. It’s just another day in your life.
That big old Roman church was beautiful. And the clouds above it stretched across the sky like screens and filaments of cotton wrapped around a bowl. Some guy tried to sell you some post cards for a euro.
You just walked 780 kilometers. Give it a break, buddy.
“What’s this whole Camino about, anyway?” You asked Katie.
She smiled before explaining about the body of St. James, and visions, and the pilgrimage from Jerusalmen. The gourd, for water. And the shell, for food.
“The shell is all you need to eat. It represents your bowl, as well as your spoon. And you wear it around your neck so that the shell sits just over your stomach. It represents your nourishment.”
You found it ironic that your shell let you get so fucking sick, twice.
You, Katie, Jenn, and Fred celebrated your last day together by ordering tapas and churros dipped in chocolate. All the best flavors of Galacia hit your pallet like fireworks. Your stomach, long unaccustomed to eating, struggled.
In perfect farewell timing, Katie nipping at the heels of your gastroenteritis, became very sick.