by Hank Leukart
June 10, 2015
Learning from blisters and the fleeting nature of relationships on the Camino de Santiago.
An art installation depicting pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago sits on a ridge above Zariquiegui, Spain.
This is the third essay in a series about hiking the 870-kilometer (540-mile) Camino de Santiago across Spain. Start with the first essay to get the whole story.E
STELLA, Spain — When I step out of the huge church that I slept in overnight in Pamplona and onto the uneven, cobblestone street, it feels like there’s a razor blade stuck in each of my shoes. Though I can barely walk without screaming due to the pain, I hobble down the block so slowly that it takes me almost 10 minutes just to reach the corner. Then, with horror, I realize that I’ve walked in the wrong direction to rejoin the Camino. I turn around and spend another 10 minutes hobbling to the corner at the block’s opposite end. Anyone watching me from afar would think that I’m a 98 year old man just hours away from needing a permanent wheelchair — or being visited by the grim reaper.
Over the past three days, I’ve taken about 93,000 steps, many of which have been on hard pavement, and a big blister has formed on the bottom of each of my feet. Though I already broke in my boots, with over 130 miles in Nepal and Arizona before the Camino, I’m starting to realize that they may be the wrong footwear for this trip. The majority of the Camino route is on paved surfaces, and the unforgiving asphalt is hard on feet and knees, especially with my stiff boots. Nearly everyone I’ve met walking the Camino has developed feet blisters by now — in a twisted, nightly ritual, pilgrims often show off their wounds to each other — but my blisters are not the typical, easily-treatable friction blisters caused by a shoe rubbing against skin that most have shown me. Instead, my super-blisters-of-death are composed of layers of damaged tissue and a well of fluid sloshing around under the surface of my skin, and I have no idea how to fix them.
While limping through Pamplona, I spot the Santa María de Real Cathedral and, since it’s Sunday, I slowly drag myself into the mass to give myself a rest. I stay for about 15 minutes, listening to the priest speak in Spanish, and then I return to the street, where my feet hurt so much that I can feel tears coming to my eyes. Even the Kas lemon soda and cream donut that I eat at a small cafe doesn’t manage to raise my spirits.
Very, very slowly, I start to leave Pamplona behind, but my (lack of) speed is almost comical in its sluggishness. Sunburned Katie, newlyweds Grant & Ashley, two-backpack-wearing Kai, and Netflix-obsessed Amalie are all many kilometers ahead of me by now. I pass through grassy, Taconera Park, split by a sparkling, cool river, and then past another park surrounding the large, star-shaped, 16-century Pamplona Citadel, taking frequent breaks. I run into a smart, 21-year-old Yale student from Hong Kong named Stephanie, with an effervescent personality. But, she’s walking the Camino at an accelerated pace due to a limited schedule, and I can’t keep up with her due to my blisters. She quickly disappears over the horizon.
I begin a steep climb up toward a forest-green mountain ridge lined with 20 brilliant white, spinning windmills. Tens of other Camino walkers, some double my age, keeping passing me. “Buen Camino!” they say over and over, too enthusiastically. It’s the standard pilgrim goodbye, which translates roughly to “Have a good Camino!” or “May your Way be good!” but hearing it repeated, when I can barely walk, only makes me more frustrated. “It’s really a mal [bad] Camino,” I want to yell at them.
The pain in my feet is so excruciating that I consider collapsing on the side of the trail in one of the grassy fields and sleeping there for a week. I slowly realize that I have no chance of making it to Puente la Reina today, a town which is still over 16 kilometers (10 miles) away even though I’ve already been walking for hours. Even worse, it dawns on me that I’m never going to see my Camino friends — Katie, Grant, Ashley, Kai, or Amalie — ever again. Though I knew them for only three days, the Camino has a way of intensifying and accelerating relationships by thrusting people outside their comfort zones, pushing them beyond their limits, and forcing them to spend sometimes 10 hours every day with each other. On top of that, because the kind of people doing the Camino tend to be especially open and introspective due to the special history of the trip, spending a day with someone on the Camino can feel spending three months with a new friend in the “real world.” But, I’m starting to learn that people appear and disappear from your Camino, and, often, you just have to let them leave you behind.
Unable to take even one more step, I wander into the albergue in Zariquiegui, a small town tucked just below the string of windmills on the top of the ridge. I must look like a person walking with razor blades in his shoes, because the hospitalero takes one look at me and says in Spanish, “There are beds upstairs. You can pay later.” Feeling horrible pain in each step, I trudge slowly up the stairs. To my surprise, I discover a room with twelve bunk beds, empty except for my friend Amalie, who is sleeping on a bunk in the corner. Later, she tells me that she developed a fever during the night in Pamplona and, like me, could only make it to Zariquiegui before feeling too weak to continue walking.
Over dinner, she tells me that one of the reasons that she’s doing the Camino is that she needs time away to decide on her medical specialty for medical school. She says that she decided to become a doctor as a young girl after seeing her mother, who is also a doctor, rush to help a woman who fell ill and collapsed in a park. Before going to sleep, Amalie helps me thread my blisters, a technique which entails running a threaded needle through the blister in an attempt to drain the fluid.
The next day, even after a night sleeping in a room filled with ear drum-popping snoring, my blisters, though still very painful, have improved. Amalie and I begin hiking together to the ridge lined with windmills above the town. At the top, we encounter a Camino-themed art-installation: dramatic, metal silhouettes of pilgrims walking the Camino, backed by expansive views of the lush valley, sweeping back toward the shiny white and red-roofed buildings of Pamplona, the biggest city on the Camino. We continue down the mountain, walking through rolling hills, blanketed with thousands of stalks of light-green barley, rice, rye, and wheat, shivering in tandem from the pulsating breeze. While we walk, Amalie, who tells me that her mom grew up on a farm, teaches me how to identify the different crops. While I’m hypnotized by the stalks moving in seemingly choreographed waves, with shimmering, swirling shapes of light and dark shadow, Amalie plays a song on her phone.
You’ll remember me when the west wind moves
Among the fields of barley
You can tell the sun in his jealous sky,
When we walked in fields of gold.
Performed by Eva Cassidy and written by Sting, it’s a song which some might perceive as cloying, and I usually avoid music while hiking because I prefer the world’s natural sounds. But, as Amalie and I literally walk through fields of barley, her song feels appropriate and poignant — a perfect choice. This is the thing I learn about Amalie today: her endearing naiveté hides sophistication.
Eventually, we arrive at an intimate albergue with a quaint elevated patio in the small town of Cirauqui. When the woman at the desk sees me wincing with each step due to my blisters, she suggests putting women’s sanitary pads in my shoes to reduce the moisture in my boots. At first, I think she’s joking. She’s not.
In the evening, while eating excellent spaghetti and meatballs, the best dinner I’ve had so far in Spain, Amalie and I talk to Garðar, a 60-year-old Icelandic man and who tells us that he has walked the Camino four times: in 2007 and every year since 2012. This year, he began far north of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France (my starting point) and plans to hike 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles).
“Why do you keep doing the Camino over and over?” I ask him. “Isn’t once enough?”
“Every time I do it, I become a bit more mature,” he says. “I become a better person and get a little closer to my true self.”
He’s sitting with a Minn, a Belgian woman whom he met while walking the Camino in 2007. She says that both she and Garðar were in relationships with other people when they walked in 2007. But, a few months ago, she sent him a Facebook message.
“I never thought I could do the Camino again, but, now, I’m in a divorce, so, suddenly, I could,” she says, smiling. “Back then, I fell in love. And, now, we’re walking together again.”
But, the next day, I can’t imagine finishing the Camino even once, let alone four times. By the time Amalie and I reach Estella, we’ve walked 115 kilometers (71 miles), and my feet hurt more than they ever have before. I realize that there’s absolutely no way I’ll be able to walk the remaining 755 kilometers (470 miles) across Spain to the ocean with my feet in their current state. My feet look ravaged: each has an open wound on the bottom and many additional blisters have developed. For the first time ever, I realize that finishing the Camino de Santiago may not be within my ability.
I tell Amalie that I can’t keep walking and must see a doctor immediately. We find a building with a “Centro de Salud [Health Center]” sign, and I see a notice in Spanish, next to a computer, that says that visitors must have appointments. I start filling out a strangely detailed questionnaire on the computer in Spanish, which asks a lot of surprisingly personal questions just to schedule a doctor’s appointment. At the end, the computer spits out an appointment time in one hour, so Amalie and I decide to get ice cream and return. On the way out of the office, however, a man tells us me in Spanish that, if I’m looking for the hospital, it’s in the adjacent building. We suddenly realize that we’ve just spent a half hour applying for Spanish social security. I can’t wait for the checks to start rolling in.
At the hospital, the Spanish-speaking doctor looks at my blisters. He tells me that they’re very bad (no surprise) and tries to use the least patronizing voice he can muster to suggest that, maybe, I should stop walking for a few days until my feet heal. He then sends me to two nurses, who, both shocked by the horrific state of my feet, work in tandem as fast as possible to clean and bandage my wounds. The nurses can’t speak English, but everything is clear when one of them types some advice for me into Google Translate: “Stop walking and don’t touch the feet.”
“What did they say?” Amalie asks when I meet her outside the hospital.
“They said to stop walking,” I say. We don’t talk any more about it.
We both know that relationships on the Camino are maddeningly fleeting: feet get injured, illnesses arise, and schedules don’t coincide. You simply enjoy people’s company as much as you can when you’re with them and then learn to let them go when they’re gone. It’s as true on the Camino as in life: I tried to do the same thing when my dad passed away four years ago.
In the evening, Amalie and I have dinner together in the town square. I tell her that I love Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. She tells me that she loves a Danish romantic comedy called Den Eneste Ene. Some tiny dogs wander by in front of a gazebo. I tell her about a band that played in the gazebo during the “Ice Cream Social” that we had in my hometown in Ohio when I was a kid. She tells me that tiny dogs freak her out.
In the morning, Amalie and I check out of our albergue. She’s heading toward Los Arcos, the next major town on the Camino, and I’m going to check into a hotel here to give my feet time to heal. In a day or two, I’ll be so far behind her Camino that I won’t have any chance of catching up.
“Well, I guess it’s buen Camino,” Amalie says.
“But it’s too sad,” I say. We both know that we’ll never see each other again. We hug for an extended moment. Then, she turns away. I watch her as she crosses a small blue bridge, walks down a street lined with cafes and small stores, and continues on toward the rolling red hills and forested hilltops separating Estella from Los Arcos, until she’s almost out of sight.
It’s hard to let her go. “Buen camino!” I yell as she disappears. But it’s too late. I’ve been left behind, unable to walk, on the Camino de Santiago.
COMING SOON: The sheer length of the 870-kilometer (540-mile) Camino de Santiago makes it unique among walking trips, and I just can’t deal with it. But then I can.