By Tamie Harkins
It took me fifteen minutes to walk the last 30 meters, so great was the pain in my feet. This was my fourteenth day of walking the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrim path across northern Spain that culminates in Santiago. The doors to the albergue—the pilgrim hostel where I’d stay for the night—were thick as tables, great slabs of splintered wood, and they opened to a grass garth dotted with quiet, beer-drinking pilgrims, laundry flickering in the wind, and huge stone pots filled with flowers. Billy was there, and José, and the short Spaniard. There was also a clear blue pool of water. You’re here now, it all seemed to say. Welcome!
The hospitalero came out to meet me and immediately took me to a room without asking for my credencial or money. Walking that slowly is its own credencial. He chose a bunk for me and lifted off my pack. In Spanish he told me to wash and rest, and then we could think about credencial and money. I crept up the bunk and lay my feet on the railing so they would be higher than my head. I clenched my eyes shut against the pain of the blood leaving my feet, and when the pain was done I slept deeply.
It would often happen on the Camino that my sleeping bag became a cocoon around the soft and slowly transforming chrysalis of my self. Even after I woke from the always-deep sleep of my daily siesta, it often felt impossible to leave the sleeping bag, sometimes for hours. I knew I needed to be motionless. I watched shadows on the wall; I listened to other pilgrims; I lay very still. The huge, muscled animal of my mind was blindered and bridled. Something seemed to be being decided, brokered, healed.
When I was ready to leave my sleeping bag, the hospitalero of the albergue introduced himself to me as Hugo from Argentina. He and his Spanish wife bustled around me, concerned.
“Blisters?” They asked.
“Tendonitis,” I replied.
“Ah.” Hugo smiled his huge happy smile, invited me to sit down. Together they made me a sandwich for free and asked me to stay with them as I ate. His wife smoked one cigarette after another, and their daughter or niece perhaps lounged at the table, unburdening herself of gossip or woe.
The craft of these hospitaleros is hospitality and healing. Tens of thousands of pilgrims walk the Camino each year and I was clearly young and healthy; my burdens were bearable; my injuries were minor. Yet they welcomed me into their home with the same care with which they might have treated an ill or elderly pilgrim. As members of the Order of San Jacques (Saint James), they seemed to have gotten serious about Jesus’ teaching that the way you treat the poor and the hobbling and the insignificant is the way you treat Him.
On a day like that, I just wanted to eat a filling peregrino—pilgrim—dinner and sleep shoulder to shoulder with all the other pilgrims. What had been done—even what should have been done—had been done. I wanted to let it be, and rest. But the day was not finished yet. After I ate the sandwich, I checked my e-mail. I read through them one by one and just as my time at the kiosk was running out, I began reading an e-mail from Meredith, one of my best friends from college. She wrote that the doctors had just found a tumor, a rare form of cancer, the doctors did not know if she would live. Before I was done reading her words, the Internet time ran out, the screen went black, and I was suddenly alone in the dusty village of Boadilla del Camino.
I did not know what to do. Should I leave the Camino? Should I go home to the States? But what could I do there?
I sat very still; I was afraid. Inside, I thrashed around. I was the chrysalis still, but now the cocoon was a trap, not a comfort. I was stuck here in the middle of Spain, my broken feet my only vehicles. I was stuck here in a body, a mortal human among other mortal humans, some of whom I loved so much and did not want to die.
I wanted to purge myself of uncertainty and grief. I wanted to call someone else who could bear these feelings of powerlessness for me.
But grief and pain are not burdens you get to put down before they have lived out their life in you. Not-knowing was the shoes I walked in; solitude was the path itself. There may be distraction in this life, but there is ultimately not escape, and on the Camino there was not even much distraction.
I climbed back into my bunk, zipped the sleeping bag closed around me. I envisioned Spain, and that one little thread of a path through it, the Camino. I imagined myself, a tiny pilgrim on that path. Then I imagined that the whole country of Spain was the thumping muscle of the heart of Being, the Camino one vein through that heart. Every one of us are caught up in the life flow, I thought, whether we were good or indifferent, know it or not. The day’s walk came to me: I was being held in love, and the love was Being held in fire. The limitations of the pilgrimage are the same as the gift of the pilgrimage that night: to be hemmed in, encompassed, not yet done. I needed to walk the rest of the pilgrimage, and it would take time.
That evening, all the pilgrims gathered for a communal pilgrim dinner. These were rare throughout the pilgrimage. Pilgrims did usually eat all together, but rather in smaller clusters, and often in restaurants. That night we all feasted together under Hospitalero Hugo’s generous attentions. There were heaping helpings of beef stew, soft baguettes, clay cups of red wine. I sat across from Billy, José, and a new-to-us Argentine pilgrim who had begun the pilgrimage years before, riding horses through South, Central, and North America, then flying to Amsterdam and riding down Europe to the Camino. I vacillated between interest in the Argentine’s story, translated to me by José, and panic at the day’s events. I left the table early and hobbled back to my bunk.
For the last few hours my mind had been shrieking that I needed people to pray for me if I was to continue. Then a thought came to me. Perhaps I did not need my friends and family to know exactly what was happening. Perhaps the fact of their love had always been carrying me. Maybe their very lives were like prayers being lived through them, our lives held together, holding each other. Even our ordinary lives have the quality of reaching for transcendence, after all, for connection and hope. And maybe I could reach for Meredith simply by faithfully walking the Camino. Beginning the next day, I decided, I would offer my walking as a prayer for Meredith. I would follow the yellow arrows and learn to walk as one being prayed.
Tamie Harkins is working on her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction at the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. She lives in the small Alaskan town of Kodiak and will be commercial salmon fishing this summer.