Chapter 17: Solitude and Painkillers
Why pilgrims fail.
After a week in Spain, my backwater path from Arles and northeastern Spain joins the famed route from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and it’s like coming off a country road onto the interstate. The flow of pilgrims coming down from southwestern France is probably fifty times the number of pilgrims coming from the east. The nightly life in the auberges now settles into a predictable rhythm.
Every night the last, straggler pilgrims check in. Some of the latecomers have covered forty, fifty, sixty kilometers during the day. These are the hardcore who move easily through the stony hills and the afternoon heat because they’ve been at it for weeks, months in some cases. They’ve started from cathedrals and doorsteps near Munich and Paris and Rome. I can see the mileage in their cheekbones and rawhide tans. At dinner I overhear them tell each other over cigarettes they are turning around in Santiago and walking all the way home again.
The hard core arrive after the others because they use the entire span of daylight to move as far as possible. Their lives are focused on movement. They don’t care if they get in last or shower in cold water or sleep by a noisy bathroom. They are oblivious to the drunken cyclists arriving after curfew and getting in fights with their buddies. They don’t care if getting in late means stepping through black footprints in the showers and around the sinks and beneath the urinals. They don’t complain about the demonic snoring. They’re just locked in and doing it. They’re walking, walking, walking, walking. It’s all simple for them and they live for it now. Every day, just going. They’re fast and they’re free.
From time to time, I find I’m on pace with one of them for a day or two. I can sprint to keep up. I get to share a few dinners and some personal stories. They show me their Knights Templar tattoos, but before long they outstrip me. I knew this the moment I met them, that they would move on, and I would fall away behind. I knew they were faster. It’s even in their voices.
But most of the late-arriving pilgrims coming into the hostels are late because they’re in pain. They are moving slowly and tentatively on swollen knees and ankles. They’re stopping a lot and limping to the communal dining room. Sometimes they’ve already hired a local van to carry their pack to the next town. Sometimes I recognize them because I passed them earlier when they were parked beneath a tree in the hundred-degree heat, and their boots were off, and they were staring into space.
They might wave out limply or call out Buen Camino, but I can tell their hearts aren’t in it, and their minds are in pain. And now it’s early evening, and when I pass by their bunk to check on my charging cell phone, I see frightening red blisters on the exposed soles of their feet. I see their swollen ankles and knees and even crutches. There are bloody socks balled up on the floor near their beds, maybe because one of their toenails dug into their flesh or has come off altogether. They joke about their pain, but I can smell the end of pilgrimage on them. They might be the first to sense it’s over and the last to acknowledge it aloud.
The strongest and the weakest on the Camino move among total strangers.
Maybe these wounded got carried away with the romance of the whole thing and didn’t train when they should have, or they overdid it early on, the first day even. They covered forty-two kilometers when they should have walked half that. They were foolish, and they knew it while they were doing it, but didn’t want to be the first to raise their hand and call it a day. And now, injured, they’ve got a serious case of pilgrim fever, and no matter how badly they need to rest, no matter how crazy it would be to press on, they can’t bring themselves to do the simplest thing: they can’t bring themselves to stop.
In the pre-dawn, when the other pilgrims are packing up in the darkness, rustling their Ziplocs and shining headlamps into the mole-eyed sleepers, they can’t stay put and sleep in. They promised, promised, promised yesterday’s house doctor, the volunteer medico, they’d take a break, but now they have to keep going. They have to get up. They don’t know what they would do with themselves today if they didn’t keep walking. They just have to get ten more kilometers in. It is a panic to keep on.
Just ten. Ten is baseline. That’s all. It’s the shortest distance that’s still a legitimate day’s journey. Then they’ll stop.
Once they catch pilgrim fever, and everybody catches it at some point – mine will hit hard in Astoria – no medico can help them. Because they feel that to stop would be to get stranded on the banks, it would be seeing a river of happiness and all their new friends in happy canoes slipping past and away from them, splashing with their paddles, getting ahead in the adventure somehow, laughing cheerfully and teasing each other, and sharing their lunches and ordering afternoon beers in the afternoon sunshine. And when they stop advancing, the whole pilgrimage suddenly looks like a race. There is the illusion of everything swimming away, like watching the titles for too long at the end of a movie and the room rises, except it hasn’t.
Now they can no longer imagine stillness. A day of rest, the one truly sensible choice, is unthinkable, anathema. Santiago is there, and they are here. So, they limp on with their gigantic cameras and their hair dryers and six different books they will never read and whatever else is in their ridiculous backpacks. It is, of course, a lesson I was fortunate enough to learn the hard way early on. And almost always that’s part of their problem: they’ve got too much stuff, and they need it all. They have a defensive reason for every item, and nobody can argue this useless pile of deadweight from their pack. Overburdened, their Camino has become solitude and painkillers and grim compulsion.
The fevered are utterly alone. They text their friends a hundred kilometers ahead, asking how they’re doing and what town they’re in and is it nice there bc heard was gr8? They still try to show the others that they’re a good friend, a real pilgrim with their heart in the right place, still having an “awesome time” even all the way back here where you can’t even remember passing through. They’re still walking along in pain but, look, they’re even thinking about them. Yes, I am a real pilgrim, they tell themselves.
And then, for a second while they text the lost friend, it’s like they’re all still doing the walk together, but as soon as they put the phone down or notice later on that their friends never texted them back, they know that they are gone. They won’t ever see them again. If they’d been able to keep up, they would have been close friends forever, and now they’re becoming people they met once.
Their pilgrimage is over.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.