“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.” ~ John Ruskin
Certain personality types, of which I’m one, carry an exceptionally low tolerance for complaint. If you’re unhappy within your circumstances, change is within your power, and is no one else’s responsibility. I’d be friends with a man who got knocked to the floor trying every day before I’d cozy up with a successful grumbler. And the Camino, I’d decided, early on, was a No Crybaby Zone. For me, that was among its greatest attractions.
But as our family now trekked on to Villafranca, I was increasingly tested by my own No Crybaby philosophy.
The weather’s a great unknown just about wherever you are, but especially in a place that’s unfamiliar, and one with so many variables that affect it. Mountain elevations, nearby ocean currents, and during November, a rapid transition in the season affects weather moving across Galicia. It was only a few hundred miles back when I observed a general sense of frenzied activity as families throughout the Basque country prepared firewood for winter’s onset. People were splitting and stacking cords of firewood everywhere. You could only imagine how brutally cold the weeks ahead might become. But you could sense it in the feverish exertion at almost every business and home.
My Camino weather experience was marked by consistent, extended weather cycles. It was basically two weeks of wet, damp, cool, followed by two weeks of brilliantly clear, sunshiny skies, followed by a final two weeks of wet, damp, frigid cold. Numbing as it was, it apparently wasn’t cold enough yet for most albergues to flip the heat switch for the night. You never really got warm. I returned home with an all-new appreciation for heated blankets.
As we approached Villafranca, I’d already been cold for four days. Aida walked ahead with our friend Sebastian, and Naomi and I kept a slower pace behind. It didn’t help that my left shin now hurt so much it literally felt as if the bone was bruised, and I could actually see the hemorrhaging more each day. I now felt the onset of a fever but kept it to myself. In the silence, Naomi knew something wasn’t right. She knew about the leg pain, but not the fever. As was her tendency, and with Camino wisdom, she attempted to distract the aggravation with some new, philosophical conversation.
“So, tell me what you’re proud of,” she said from nowhere.
“What?” I answered, knowing exactly what she was doing, but purposefully not acknowledging it was a decent idea.
“What you’re proud of. Talk about it,” she said.
It was one of those Camino moments when I really stopped to think. Proud? The answer would’ve been different in a different time.
I’d held several “dream jobs,” run my own business, understood what it took to make money, and even wielded some influence at times, but it all seemed so irrelevant now. When it all fell apart one day, I’d literally experienced the end of myself. Complete brokenness. And I thought about a bible verse I’d studied a few days earlier.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”
It’s easily misunderstood. Jesus’ words from His sermon on the mount aren’t necessarily about the poor, per se, but the poor in spirit. The broken. The ones who’ve realized that we, ourselves, just aren’t enough and never will be. It’s not about us. And so after walking another half mile or so, I had Naomi’s answer.
“I’m proud that after all this time I’ve found peace in the belief that what God most sees, is the heart, not my good intentions or even my failures, but what’s in my heart. Because I know what’s in my heart, and I’m good with that, and I think He is, too,” I said. “In fact, that’s my only hope. I’m proud to know that kind of peace.”
I’d never really thought about that until Naomi asked. I think it was an unexpected defining moment that shaped how I’d consider my Camino experience after it was all over, and for the months ahead.
We caught Aida and Sebastian at the entrance to Ave Fenix, a donativo albergue run by Camino legend Jesús Jato in Villafranca del Bierzo. Jesús is a long-time hospitalero, artist, poet, builder and healer. He’s known for his genuine concern and care for pilgrims on the Path.
(A video from the morning after. I was so thankful to be okay.)
As we arrived, it was the worst I’d felt since leaving home.
I could now strangely feel my heartbeat pulsing through a twisted, discolored knot in my left shin. Every step was painful. In the moment, though, it was easier not to think about it because of the fever. The achy feeling a fever brings was coming on fast, and for the first time on this trip I was worried about tomorrow. I’m well-acquainted enough with how my body works to know it was going to be a long night.
Jesús sent Naomi and Aida to one housing area, me to another. All I could think about was bed, and the unlikely hope that hours of rest would make a big difference in how I felt. Without radical change I’d go nowhere tomorrow. Since I was a kid, fevers have always wiped me out.
I couldn’t bear the thought of expending another ounce of energy, but knew I’d rest better clean. It was the first time on Camino I’d encountered a shower in an outdoor facility – and there was no door – and it was cold outside – and I was miserable. This was going to be bad.
Organizing my clean clothes and towel for a quick transition, I dropped my dirty clothes and turned on the only faucet that worked. Moments passed, to what seemed five minutes and the water never warmed. An ice-cold shower, in a cold, exposed room with no heat and a fever. Pure misery.
Still mostly wet in a pair of boxers and a t-shirt, I gathered my things and walked quickly back outside to our bunked quarters, threw my sleeping bag over me and took the fetal position. An hour passed, maybe two, chills set in, and I was shivering non-stop praying someone would eventually come check on me.
About that time, Naomi came in wondering if I was joining everyone for dinner. I told her I was in bed for the night and asked if she’d grab a blanket and throw across me. When she realized the severity of how bad I felt, she got several blankets and pressed them down on me tight to create some warmth. I told her I was sorry to be such a baby and so much trouble, but thanked her for being so nice. She said a prayer and asked God to take care of me, and the chills eventually subsided. After dinner, I’m sure she came back to check on me, but if she did, I never knew it. What a miserable night. By God’s grace, I had a friend who cared.
Thirteen hours later I awoke and couldn’t believe how much better I felt. It wasn’t a complete transformation by any stretch, but comparatively, I was much improved. I dressed and walked through the courtyard to the kitchen area where Jesús was preparing coffee with fruits, breads and jams. He was concerned for me. Apparently there was dinner discussion among the group about the Estados Unidos pilgrim who’d been so sick.
I was moving slow, but moving, and it was so much more than I expected. It’s hard to remember when I’ve been so thankful.
We organized for the day, bound for the long climb to O Cebreiro and our official passage into Galicia. There was a heavy snow warning ahead. We had no idea what adventure lie ahead during the next two days.