We all try to camouflage the monotony, but it takes a lot of energy – to insist on being special all the time, when we’re so much alike one another anyway. Our triumphs are the same. Our pain. Try for a moment to feel what relief there is in the ordinary. ~ Peter Høeg, The Quiet Girl
In Sarria, we marked a milestone.
One hundred kilometers to go. It’s the westernmost origination point where a pilgrim may begin her walk on Camino Frances and receive a compostela. It stands to reason foot traffic picks up here. Though I knew I’d reached a point where a finish was within grasp, my shin hurt at new levels and I wondered frequently to myself if this was an exercise in permanent physical damage. It’s never good when you feel your heart beating in your leg.
Departing town, I took Naomi up on an offer to buy bandage supplies in a local
farmacia and let her create a support wrap for me. Even if a placebo effect, I welcomed the chance to pretend it felt better.
Thirty-five days in, the farmacia also gave me the first opportunity to step on a scale. Now cinching a belt up four notches from where it all began in St. Jean, I knew I’d lost weight and Naomi told me she’d watched my face shrink even during the last 10 days. But the actual number bewildered me. The 105 kilo figure meant nothing until I did a quick calculation. In 35 days, I’d lost 28 pounds. Three additional pounds fell off by the time I entered Cathedral Square.
As we moved out of town, I encouraged my partners to walk on without concern. I’d be along slowly. We’d catch up in Portomarin at the end of what I already knew would be a long, lagging, grueling trudge.
Most of our life gets lived in a monotonous zone between two extreme margins. We mark our time with lesser milestones along the way, but real life plays out mostly by way of routine.
It’s between these two margins – life’s peaks and valleys – where we learn just exactly who we are and the stuff of which we’re made. If you can handle the monotony of everyday life, and learn humility, you can handle the next big thing. In time, God will bring that thing to you. You can’t become someone, until you’ve been someone, and that often means that you wait, listen and learn. And it’s here where you grow.
As a beat newspaper reporter for 10 years, I’d wager my authorship of at least 5,000 obituaries. I could write an obit without turning on a single brain cell. My job required tediously checking the federal court filings every single day, a task I would have gladly deducted money from my meager paycheck for someone else to do. And if I’d been required to write just one more summary about the local gathering of the Craighead County Extension Homemakers Club – well, it wouldn’t have been pretty.
There were other times when my byline was on the front page for weeks at a stretch. I covered presidents, governors and led months of daily coverage about one of the most bizarre cases in higher education’s national history.
But it was the time between obits and EHC clubs – that monotonous daily grind – when I discovered my gifts and talents, and ultimately started thinking how they might one day be used for a higher, greater purpose. Once I understood my giftedness for interviewing others and telling readers their stories, and my own, in relatable, transparent fashion, everything changed. A calling was born in the messiness between the margins.
That’s exactly how I felt about walking to Portomarin on Day 35. There was nothing really sexy about it, and I was tired and felt awful, but it had to be done. The kilometers were down to double digits and the finish was in sight.
In Vilachá, just two kilometers short of Portomarin, I stopped for a rest before the day’s final steps. The pain and monotony of the day was not a good setup for the next exchange.
Above: It pains me to listen to this video, remembering how much my leg hurt.
It was a point in the journey where I’d tell myself regularly, “…just keep moving.”
A few meters into Vilachá, a small, but well-organized donativo stand with fresh fruits, cookies and two plastic chairs was more than I could resist for a moment’s rest. Mostly, I wanted to sit. I slipped off my pack and set my walking stick aside. The fruit was enticing, but I was too tired and grumpy to eat, instead just taking an occasional sip from my water bottle. It was quiet, and there was no indication of a soul anywhere around.
My next encounter was about to get off to a bad start very fast, and it was completely my fault, the combined result of exhaustion, pain, frustration, and bad timing. I’d really mismanaged my monotony that day.
From nowhere, a thin woman with long, unkempt, dull gray hair, passed through a door into the common area where I sat, and she greeted me in Spanish, asking my primary language. “English,” I said, not really looking up.
“Bound for Portomarin?” she inquired, clearly indicating a heavy English accent.
“Yes, ma’am. I just need to sit here a moment,” I replied.
“Do you have a booking?” she asked, the accent seemingly heavier, and pressing for conversation.
I lifted my guidebook to show her. “Yes, I have a guidebook,” I responded, knowing she was trying to help, yet not wanting help. I didn’t realize I’d misunderstood.
“NO. A booking!” she raised her voice, frustrated with my misreckoning.
She was asking if I had a reservation ahead. I didn’t. I never made reservations, and just took things as they came. We were in a cultural misunderstanding with escalated tensions before I knew what happened. My response was not a good one.
“No, I never make reservations ahead. I don’t plan things. I have friends ahead and I need to find them wherever they are. I’m very tired, hurting and just wanted to sit here a moment.” It’s that tone I get when I’ve already turned someone off – a bad habit, indeed.
“Well, you’re not being very sociable, I can tell you that. I’m only trying to help, and I can save you some steps on those weary feet if you’d only be agreeable.”
“Am I really in this conversation?” I wondered to myself, head hung low.
It’s never good when you begin a sentence with “Lady…” As in, lady this, or lady that. The addressee never hears anything subsequent. Understood.
“Lady, I’m just sitting here, not really troubling anyone, but I’m going to move on down the path now and get out of your way. I’m sorry to be such a bother,” I said.
I threw my pack over one shoulder and scurried away, but before getting too far, she got the best of me on our unfortunate exchange. She threw the last knockout punch.
“Well, you’re the most unpleasant pilgrim I’ve come across in weeks!” And she slammed the door bidding me good riddance.
Sometimes you fail in the midst of monotony. I’d embarrassed myself and walked off ashamed. She told me – and good. And I pretty much deserved it.
A tall staircase on the eastern outskirts of Portomarin adds insult to injury for every pilrim at the end of a long day. If you want to gain entry to town, the stairs must be climbed, surely a hundred, if one.
Finding the albergue where I believed Naomi and Aida had set up for the night, I checked in knowing I’d see them sooner or later. Jeannick was there. So was an Aussie friend and others with whom I’d walked from Sarria. I found a lower bunk, tossed my belongings there, and went for a drink just as Naomi called.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“I think I’m where you are.”
“No, you’re definitely not here.”
I described my location and she said she was on her way.
When she came in the bar, Naomi could tell I’d had a bad day. She told me about the albergue where they’d settled and described it as a quaint, homelike bed and breakfast with one of the nicest hospitaleras on the Way. She’d even placed a portable heater in their private bathroom and encouraged them with much tranquillo.
To top it off, no one else was there. They had the place to themselves.
“You need to come join us. You’ll never believe this place.”
I told her I was just too tired to take another step.
Naomi’s a Spanish teacher by profession, but she writes for pleasure and has a descriptive, unforced way with words that comes natural to people who travel the world. In another 10 minutes, she’d sold me on their location. I grabbed my things and walked that way. I think she had me at “portable heater,” actually.
The heated bathroom was ecstasy. It was one of the longest, hottest showers on my Camino, and the hospitalera, was in fact, a Camino angel if there ever was one.
Naomi prepared a fruit and cheese tray for us that night, and Aida washed all the dirty clothes. We set up in a separate room with a real fireplace and had a virtual smorgasbord. We were clean, satisfied and almost deliriously happy with the accommodations.
The end of an extraordinarily monotonous day, ended in glory, albeit with ups and downs. It goes that way sometimes.