I hate putting on my boots.
The process is preceded by a ten minute ritual of popping blisters, applying antiseptic, cutting and folding gauze, bandaging raw spots with tape and then slathering my feet in something aptly named, “Miracle Salve” and then praying hard for said miracle. I stretch my socks out as wide as I can and ease my toes, long ones that are losing the nails first, into the opening and close one eye and wince a bit as I ease them up over my ankle brace and then adjust them for comfort and fit.
Taking a deep breath, or two, I prepare myself to take the plunge into the depth of my Merrells and do what I must. It’s become a joke: my comparison of putting on my boots in the morning with the last throes of childbirth. The point at which one knows she must push, she knows it’s going to hurt, she doesn’t want to do it, but she knows she must, in order to get on with the rest of life, and so she does. I push my foot hard into my boot. It hurts. I’d love to say that the breathing helps and that it is an expletive free process, but it is not. Ever. Until today.
I am 31 days into this hike. Approximately 670 km have passed beneath my boots since St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France. Every single step has hurt. Every. Single. One. I attempted to count my blisters today and I lost count around thirty. On the balls of my feet it gets difficult because I’ve had at least three layers of blisters, one under the other, over the weeks. The entire end of two of my longer toes have peeled away completely. The nails are not gone yet, but they aren’t far behind. A tendon in my left ankle caved about a week and a half ago. I purchased a (mostly useless) brace immediately and have been living on a carefully timed rotation of Naproxen Sodium, chased by ibuprofen, chased by Tylenol with codeine. Don’t lecture me. I know. I should have taken a day or three off, I get it. I would give the same advice. I kept walking.
Today, day 31, was the first day that I did not end the walk limping.
It is the first day that I actually felt like it might be fun to pound out another 10 km just because it’s a beautiful day.
It’s the first day that I skipped a little on the trail.
It’s the first day that I comfortably walked as fast as I possibly could for the last 2 km into town just for the joy of feeling my leg muscles lengthen and contract.
It’s the first day I didn’t curse my boots out loud as I pulled them back on to my feet after lunch.
I haven’t written too much about the pain because, at the end of the day, it just doesn’t matter. Doing cool stuff almost always hurts, next issue. Whinging is unattractive. I’m here to walk, nothing more.
But, today, I wanted to write about the joy of NOT hurting.
The pure happiness of pushing up and up and up a steep rocky slope to stand at the top and look out over what must be dozens of miles of mountains in receding depths of purple grey, laced with clouds. The intoxicating high of standing on top of the world. The intensity of feeling the strength of one’s body being pushed just past the point of comfort and the delight of knowing there’s more on the other side. The energy of striding down a muddy slope into a town that’s a complete mystery and wondering who and what one will discover there, what the next chapter of the story will be, and who might be waiting that will change my world forever. Today was one such day. One of the golden days of this adventure, painted in fern greens and holly greens and the ivory white of the hollunda trees, speckled with purple fox glove and sunny buttercups. The daisies nodded along in time with the cowbells echoing off of neighbouring slopes and the pilgrims sang as we walked, some out loud, some in our heads, some whistling, some beating the rhythm with their walking sticks, others creating harmony in laughter.
This afternoon I’m seated at a cafe table on the main pedestrian street of Tricastella; a tiny village tucked into the folds between mountains.
The maroon checked table cloth matches the deep red of the sangria in my glass and I’m picking at a plate of nuts with another pilgrim, leaving him all of the cashews, since I can’t eat them. Friends walk past: Norm, the young german, the Belgian grandfathers, who began walking the Atlantic-Mediterranean crest trail through the Pyrenees but who were brought to a standstill by the snow, so they turned right and are walking the Camino instead. The couple from Washington who just began four days ago and who we celebrated with clapping and whooping at the lunch stop when she announced the arrival of her first blister of their trip. The boys we found bivouacking next to the iron cross three mornings ago appeared, I gave them my left over bread and it has been decided that a few of us will buy them dinner this evening. They’re traveling on the tightest budget of anyone we’ve met yet, and they’re still growing boys who clearly need to be fed. The oldest mother-daughter trio of the journey just passed through the cafe in their matching blue sun hats. The daughters are in their mid sixties. Mother is 84. There are other friends not here yet, the subject of questions as each new arrival rolls into town, “Have you seen… yet?” “No, not yet, they got a late start, his shin splints are kind of bad, today will be tough but they should make it….” We station ourselves like sentries. We pass the word of each new arrival. We might be traveling alone, but we are all looking out for one another.