I can’t go on.” I called to Nannette, a new friend from North Carolina with whom I had been hiking 12 hours that day. We’d started that morning at 440 am. “I need to stop,” I said.
We were only 200 meters from the albergue. Clearly, the real answer, was to walk just a few steps! But my body was finished. 90F temperatures, 80% humidity, I was out of water, ebbing energy. I stopped, sat on a rock wall across from an open pasture with a brown horse wearing a cow bell!
Nannette called back– “I’ll send the boys to help.”
The boys would be Lorenzo and Claudio from Italy – delightful guys in their early 20s, with whom we and others would cook dinner that evening.
I shed the pack and pulled out the bags of food I was hauling for our part of the dinner six of us planned to share. I located one of my peaches and ate it. It was juicy, delectable, and I enjoyed that sense of strength and energy returning. With the fuzz on my hands, juice running down my chin, I wondered “had a peach ever tasted like that before?”
Sometimes just a step can be a major endeavor. But now, after that peach and the moment of rest, it seemed possible.
This first week hiking the Northern Camino had pushed me to my brink time and again. The first climb out of Irun went straight up this mountain. Who needs switchbacks?
One guy was intent on telling me we had climbed 900 meters. Not certain of his accuracy– but it felt like it for certain.
Perhaps the guidebook ought to not only have listed meters, but listed how many ascents we would experience, and better yet, as with windchill, had recorded what those ascents would feel like: 450 meters ascent. Feels like 4500′. That might help.
Each step has brought new people into my life. There’s Steve- from UK who lives now in San Sebastián- in his late 40s, he’s a wild, bold mixture of crass and sweetness; Carol, a petite, tan, generous-hearted French woman who now lives in Barcelona– always greets with the traditional three kisses; Benny, choir director from Berlin, with Beethoven hair, and an ability to fill any conversation with laughter and story; or Danny, a small in stature guy from Basque Country with a deep-hearted love for others that comes through consistently.
Then there’s Markus, an IT guy from Switzerland. He’s a delightful guy with whom I hiked for a day on the Alpinist Trail, scaling and descending these goat trails along the coast with stunning vistas.
That was the day the calf muscle in my left leg, which had been stuck in a cramp for four days, popped and seized and then felt somewhat numb.
Oh man, at first I thought the muscle had broken! I had taken one more step up the steep incline when it occurred. Picturing a helicopter rescue, I tried it and found it still worked. But the entire muscle was tight, pulling. I favored it on the steep descent that eventually led us into the beach town of Deba.
There we connected with two other friends from Germany – Gunda and Hermutt. They were planning to go up out of Deba another 450 meters in 7 km to cut off some of the elevation gains expected in the next day’s hike.
Markus said to me, “You know, we ought to do that too.”
The level of depletion in me was immense having hiked over about 5 – 600′ inclines and descents on that leg of mine. I looked at him and couldn’t believe he was serious. “Markus,” I stressed, “I need to find the pharmacy for my leg and need a big lunch, and then, then, maybe.”
“Yes, exactly.” He responded in his great, accented English, “I’ll ask Gunda to reserve space at the albergue for us when they get there, and we can take our time getting what we need at the pharmacy, and get a good lunch, then leave in the afternoon for a nice slow walk…”
“A nice slow walk in the 80F heat up, up, up,” I thought.
While waiting for Markus, I just needed a beer. I knew, based on what I knew of my body, and the level of depletion I was experiencing, a beer would provide the sugar, the calories, the cold to give me the energy for the walk into town to find the pharmacy and then lunch. I waited at the counter if a beachside cabana.
The girl came to the counter, looking expectant. And I could not think of any words. This was a strange feeling. I knew how to make all kinds of basic sentences in Spanish. But suddenly I knew no Spanish words.
She said, “Senor?”
Desperately I searched for a word, instead exhausted tears came to my eyes. I reached for English. No English. All I could think of German. German?? Yes, many complete sentences came to mind in German!! Oh that’s helpful!
Again I must have looked pitiful.
She asked in Spanish, “Did you want a beer?”
“Si!” I said. ”
“Senor,” she said, taking pity on me, “Aqui.”
With that she led down the counter to where there was a brand I recognized. I pointed to it. She smiled. I paid. And took it off to a side table. Unhitched my pack. Sat on the rock wall in the brilliant sun and drank it in a couple swallows. Never has a beer been more appreciated. Exactly as I had hoped, I could take another step.
I think if anything these stories have been indicative to me of the kind of journey this first week has been.
Many I have spoken with agree that there is no way to anticipate what hiking through the Pyrenees and the other mountain ranges here in northern Spain would be like. And for me somehow with all the guidebooks I had scoured and all the accounts I had read, I never imagined that this journey would be as strenuous as this.
What this has boiled down to for me was the next step. Choosing to walk forward. Even when I didn’t want to, or didn’t have the strength to, or couldn’t imagine how to, it was to do so.
Lorenzo and Claudio did come to my rescue. Indeed they even heard from upstairs, Nannette speaking to our host about my situation and how she was not checking in before she sent the boys to help, and catapulted down the down the stairs to get to me.
Markus and I did manage the mountain ascent that day and the only casualty was my hat which like Frodo’s ring, decided to remain behind. Waiting someplace along that trail in order to attach itself to a new owner, no doubt.
And because we pushed on, and because I decided to take a day of rest, silence, prayer at a mountain monastery, I got connected to Nicole, an Osteopath from Mallorca who examined my leg, determined no internal injury, and gave me an acupuncture treatment that released the pressure and got me walking again without pain.
A trio of three grandmas from Massachusetts, all in their early 70s, are walking this route. Jill, Claudia and Jane are an inspiration and a real joy. Jane sat me down and shared a devotional thought her daughter had sent with her. It is taken from “Streams in the Desert” she thought, dated 1893. But it sounded like this journey to me.
“A woman had a dream where she, one of a crowd, she looked and there before her was a way, narrow, always uphill, narrow, steep, rugged, hemmed in like a canyon. It led always uphill, and was carpeted thick with scotch thistles and briars and needles of the thorn tree. A voice told her this was her path.”
“She complained, ‘no human feet could tread those thistles and not bleed. No human strength can always climb a rugged, thorny path– I should faint, and bleed and die.'”
“But heard– ‘It is your path, go in it.'”
“So she went, and in a few paces were the stones and briars. But, behold, when she put forth her foot, a little boy, like an angel, appeared, stepping in before her and began to clear away space for one foot, then for another foot, and so on. Never more than one step at a time. At last she turned to see how far she had come and there, standing at the beginning of the path, the Savior. She saw that He was pointing to the boy just where to brush away for her foot.”
I would only have one addition to this description, the Savior had not stood at the base of the hill for me, but in the voice, face, and presence of all these around me, walks beside me. He whispers, time and again, “Just one more step, Son. Just one more step.”
This was in the wall of an underpass on an especially hot afternoon as I was leaving Markina for another hike up a mountain. So be it.