As I lay down in my bunk tonight I let out a deep sigh. And then I feel them. In the corner of my eyes, at the corners of my mouth and deep in the back of my throat. I swallow hard. I feel it fall down the left side of my face dripping slowly, following the curvature of my face until it reaches my ear. And then the same on the right. Now both.
You can call defeat many things but when it is laid bare it stings all the same.
I am in the tiny town of Trabedelo. It's not even a town. The street I grew up on is longer that the single strip of asphalt that is populated by 4 or 5 buildings that constitutes this place. It is 35.7km from where I started today at 6am and more than 128 miles from Sahagun where I first began waking.
The first 19k today went well. Smoothly. Joyously even. But over the balance of my day my feet would deteriorate. Not just because of the heat which reached 91 but because my pinky toes met their match in the rolling hills. Although I suffered through Big Bertha, the abrasions on the top of both feet and the blister on the bottom of my foot which had been ripped open, I was grateful because I knew it could be worse. I knew it could be my pinky toes. I've painstakingly taken my time on every downhill desperately hoping to preserve the skin on the bottom of my pinky toes because I know that it is what separates me from pain and excruciating pain.
Have you seen those pain charts in the ER or the doctors office? They pose a range of smiley faces on a scale of 1 to 10. The diagram shows one being a normal yellow happy face with zero pain and ten being the bright red frowny face which is the worst pain imaginable. The doctors ask you to pick the number which describes your pain.
I've been to that ten places a few times in my life. Three exactly, actually. I've had kidney stones...twice, and I've walked the Camino with raw skin on my pinky toes.
And it is this experience that has taught me what comes right before raw skin on pinky toes. It's large fluid filled blisters. Drain them and you're dead in the water. You've sealed your own fate. If the first rule is to listen to your body, mine is begging me for mercy. It's infuriating that a part of the body as small and as insignificant as pinky toes would be able to halt the entire operation but here we are. At a standstill.
Although the last 10k or so I knew I was pushing it, I really felt I had no choice. I had made it to the end of the stage (that I was supposed to complete yesterday), but as I looked as the day ahead I knew I would fall behind. O'Cebriero, a mountain top town was the end of the next stage in order for me to arrive in Santiago by the 10th. With a 3km increase in altitude, the distance would be 37.9km. Even with my pinky toe blisters in nascent stages, I knew I would never make it tomorrow. I would fall short and then be irreparably behind and be forced to take the bus to Sarria. Or I try to knock off 10km, pray that my feet hang tough, recovery well overnight and then make the grueling 27.9k the next day. So I willfully trudged ahead.
Some 2 hours later I met my goal. But my feet had fallen painfully off the wagon, my sunburns (which I have worked SO diligently to avoid) were blistering themselves, and my spirits about as bad as they've ever been.
The last 4.4km I walked with a young Korean man. We had met two towns prior as he arrived to the bar I was at with two other young men who created quite a mismatched trio. I heard them all clearly enjoying each other's company but cobbling together a conversation between all three of them using broken English. I smiled and kept to myself. Then I heard one of them speaking in Italian and explaining in English the pronunciation of an Italian phrase. A phrase I recognized. I must have looked up because the one doing the explaining took notice of me. "Parla Italiano?" he asked me. "No, but I just started to learn Italian and I speak English". All three turned around to look at me at this point. The trio turned out to be a Spaniard, and Italian, and a Korean. After we exchanged pleasantries the Korean man (whose baptismal name I would later learn to be Peter) was clearly enthusiastic to speak English with a native speaker, and his English was quite good. I noted the rosary hanging around his neck. "I'm Catholic", he said. "very Catholic" he emphasized. "Me too," I said with a smile.
So fast forward to the final 4.4 and Peter the Korean decided that he would walk me since we both intended to finish in the next town. Peter did most of the talking. I would learn that he's 24, began is trek in Lourdes, France some 7 weeks ago and was discerning the priesthood. His favorite things had been some "miraculous" experiences that he explained, and the worst were his encounter with bedbugs. He was quite sweet and a pleasant distraction from the happenings inside my shoes.
Once we arrived, we sought out an albergue I stayed out last time in this town. We got checked in and went to one of several small rooms filled with bunkbeds. We both collapsed and began to instinctively check out our feet. I would literally uncover the disaster that I find myself in, and instantly become discouraged. And just minutes after sitting on the bed I noticed two bedbugs on the pillow of the bed. "Peter! come look! Tell me these aren't bedbugs" I barked. He confirmed my observation and suggested that we move rooms. We did and he had a bedding spray that he graciously shared with me.
Deeply discouraged and now grossed out, I didn't want to do anything. Not shower, not laundry, not eat. Nothing. I wanted to close my eyes and wake up at home. At home, in my clean, soft, decadent bed with my husband there to tell me it was all a bad dream.
Surely I hadn't flown half way around the world only to scale back a goal, and then scale it back again, and be looking at scaling it back further. Surely I wasn't actually feeling a deep sense of embarrassment and humiliation because I had been blogging the whole experience. And if it was real, why could I not have sprained an ankle or broken a bone instead of being foiled by less than 2 square inches of skin. My husband was indeed here (on the other end of my screen) consoling me, but the truth is that I was inconsolable.
I took a shower but couldn't bring myself to wash clothes. Having clean clothes for tomorrow already was enough. I have no energy for such none sense when feeling the way I do. After all, I wasn't going anywhere and I'll have plenty of time for laundry In the near future.
Peter told me that he had heard that there was a place in this tiny little village that served Korean food. "Yeah, ok." I thought to myself but didn't have the heart to say out loud. I walked downstairs and out on to the street with him. He went in search of it and I went to the restaurant on the ground floor of my albergue.
As I went in I heard two American voices. We would quickly begin to chat. John and Marlene are from Akron, NY near Buffalo. John is "nearly 80" but the two of them seem to be in pretty good shape for their ages. They asked if I'd like to join them at their table. I thanked them but said I didn't think I could hobble the six feet from my table to theirs. They inquired about my ailments and my travel plans. I said that I must be in Santiago by the 10th and things were looking Unwalkable for tomorrow.
"Yeah," Marlene said. "We decided pretty early in that this was a pilgrimage, not a martyrdom".
I sat with them for the next 2 hours learning about them and their lives and they learning about mine. We laughed, I got goosebumps from their stories, and I answered their questions about my precious Camino experience until we realized that time was growing late. We exchanged contact information and bid each other goodnight.
As I returned back to the albergue, Peter asked if he could see me for a minute, noticing for me to step out into the hallway and away from others in the room. He walked down the hallway to the communal room and motioned for me to take a seat. He said he had a present for me and took out of his pocket a small gold bookmark wrapped in cellophane. It was attached to an explanatory card done in several languages detailing the design which is a typical colorful Korean jacket. "I want you to have this. It is small but I have carried it with me from Lourdes" and handed it to me using both hands to present it. I was dumbstruck. What an incredible gesture and a beautiful gift. I don't think I could have expected it less. We chatted for a few moments and then he asked if I would do him a favor.
He told me that in Sept his parents have a wedding anniversary. That his father is a famous chef in South Korea and that he is assembling a video for them from people he meets on The Way. So after some coaching I was able to parrot "hello. Happy anniversary" in Korean. I explained who I was and said some nice things about Peter. He'll be translating and inserting subtitles he tells me.
And then I got ready for bed. Tomorrow I'll be figuring out how to skip ahead to Sarria. I'm heartbroken but I figure I'll have time to detail that tomorrow too.
All I can do for now is take heed in these words. "Sometimes you're ahead, sometimes you're behind. The race is long, and in the end it is only with yourself".
Sent from my iPhone