By now, early rising was in my veins. I needed the privacy. I craved the night, the panoply of stars, being alone with existence. I might be tired but that first step into the chilly morning was an elixir. No fear. Unknowns. Me and the universe in an intimate dance of really getting to know each other.
I hadn’t read up on anything. I wasn’t ‘prepared’ or ‘educated’ about the camino. Some days I thought I’d been stupid. Day 5 – the ascent – was one of them… and yet maybe not. You decide for yourself. Other days I thought it was essential to be without knowledge if I was going to enter the zone and be the ‘camino’. There are two sides to the coin, each valuable and I found myself periodically listening to others at the small spots where we took periodic breaks.
I’d usually put in 11 Km before breakfast – 2 hours alone with the night and early dawn. Two towns, two taps. It just happened that way, I didn’t plan it, I wasn’t working off kilos or running some health trip, Most breakfast spots opened around 7 and it depended where I was in the journey whether I was in a location or outside. And, truth be told, it’s like anything, you want the right spot, the right experience so I didn’t just stop anywhere.
As I set out that chilly morning, a stray dog appeared out of nowhere and yapped at my legs. I growled. It cowered. I felt like a shit. It yapped. I talked to it in Spanish, then Italian, then English. The word was out that stray dogs were dangerous and I had no poles, only my knowledge of dogs – knowledge I wasn’t using because I bought the fear of stray dogs story. So, I stopped, I looked at the dog, a mangy, hungry, gangly mutt, a mix of wolfhound and something, nothing to be afraid of, and I apologised. I told him, he reminded me of a dog I once had, Ollie, and said I was heading on – unafraid – and it was welcome to come but there wasn’t going to be any food since I had none. Off I went, and Ollie followed – all the way to my first town, Villafranca de Bierzo.
In exchange for the company – and lessons – I protected Ollie from the cars speeding by. Yes, some of the roads on the camino hug the highways and this was one such tract of sentiero. For a while it was ‘me and my dog’, Ollie was no longer a stray – or we were both strays in search of meeting our needs – and so I’d watch Ollie saunter ahead of me and think about how easily his body moved him forward while I was ‘taking my body’ forward. I was walking me. Ollie was the walk. Sinuous. Easy. Integral. Suddenly, I realised, I was also ‘animal’, like Ollie, my body had the same capacity his did, so why was I in pain and tension when I didn’t need to be? Ah, such is the effect of lives framed around chairs and the sedentary. I spent conscious time reconnecting with my thigh bones, feeling the joint motion, filling the bone with my connection to it, being aware of the length and flow and its placement between acetabulum and knee – how do they collaborate, how do they sustain each other and connect to the tibia and fibula, ankle and foot? Using a visual of the skeleton I kept visualising the kinesiological flow until my walking felt organic and the reverberations rose up through my chest and head. Just like Ollie. Wasn’t that why I had come – to reconnect with my whole body after a year of 14 hours days with my butt in a chair writing? Now, Ollie was my teacher. As I experienced this me in motion, these tissues and bones and muscles collaborating effortlessly I wept. No, my body wept. Relief. Breath. Space. Ease. The nagging pain diminished because I entered the alignment. It was divine.
Still, I needed poles. I could see that poles were a must on this trip. Another humble pie moment. Shepherds use poles. What’s my problem with poles? I ‘expected’ my body to be capable. Yes, the body is capable – when you are the body, and that simply wasn’t my case. My strong, athletic body was capable but I’d censored it. I saw how the descent into Acebo – and the injury – was a direct result of using my legs but not being in them. However, when I arrived in Villafranca it was way too early for stores to be open, and the waiter at the cafe told me the next location was 15 km away. Stepping outside, I found Ollie had vanished.
Lost in my own rediscovery of my bio-logical those 15 Km passed rapidly. As I rounded a curve and saw a pair of poles in a bin outside a roadside store I felt a surge of relief and rushed to possess them the way a child would her favourite toy. I coveted them. I adored them. Shiny black with adjustable measures and rubber handles. Sleek. Lightweight. I told the tiny, old woman behind the register I wanted to cover her in kisses of gratitude… and then I saw she had sole inserts… and I wanted to kiss her that much more. She cut the inserts to fit my shoes. When I laced up my walking shoes it felt like clouds were under my feet. I wept again. Relief. Ease. The foot was happy, oh God was it happy, so happy that I would do what many – including myself – had thought impossible. I’d make it to Cebriero. The last 10Km are straight up.
To sustain that original doubt, at the foot of this ascent, I stopped for a bocadillo and the woman in the bar took one look at me and suggested I have a taxi take my backpack up the hill for me. I thought that was a fabulous idea and gave her a thumbs up – but there were no taxis. She sent me to another bar where she said the bartender had a taxi and would do it – certainly – so I went there quite excited at the thought of an ascent without a backpack. The young man behind the counter said his driver would only take me and the backpack; that was a no. I wasn’t willing to do that so I asked about the horses. He said that would be an option, and the service was 1 Km down the road. A horse for the pack and a horse for me; that seemed a bit over the top but it wasn’t a problem because there were no horses.
Thank you, Universe. If I couldn’t walk it, I should stay in town and rest. Could I walk it? I’d just eaten a huge queso bocadillo and felt energised. It was a question of one footfall after the other, nothing more, and I’d grown accustomed to the sound of my footfall and the connection of hip, thigh, knee, shin, ankle, foot, one step at a time. Then, a solitary young man ‘d seen before passed me, looked at me with his chocolate brown eyes, and said, “Vamos!” with such verve that I immediately responded, “cierto!” He left me in in the dust, his pace was expedited, strong, wonderful to watch and I drank from that image as I had from Ollie, over and over again, as I headed up the hill, until that strength was in me. Transactional takes on a whole new meaning, so does transform, transitional, transference, and trust.
I entered a zone. Me and the earth. There was no ascent. Just me and the earth in consummate motion – together. Our dance. It wasn’t about ‘making it’, it was about feeling my legs become mine again; it was about understanding the laws of gravity in my being, it was about the smells, the soft earth under my feet, trust, being the walking. Absolutely nothing else existed. I wasn’t even animal, I was me in motion. The pleasure was immense. Earth, air, fire, water, ether – me. If there was a time I was truly ‘el camino’ this was it. The 10 Km disappeared into what might have felt like 3. I loved each step. I was the ‘vamos’.
When I reached the top. the solitary young man was having a cigarette and a beer. I smiled at him. He nodded and gave me a thumbs up with a large grin.
I touched 40 Km that day. Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected to cover that much territory in a blink of an eye. The gift of Ollie. The fairy sparkle of the tiny, old woman in the store. Mutable pain. Temptations of taxis and horses. Beliefs of others accepted and acted upon as truths when, in fact, it wasn’t so.
Vamos was now conjugated as somos.