When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, British mountaineer George Mallory replied with three famous words: “Because it’s there.” When asked why I wanted to trek the Camino de Santiago, a network of pilgrim trails that cross Spain, I shamelessly appropriated Mallory’s stoic response. Mostly because I thought it sounded cool. That, and it was simpler than reciting the cocktail of questions that catalyzed my departure: “Could I find God on the walk? Could I find myself? Was I lost in the first place? Could I bear to miss the Breaking Bad finale?” Those were the intangible questions I hoped to answer. The more tangible, and testable, question was whether my body was up to the challenge. Could I walk across a country and come out the other end, sound of body, mind and foot?
The answer: kind of.
The Camino, also known as the Way of St. James, is a pilgrimage dating back to 815 AD traditionally undertaken by Catholics to see the tomb of St. James in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. In recent years, it’s seen a rise in popularity with people from all walks of life, each walking for their own reasons, but all headed in the same direction. The most popular of these paths is the Camino Frances, starting in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French border and running nearly 800 km. This path is the one I decided to tackle.
To give you an idea of how unprepared I was, when I went to buy my gear for the walk, the clerk insisted on selling me a miniature Camino first-aid kit. It consisted of Hypafix tape, a needle, thread and a tiny illustration of how to run these last two through blisters to minimize infections. I’d been running on a weekly basis and thought my feet indestructible, but I bought the kit to humour her. Within a week I would be sitting on a rented cot in the middle of eastern Spain, laughing at my naïveté as I threaded a needle through a pocket of fluid that had erupted right under the ball of my foot.
The Camino’s impact on feet is notoriously abusive, so much so that the tourist shops sell a variety of knick-knacks affixed with the slogan “Sin dolor, no hay Gloria” accompanied by a pair of bandaged cartoon feet. “Without pain, there is no glory,” a message we pilgrims well understood. That said, the age and fitness levels of Camino pilgrims vary wildly: I met a ten-year-old walking with her parents and I heard tales of a ninety-one-year-old attempting the trek as well. There were even a few dancers on the trail, like twenty-three-year-old Colin Barkell, an Irish dancer from New York. Barkell told me how he prepared for the walk: “Physically, dance prepared me mainly for the climbs. But the bursts of energy and anaerobic nature of dancing did nothing to prepare me for the long hours of walking each day.” He continued, “It was like training for a marathon by doing 100-metre sprints: they are just two very different types of fitness.”
My first day on the trail saw me cross the French border and pass through the Pyrenees Mountains. It was all uphill for several hours, until it was all downhill for a few more, which meant the skin on what I can only describe as my “foot knuckles” was torn off from the constant downward friction. For several days afterward, the tops of my feet were about forty per cent Hypafix bandage, and I was not alone. Many of my fellow pilgrims had undergone the partial mummification process, and the plaster bandages became like a second skin to us.
If you’ve ever taken off your dance shoes at the end of a gruelling rehearsal, you know that there’s a certain amount of pride that comes from injuries sustained in the line of duty. You know the way dancers compare foot sores at the end of the day? Some nights on the trail played out in a similar fashion, with four or five of us sitting around, feet on the table, comparing blisters and battle scars:
“You see that one, the one that’s the size of a golf ball? I’ve had that for four days; got it somewhere after Burgos, walking the meseta [plateau].”
“That’s nothing. My heel has been swollen for a week, and I can’t feel either of my pinky toes anymore.”
“Yeah, well my feet turned gangrenous two weeks ago and now I hop the trail on my foot nubs.”
OK, there’s some hyperbole in there, but that’s more or less how these pilgrim powwows went down. There were cracked feet, callouses, blisters and bone fractures but, amazingly, no one really seemed to mind. It was commonplace to share camera-phone photos of your feet with other walkers. These photos set the uninitiated reeling with disgust, and rightly so, but between us it was a mark of distinction to have “Camino feet” worth showing off. There was, of course, talk of podiatric salvation in the forms of balms, salves, creams and the like. Some were false saviours, with Compeed and most corn or bunion pads proving unequal to the task. But others managed to make names for themselves via word of mouth.
There was Nok, a British foot cream that several people swore by and applied religiously every morning before leaving. Vermont’s Bag Balm (originally meant for cracked cow’s udders) took fantastic care of people’s skin ailments and came with endorsements from the likes of Shania Twain and Oprah. I myself had taken a tube of Gehwol’s foot balm on the recommendation of two elderly Laurentian ladies who’d trekked across the Camino ten years prior. Though it was a better preventative than curative, the nightly application of the minty cream felt like toothpaste for the toes. Strange as it sounds, that is honestly the closest approximation I can make.
In Buddhism, there is a concept known as satori, which approximates to “seeing into one’s true essence,” “enlightenment” or “understanding,” depending on who you ask. I can definitely say that there were moments where the sensation of satori struck me on the trail. These moments happened in very disparate locations: descending a rain-slicked mountain trail, crossing acres of shadeless farmland in thirty-degree heat, walking toward a Spanish sun sinking into the ocean. These were moments out of time, the small rewards for the gauntlets we ran. In those instants, you forgot about your aches and pains. Your leathery feet stopped burning. Your nerve endings, which had been screaming bloody murder a minute before, quieted, as though they understood nothing should interrupt this sensation. Satori soothed the savage feet, as it were.
So the real trick to making it through the Camino? Just keep walking.
To learn more about walking the Camino, check out santiago-compostela.net