Walking 550 miles can bring on all sorts of new pain and discomfort. When I started walking, I packed my backpack wrong, so I had some achy shoulders. I didn't have blister problems, but on days one and two, I stubbed my toes and dislodged the toe nails on my big toes. Ouch. Eventually the toe nails came off without much bother.
I was lucky. I met a lot of pilgrims with worse foot problems than I had. In the mornings, I'd see folks with big blisters utilize a complex system of band aids, pads, and socks to bring comfort to feet. All along the Camino were signs for massages and well stocked pharmacies. Some pilgrims ate ibuprofen like candy.
It wasn't all pain. I usually enjoyed a nice strong hot shower at the end of my walking day. During the walk, I could stop and have a glass of wine or a café con leche at a cafe. When it rained, I put on a raincoat. I took my time and avoided my email. The food was good. The people along the Camino were kind. I realized that when the pace of life slows down, it is much easier to find comfort in kindness.
Thinking about pain and comfort on the Camino, I remember the morning I woke up the most uncomfortable. It was the morning I was hungover. Yes, even pilgrims can drink too much wine.
On the morning of the hangover, I knew the cause of my pounding head and lack of motivation. I knew I had drank too much wine the night before. I didn't have to sort through clues around me. There was no wild tiger in the other room or baby left behind. I knew all the circumstances that led to the hangover.
The previous day, I pushed myself and ended up in a small mountain town called Foncebadón. I had walked through a variety of towns and a few small cities on the Camino. Some towns might only have a few buildings. Some towns might have a square and a museum. Foncebadón was a town on the edge of the world. It was small but mighty.
I checked into an albergue (a hostel for pilgrims). They didn't have any beds left, but they did have mattresses on the floor of their yoga studio in a back building. Okay, I was game. I also signed up for their community dinner.
As I walked through the yard to get to the yoga studio, I noticed several goats watching me. I wasn't sure what they were thinking, but it probably was something like ‘Oh here comes another one, maybe she'll give us something to eat.’ I hurried past up onto a wooden porch and left my shoes outside. The yoga studio was a very nice large room with about a dozen mattresses on the floor. I quickly settled in and decided to take a shower.
The water is. . .well. . .not hot. Two tall Dutch guys warned me about the shower.
Is it cold? I asked.
Not exactly. They said.
I decided to go for it. I can be tough. I can be strong. I can take a not hot shower as long as the goats stay outside.
The shower turned out to be luke warm before becoming ice cold. I washed my face and rinsed myself off. I was clean enough and not smelly. I then walked backed through the yard under the watchful eye of the goats who now eyed me disdainfully as someone who would definitely not feed them.
I settled in the large front room by the fire to do some writing, but I got caught up in a conversation with other pilgrims. In the midst of the talking, the first bottle of wine came out.
Dinner was a feast of salad and stew and more wine. I sat at a table with Dutch, German, and Italian pilgrims. We ate, drank, and were merry. I could feel all the fatigue from the walking melt away. I could feel all the discomfort I had about being in this small mountain town in the middle of nowhere fade away. I stopped worrying about what goats thought of me. Life was good. Drink more wine.
I went to sleep at ten, late by Camino standards. As I closed my eyes, I could feel the earth turn, and I knew the next morning would not be pretty.
The next morning, waking up was hard, then getting up was harder. Fortunately, because I was in a room of people all getting up at the same time, I was motivated to follow the herd and get up. I slowly got dressed and packed.
The albergue offered breakfast, but I just had coffee. I sat at one of the tables and gave myself an internal pep talk. I was gonna do it. I was gonna move in just a minute or two. One of my drinking buddies who also looked a little rough asked if I was ready to go, and we walked out the door into the brisk morning mountain air.
That first breath of brisk morning mountain air was exactly what I needed. It didn't cure the hangover, but I felt better. I started walking, and with every step, I felt I could take another and another. My drinking and walking buddy complained that it was cold, but I liked the cold. It woke me up. Yes, I was moving. I was still going.
Two kilometers from Foncebadón is the highest point on the Camino, Cruz de Ferro, marked by an Iron Cross. Pilgrims leave objects that are symbols of their journey at the base of the cross. I had a small rock from California with me. The rock symbolized many different things for me, and now a year later, I still ponder exactly what the rock means while relishing in its mysteriousness. Why did I bring that rock all the way from California? What was I holding onto? What was I giving up?
I placed the rock at the base of the iron cross. It fit in nicely with the other rocks and items that were left there. It seemed to belong in the north of Spain. I didn't reflect too long on the rock that day because my head started pounding, but I was saved by a gust of cold wind.
After the cross, the Camino became a nice steady downhill walk. My walking buddy asked me what the rock meant.
That's between me and the rock. I said. At the next town, we stopped, and I had a cup of tea. Later on, I stopped to eat an orange and my walking buddy kept going. We didn't meet again until Santiago.
I don't have any photos during this time on the Camino, but I still can feel the hangover in my head sometimes. It's like a postcard from a time when I went out of my comfort zone and just kept going.
Sunshine Jen is the author of "The Slacker Pilgrim to the Camino de Santiago", a travel guide and memoir about the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Her most recent book is "Beautiful Collisions: Stories from Los Angeles", a book of interconnected stories about women in Los Angeles. Her books are available on Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble Nook, Kobobooks, and Smashwords. She has has blogged about film, culture, and life in Los Angeles on Happy Robot since 2004.