Few things are more intimidating than entering a German gym as an English speaker with little to no German knowledge.
In years gone past, I was a gym rat. I showed up for Body Pump and Spin classes at least four times a week. Before that, I had the enviable metabolism of a high school senior, probably because I was one. Fried chicken, a steady stream of beer, and double scoops of mint choco chip ice-cream were all I needed to sustain me. And still, I had abs. I hardly worked for them.
But the German gym intimidated me beyond measure. Instead of intense workouts, I took to the streets. I walked every evening for at least an hour. I explored Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg, roaming up and down Greifswalder and along Danziger, all while listening to podcasts like Serial and Risk. I ran up the four flights of stairs to my apartment every single day.
But I felt woefully unfit. At home, I’d pinch my stomach between my index fingers and my thumbs. I’d suck in my cheeks and grope for my cheekbones, wondering where they’d be under all that excess weight.
Then, after nearly a year of lethargy, I booked a one way ticket to Spain to start my walk on the Camino de Santiago. I decided to start in Pamplona, a roughly 720-kilometre trek through rural Spain — a pilgrimage that has been taking place for thousands of years. It had nothing to do with my poor body image, and everything to do with escaping my headspace. But I hadn’t realized how much body image played into that space.
I mostly feared what kind of damage walking 20 to 30 kilometres a day for a full month would do to my knees and hips. Both had given me some problems in the past; sharp shooting pains, for example. A stabbing jolt in my left buttocks.
The “I Can Eat Whatever I Want” Stage
I arose early on my first morning in Pamplona. Too early. I had shared my first albergue (pilgrim’s hostel) dorm with dozens of other pilgrims, and surprisingly, I had slept well. But once I made it outside the albergue, I was groggy and disoriented. It was still dark. I lingered casually around the front doorway until another pilgrim emerged, and then I set off behind him at a reasonable distance. I didn’t know which way to go, until I learned to follow the scallop shells and the yellow arrows — the symbols of the Camino.
My guide told me that my first town, Cizur Menor, would have ample opportunity to stop for a quick bite to eat. I saw no such thing, and so I slogged on, hour after hour, following the man ahead of me.
I was starving by the time I stopped for food. I devoured a tortilla de pinchos, a Spanish omelette. Then I slogged onwards, through valleys and over hills. I was too shy to talk to anyone, although some of the other pilgrims had graciously offered me bread and other snacks along the trail. Atop Alto del Perdón, a trio of elderly Aussie sisters bought me tea in a styrofoam cup. By the time I crawled into bed on that first evening in Puente la Reina, after 24 kilometres, every muscle and fibre in my body was screaming. And I was still hungry.
After that, I gave into whatever my heart desired. Plates of piping hot paella, multiple cups of sugary cafe con leche when all I wanted was an excuse to stop walking. The bocadillos — sandwiches with lacklustre meats, cheese, and butter — were excruciating to get through. I ate pretty much anything that came my way, anyway.
I sat in the middle of a dining room in Estrella, eating trail mix and writing in my journal, when a Dutch couple asked if I’d like any of their spaghetti. I obliged, mostly for the social aspect of it all. I still hadn’t made any friends. The couple poured me some wine from a box and we dined like kings, surrounded by Spaniards and Brazilians conspiring over enormous pots of stew and soup. There was applause all around. Despite my protests, the Brazilian sitting next to me handed me another plate of food.
After week one, I wondered why my clothes fit so snugly. Surely 25 kilometres a day meant I could eat whatever I want?
The Gratitude Stage
Gratitude came in waves — at the beginning of the trip, when I was still buoyed by new optimism, and later, when the Way rolled out behind me like a scroll.
I had been walking with the same people for weeks. My little Camino family included a married couple from Alabama, Clay and Elizabeth, and an Italian, Rachele. I had absorbed the Alabama twang like a sponge, and I’d find myself greeting people with a, “Hey ya’ll” in the mornings. I was lucky to be with people who enjoyed cooking. In Hornillos del Camino, an incredibly small town on the open plains of the meseta, we found ourselves crowded into a one-room shop towering over a storekeeper who stood mute as we pondered the items on the shelf. We left with crushed tomatoes, dry spaghetti, and a few spices. Somehow, Clay and Rachele prepared a feast.
But on one rainy day leaving for Astorga, I shot ahead of the group to escape the rain. It was days before I saw my family again — an absurdly long few days. Two! Two whole days.
In Rabanal, I awoke bright and early to get a head start over the mountains. I knew that my family had stopped in the town just after Rabanal, and I was hoping to catch up with them. I summited the mountain to find Cruz de Ferro, the iron cross, shrouded in fog. There were already people there tossing their stones from home atop the pile gathered at the foot of the cross. The stone is meant to represent a weight they carried with them. I hadn’t brought anything. (Well, nothing except the crippling burden of student debt and a thankless career chasing down publishers for invoice payments. But that’s a different story.)
I carried on, and the clouds parted, and the sun came out, and the mountains opened up to lush valleys and stunning country panoramas. I paused in a rickety shack for coffee by donation, from a man who grew exasperated with me for not understanding how the giant thermos worked. I kept moving.
Somewhere along the way, I spotted a wooden cross on the side of the road. I paused for a moment to take in the photograph tacked to it — a middle-aged brunette woman, deceased, accompanied by words of love. But the laminated quote attributed to Linda Hogan gave me greater pause:
“Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”
I continued on, one foot after another, eyes overflowing with the sheer beauty of it all. My own two legs to carry me; my own freedom, my own will. My own health, my own privilege, my own lovely life. The miracle of my body to carry me forward.
The “I Can’t Believe I Did That” Stage
On April 21, 2016, I strolled into Santiago with my little family. It wasn’t the fanfare I expected; hardly anyone looked our way.
We had spent the entire morning quizzing each other on our experiences. “What was your favourite day?” “If you could have gotten rid of ONE thing in your backpack, what would it be?” “Who did you wish you had spent more time with?”
The skies split open and the rain began to pour as soon as we walked into the main town square at the foot of the cathedral. We huddled under the awning of the adjacent building, staring up at the bell tower, expecting God to reveal Himself.
The magnitude of the journey didn’t hit me until I collected my certificate and final passport stamp at the pilgrim’s office. I paused for a photo, proudly holding my paperwork and beaming into the camera. You can’t tell my level of exhaustion by looking at the image.
I spent a few days in Santiago, roaming around town and gorging myself on tapas. After wearing the same rotation of three outfits for over a month, I went shopping for some new jeans and a shirt. Those days have a hazy, catatonic feel to them; I remember passing other pilgrims in the street, and we’d stop and chat while tourists swirled around us. It’s like we were part of a secret club. A club where the badge of honour was blistered feet.
When I went back to Berlin, I didn’t weigh myself. I hid the bathroom scale in the closet. I studied my naked body in my bedroom mirror, bewildered that I looked exactly the same after such a journey. My legs were more muscled, though, and I could climb my apartment stairs without getting winded.
When I had time to sit down and absorb it all, I couldn’t believe what I had done. I couldn’t fathom how my body had carried me over 700 kilometres across an entire country. The hip and knee pains never came; the worst I suffered was a day of shin splints. The painful clenching of my jaw had stopped entirely. I was insomnia free. I had scaled a mountain range, for goodness sake, and I barely broke a sweat doing it. And my body, my incredible, functional, flawed body, did all the work.