Living Out Loud and Lessons of The Camino – The First 100 Miles: Fear and Forgiveness

If I am completely honest I have to admit that when I landed in Paris for my Camino I felt a bit terrified. I’ve traveled and lived all over the world but being alone for 6 weeks in France and Spain, walking miles and miles every day was a bit daunting. First, I don’t speak French or Spanish. And second, it’s 500 miles!

I had heard that the flight from Paris heading to Biarritz would be packed with Pilgrims and the thought of this was both comforting and intimidating. While I looked forward to meeting people who were going to be sharing the trail with me, I had that little negative voice that’s constantly talking in my head telling me that I would likely be the most unprepared, unfit person on the Camino in the entire history of The Camino. I really try hard to quiet that little voice but it just keeps popping up. In my mind the people I would be walking with were all champion ironmen and women who would be sprinting the Camino.

I arrived at my connecting gate after riding a bus from one terminal to the next around the entire airport, clearing passport control and going through three separate security check-points. By the time I got there I felt as though I had already walked a Camino. The voice inside my head kept saying “if you’re exhausted by a walk across the airport how can you possibly walk 500 miles?”

…and then the most amazing thing happened. I was looking for a seat and avoiding eye contact with anyone already at the gate when I heard a voice that sounded like Wilford Brimley. He said “you look like you’re heading to the same place as me.” I looked up and saw the kindest face (truly, he reminds me of Wilford Brimley, I kind of want to hug him) and while that negative voice was still sounding off in my head I was able to relax a little for the first time since waving goodbye to Nick and Scott the day before.

Turns out, we were the only two pilgrims on that flight (which is kind of odd) and I had met the person who would become my next lesson on my Camino. His name is Mike and he’s from Virginia. He’s an experienced hiker and has completed the Appalachian trail. He’s doing the Camino in 30 days and will likely be hiking through some overnights to finish it. We left each other in Biarritz but agreed to meet at 8am in front of the Pilgrims office in St Jean the following morning to start the climb over the Pyrenees.

I won’t go through each day of this Camino in detail. There are plenty of blogs you can find that can describe the day by day scenery and experiences. But I will say that the first two days of The Pyrenees were nothing less than exhilarating. The views were incredible. We left St. Jean in the middle of a thunderstorm so those first 8km to the Albergue in Orrison were a real adventure. It took Mike and me about 45 minutes to walk the first 200 yards. We stopped to take pictures, to adjust our packs, to remove rain gear, to put on more rain gear. Because Mike was experienced I just followed his lead. The lesson Mike taught me is to hike my own hike. It’s the same lesson for running a marathon…run your own race. And Mike completely does his own thing. On the steep inclines we walked 25 or 50 steps and stopped. Or we would find a marker in front of us and make that our goal, then stop. We passed people. People passed us. Mike listens to his body and when he needs to rest he does. So about halfway up he told me to keep going and that he was taking a nap. Really! A nap! He pulled out a pad, rolled it out and laid down and slept for half an hour. I kept going and walked the rest of the way in with Dee from Canada and Jean from Quebec. And Mike showed up shortly after.

The following day I left Orrison with Jean (Quebec). We found that we walked the same pace, and rested about the same amount of time, so we ended up being great travel companions. We didn’t have rain until the end of the day but the winds were so strong that I had to use my poles to stabilize myself as we were climbing. We walked through wind for about 4.5 hours and on the descent the wind let up. Jean and I didn’t talk much that day because we couldn’t hear each other over the wind. That afternoon and evening three of our other dorm mates caught up to us. We ended up with a group of 5 that walked the next 3 days together: Mike (The American), Jean (Quebec), Nicola (Italy), Jehferson (Brazil) and me. We range from age 38 to 67. Some of us have hiked before, some have not. Some of us were somewhat athletic, some are not. One of us is a multiple time Ironman and that person has even completed a double Ironman. Some of us have daily medications we have to take, one of us has a pacemaker, one of us is an amazing cook and can make a carbonara from scratch that is award-winning, some of us have lost our parents or siblings, one of us has lost a child, one of us is ready to start a family, and we all believe in God. The point is we came from all over the world with different experiences and backgrounds and here we are walking together. Some days we went through hours of silence and then paired up for chats. We helped each other when we were in pain. We cheered for each other when we topped the hill or made it to the bottom without breaking an ankle. I won’t say who used the F word first because we have agreed what happens on the Camino stays on the Camino but on the day that word slipped out we all laughed hysterically, glad someone had finally said it. I took a rest day in Pamplona and they walked on, so they’re all a day ahead of me. But when I left them that last night after dinner I cried the entire walk to my bed and breakfast. I have met other wonderful people since leaving them, but those guys will always be my Camino crew. I will talk more about these characters as I go. They are all men of great faith and they shaped this entire journey for me, unknowingly.

I crossed the 100 mile mark on Sunday, September 20th. One fifth of the way through. Half of those days I walked with the guys and the other days I have walked alone. I have had a lot of thinking time. I started the first day crossing the Pyrenees thinking about fear. Since Connor was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma I have never looked at fear the same way. There is nothing that can be compared to the fear of having a child who has been diagnosed with a deadly disease, at least for me. I thought a lot about my fear of committing to 500 miles. And I believe that fear is a word that I have used loosely and casually over my lifetime. That wasn’t really fear that I was feeling about The Camino. That was insecurity and lack of confidence. Connor felt real fear. I know it because he told me. I can hear the words in my ears like he is saying them right now

“I’m just so scared Mom.”

And I said. “I know Connor.” But I really didn’t know. I knew my own fear, but I can’t know his. I can never forget those words and the fear and helplessness I felt. The memory of his fear almost brings me to my knees. But we both kept going thru the fear because what choice did we have? The only path is the path forward. Kind of like getting out of bed each day without him. What choice do I have but to get up?

Several days back I had a walk that took me up a large hill with an elevation of about 2600 feet. It’s a tough climb and over the years it has become known as Mt. Forgiveness. Since that was my climb that day, I made the topic of forgiveness my daily intention.

I have come to a point in my life where I forgive easily. The burden of anger and carrying a grudge are just too heavy. So I don’t really have any people or events in my life that I’m carrying as a burden. And I actually do feel forgiven by those that I have wronged (either on purpose or unknowingly). I’ve talked and thought a great deal about forgiveness over the last almost 2 years since Connor was diagnosed. And this is a topic of conversation in every grief counseling session. My struggle is forgiving myself for my shortcomings as a mother, forgiving myself for not being able to save Connor and hoping that he forgives me for that.

I’d like to say that I had some great epiphany on that day and walked down that hill leaving my guilt at the top and forgiving myself. But I didn’t. That will take a few more miles.

And we keep going. On to the next 100 miles.

Buen Camino.