Before starting the Camino, I was worried that my ankles and knees wouldn’t be able to sustain me for the duration of the 800-kilometre walk. I had had arthroscopic surgery in my right knee, along with torn ligaments in my right ankle, which I had also sprained. Would I be willing to accept “failure” if I was unable to complete the walk? What if I injured myself irreparably?
For the first few days on the Camino path, walking in rain and mud, my right knee made a clicking sound that I had never heard before. Uh oh, that’s not good, I thought. If my body is already reacting this way so early in the journey, how on earth will I complete the pilgrimage? Luckily, the noise in my knee soon stopped. My body must have adjusted to its load. I was carrying only 15 to 20 pounds in my backpack; in earlier decades, on hiking and trekking trips, I had carried at least double that. But how would my middle-aged physique stand up to this?
Like many people on the Camino, I wore a knee stabilizer on my right knee. At times, that knee and lower leg felt numb or half-asleep. At first, I worried that if I wore the stabilizer for too many consecutive hours, it might cut off my circulation and cause a blood clot. But I ended up wearing it all day, every day, on the Camino, without a problem.
For the first two days on the pilgrimage, my quadriceps ached and my feet felt as if I had walked barefoot for hours on small stones. But these symptoms disappeared.
Many times, during that first week of walking, I thought of one-legged Sarah Doherty of Roberts Creek, who completed the Camino using crutches. When sliding through mud on steep terrain, I asked myself: How did she do it? A trained athlete, she undoubtedly had enough strength, endurance and optimism to continue.
Each day, as I walked the route, I realized that none of the things that I had feared or worried about had come true. On June 5, my ninth day on the Camino, in response to my own question “What have I learned in this first week?” I wrote: “My knee is stronger than I think”; “I can rely on my body to get me where I need to go”; “I can still walk the El Camino when I have blisters and heat rash.”
Yet my mind seemed to seek out new worries: Would I be able to make it for several days on the plains of the Meseta, with little shade, under relentless sun? For this portion of the pilgrimage, to ease the challenges, should I pay to have my pack transported ahead? In the end, a cool breeze accompanied the heat as I walked that region, and there were more shade trees than I had expected. On one day, it was overcast. I carried my backpack the entire time.
When consulting my quick-reference map, I remember how daunting all of the unwalked days ahead looked. My guidebook had divided the journey into 31 panels of mini-maps, three per vertical column. Each map panel represented a day’s walk, from the shortest distance at 18.6 kilometres, from Mansilla to León, to the longest, at 31.2 kilometres, from Mazarife to Astorga. When I folded out the map panels and looked at them all as one unit— eight panels of 24 days on one side, and nine remaining days on the flip side—I remember thinking: “There’s no way I’m going to be able to do this.”
Yet, as the pilgrimage progressed, I realized that I was conquering all of those squares of unknown terrain. Flipping over the pullout map page to the final nine-day section felt like triumph. I was overcoming the distance and my own fears.
My worrying and “what ifs” were, and are, part of what Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh might call “busy mind” or “monkey mind.” My focus on the future, worrying about what might lie ahead, prevented me from truly being present in the moment. If I chose to view the Camino as a struggle and attached to that thought, that’s what it would become.
To produce true presence in the here and now, Thich Nhat Hanh recommends returning to the mind and body through mindful breathing and walking. As I’ve learned in hatha yoga, it is common to use shallow breaths, ones that barely engage our body from the belly. When breathing deeply, from our belly, we fill more of ourselves with air — we take in more life, as it were.
While walking the Camino, I did focus on my breathing at times, especially when going uphill. Sometimes I seemed to shift to belly breathing without even realizing it, which gave me extra oomph, like a turbo-drive motor, on steep ascents. But too often, I was more caught up in what lay ahead and when on earth I was going to make it to the next town to eat, drink or rest. My perceived survival needs trumped my spiritual ones.
When I tried to walk as a form of contemplative meditation, I found this easier to do when no other people were around. Mindful walking meant that I gave full sensory attention to my surroundings, breathing in the smell of sage, listening to a cuckoo, staying present with how my feet and boots touched the earth, and admiring flowers, birds, and landscapes.
Mindful walking did not mean that my fears or worries disappeared, only that they just flitted through and I could let them go, rather than harbor them as nagging reminders. The process of walking the Camino became an extended, expanded version of my daily life: a mental dance between fear and trust.