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Sharing the path with “all creatures great and small” »« El Camino: Trust your inner yellow arrow

Duct tape dharma: what feet can teach

 “When in doubt about where you are meant to be, look down at your feet.”

—    A Buddhist saying

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“Stick a sanitary napkin in the bottom of your boot—it will soak up the sweat. It works!”


“Slather your foot in Vaseline, then put on your sock.”


“Put a few tufts of sheep’s wool inside your boot. That’ll keep you dry.”

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One of my heel blisters


Blister remedies—El Camino style. These are just a few I heard while walking with sore blisters for the first three weeks of my pilgrimage in France and Spain. Who knew that tiny blisters on the top and side of your little toe could produce such agony? I also had big ones on my heels, my instep, and under my toes. Blisters on blisters.


For a few days, I wore my Teva sandals because it was too painful for my heel blisters to rub against my Vasque hiking boots. Then I got new blisters from the sandals.


I pondered the symbolic ramifications of my condition. What was I supposed to learn from this? I decided that it was a way to slow me down, to invite me to bring a greater sense of presence to my journey. Too often, I live in my head, speeding along and missing so much around me.


My blisters were a silent reminder: Stay grounded. They forced me to stop earlier or more frequently to rest and ease my discomfort. In turn, I could use this time to admire a cluster of wild poppies against a sprawl of green fields or to chat with a fellow pilgrim whom I might otherwise just pass by and never get to know.


At times, I raged inwardly against the pain. Other times, I tried to push through it with my will, until stabbing jolts made me realize: I need to listen to my body and stop for the day.


I learned to make the pain part of my walking meditation. My blisters became my teachers, inviting me to feel every step and bring more mindfulness to the stony paths, curbs, and uneven surfaces that I encountered. They brought me greater compassion for those with similar afflictions.


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Receiving expert blister treatment

Through my blisters, I became part of a community of fellow sufferers, both first-time and repeat pilgrims, swapping jokes and stories and comparing remedies. Favourite solutions were to use duct tape or Compeed, a brand of blister treatments found in European pharmacies. Moleskin was a great preventative measure, as long as you covered every potential blister spot, which was tough to do. (I still wonder what happened to the feet of two pilgrims on The Way who were wearing plastic Croc shoes.)


After walking almost 200 kilometres, I paid a Spanish volunteer at an albergue in Santa Domingo, a self-described blister expert, to drain my blisters using a needle and iodine and wrap them in gauze and medical tape. Thankfully, I overcame my reluctance to pay someone else to do a version of what I was already doing on my own. Maybe he could teach me something.


When he peeled off the dressings on my left heel, the inch-wide blister was a disturbing caramel brown. The pus that drained from it was the same colour. The guy shook his head.


“It’s infected,” he said. Obviously, I didn’t know as much about my feet as I thought.


“Don’t use Compeed,” he told me. “Once you’ve got a blister, it seals it off and doesn’t let it breathe.” I’d been using Compeed-like blister packs recommended by a Swiss-German friend.


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some of the red blotches on my feet:
allergic reaction or heat rash?

“Change the dressings every two days and change your socks every two hours,” he said. “And don’t put cream on your feet in the morning—do it in the evening.” His advice about the cream treatment contradicted what I’d read and seen other people doing.


He told me that the itchy red splotches on my feet and ankles, which I assured him were heat rash, were an allergic reaction to the chemicals in sweat. “It’s a common thing. I’ve seen a lot of that.”


After my visit with the expert, on day 12 of my pilgrimage, I started to take my boots and socks off about every two hours and air out my feet. That helped. I added gauze to my first-aid repertoire, which included antibiotic cream. And I never put cream on my feet in the morning, only at night.

I tried the sanitary napkin treatment—but can’t tell if it made a difference. The daily Vaseline-in-the-sock option sounded too yucky to me; besides, how would the guck come out every night with hand-washing?


In preparation for the Camino, I had bought two pair of expensive Merino wool socks, recommended by outfitters and guidebooks. But after the itching and rashes started, I switched to cotton socks.


Before arriving in France and Spain, I had taken time to break in my new, super-comfortable waterproof boots, wearing them continuously for days and with a loaded pack. But on the first four days of The Way, in almost solid downpour and mud, my feet had gotten wet, which I learned is the worst breeding ground for blisters.

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A common sight at every albergue:
pilgrims’ boots stored en masse



By week three of the Camino, I joked to pilgrims that my fantasy was to arrive at Santiago Cathedral free of blisters, like a leper miraculously cured. And it happened. My blisters dried up and I was walking pain free for the last week. Yahoo!


And while blister free, I didn’t speed up. I slowed down even more, to appreciate the mountains, vineyards, and orchards that made me think of B.C. My feet, literally, showed me The Way: I’ve never maintained such a prolonged, intimate relationship with them or with ground surfaces.

NEXT WEEK: All Creatures Great and Small

August 9, 2013 at 4:17 pm
  • August 19, 2013 at 2:33 pmStephanie

    I find this post really connecting to my soul for a couple of reasons. On a recent visit to New Zealand, where we did a lot of hiking, I wanted to be very open to what I could hear deep within as we walked. Getting blisters was one cause to listen! But I also have been pondering for several years what does it mean to walk barefoot through life? To allow your soul to really “feel” the pain, the joy, the wonder, and to trust one will have what is needed on this life pilgrimage.
    I find your thoughts in this post affirming that this is a part of life listening that needs to continue for me.

  • August 14, 2013 at 6:32 pmPetrina

    I loved this post Heather! I was [as a nurse] very interested in the various treatments, and the ‘experts’ advice. I’m glad you ended the walk blister, and pain, free! I was so impressed that you went to mindfulness, that you listened to your body and learned. That your feet showed you The Way.

  • August 10, 2013 at 10:06 amMorgan

    Duct tape was orginally called DUCK tape and was invented during world war 2 to seal ammo boxes going ashore in landing craft etc and also for quick fix for broken windshields etc. It realy is not to be used for sealing Ducts on heating systems

  • August 10, 2013 at 8:17 amMichael Romo

    Great post Heather!

    Luckily, I only had one blister but it was a killer. I was blister free after Burgos and luckily it was not infected.

    Sharing blister stories with others is a fond memory of the pilgrimage.

    Take care,

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