I was up early, gathering my belongings in a room near my sleeping quarters. Five women in their mid-sixties sat at the table, all looking at me with serious concern. One of them finally broke the awkward silence by making a request of me.
“We have a problem,” she said with great solemnity. “The women’s restroom is without paper. We are wondering if you would do us the kind service of swiping a few rolls from the men’s bathroom?”
With this, they all broke into gleeful, somewhat embarrassed laughter. Relieved that the need was so easily met, I consented and made the transfer. Upon receiving their rolls, the ladies had still more mischief up their sleeves.
“Thank you and we now christen thee the Saint of Rear Wipe,” they said, with more howls of laughter.
As a newly anointed Royal, I began my solo 24-mile day’s walk in the dark.
My first new friend for the day was Eugina from Greece. I remembered seeing her on the first day and then hearing her spectacular solo at Grañón. As we walked together, I learned that her country has a population of 11 million people, with half living in two cities.
She had a lot going for her at the young age of 23. She had graduated from a local university with a degree in accounting. For fun, she was a lifeguard in the summer and taught skiing in the winter. She did tell me about having some financial struggles on the Camino. I found the trip to be rather inexpensive ($30-$50 per day covered food and lodging), but everything begins from a different perspective. When we came across our first small village, I offered to buy her coffee and toast. She graciously declined my offer. Her pace was much faster than mine, so she took off while I enjoyed my breakfast.
Eugina was using her time on the Camino to contemplate her next move in life. I was always impressed to meet people in her age group on the walk. It made me wonder how my life would have been different had I undertaken this challenge in my twenties.
Would this spiritual refreshment have allowed me to confront my alcohol demons at an earlier point in life? Would my fears of intimacy have been eased at a different time? Would I have taken the same career path? Would I have walked the entire 500 miles in a cast-iron shell to prevent new ideas from seeping into my soul? I also wondered if the even-older crowd thought about how their lives would be different if they had walked at my current age of 48.
Later, I passed a sign pointing east with the word Santiago and 518 KM. This meant that in nine days of walking I had already covered about one-third of the Camino. It was a bit of a wake-up call as I felt time disintegrating at a rapid pace. I calculated that 17,740 days separated my birth from that day. If I am lucky and live to age 80, I had roughly 11,000 days to go.
Like many people, I spent the first portion of my life trying to please my parents. After college, I spent time and energy trying to please my employer and society. My retirement at age 36 was a deliberate move to create a fork in my own road. Now, on this trip, I was contemplating how to live the rest of my life. Would I marry Roberta or find new love? Would I exit retirement for a paying career or be fulfilled with volunteer work? How would I take my mom’s death? All this weighed on my mind as I walked.
For lunch in Ages, I had a tortilla de patatas bocadillo, an apple, and the standard café con leche. The sun was shining and I felt like a king. I sat at the head of a white picnic table with 10 bright red chairs on each side and conducted court by myself.
About two thirds of the way to Burgos, I stopped to take a routine break and give my feet some attention.
On the Camino, feet need a lot of attention. Foot problems can become all consuming, even catastrophic for the Camino pilgrim. They can slow a trip or end it.
Even before the trip began, feet were a primary focus when I chose my Patagonia Drifter A/C boots and my REI Moreno Wool Hiker socks. On the trail, they required daily care. Every evening, I washed my feet and socks and changed into different footwear for the evening. Whenever possible, I soaked my feet. On the trail every day, I stopped every few hours to take off my shoes and rest. I developed my own stretch, which began by placing all four fingers in-between the five toes, then using the palm against the balls of my feet as a lever to twist and manipulate the stress out.
For Camino pilgrims, vanity disintegrated about 10 minutes into the first day, and they were quick to share the naked foot as some type of trophy. My memory carries twisted images of feet with blisters on the soles, on the heels, in-between the toes, and on the tops. Camino Cancer erupted on all locations below the laces. Some blisters were fresh and clear, some disgusting and infected. Many were covered with bandages and moleskin. They were all disturbing to see and worse to endure. They served as a constant source of chatter, an obvious reason for a limp, and one of the few acceptable topics for complaining.
But not me. I felt that I was prepared. I was fit. I had worked out two hours a day for decades. I was the guy who always seemed to be at the gym on the cardio machines. I had always been an athlete. In recent years, I had biked at least 15,000 miles in the U.S. and Europe. On the Camino, I had already taken 334,370 blister-free steps. I felt like Superman!
Until day number nine, on the way to Burgos.
I got a blister.
And it hurt!
The physical pain was irritating, but the mental anguish was ridiculously devastating.
“How could this possibly happen to me?” I thought.
“Will they mate, have babies, and cover my entire feet?”
“I may need to get crutches and cut my daily steps in half.”
“Will I even make it to Santiago?”
“My elite status is gone.”
“Should I sue Patagonia?”
“What evil spirit forced me to walk the extra miles today?”
I tried to think of good times or events, but joy was on siesta. This went on for 90 minutes, until I finally looked closely at this blister and realized its actual size and impact.
It was a small blister––just a soft bump on my right heel. I knew what to do. I came prepared with my little kit. I drained the blister with a needle and thread. I left the thread in the skin to promote drainage. I covered the blister with a special bandage, Compeed, which is applied over the area to act as a second skin. (This is a wonderful product but not following the directions can have a dismal outcome. The bandage is to be left on the area until it falls off in about three days. Many people made the mistake of trying to change them on a daily basis. When the bandage is removed prematurely, it rips the skin off. Not a good idea.)
It took me a few days to fully understand this Camino insight. When I was able to process “blistergate,” it became clear to me that the experience was not about a sore on my heel.
I realized that I’m not invincible. Superman had come back to earth and found out he was just like everyone else.
I can’t stop the blisters that life will deliver even to me, physically fit Kurt. I’m nearly 50 years old. I’m aging with every step. My best preventive health habits won’t stop every disease or injury. I’m going to have other physical and mental challenges in the years ahead.
That recognition still brings tears to my eyes. But I am managing the pity party now, thanks in large part to the couple I met on the Camino almost immediately after discovering my blister.
Martin was from Germany and traveling as a mendicant (without money). He started his Camino in Germany and had been walking for three months. His new love, Kimberli, was from my neighboring state of Utah. He sold homemade crosses to generate funds, and they slept outside every night.
Martin carried a unique hiking stick. Words and mementos from people he had met along the path covered the homemade walking aid. Ribbons and beads draped over the many personal messages written on the long wooden pole. While we walked together, my blister did not cause pain. When they departed, the pain returned to my heel.
It finally dawned on me that I was being very self-centered. Here I was on a trip of a lifetime, with a pocket full of Euros, no disease, and great friends and family. After nine days of intense hiking, my biggest problem in life was a pissant blister!
I walked on to Burgos, the third of four large cities on the Camino. This one seemed to be a bit more metropolitan than the other two. I had previously decided to stay in a hotel for night number nine and dedicate day 10 to rest and relaxation. I thought there was a recession in Spain, but it took me two hours and 15 attempts to find a hotel room in this lovely city.
During my walkabout, I roamed past the magnificent Bienvenido cathedral. This intricately detailed gothic structure took over 300 years to construct. All areas around the church were buzzing with people, but the square was almost chaotic. While standing in the plaza and admiring the structure, I heard someone yell my name. I turned toward the voice and saw Tony and Amir, the Camino veteran and his understudy from Day day three. They were soaking in the view while savoring a large glass of wine. Did I happen to mention that there are over 200,000 people in this city?
I had been on my tired feet for 12 hours before finding myself on the third floor of the Almirante Bonifaz. When my key opened the door to my private room, it was simply too good to be true, with a splendid bed, a large bathroom, and a closet. With glee, I placed my clothes on shiny hangers. It was not due to necessity, but because I could! The sparkling bathroom looked like something from a movie set. The toilet was clean and had a seal for insurance. My drinking water came from a glass, and there was a spare in case I needed a second sterile cup.
After unpacking, arranging my stuff, and doing laundry, I spent a long time shaving my face and head. I sat on a comfortable cushion on a steel chair in front of the sink. The hot water was in endless supply, and nobody was waiting for me to finish. This was routine for me at home and had been since I started to lose my hair.
After perfecting my Kojak look, I filled the tub with steaming hot water and used every bath product on the counter. I soaked my large frame in the suds for at least an hour. I rubbed my feet with my hands and also used the rim of the tub as an excellent massage aid. I had a religious experience and asked my feet for forgiveness. The tribunal was unable to render a final verdict.
With my body in prune shape, I drained the tub and turned on the high-pressure shower. I thoroughly enjoyed having a washcloth dedicated to cleaning my body. When the entire event was over, it was like sex; I wanted to do it again!
I exited the hotel around eight o’clock, planning to find a luxurious restaurant for dinner and see a few sights. Next thing I knew, I was sitting alone in a Domino’s pizza outlet devouring a combo. Dessert consisted of a Haagen-Dazs caramel crisp sandwich from a local tienda. By 9:30, I was lying on my bed and loving life. It was one of the best night’s sleep of my entire life.