The sun did rise as it’s supposed to on the second day of the Camino, but it didn’t seem to, obscured as it was by the charcoal grey clouds. We set out from Portomarin at 7:30 in the morning, stopping for a few moments for cafe con leche and a small pastry in town. And it was uphill from there. The next few hours were always steadily -and sometimes sharply- up. By the topographical map of the Camino, 15.8 km of our 25 km trek that day was ascendent.
The other chaperone had stayed behind with some students who were unable to walk with us. They had been sidelined by twisted ankles, swollen knees. So the wonderful Laura, a teacher from the school in Barcelona to which we were headed the following week, walked in front and I, fittingly, took the rear. Like day one, it wasn’t long before we were separated by pace. Unlike day one, it didn’t take long for the physical challenges to begin nipping away at positive attitude. Unlike day one there was no cozy restaurant to provide an afternoon respite, and the sun never came along to provide a beacon of hope.
The pain came early on this day because of the constant rise of the trail. Hamstrings (dubbed stringos de jamon by the students- maybe you had to be there to find that amusing) were stretched to their limits. Shoes soaked by rain and mud exacerbated the already painful blisters from the day before. And then there was the rain: the steady, pelting, freezing rain. As we trudged through it I kept thinking about Forrest Gump describing the rain, “We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin’ rain and big ol’ fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath.” Yea, Gump rain it was. I thought about silly things like this to keep my mind busy and to keep myself from getting too discouraged. I’ve been around students long enough to know that stress can be highly contagious.
One of the queries we gave the students to consider before we began was, What do you do with pain and discomfort? I think we all believed that this query would be theoretical. We believed that the queries we would spend the most time pondering were the more romantic What has brought you here? What do you want to do with your life? Alas, the soggy skies and the intensity of our physical condition precluded any serious consideration about these lofty questions. No, we were focused on getting to the end of the day – an end that seemed far away and impossible to reach, even by 10am.
So, what did we do with the pain and discomfort? We endured it. Each endured it in his or her own way. Some students found the answer in walking faster to get it over with, to reach food and warmth more quickly; others had to stop and cry, to release the mental anguish it was causing; others suffered in silence; still others found a way to laugh at how sad we must have looked from afar. Whether laughing or crying (and sometimes both at the same time), we put one blistered foot in front of the other, planted it in a puddle and gave each other encouragement. “You can do this. WE can do this.” The Spaniards we had met the day before provided encouragement as well, designating some of their group to walk behind our slowest group for a while to ensure we were OK. Some walked with others in groups ahead, and friendships were born. There is unity among all pilgrims. Even so, they eventually forged ahead, leaving us to slog it alone. I was able to (barely) endure it by trying to provide assurance for the kids. (Responsibility is a good distraction.) Sometimes we walked arm-in-arm talking about various things to amuse ourselves. Sometimes complained about our sore feet, knees, backs and ankles, the cold wet clothes – although I constantly worried about keeping a balance between empathy and perseveration. If we wallowed in the pain, we’d never make it. If I wallowed too much it would have doubled their worry. And sometimes we walked in silence for long stretches.
There was a moment near the end of the day when six of us had thought we’d reached our destination only to find we had one more kilometer to walk. We erupted together in shouts and tears, tormented by the thought of going on. As we resumed our turtle’s pace, the rain gave its heaviest assault of the day. Hail decided to come along as well, just to make sure we were the right amount of miserable. It was comical really, something out of a bad movie. So we laughed, even as we ached.
After our nearly seven-hour walk and were together once again, fairly dry and slightly less frozen, we dined – our first food since the morning pastry. Food that is earned tastes twice as good as it should, I can tell you. Although still reeling from the challenges of the day, still full of emotion and body parts throbbing in pain, we shared our stories and made jokes. We found once again the laughter that has sustained us, that has made us one. None of us would appreciate until later that this was to be the beauty of our Camino. This.