When I was little, my Mom used to read me a book called A Fly Went By by Mike McClintock. It’s a story of a little boy who meets a fly, who tells him about the monster chasing him, the sound of which is hideous and frightening. Next comes a frog, who is fleeing a cat, who is fleeing… and on and on. Including a cow, then a farmer with a shotgun (a pre-1970’s children’s story, to be sure). Eventually, the little boy figures out what they’ve all been running scared from is a little lamb who has become stuck in a tin can and has just been trying to get someone to help him. The boy removes the can, then shouts to those running in fear. All of whom feel very foolish when discovering their greatest fear was a lamb in a tin can.
Starting this Camino up again in March, where I left off in September in Uterga, was lonely. I didn’t see another Pilgrim for two days. And I repeatedly freaked myself out. Looking behind me at every sound or snap of a twig. I would sometimes hear a banging sound and whip around. It was two days before I realized it was my shell banging against a carabiner on the very back of my pack, out of sight. Standing on the trail I laughed out loud and remembered that book from childhood. My own worst enemy.
So often in life we become afraid of things we conjure in our head. Or perhaps they are very real things – manageable things – that become bigger and bigger. Lambs become monsters.
Over the course of the past four weeks I have become more comfortable with being alone. Yes, I have traveled alone for work plenty of times, but I had never been on vacation alone. And not on a Camino hiking nearly 500 miles across Spain. Very often, there was no one to stand next to me to enjoy the light streaming through stained glass windows in a gothic cathedral. Bringing tears to my eyes. Or someone to turn to and say ‘Look at that sunrise. Breathtaking.’ At the end of the day I am alone. I’ve learned to take in experiences as a singular individual, and to have that be enough. It turns out that when a tree falls in the woods and there is no one there to hear it, it does still make a sound. And the beauty is still there when there is no one to share it with.
Its not like I don’t need other people, but I find that I’m enough just as I am. I sit alone in restaurants and I enjoy it. Take a break on a bench and savor the moment of rest. Chat with strangers. Then battle physical pain that sometimes takes me down. But it turns out that the thing I was most afraid of no longer causes me fear. I’m not afraid of my own body giving up the ghost.
Yesterday, I toured the sights of Astorga and I didn’t wish someone else was there to share it with me. It was enough to light my candles in the cathedral alone – which I had all to myself on the Friday before Semana Santa – and to say my prayers for those I love. For burdens to be lifted. For them to find peace. Then I just sat in silence for a half hour before quietly walking back to my hotel.
I’m not saying Jeff has not been a huge supporter all along this journey. I have spoken to him at low points. When the pain in my leg has me on my knees. When I am sure I can’t take another step. And usually his first offer goes like this ‘I’ll come get you. Just tell me where you are.’ But I always say ‘NO!’ Then he goes into coach mode. ‘Sit down. Drink water. Then get back up. You can do it.’ He’s done Google street view on large stretches of this route and he talks to me about what he sees. ‘All the Pilgrims are in shorts. What do you mean it’s snowing?!’ His voice gives me courage.
Other Angels have saved me too. An Albergue owner who iced my Achilles and sat down with me speaking in slow español. Her voice was so soothing and I followed everything she said about modern Spanish architecture while she took my mind off the pain. And a French massage therapist who stumbled through a door very late, saw me limping, and performed a massage that changed everything.
I always hate it when people online tell first time Peregrinos they don’t need to worry about stuff while walking the Camino. ‘The Camino Provides’. But on this trip it really has. Still, I prefer ‘Small miracles happen every day.’ Camino or no.
In just an hour or so, Jeff will be rolling up in our car. It’s nearly a month since I last saw him waving goodbye at the train station in Santiago. It will be so good to see him. No longer just a voice in my ear whispering encouragement. ‘I hurt.’ I say. Followed by his quiet response ‘I know.’ Or saying nothing at all, just Jeff being on the other end of an open line. Today I will happily sink as his hug engulfs me.
Tomorrow, it will be hard to hug him, then walk away again as I start climbing another mountain. But I won’t think of that today. Because I know I can finish this. I have angels looking out for me at every step and turn in the road. And after all these miles, with just over 250km to go, I am not afraid anymore.