Each Thursday (in honor of Throw Back Thursday #tbt), I feature a blog post from the past and for the last three weeks I’ve been doing a series on my experience doing a section of Spain’s El Camino de Santiago last year. Last week I wrote about how my second day on El Camino taught me the importance of relying on your friends to help you push forward during tough (especially rainy) times. This week I’m on day three and although there was less rain, the distance and hills made for a long and exhausting day.
Day three on El Camino would be our longest of all, with 28 km (17 miles) lying between Palas de Rei and that afternoon’s destination of Arzua. The prior day the hostel receptionist had warned us that this section of the trip was incredibly difficult. Even people who had completed the entire Camino several times agreed that this part was the hardest. It would be our longest and hilliest day thus far. But we had plenty of little pleasures to enjoy that helped to keep us moving forward: blue ponchos and octopus snacks being among them.
One thing that surprised all of us on the journey was the amazing capacity of the human body to recover from a day of intense physical activity. The day before, we had arrived exhausted and found it difficult to even walk around town in search of a restaurant for lunch, but when we set off on Tuesday morning our legs felt (almost) like new and were ready to start walking once again. And the same thing could be said for the human spirit too because the day before I had been in a terrible mood, but I awoke this morning feeling like my emotional and mental reserves had been replenished.
Before we set off on the road once again, there were a few important tasks to attend to: making sure our clothes and shoes were all dry (they weren’t) and thoroughly bandaging our blistered feet. We also applied “Tiger Balm,” which we had picked up at the pharmacy the day before with the promise that the pilgrims referred to it as a “magical cream.”
Once on the road, we were overjoyed to discover that the warnings of record high rainfall hadn’t come true and we enjoyed a full hour and a half without rain. After the epic rainfall we’d experienced the day before, a few dry moments were all we needed to put a smile on our faces. Without the need to constantly wipe the rain out of our eyes, we were able to enjoy the scenery we passed by, which was also remarkably more picturesque than the day before.
However, just in case it did start raining, we were now thoroughly prepared thanks to the giant blue ponchos that the other girl on our trip had insisted on buying for all of us the day before. They fully covered our backpacks and since they were one size fits all, mine almost drug on the ground. It wasn’t long before we had the chance to take advantage of these smurf like raincoats when the rain returned later on in the day, though it wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been the day before.
Like I mentioned earlier, we encountered a number of steep hills on this leg of our journey. But to my surprise, I found that I actually enjoyed them! They required me to use different muscles and my small backpack came in handy, allowing me to speed to the top where I paced around, letting my heart rate calm down while I awaited the rest of the group. On this day, I realized that sometimes it is the fear of the challenges and obstacles that make them harder than they really are. The prior afternoon I had been dreading the day that lay ahead, but in the end, it turned out to be the day in which I had the most energy. At one point, I even carried one of my fellow hiker’s second backpack strapped to my front for two hours straight.
Around 12:30 we arrived in the town of Melide where we made a stop at the famous “Pulperia Ezequiel,” to enjoy the delicacy that this restaurant is famous for: “pulpo a la gallega” and white wine in little bowls. Now what exactly is “pulpo a la gallega?” Well it’s only one of my favorite dishes in all of Spain: Octopus and potatoes sprinkled with paprika, a Galician specialty.
Octopus and wine as a mid-hike snack put Clif bars and trail mix to shame. But since it was the sort of snack that required us to sit down, take off our backpacks and relax a little, starting back up again was not so easy. After the short break, we were painfully aware of our sore muscles and aching feet, but we were still more than halfway away from our destination. Originally, we had planned that this would be our only stop of the day, but as it turned out; around 4pm we were in need of another break.
Our third day on the road was incredibly taxing, both physically and mentally. Good thing I got a burst of energy during the last hour or it’s possible wouldn’t have made it. I often doubted I could continue on, but it came in waves, reminding me that when you feel doubtful whether or not you can continue enduring a difficult period, you just have to keep trekking on until you once again encounter hope and restored faith in your ability.
While walking, I tried to take advantage of the silence and solitude to reflect on things. However, I found that I couldn’t even find anything worth reflecting on, which was strange since my mind tends to be in a constant state of reflection! I found it to be much easier to sing to myself or not think about anything at all. I always thought that when people said that the Camino is a good opportunity to meditate, they meant that it was a good opportunity to reflect on something in particular, but after these three days of walking, I was realizing that meditation on the road is more about quieting your mind.
The road leading up to Arzua was long and straight, giving it a never-ending effect. I think tears sprang to everyone’s eyes when we finally spotted our pension. Although we all would have loved to collapse into bed for the night, it was time to shower and try to motivate ourselves to go get dinner. Thankfully, the France vs. Spain game ensured that we were going to have to leave the hotel room. My feet were killing me and somehow I had a blister on almost every one of the toes on my right foot (for some reason my left foot was blister free!). But despite all the pain I was in, I still found myself feeling incredibly content with the break from reality that the trip was affording me. It was impossible to worry about things in my day-to-day life that I was frustrated and/or disappointed in when I was focusing all my energy on not thinking about the physical and mental discomfort I was experiencing while hiking.
This day reminded of the power of positive thinking! Focusing on the negative is what makes you feel like you can’t go on, and as I mentioned earlier, most of this negative stuff is much scarier when you obsess over it in your mind that when you actually come face to face with it. And when you think positively, and continue on, life usually rewards you somehow…you just have to be open minded about what that reward might look like. In the case of our walk to Arzua, life sent our congratulations in the form of the most delicious three-euro sandwiches a hungry pilgrim could ever ask for, which we enjoyed for dinner at the bar next door to the hotel while watching the soccer game before later collapsing into bed.
Sometimes, it’s the little things that keep you moving forward when you’re experiencing a time of physical or emotional pain. A child’s laugh, your favorite song coming on out of nowhere, the crisp wind hitting your face. These moments can inspire a sense of gratitude, optimism and ultimately motivation in us, which is essential whether you’re on El Camino de Santiago or just that road called life. Check back next week to see what my next lesson was that kept me moving forward.