Before this summer, the worst pain I’d ever felt was as a little kid at my dad’s holiday office party. One of those enormous rolling blackboards fell over and landed on my knee, pinning me to the ground and leaving bruises that lasted for weeks. Besides that pain, I recall a few dental surgeries, some minor sports injuries, and that time my mom accidentally shut a car door on my hand. Overall, though, I’ve endured very little physical pain, which is to say, the normal amount for most upper-class American 20-year-olds.
Even so, for most of my life, I have believed in the value of pain. Part of it was my mom’s attitude. A stoic Cajun, she views ibuprofen with suspicion and has never, to my knowledge, used an umbrella. Growing up, I believed in character building, in struggle and duty, in chins that remain upright and bottom lips that refuse to wobble. In high school, as captain of the soccer team, I used to preach about personal accountability and doing that last sprint even if little bits of vomit are gathering at the back of your throat.
I had always thought pain was simply a first draft of wisdom or talent. Besides, every good story I’d ever heard or told had pain as an ingredient. And so, this past summer, when I left for a clichéd month of backpacking in Europe, I wasn’t worried about finding it tough at times.
I planned to walk 700 kilometers along a 1,000-year-old Catholic pilgrimage in the north of Spain. My sister Eliza, a dreamy leftist fresh out of undergrad, would join me. To complete our trek in a month, we needed to cover around 25 kilometers a day, which, for those of you who aren’t yet as Euro as I aspired to be, is about 15 miles. The plan was simple: get a little lost, meet some smoky young Spaniards, and, in general, have some cute and formative experiences.
The first few days of walking were not too bad. Hills seemed friendly. Steps were springy. Sometimes I even walked more than necessary, visiting old parish churches or doubling back to look at oozing slugs as they suntanned on the path. It’s just walking, I thought. What’s the big deal?
What I did not foresee was my body parts betraying me, sputtering and breaking down one by one. My calves refusing to unclench for hours at a time. Someone playing tug of war with the tendon on the inside of my right knee. Blisters the size of quarters springing up on my heel and pinky toes. A blister-induced limp that did no favors to my calves and the knee. At the end of the worst days, I huddled on the dirty floors of communal showers, too tired to stand, crying silently when cold water hit the raw skin on my feet.
On those nights I woke up paralyzed with calf cramps, stuffing my fist in my mouth so I wouldn’t wake the other pilgrims in the bunk beds next to me. When the pulsing pain stopped, I groaned into my damp polyester sheets, too sore and too tired to sleep.
Eliza and I sometimes woke up as early as 4 a.m. to beat the heat, but by noon we were still walking, and the temperature was pushing three digits. By then, the sun had ossified my snot and formed cracks on my once-wet tongue. One day, our dad sent us an email saying he had heard on the American news that a record heat wave was hitting northwest Spain. “We’ve noticed,” Eliza and I wrote back.
We took rest stops in stone villages where we filled our water bottles at hand-pumped fountains. Everyone drank tiny coffees all day, no matter the heat. The Italians and the French lit cigarette after cigarette. I lay in the shade, dreaming about an indulgent mother figure who would fan me and keep the flies away.
I had never before walked myself into a new biome, but, as we moved westward, the landscape changed, from the hilly vineyards of Rioja to the dusty hellscape of Castilla and on to the misty sunrises of Galicia. Little churches sprouted everywhere, and we were invited to come in, to fan ourselves and examine the architecture and leave a few coins if we were so moved.
Eliza is, certifiably, a genius, and one of her many skills is the ability to read a poem a few times and then know it by heart. Eliza would memorize a poem at lunch and then teach it to me as we walked that afternoon. Poem learning is great distraction—all your pain and self-loathing receptors that were previously busy punishing you for every step are now occupied trying to remember if it is “under the bludgeonings of chance” or “in the bludgeonings of chance.”
Eliza taught me poems about walking (Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” Neruda’s “Walking Around”), and suffering (Henley’s “Invictus,” Yeats’ “The Second Coming”), and both (Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”). I struggled to recite the lines both because my memory is bad and because the words made me feel pathetic and fraudulent. These were men at war, men vexed to nightmare, men in the blackest of pits or drowning in green seas. Versus me, with my dietary restrictions and my custom-made orthopedic insoles, unable to handle a little walk.
Religious pilgrims have walked this same route, el Camino de Santiago, since the ninth century. Our lyrical guide book pointed out the legends on each day’s walk. Here is a 12 km stretch of extant Roman road. See that stone? Julius Caesar walked on that very stone. Here is a poisonous river where leather traders used to trick pilgrims into bringing their horses to drink only to flay the horses on this very riverbank when they dropped dead. Over there is the bridge just after Leon, all crumbling stone and algae, the site of many battles, you may never stand in a bloodier place.
In the olden days, bandits prowled the Camino to rob and kill passing pilgrims. According to my guidebook, the area around Montes de Oca used to be considered especially dangerous. I had my own concerns to worry about along this stretch—the nearest hostel was apparently “run by nuns who by all accounts are rather strict and are rather frugal with the hot water.”
If my suffering seems petty compared to that of previous pilgrims, so were my trivial reasons for doing the pilgrimage in the first place. I was there because I had a vague sense of adventure and a month to kill. Back in the day, pilgrims walked the Camino to atone for especially severe sins. On their backs, they carried their guilty consciences and their religious devotion: a faith in God as unfamiliar to me as my aluminum framepack would be to them. Upon arrival at the end of the pilgrimage in Santiago, each pilgrim got an indulgence, a “get-out-of-purgatory-free card.” (Incredibly, the Catholic church still grants these indulgences during certain “holy” years—the last was 2010—that one has to imagine are actual manna from heaven for the region’s tourism industry.)
Many of the modern pilgrims I met were devout Catholics. Others, like my sister and I, were lapsed Catholics, and still others were wholly secular. Although she hadn’t regularly attended church since Obama’s first administration, Eliza was what I imagine missionaries call “high-potential”: She was curious and had come on the Camino in part to decide if religion was still for her. In the evenings, I sometimes followed her to nightly pilgrims’ masses.
I especially remember the cathedral in Burgos. At the center of the ornate altarpiece was a carving of the famed Muslim-killer Santiago Matamoros, looking manly on his noble steed as he lanced and trampled people in turbans. Eliza was so upset by the carving that she pretended to have a bloody nose and left to sit in a sidewalk café until mass ended. It was then, she told me later, that she decided to leave religion, at least for a little while..
The friends I made on the Camino come from Spain, Portugal, France, Brazil, Korea, Belgium, the U.K., and the U.S. And while I’d like to be able to say that I met “all kinds of people,” in truth, we were mostly a certain type of person. Most of us were students or graduates of respected institutions. We had good teeth, generous vacation time and that subtle confidence that comes from knowing that we would never be without health insurance or a pillow with our name on it.
We were privileged enough to ignore our privilege, to experiment with a less comfortable life. If cruise ships, with their ostentatious glitz and pampering, appeal to the newly middle-class, backpacking appeals to old money, or at least to those secure enough in their class to undertake an activity that is both a foolish imitation of poverty, and, to boot, expensive.
I think many people go on long backpacking trips because they feel, perhaps subconsciously, like they haven’t suffered enough. Some of my Camino friends expressed this outright. A Belgian man I befriended early on told me that using Band-Aids was “cheating.” A Portuguese women told me she was walking the Camino to prepare for the pain of natural childbirth.
Although a certain amount of competition emerged over who had walked farthest, woken earliest, or blistered most brutally, fellow pilgrims were always eager to help each other. The Camino’s social norms encouraged perfect strangers to discuss their oozing foot injuries. I learned to sterilize a needle with hand sanitizer when I had it and wine when I didn’t. One evening, I lay on a shady bench in a 500-year-old church and let an American girl tend to my blisters with needle and thread using a technique she’d “learned from someone in the Israel Defense Forces.” A crowd gathered to watch my blisters weep and some people peeled off their own socks to sympathize and compare.
This story has a hero and her name is Laura. Laura worked, and I imagine, still works, at the municipal hostel in Mansilla de las Mulas, where my shaking legs deposited me three weeks into the walk. I was in the courtyard of the hostel, washing my clothes in a tub, when Laura came up to me. She had seen me limping, she said. Did I want to let her have a look at my blisters?
I hadn’t been able to stand in the shower that day. I followed Laura to her office, careful to only put pressure on the outsides of my feet. In her office, she poked, emptied and dressed my blisters with the lazy-but-frantic competence I associate with really good knitters. She told me the Vaseline was only making it worse, that I should start using iodine. Her nephew wandered in and out of the office. “When God doesn’t give you children,” she told me in Spanish, “the devil gives you nephews.”
When I had sat down in her chair, the world had seemed bleak and hopeless. When I got out of the chair, my feet touched down on a softer, more pillowy ground. Everything hurt less. I felt new insight into why World War I veterans were always falling in love with their nurses; I was a little bit in love with Laura. On my way out, I stuffed 20 euros, more than two-thirds of my daily budget, in a box marked “Donations.”
I got a few more blisters in the days that followed, but Laura’s ministerings and the iodine put an end to the serious pain. I limped no more. I stopped holding onto bannisters. I got out of chairs with only minimal grunting. The final week of the trip saw its own challenges—among them, an outbreak of bedbugs—but I no longer hurt as miserably. I had less pain, and was better for it.
I am reminded of something Zadie Smith wrote recently in the New Yorker. “To the suffering person suffering is solely suffering,” she wrote. “It is only for others, as a symbol, that suffering takes on any meaning or purpose … Pain is the least symbolic thing there is.”
In the privileged comfort of my daily life, pain had seemed romantic and possibly transcendent. I had worried about going soft in its absence, about becoming too docile and millennial. And then I walked the Camino and I felt, for the first time in my life, sustained and serious pain. My sister had lost her taste for Catholicism when she came face to face with its ugliest realities. I lost my own taste for overcoming pain when I had to overcome it.
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