By: Daniella Palmiotto
“Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” Hebrews 12:1-2
There I was – crying on the side of a highway outside of Tineo, Spain in a black PVC poncho in 90 degree heat at 5:30 PM on the second day of our Camino. In that moment, I told myself and my brother, Paul, that I was not going to be able to finish. Nevertheless, I had to pull myself together to finish walking until we reached the city center of Tineo since the cars were speeding by and my pain was not going to suddenly disappear. I hobbled along offering up severe pain in my left IT band, my right knee, and my blister-covered feet. We were so relieved when we finally made it into the town, found the Medieval hotel where we hoped to stay, and found out that there was an available room (contrary to what Booking.com said). Once we entered our room, I fell onto a bed and did not move for at least one and a half hours. Paul, my youngest brother who is twelve years my junior, was tired and in pain as well, but he was able to bounce back much more easily than I was – as was evident by the fact that he was walking around and ready for dinner while I laid immobile on the bed. Thankfully, the hotel was geared towards pilgrims and I was able to buy two walking sticks to assist me if I were to continue the hike. One of the other pilgrims I met that night was a seasoned Camino walker as he had already completed five. He told me that he had seen some of the fittest looking people go home early because their knees could not handle the stress. I went to sleep that night feeling completely defeated thinking that my knees were going to give out and I would not be able to finish.
Let me back up a bit – I have wanted to do the Camino de Santiago since I was in high school and decided to extend our family vacation to Italy and Greece by about two weeks so I could do it. The Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage to Santiago, Spain that dates back to Medieval times. It is believed that the apostle St. James spread the Good News of Jesus to the Iberian Peninsula and was brought back to be buried in Spain after being killed by King Herod. There are many different routes to get to Santiago. The most popular route and the one that is featured in the movie “The Way” is the Camino Frances, which begins in St. Jean Pied de Port, France. However, this route takes about thirty days to complete and I did not have that much time. I did not want to complete only a portion of the Camino Frances, so I decided to complete the Camino Primitivo, which is the original Camino route and also the most physically challenging as it very mountainous and much more remote than any of the other routes. My youngest brother Paul decided to accompany me as he loves physical challenges as much as I do. However, we definitely did not expect the challenges that came our way. We followed an online guide that allowed us to complete the Camino Primitivo in eleven days because of our time constraints…let’s just say that eleven days is a very ambitious timeline for climbing the steep mountains and rugged terrains present along this route. The Camino Primitivo begins in Oviedo, Spain and ends 334 km later in Santiago. For me, this Camino was an opportunity to consecrate this new chapter of my life to Jesus and Mary as I feel called to do more to help others connect physical fitness and care for our bodies with our faith. This blog is one of those ways as I pray that we can learn together how to grow in virtue in order to enjoy the blessings of food and body movement while being grounded with the virtues of temperance and purity, among others. We will endeavour to learn how to treat our bodies with care and dignity because we are created for eternity and everything we do on earth is pointing us to that. I am so blessed that I was able to embark on this journey that was not just physical, but also emotional and spiritual. Now you can see why I was so disappointed when I began to doubt whether I would be able to finish after just Day 2…
We woke up the following day later than usual (we needed maximum time for our bodies to recover with sleep) and decided to continue to press on to complete our Camino. Paul and I downloaded podcasts and audiobooks to distract our minds so that we could continue walking and focus more on the vistas and listening instead of the pain we were feeling. We were encouraged by our family as my Mom’s side of the family has a group text that offered us prayer and motivation. We also have a family friend who is a muscular therapist and was sending us pictures of stretches and ways we could recover (thank you Kristin!). Paul and I agreed that we had come to the end of ourselves and that it was only going to be the strength and might that comes from God that would allow us to persevere and to finish. We began the walk with a different mindset – we knew that it would be difficult but that with each step we would get closer to our final destination. We prayed the Rosary, as we did each morning of those eleven days. That third day was sunny and radiant – a change from the first two days which had been primarily overcast and misting (causing more blisters since our feet were wet because of the muddy trails). That third day was rough and there were points that I felt like stopping, but I knew that I had to keep going and that I would be sustained by the grace of God and Paul’s encouragement. The walking sticks helped a lot with my knee pain because I essentially used them as crutches on the steep descents which put so much pressure on the knees. However, with this perspective shift, we were able to take each moment as it came.
We found that each day, we had just enough strength to complete the mileage for that particular day. We also met some wonderful people that we would see along the path, at rest stops, and in the towns in the evening. After about the fifth day, we arrived in A Fonsagrada and the route became less mountainous. It was not completely flat, but it was not nearly as arduous as the first part of the journey. We were able to see the light at the end of the tunnel and we gave thanks because we knew that we had reached that point only by the grace of God. I ended up getting a knee brace for my right knee and we got used to being uncomfortable, but we thoroughly enjoyed the mountain views, the remote chapels, the farm animals, the fruit trees, and the forest paths. It was such a special blessing to have eleven days where our only responsibility was to get up and to walk between 15-25 miles over mountains, through forests, along highways, through towns, and along farms until we got to the next town where we could rest before waking up and doing it all over again.
Isn’t this what our lives are like? Waking up and receiving God’s mercies that are fresh with every morning, embarking on the journey that God has given us for that day, being faithful and persevering to the very end, and trusting that overnight He will renew us with strength and recovery for the next day. Some days are dark, some days are sunny, and some begin cloudy and become sunny (or vice versa). Some days are mountainous and challenging, some days are flatter, and some days are a bit of both. But God’s grace always sustains us and He gives us communities that remind us of God’s love and work in our lives when we cannot remember ourselves. He calls us to be faithful and to persevere through our present circumstances. By focusing on Him and trusting Him, we are able to experience the joy of the journey in spite of our pain, whatever it may be.