I woke up early and started walking in the dark soon after 6 o’clock. Due to albergue logistics this would be my last 30-kilometer (19-mile) day. That left 19 kilometers (11 miles) for Wednesday and 20 kilometers (12 miles) for Thursday, the final day.
If Noah were alive, this would have been a nice day to bring the ark out of retirement. My one-size-fits-all vinyl poncho was one size too small and looked like a miniskirt on my not-so-petite frame. My shorts, shoes, socks, and underwear were completely soaked throughout the day.
With the cool temperatures and abundant rain, it was quite a challenge to walk in the dark. My headlamp provided some light, but danger was present with every step.
With a bit of discouragement and a large appetite, I was relieved to find a village serving food. I walked into the bar at eight o’clock feeling very wet, hungry, and spent. The heat of the interior and the smile of the owner provided an exceptional welcome and a much-needed attitude adjustment. There were three people in the bar, and one was my Hungarian friend Judith. Her friend Annie was still walking, but was several days behind.
We both ate an inordinate amount of food that seemed to rejuvenate our spirits.
New Habits, New Moves
Rest and food are obviously important to anyone on this trip. I always listened to my body and took many breaks throughout the day. It was also amazing how a piece of toast or tortilla de patata could improve not only my energy level, but also my mood. I had a long personal history of pushing too hard and hoped to take home this newfound appreciation of rest.
I also had formed a nice new habit of taking care of small irritations before they had a chance to develop into bigger problems. When my laces did not feel good or my socks bunched up, I stopped and rectified the problem. It did not take long but would be easy to skip. This was another lesson that I hoped to take back home.
When nothing else worked, I created my own “move” to reset the moment. I would plant my walking stick in the ground with my right arm fully extended and then proceed to walk in a complete circle around it. Maybe it was the change of scenery or the distraction from discomfort and frustration. Maybe it was a sense of accomplishment from being able to see where I came from that day. Maybe it was a trick to break the walking routine. Whatever it was, this simple and effective move always resulted in a refreshed and positive attitude.
This refresh move, as I called it, also became a celebration move. When I felt ecstatic, I planted the stick at the heart of the trail and danced around it.
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The End of The Camino in Sight
I think that our bodies know when the end is near. At this point on the trail, I heard lots of comments about pain and fatigue. With the end in sight, dormant and numbed pain came out of hiding. I also found myself being much more cautious to avoid injury. In the youth of my walk, I had time to recover. In my sunset, this was not an option. I had a feeling that my body and outlook would be similar in the later years of my mortal life.
Within the pilgrim group I also heard a lot of worry about the challenges we all faced at home. When the party ended, we would all be looking at a different set of circumstances, drastically different from the daily joys of walking on the Camino. I knew that I had some significant decisions to make about my relationship with Roberta.
Judith was very tired and looking forward to the end in Santiago. Her spirits were high but her body was done. She would finish her walk on Thursday and be back at a desk in London on Monday. It was hard for me to imagine such a dramatic change in circumstances. I was thankful to have been able to experience and then abandon the corporate life at such an early stage in my life.
Given all of the steps that were behind me at this point, it was hard to imagine that the end was just a few days away. Santiago lay just 24 miles down the road; I could have been there in a 45-minute taxi ride. That seemed a strangely surreal option. I was thankful to be able to spend the next two days enjoying my Camino on foot.
Heart Open, Connected to the Natural World
We departed the bar to another world. The rain took a temporary vacation. Just like the previous 25 days, this was another wonderful day to walk. My heart opened and I felt a part of the natural world, not separate from it. This connection had been present since the French Pyrenees, but seemed to be amplified at this time.
I was definitely in a rainforest. The winding trail had a new look at each turn. Large groves of eucalyptus trees dramatically joined the view. The bark looked like multiple scrolls of brown paper that could easily be torn from the host. The trees were so lush that I could barely feel pouring rain under their natural cover. The wider vista included streams, rolling hills, large forests, crops of corn, stone bridges, and pasture lands.
Endings Are a Part of Life
Under a gray sky, I passed by a small graveyard. Cemeteries are a part of life on this ancient trail. They greet you as you wander into a village or send you on your way as you depart. A wall encloses most, with an iron gate for egress. Headstones tower above the earth and identify the hidden content. Many graves are topped with a simple crucifix while some are sleek marble monuments that preserve the remains of entire families. Few are manicured.
I passed most of the cemeteries but felt compelled to visit some. I don’t know what attracted me. Death is the only certainty of life and also the focus of unlimited worry and speculation. When inside the graveyard walls, I was ill at ease, always keeping an exit within view. On this day, near the end of the Camino, I was relieved to find a locked gate. Clearly, I didn’t want to think too much about death––my death, the death of loved ones, the death of relationships, or even the death of my Camino trip.
*Subtitles by InnerSelf
©2013 by Kurt Koontz. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission. kurtkoontz.com
This article was adapted with permission from the book:
A Million Steps
by Kurt Koontz.
Kurt Koontz thought he was well prepared for his 490-mile walking trip on the historic Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain. He was fit and strong. He had a good guidebook and all the right equipment. His pilgrim passport would grant him access to the shelter of hostels along the way. But all that, however helpful, did not begin to encompass the grandeur of his external or internal adventure as he navigates through his personal history of addiction, recovery, and love. With outgoing humor and friendliness, part diary, part travelogue, A Million Steps is a journey within a journey all the way to the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela and beyond.
About the Author
After retiring early from his job as a successful sales executive for a Fortune 500 technology company, Kurt Koontz volunteered in his community and traveled across Europe and North America. He never considered writing a book until he walked nearly 500 miles across Spain in 2012. Those million steps were so compelling that he returned home and began writing and speaking about his life-changing adventures. He lives and writes on a tree-lined creek in Boise, Idaho. Read his blogs at kurtkoontz.com.
Read another excerpt from this book.