A Walk to the End of the Earth

By Donald Kenny

“Survivors of traumatic brain injuries — from car-crash victims to soldiers wounded in Iraq — face an extra hurdle as they recover: Thousands of them will develop epilepsy months or years later. Epilepsy may not begin with the classic jerking seizures, but instead with memory loss, attention problems or other more subtle symptoms. Roughly 25 percent of survivors of moderate to severe brain injury will develop epilepsy.”
— Lauran Neergaard, Associated Press, April 3, 2007

May 5, 2005, 8:45 AM

7.1 C-smallounty Road 633 outside Traverse City is a peaceful fifteen-mile drive through rolling farmland and modest homes often set miles apart. It abruptly ends at Michigan Highway 37, like a stream that pours into a faster flowing river. I had driven this road perhaps a thousand times to and from work. It was a great drive, a way to mentally gear up, an even better way to unwind afterward. It’s a mild spring day in Northern Michigan and Route 633 carries fewer cars than normal. People seem to be playing hooky, I think. I am enjoying the ride when my cell phone rings. I was approaching a high hill where a notorious cellphone dead zone began and I considered ignoring the call, but the ID displayed a number I had to answer.

May 5, 2005, 8:55 AM

I pulled off to the side of 633, making sure I was squarely on the shoulder. I placed my car in park and flipped on the emergency flashers. “Hello,” I said.
I didn’t hear a car horn or the screech of tires. No sound broke the silence of that still-perfect spring day. There was no warning, no way to know that the life I was used to living was about to change forever.

May 5, 2005, 9:10 AM

I opened my eyes; blurry, surreal images registered. I felt pain in my head, chest and arm. It took another moment to realize that the thick red blood dripping down my face was coming from the pain in my head. I slowly realized I was hanging upside down, held fast by the car’s seat belt. I pushed the button to release the belt and dropped like dead weight onto the car’s roof.

“Cars can catch on fire in a bad accident,” a voice inside my head said.

I told the voice, “If I’m going to die today, it won’t be in this goddamn car.”

May 5, 2005, 9:15 AM

I don’t know how I escaped the car, which had overturned and now sat on its roof. I remember lying on the front lawn of a house, 50 yards from where I had parked. A woman sat next to me. “Help is on the way,” she said.

“What happened?” I asked.

“You’ve been in a car accident. You were struck from behind by a pickup truck. We are trying to keep him away from you.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s drunk.”

Shortly after the accident I began to experience periods of lost time, increasing confusion, seizures and cognitive problems. From traveling the world, negotiating complex contracts, directing subordinates, analyzing data and giving counsel to senior management, I was now unable to make change at the corner store. The drunk, who had no license and no insurance, would be sentenced to 90 days in jail.

January 17, 2012, Traverse City, Michigan

For more than a thousand years pilgrims have walked the 550-mile Camino de Santiago – the Way of St. James – that stretches from Roncesvalles, Spain, just south of France to Santiago de Compostela near the Atlantic Ocean, where the remains of St. James are said to be buried. I will follow the French Way for six weeks. Making the journey in winter is different from summer, when thousands of pilgrims – some serious, many not – clog the pathways and hostels. For a guy turning 60 in a few weeks the hike will be a challenge. Seven years after my accident I am still not who I used to be. Who I was and what I was supposed to do had always been clear. Now I am fearful, hesitant. There seems to be a hole inside me that is slowly filling up, like a ship whose hull had been breached and lets in salt water, drawing it to the bottom of the sea. I decided to repair the hole; I needed to clear my head. I would walk to the end of the medieval western world, to Finisterre on the Iberian Peninsula.
January 23, 2012, Barcelona, Spain

I arrived in Spain this morning on the overnight flight from Chicago. It seems I left my computer someplace at O’Hare. Two hours into my trip and I lost something; not a great sign. Since the accident I have trouble keeping track of things. Maybe it was baggage I didn’t need. My son Tim called TSA at O’Hare; they found the computer and sent it back to my home in Traverse City. I will rely on computers at the hostels or Internet cafes, when they’re available, otherwise pen and paper will work.

January 24, 2012, Pamplona, Spain

The train ride from Barcelona to Pamplona takes three-and-a-half hours across a desolate countryside that reminds me of the Bad Lands of South Dakota. From Pamplona I’ll take a bus to Roncesvalles, Spain, near the French border, and begin my pilgrimage. I have to backtrack, walking from Roncesvalles back to Pamplona, but it’s the only way to start.
Mile after mile the train moves through harsh and empty high plains with cliffs that fall to a red clay floor. The scenery is monotonous, broken only by scores of windmills in neat rows in the distance, all spinning in sequence as if trying to fly off and pull up the land. Farmers have scraped the landscape into flat, small patches and planted crops that struggle to grow. The regularity of the scenery and the swaying of the train cars makes the ride seem longer. I find out in Pamplona that the bus to Roncesvalles leaves in three hours.

***

I met Jonathan much later in Najera at the “albergue,” as the pilgrims’ hostels are called, after I had hiked alone for several days. He was traveling with Louis and Mita, a married couple both retired from a bank in Barcelona. The last member of the group was Chris, a 21-year-old Australian, who was touring Europe and would soon be off to find a job in Paris. It is hard to miss Jonathan, an imposing man who stands six feet five or six. He is a little heavier than he should be and wears a thick brown beard that approaches his chest. A wide-brimmed leather hat sits unnaturally on his head; glasses rest on a prominent nose.

Louis made sure we all woke up early. If someone didn’t get up that was ok, the rest would move on without him. We talked about breakfast as we cared for blisters and rubbed down sore muscles and joints with an international variety of ointments, balms, disinfectants and lotions. The smell that rose from the dorm could choke Satan. After fruit and bread were passed around, we walked into the street to start a new day.

We had gone a few hundred yards when I realized I needed more Ben Gay or the Spanish equivalent to rub on my sore knees. Jonathan said we had just passed a pharmacy and pointed down the street and told me where to turn and said it was “68 meters” (about 75 yards) away. “How can you be so sure it is exactly 68 meters?” I asked.

“It is,” he said matter-of-factly, and gave me detailed instructions about how to find the pharmacy. “We will meet you on the steps of the church,” he added, pointing ahead to a beautiful towering steeple that bordered a square.

“And how far away are the steps?” I asked, a bit sarcastically.

“Eighteen meters,” Jonathan said, then walked off.

I turned at the first street, as instructed. The voice in my head asked, “Did he say the first street or the second? Have I walked 68 meters?”

I was lost in a matter of seconds.

After an hour, I resigned myself to the fact they had gone on without me. In a way I was glad. I wouldn’t have to face the embarrassment of questions. I turned a corner and at the end of the street, I saw a large man in an oversized hat with a smile on his face waiving at me. I walked up to Jonathan and apologized. I felt like a child who had broken from line during a museum field trip and ended up lost, then found; half scared and half relieved.

Jonathan looked at me and smiled: “No harm, we were only concerned.”

“Louis must be really annoyed,” I said.

“I am sure he will burn off his Spanish steam quickly.” I was grateful for this kindness. As we walked to the church steps I saw a strained smile on Mita’s face; she glanced at Louis, who appeared to be sulking. Chris was wandering around the square randomly snapping photographs. I spotted the distinctive Camino sign, in the shape of a seashell, on the edge of a one-lane street that intersected the square. I walked toward it and Jonathan followed, then Mita and Louis; and Chris lagging behind. Jonathan and I took the lead over some rough terrain and a difficult trail.

“I want to tell you something about that whole getting lost business this morning,” I said. He didn’t respond, but kept walking, waiting for me to continue.

“A couple of years ago, I could never have made this trip alone,” I said and told him about the car accident that had left me damaged, apparently in ways I still did not fully understand.
Jonathan listened without responding, and clapped a heavy, gentle hand on my shoulder.

“You don’t need to explain,” he said.

“I hate it when I know people think less of me because…”

“Stop,” he interrupted. “No one thinks less of you. We don’t know you, don’t know your last name and in a day or two we will all go our separate ways, a memory in each others minds and eventually a forgotten one.”

“Good,” I said. “But if it happens again don’t worry, and don’t look for me or wait. I always find my way. And you will not become forgotten memories.”

January 25, 2012, Larrasoana, Spain

Surprisingly, it wasn’t blisters that did me in on the first day on a walk that would last, in all, over 550 miles. It was debilitating pain in my knees. At first, it was only my left knee, supposedly the good one, that began to hurt. My right knee had been repaired sixteen years ago with an ACL replacement after a basketball injury, but before long the right knee was as painful as my left. As my limp became more pronounced, the excitement and adrenaline of adventure began to fade.

Toward the end of the first day a line by Moe Howard of The Three Stooges rattled in my head as I made my way to the hostel: “Niagara Falls! Slowly I turned. Step by step, inch by inch.” I was on the inch-by-inch phase by three in the afternoon and was questioning my decision to go for a walk in Spain. I hadn’t thought about the physical demands on my aging body. My thoughts had focused on where I now found myself, seven years after my car accident.

The backpack that I so carefully packed with “only essentials” burned into my shoulders; I did not yet learn what essential meant. I had been confident that I knew how to pack for this journey. I had spent a year hitch hiking in Europe when I was twenty and had hitched to California the summer before. That was forty years ago. Now, the overloaded pack, the painful knees and the sore feet were all placing demands on my aging body that I had not allowed in years.

A young Italian man would joke one night in the near future, after our second bottle of wine, “Luke had to become ‘one with the force,’ but we have chosen the more difficult path — of becoming one with our backpacks.” We were pilgrims of the Camino Santiago. We thought it a great joke.

***

The Camino is less traveled in winter’s harsher weather. Most pilgrims would rather battle the smothering heat of a Spanish summer, the crowded paths and the race from one albergue to the next than travel in winter. Winter travel, like summer travel, is a social event, but more people seem to seek solitary travel in the colder months. Common wisdom said that those traveling the Way in winter were hardier than summer pilgrims or perhaps braver for having endured the harsher conditions. I never met any winter pilgrims who disagreed. I don’t know if it was a good thing or a bad thing, this slight air of superiority that winter pilgrims seemed to hold. It didn’t matter to me.

I had talked about the importance of “the Way” with two Spanish guys I met waiting for a bus in Pamplona, Nacho (yes, his real name) and Jose. We discussed the hardships the original pilgrims had to endure, which led to a discussion of modern-day pilgrims. Both men said that to be a committed pilgrim it is important to carry your belongings on your back, and endure the challenges and discomfort “the Way” offers. Like others I met, Nacho and Jose disdained the able-bodied hikers who hire taxis to take their backpacks from one albergue to the next or have one member of their group drive a car and carry their luggage. Nacho and Jose call them “the cheaters.”

“It won’t be long before people will fly over the Camino and claim to have completed it in one day,” said Jose. “The Camino is not a competition; it is a journey.”

* * *

Not long after my accident in May 2005, I would leave the house to run errands or go for a walk and realize after a few minutes I didn’t know where I was or where I was going. My son Patrick joined me one day on a quick shopping trip. We had just bought chemicals for the hot tub and drove several hundred yards to an auto store. He waited in the car while I ran in. I returned and started the car, carefully turning out of the driveway. Patrick looked straight ahead.

“Dad?” he said.

I looked at him and saw his face squinted in confusion.

“Yeah?”

“Dad, I think you turned the wrong way,” he said quietly.

“No, I just want to make a quick stop and buy some chemicals for the hot tub.”

“Dad,” he said, his face tight with pain, “we were just there.”

At other times, I called home to ask my wife where I was going and she would tell me, patient and nonchalant. Sometimes she drove out to find me and bring me home. Those were the times a thick grey fog floated into my head and settled there, unbidden and insistent.

January 26, 2012, Cizur Menor, Spain

I was traveling with Nacho and Jose, still struggling with my knees as we walked out of Larrasoaña; I began to suspect I was no longer twenty years old. Climbing hills eased the pain a little, but walking downhill, using my legs and knees as a brake, was proving harder than I thought. We had gone maybe a mile when we came to a steep descent that reminded me of Filbert Street in San Francisco. I stopped, looked down and sighed like a child whose parents had ordered him to eat a plate of hated vegetables. I hesitated at the crest and imagined the painful challenge ahead. Nacho walked up beside me, reading my apprehension and fear.

“This is going to be tough on you,” he said.

“Yeah, I know. I’ll be fine,” I said, not believing a word. We looked down the hill and watched Jose stroll leisurely, twirling his walking stick and whistling.

“I’ll carry your pack down,” said Nacho, who was about twenty-one.

“Thanks, but that would be cheating,” I said. Nacho held out his walking sticks.

“Take these.”

I shook my head no.

“It’s not cheating,” said Nacho. “Even the first pilgrims used walking sticks.”

I accepted one of them and started down the hill. He followed for a moment then walked past to the bottom and waited with Jose. When I reached them; I walked past slowly, without looking at either man or speaking. They turned and followed without complaint.
Our agenda for the day was to stop and take in the sights at Pamplona and then continue to Cizur Menor, a total of thirteen miles plus whatever sightseeing we did. After several hours we stopped to rest and eat lunch. I realized I had to lighten my pack if I had any chance of getting to Cizur Menor today. I pulled everything out, setting aside what I could live without. My pack was several pounds lighter when we resumed our trek, but an hour later I was struggling again. Jose and Nacho had to stop and wait for me more and more often. They were patient, but I was slowing them down badly. I finally suggested they go on without me and I would meet them later at the albergue. Nacho translated what I had said to Jose.

“No,” Jose said without hesitation.

Nacho handed me his other walking stick and moved ahead. I don’t remember what the landscape to Cizur Menor looked like. I kept my head down and worked both walking sticks with full concentration. The pain in my knees was becoming unbearable and exhaustion was setting in. We finally arrived at the albergue about 5 p.m. I dropped my pack on the floor and slumped into a chair. I felt empty, flat, out of gas but lucky to have somehow coasted into the gas station and stopped next to a pump.

I thought that a night’s sleep would put me back on “the Way” tomorrow.

I was wrong. It would take two days of rest before I was able to walk on, alone, to Puenta La Reina, twelve miles away.

* * *

“The Way,” a fellow traveler named Kathrijn from Belgium would write later, “was about the physical effort, the adventure and having some time off to reflect. When you are ‘on the road’ nothing is mandatory, your agenda is empty, time is powerless and as the road progresses you come to realize what really matters in life are the things you may have forgotten in the real world.”

As I left Cizur Menor the road ran in front of me over flat, rocky farmland and collided with hills in the distance. The path was initially groomed but turned rocky and rutted. The temperature rose to the mid-50s Fahrenheit, about 10 degrees warmer than normal. Fields were already green and mounds of dirty brown boulders had been piled high along their edges, making a stark contrast to the wakening crops and grass. The path, as wide as a one-lane road, was quiet and lonely. I walked miles without seeing anyone, not even a farmer working in a field. I thought about nothing and soaked up the sun and the breeze and stared at once-distant hills that now appeared closer and higher. I walked through a large wind turbine farm not far from a village called Zariquiegui, each one turning at its own pace, occasionally falling into unison with others, then catching the wind at different speeds again.

I stood at the base of one of the humming turbines, gazing at scores of spinning propellers. I want to leave the windmills but am locked in place by the intrusion of technology on this quiet hillside where pilgrims have walked for a thousand years. The Way beyond is rough and much narrower, nothing more than a steep footpath. The load on my back gets heavier. My feet are blistering and my aching knees demand that I stop to rest more frequently. The wind is blowing hard at the summit of Alto Perdon. I remind myself that nothing stays the same; not journeys, not people, not life. I am standing at 2,560 feet, above the Arga Valley, a climb this morning of 1,018 feet. I can see Pamplona in the distance to the northeast. Cast iron silhouette sculptures along the top of the ridge show twelve pilgrims, nine on foot, two on horseback, another riding a donkey; a dog runs alongside the horsemen. A plaque in Spanish reads, “Where the path of the wind crosses that of the stars.” It is a place to rest for a while. I can’t hear the windmills in the distance anymore, their humming carried off by the wind.

* * *

It’s hard to imagine what the albergues are like during the spring and summer months when thousands are on the road and people hurry from one to another before the heat of the day sets in and to arrive before the beds are all taken. Arriving much after noon, you may have to walk to the next albergue or find a hotel; and hotel prices are high. The winter months are quiet and many albergues are closed. Sometimes it’s difficult to find one that is open. Often only certain rooms are available and these are typical dormitory rooms with bunk beds taken on a first-come basis.

In a village just beyond the middle of nowhere I found a rustic open albergue and shared a small room with three other men, from Iceland, Italy and Korea. The Icelander, middle-aged, balding and very fit, spent a year traveling to New Zealand, South Africa, Tunisia and beyond; fortunately for me he spoke excellent English. The Italian was a handsome young man who also spoke English, in a calm, quiet voice; the Korean said nothing in any language but seemed content to sit quietly on his bed and smile.

After an evening of conversation, I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. I tucked myself into to my sleeping bag, closed my eyes and drifted off quickly. Before long, however, the once-quiet room erupted. A long drawn out snore was followed by another and then another. A rip-roaring fart punctuated a series of snorts and coughs, accompanied by the stench that can only come from a grown man.

I sent up a heartfelt prayer: “Oh God, if you only spare me this ordeal, I will mend my ways.”

The night also included multiple bathroom runs, complete with stumbling, banging and the muffled curses that came when bare feet struck unseen inanimate objects. The toilet flush sounded like Niagara Falls in the silent room, inevitably followed by more bumping, bungling and cursing on the return to bed.

So it went that night: Rustling in and out of sleeping bags. A cough. A fart. Snoring to wake the dead. I can honestly testify that the noise kept me awake all night.

It’s also possible the other three guys may have made some noise.

February 23, 2012

I was sitting in the warm sun in a town called Villavante drinking my second glass of Coke, resting at an outdoor cafe with several people when I saw a hiker approach, swinging walking sticks in perfect unison with each step, but with an obvious sore-foot shuffle that I had come to recognize in pilgrims. The shuffle looked more like skating on the pavement, each step barely lifting off the ground before sliding out in front; hands manned with a walking stick followed smoothly, hitting the ground in time to shift the walker’s weight into the sticks, which bowed slightly.

As the figure approached I could see it was a young Korean woman about twenty years old, dressed entirely in black. A scarf wrapped around the bottom portion of her face covered her mouth. It was difficult to tell if she was overweight or if the multiple layers of clothing made her appear this way. One of my companions commented on how terribly hot she must be.

“Hola,” someone said. She shuffled past without turning her head or glancing up. In a muffled, almost inaudible voice she responded, “Hola,” but never broke stride and slowly skated by. I could see dark eyes above round, full cheeks and slightly flattened nose. Her high forehead was bare; jet-black hair was all but hidden under a hooded sweatshirt. Her eyes were bright and full of concentration, focused on taking the next painful step. We stared after her as she disappeared behind the bend in the road and followed the yellow sea shells that marked the Way.

An hour later we walked passed her. “Bueno camino,” I said. “Bueno camino,” she answered, staring at the ground in front of her. One of my companions held out a water bottle to her and another an orange but she kept moving and said, “No gracias.” She arrived at the albergue that evening, several hours after the rest of us and walked slowly to the dorm. Like so many others, she doctored her feet as she sat on the edge of the bed, which was next to mine. I’ll call her Sun-Hui because even if I could remember her name, I couldn’t pronounce it or spell it. She spoke little English but shyly tried to communicate. I looked at her feet. It was the worst case of bleeding blisters and infection I had seen yet on my journey. I pointed at her feet and grimaced and said, “Very bad.” She seemed to understand and forced a smile and said, “Ok, Ok.”

They clearly were not.

“No, not ok.” I said, pointing at her swollen toes. “Doctor.”

She shook her head vigorously and quietly said, “No.”

I opened one of the pockets of my backpack and found some band aids, gauze and antiseptic and held them out to her. She smiled again and declined in a quiet, sweet voice. I insisted and continued to hold out the bandages until she accepted a few band-aids and gauze. She said something in Korean, which I assumed was thank you but could have been a curse for my interference. I smiled at her and noticed an upturned shoe that was worn unevenly. I picked up the shoe and held it upside down and said, “No good.” “Ok, Ok,” she said again. I thought she might not have money to buy new shoes. I reached into my pocket and held out a ten euro bill. A young woman nearby who had been watching this exchange stepped up and offered a five euro note. Sun-Hui looked at us, her eyes tearing. For a second, she seemed to think about accepting the money, then determinedly shook her head and said, “No, gracias.”

When I dropped into bed that night, I was ready to sleep after a long day of walking. Sun-Hui followed me into the dorm room and lifted her pack onto the bed next to me and sat crossed legged in front of it. She had taken off her hooded sweater and looked more comfortable in a white cotton blouse and pajama pants; her long black hair tied into a ponytail.

“Hola.” she said, looking up. “Hi,” I answered. The dorm room had gone dark with most pilgrims trying to sleep.

Sun-Hui began. She emptied everything out of her backpack one piece at a time, each item individually wrapped in a plastic grocery bag. She picked up each bag (rustle, crinkle, rustle) emptied it onto the bed, picked up the item in the bag, examined it closely and after a minute or two, put it back into its plastic bag (rustle, rustle, crinkle) and carefully placed it into its designated place in the back pack. The next grocery bag was pulled out (rustle, crinkle, rustle) emptied (rustle, rustle) examined (rustle, rustle) and replaced.

The opening, removing, inspecting and returning each item went on for over an hour. Every fifteen minutes or so Sun-Hui got up from her bed, walked to the door, opened it and left the room, her flip-flops spanking the bottom of her feet, the albergue’s old floor squeaking, the door banging shut.

She followed this routine rigidly: walk to the door (spank, spank), open it (squeak, squeak) leave the room (spank, squeak, spank, squeak), close the door (bang), return to bed (spank, spank), and continue the inventorying of belongings (rustle, rustle).

Once in a while I heard her whisper, as if speaking to someone nearby. I never saw another person, nor did I hear anyone respond. The room was in total darkness so I can’t say for certain if she was speaking to someone or not. Sun-Hui tried to be considerate. She opened the dorm room door only half way to let light in; sometimes she used a small flashlight to inspect an object. When she did I opened my eyes and saw in the dim light people sitting up on one elbow looking at her, unable to sleep.

I knew from the room’s deep silence that most people in the dorm had to be awake. A roomful of sleeping people is not quiet. A normal night in an albergue is filled with the sounds of sleeping human beings that most pilgrims had learned to ignore; Sun-Hui could not be ignored.

Two days later, after settling in at the albergue in Arca, I decided to walk around town. I stopped outside the door to the hostel, trying to choose which direction to take, when I saw a black-dressed figure walking mechanically down the road, seemingly skating in slow motion over its surface.

Fear swept into my heart like a dark winter wind.

I turned and ran up the steps of the albergue, falling in my haste. I got up quickly and headed to the dormitory. I looked frantically at the bunks near mine to see if any were unoccupied; several were empty, one alongside mine. Sweat ran down my face. My heart rate soared as adrenaline surged through me. I threw my coat onto the nearby empty bed, then tossed clothes, my backpack, even my walking stick onto beds anywhere near mine, leaving only one available bunk on the far side of the room.

The dorm was larger than many of the other winter albergues and the corner bed would put Sun Hui – it had to be her – at least 30 feet away with a half dozen bunks between us as a buffer. It would not fully resolve the problem but might allow me to get a few hours’ sleep. I sat on the edge of my bed and waited. Long minutes later the door opened. Sun-Hui entered the room and stopped, looking around for a bed. I cowered, my head down, pretending to be busy with my gear.

I found her in the same albergue and in the same room with me half-dozen times but – by the grace of God – we were finally separated by time or distance.

From time to time I met people who also remembered nights with Sun-Hui. We joked and laughed about it, but when we glanced over our shoulders to see whether a lone figure in black seemed to be skating down the road, no one laughed.

February 6, 2012, Najera

It was another overcast day of climbing stone paths and carefully navigating down; the walking sticks helped take some of the stress off my knees and keep a firm footing. Half way through the day, I remembered it was my sixtieth birthday, the day – as my kids would remind me – that I was no longer getting old, I was now officially old. I laughed at the thought of Brigid and Maggie going back and forth, teasing me about another birthday. I looked behind me to make sure that another pilgrim had not quietly caught up to me. Once I confirmed I was alone I sang Happy Birthday as loud as I could. Sixty years old and walking across Spain, I thought. Life is far from over.

* * *

In the common room at Villafranca del Bierzo I notice a group of people talking and drinking wine in the courtyard. A woman in the group looks vaguely familiar: short, dark hair, about 35, and outgoing. I just can’t place her. She limps over to me a few minutes later and says, “Hello.”

“Hi, how you doing?” I said, still unable to recall where we met.

“Good. How is your son Dan?” ah yes, the walk to Ponferrada. It’s Kathrijn.

“He’s good, back in A Corruna and teaching again.”

“How’s the Sangria?” she asks, gesturing to the free wine our host has provided.

“It’s OK, too sweet though.”

I pour some into a fresh plastic cup and hand it to her. Plastic cups are pilgrim china, useful commodities that are to be saved. Kathrijn has bad feet, like most pilgrims do at one time or another. As we discuss her condition, people overhear us and rush to give remedies and advice. Our host suggests soaking her feet in hot salt water and goes back to the kitchen to prepare it. A very animated guy in his early thirties comes in and begins making suggestions. The room is now centered on Kathrijn, her predicament providing a way for strangers to talk to one another and offer help. Everyone seems to be trying to convince her that his cure is most effective.

Kathrijn listens politely and seems willing to try almost anything. Our host comes in with a deep pan of steaming water that had to be boiling moments ago and instructs her to place both feet in for 10 minutes. She touches the water with one foot and cringes, saying she’ll wait until it cools a bit. He insists, saying she put her feet in right away. “She’s going to add second degree burns to her blistered and swollen feet if she sticks them in that scalding water,” I think.

The animated young guy asks what’s in the water.

“Salt,” he’s told. He loudly pronounces the recipe unfit, adding, “It needs to be vinegar.” The host disagrees; a heated discussion ensues with more comments from those watching the unfolding drama.

The animated young guy leaves the room, returns with vinegar and pours a generous portion into the pan. He leaves again, retuning with a large container of cold water and adds that to the basin. The water is still hot but not unbearable, allowing Kathrijn to submerge her feet with a grimace. Her sincere thanks seem to make everyone feel appreciated.

I repeat the advice a doctor gave another pilgrim, which was to leave her feet bare and let the air help heal them. My comment, which seems to carry the full medical weight of having come from a doctor, finds some credibility.

A dinner of soup, bread and fried eggs follows soon after. It was an interesting, but not unusual, dinner combination. Eggs are a popular food in Spain but never served at breakfast. The dinner was filling, the wine and conversation good. By the time we finished I knew a little about everyone at the table and we talked on for several hours. I asked Katherijn how her feet were and she said fine, which seemed impossible. I had suffered through this stage and had seen what others had endured. I suggested that she might consider a day off.

“I’ll see how they are in the morning before I decide,” she said. “Besides, everyone will leave and I’ll have to travel alone,” adding that she would like company now. “At first, I wanted to be by myself, that was important,” she said. “I started out alone and it was good, but now I’m ready for people.”

“I can understand that,” I said, “a woman traveling by herself through long stretches in isolated areas may be a bit worrisome or scary at times.” She laughed.

“The only problem I’ve had was today. I was walking through a small village when a man dropped his pants and asked if I wanted to have sex.”

I imagined this woman frozen in fear in front of a crazed pervert, his pants slung around his ankles, leering.

“What did you do?”

She laughed. “I said, ‘No thank you’ and kept walking.”

I must have looked stunned. “You didn’t yell or scream for help or tell him to get away or … or…”

She gave a quick laugh. “All I said was, ‘No, gracias.’”

“How did he respond?”

“He said, ‘OK’ and pulled his pants up and walked away. Just a simple ‘No gracias,’ and off he went.”

“I wonder if that has ever worked for him?” I asked.

As we joked about the incident a bit more, a clear sense of relief moved across her face.

* * *

I believe I was in Mansilla de la Mulas, much earlier in my journey, when I arrived at the albergue in the center of town after a strenuous fifteen-mile walk on a warm day. I was not so much tired as dehydrated; I had not expected the heat and drank the last of my water hours ago. I ordered a beer at the café in the lobby and sat at a table in the courtyard, uninvited, with three men: a northern Italian, about thirty, who looked as if he did physical work or exercised strenuously. While brusque in manner he was friendly. The other two men, both German, were traveling together with a large dog that was exploring the courtyard. The older of the two Germans was in his late twenties or early thirties and had an amicable, quiet air about him. The other was nineteen, sullen but polite, a young man who seemed to think he had better places to be. His name was Daniel.

In some European countries, a person convicted of a lesser crime may be given an option: spend time in prison or walk the Camino. This was Daniel’s first conviction – for selling drugs – and he had opted for the Camino. He was escorted by his social worker, the older German with the dog.

Typically, a group traveling together will alternate walking partners, especially if they can communicate in the same language. Our troupe for the next few days consisted of Daniel, his social worker and companion, Tommy from Norway, a 21-year-old Mexican woman and the well-muscled Italian.

Several in the group had given me hints about Daniel’s past, but I reserved judgment. He seemed to be a nice enough young guy, not the drug lord they made him out to be. His social worker provided little information; it was Daniel who shared the details of his life as we walked together for several hours one day.

Daniel opened up more to me as we walked on and told me about his short but successful career as a minor drug lord. His English was basic, but as everyone who has traveled in a similar circumstance knows, verbal fluency is only part of communicating. He wasn’t shy and was quite proud of his success selling drugs.

“Have they told you I am a businessman?” he asked me as we walked along.

“An interesting self-image,” I thought, and then said, “Yes, someone mentioned it.”

“Do you know that at this very moment, I am making money?” he asked.

I looked at him without expression and remained silent. He gave me a weak smile and then he continued:

“When I am sleeping, I am making money. You know the clothes by Armani?”

“Yeah, I have heard of them. But have never owned any,” I said. “Too classy.”

“My suits are Armani. All of my clothes are the best and latest fashion.”

I gave him a blank look and said that I was glad that the clothes made him happy.

“Maybe, you don’t know the importance of the clothes because of the world you are from?”

“Maybe” I said, “but it’s more likely that the name tags in my clothes don’t mean shit to me.”

He laughed, and studied me for a moment, then said, “I believe you,” and gave me an amused smile.

We walked in silence for a while and then I asked him how he was caught. He told me a young thug had approached his eight-year-old sister and sexually threatened her. After his sister told him what had happened, Daniel said he found the man, wrestled him to the ground and held a knife to his throat, threatening him if he came near his sister again. Daniel said he assured the thug that he would never know when the attack would come. The police were called, Daniel’s home was searched and because he was known for dealing drugs was arrested and taken to trial.

Daniel and his social worker had walked over 600 miles before entering Spain and would walk a total of more than 1,100 miles before their journey ended. Still, the long hike was better than prison, Daniel said. I wish I could say that I didn’t like him, or that he was a stupid thug, but neither is true.

“What are you thinking?” he asked.

“That the same effort and creativity in a legal business would likely have given you the same Armani clothes.”

Daniel walked along side, staring at me with a sly smile. I pretended not to notice, but it was making me uncomfortable, I finally stopped and faced him:

“What?” I asked. He stopped staring and smiled warmly at me. We walked on.

“What do you do?” he asked.

“I’m retired.” I said.

“But what did you do?”

“I was a business man.”

He immediately laughed; after I got the joke we laughed together. I was able to finally say, “Not the same kind of businessman as you.”

“Were you successful?”

“To a certain extent, until an accident and then not so much.”

“What accident?” he asked.

“It doesn’t matter, what kind, just that it changed a lot of things.”

“And now you walk the Camino, to escape? Run away?”

“I’d like to find out who this new me is, and if I can accept him,” I said. “If not, I will continue to struggle, so I am not running away but more running to somewhere.”

“How can you be running to somewhere, if you don’t know your final destination?” he asked.

“Do you really know your destination, Daniel? Have you considered the possibilities of where you could go in your life, if you are open to them?”

He stared at me again but there was no smug smile this time. Then he said, “Maybe you and me have that in common.”

I paused, then said more to myself than to Daniel:

“All men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.”

“Did you make that up?” he asked.

“No, James Thurber.”

“I never heard of him.”

March 5, 2012, Azura to Arca

After two days of drizzle, mud and driving rain, I was greeted this morning by the sun climbing above the tree line, sending a glow through the branches like a halo.

I was walking twelve miles to Arca and tomorrow I looked forward to a triumphant march into Santiago. I would walk directly to the cathedral at the center of the old town and attend the pilgrims mass at noon. Between Aruza and Arca, the path ran through several small valleys and only one climb. Spring was born on this path through the Galician countryside and reminded me of the greening in Ireland at the end of winter. I was nearing the end of my six-week walk and wanted to enjoy a leisurely day in the sunshine and marvel at my adventure. Six weeks and no one had asked once for my last name, nor did I ask theirs, nor was one ever offered. People remained anonymous along “the Way” and were taken at face value, with no preconceived assumptions or prejudices, no point of reference to their past, mostly without suspicion or mistrust.

“So,” I said to myself, “your life changed after the car crash and will never be the same again, but no one here knew you before, and you were accepted, liked, even respected. Perhaps the new you isn’t a lesser person.” The day got brighter and warmer and my step became easy and smooth, in spite of the stony ground.

I entered Arca in the middle of the afternoon and signed in at the albergue. The last few days saw an ever-increasing number of people at the hostels along the way. I went to a café and spent the afternoon reading and relaxing. I decided to attend the pilgrims mass at noon the next day in Santiago. It would be a hard walk but if I got an early start I could make it easily.

* * *

I awoke before the alarm went off and was surprised to see how far the sun was up at this time of the morning. I noticed that the room had already started to empty and realized it was an hour and half later than the alarm was set for. It was now eight o’clock.

I don’t know why it was important for me to arrive for the mass today. It was said every day at noon. But it was. It was the day that I had chosen, just like every day of this walk had been a choice. I was soon hiking the Camino at a forced-march, up and down steep hills and rough terrain. In my haste to leave the albergue, I had neglected to fill my water bottle, and I knew the lack of water and no breakfast would slow me down. Time was running out but I knew I had to stop, eat and drink something and take a short rest. At the next cafe I stopped, ordered bread and water and slumped down in a seat at a small table. I rested five minutes, then paid and left.

I began to have doubts about whether I could arrive on time and tried to push myself even harder. I realized I was at my maximum endurance. Out of nowhere I came to my senses: “Isn’t it the journey and not the destination?” I asked out loud. I stopped dead still, took a deep breath and, with my mind and body calmer, walked at a slower, steady pace toward Santiago. At 11:58 a.m. I opened the cathedral door and found a seat in a pew among the pilgrims. A moment later the priests walked onto the altar and began the mass.

March 9, 2012, Friday: Santiago

My son Dan, who was living in A Corunna and teaching English, is walking with me on the final leg of my pilgrimage. We will walk the last portion of el Camino Santiago to Finisterre, which adds 55 miles to the journey. During the Middle Ages, it was the “end of the earth,” the farthest point west before travelers met the ocean and the unknown that lay beyond. That was my final destination: to reach the end of the earth. We decided to cover the distance in three days, which required walking about 20 miles a day. Galicia is a beautiful but hilly province, and while our final passage was filled with spectacular views of the Spanish spring in full bloom it was demanding and we were both tired when we arrived at Finisterre.

Dan had heard that the albergue would hold our backpacks for safe keeping while we climbed the final hill above the town. He reminded me, however, that I had carried my pack for over 550 miles and suggested to finish the walk with it on my back.

“No cheating,” the voice inside my head said.

I kept the pack and carried it to the last spit of land that jutted into the water. These were the final moments of my pilgrimage, and I walked slowly to relish them. Along the Camino road markers identified the remaining number of kilometers to Santiago and now to Finisterre. It was encouraging to see my progress clicked off in such a concrete way, but it was also a curse, especially through the tough stretches when the going was strenuous and slow and the distant landscape changed minimally. I was tired, dirty, sweating and hungry as we walked up to the final kilometer marker, which now displayed only zeros. There were no more miles to walk. “The Way of St. James” was completed.

“I made it,” I told Dan as we hugged tightly. It was all I could manage.

I stared out over the Atlantic and watched its violent waves wear down the rocky coast. The earth once ended here, along this dangerous, seemingly endless stretch of blue water. The backpack I had struggled to carry was now lighter, and the voice in my head quiet, calm.

 

——————–
Donald Kenny is a retired businessman who lives in northern Michigan. During his career, he has traveled to China, South America, Central and Western Europe and across the United States. As a young man, he hitchhiked across the U.S. and eastern Canada and worked throughout Europe for a year. Kenny, who earned a bachelor’s degree in literature and linguistics from Western Michigan University, is married and the father of five children. He is planning a European trip that may take him back to Ireland, Scotland and Spain. “A Walk to the End of the Earth” is his first published story.


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