I was surprised the other day when I looked at a calendar and realized that I’d been home from the Camino for a month. A month already! It doesn’t quite seem right, especially since I just started working again, but even these work days aren’t “normal” yet. My days, for now, are spent working from home: sitting on a couch, or lounged out on my porch with my legs in the sun, or maybe spread out on a blanket in the park. I take breaks to walk to the library, to jog around my neighborhood, to drink more coffee. These are the slow, easy, waning days of summer. After Labor Day things will return to normal and maybe then I’ll feel like the Camino is far, far away. For now, it feels as though I only just stopped walking.
A few of my friends have commented on how I look exactly the same. “Sometimes I think that I should look at you and see some sort of difference,” one says. “Show me your calf muscles!” another says. But there’s nothing much to see: my body, that felt so very strong in the last few weeks of my Camino, looks the same as it ever did. Maybe the muscles that grew and strengthened on the Camino are still there- I suspect they are- but they’re hidden. They might even be slowly fading away. They must be; after all, it has been a month since I’ve done much long-distance walking.
These days I’m running instead, and when I say ‘running’, I mean ‘jogging’. And whatever jogging I’m doing is of the very, very slowest variety. But it’s a different motion than walking, and uses different muscles, and I can feel my body working, hard, to figure this out. And despite never enjoying running and despite still being convinced that this won’t last very long, I like the feeling of my body working hard once again.
I learned this on the Camino Frances, last year, but I really learned it this year. For those of you who followed my blog while I was on the Camino del Norte/Primitivo this year, you’ll know that I walked some very long days, especially at the end. I’m still a little surprised when I jot down the distances and add up the kilometers and see the amount I covered in my last week of walking. It wasn’t something I had planned on doing- at least, not until a day or two before- and I didn’t feel like I had anything to prove. I just wanted to walk. And to be very honest, I suppose I loved feeling strong.
A Camino conversation that I see come up from time to time- in facebook groups and on message boards- is “the pilgrim who walks really fast”. Sometimes there’s criticism and judgement around this topic; inevitably, someone will say, “I don’t understand why anyone would want to walk so fast. You miss so much of the beauty of the walk! This is not a race- why move so fast to get to a destination only to have to wait several hours for the albergue to open? Or, why walk huge distances only to arrive in the evening and then have to go to bed and do it all over again the next day?”
I understand these comments, sort of, but they always make me a little uncomfortable to read. Because I’m one of the fast walkers (though I had my days this year when I was the slowest in a group). Sometimes, when I’m walking fast, I worry that others will see me and think these same things- that I’m just flying through the experience, not stopping to smell the roses, not slowing down to enjoy the journey.
But it’s not true, and at some point along the way, I stopped worrying about what anyone else might think.
I love the way I walked my Camino, especially this year’s Camino. It took me a solid 10 days to find my footing and to rediscover my Camino legs, and even once I did, I still had a few very difficult walking days when I felt sluggish and tired. But something happened to me in my last two weeks of walking: I felt strong. Really strong. Stronger, maybe, than I did last year. The Norte and Primitivo were more challenging routes than the Frances, and this year I had to cope with a large blister and walk through pain (plus, walk through a few days of bad weather). But once the blister was gone and my legs started to get used to those hills, I often felt like nothing could stop me.
And it’s so hard to describe this feeling, but this is what I felt when I was moving so fast down the trail: I felt a bit like I was flying, like my mind was almost detached from my body and I didn’t have to really think or work to move my legs and my feet. The walking became automatic and almost effortless- even, at times, when I was climbing up hills. And when I felt like this, I didn’t want to stop, sometimes I think I couldn’t stop, even if I wanted to: I just powered on, usually under a hot sun, sometimes with music blasting in my ears, feeling free and strong.
It’s why I walked so many of those long days, in the end- I felt so good that I didn’t want to stop. And why stop if I was still feeling so good? So I kept going. My last day, the 52 kilometer day, that was maybe a little bit about proving something to myself, proving that I could walk a longer distance than I ever had in my life. I was curious- could I do something like this? What were the limits of my strength? And even on this last Camino day I continued to experience and learn new things: that my body could walk 52 kilometers, but it wasn’t effortless. My strength was waning, the steps were not automatic, I wasn’t smiling and dancing and laughing down the trail. I was trudging down the path, moving slowly, pulling myself up small hills, focusing- in the end- on what I had told myself from the very beginning: one step at a time.
I needed a break after that 52 kilometer day- and the multiple 40km days that preceded it. For a good two weeks after my Camino ended, I didn’t feel a strong need to walk. I still did walk, a bit, but not like I tried to last year. This year, I was happy to let my body rest.
But I love remembering how strong I felt, and I’m beginning to really miss that feeling. I’ve talked a little about how I might not feel a need to rush back and do another Camino next summer, but that doesn’t change the fact that I miss the walking: those entire days of walking, the flow I felt when my legs were strong, the joy of moving myself across a vast space.
And I have these moments, lately, when I take a break to go for a short walk around my neighborhood, and I listen to the music that I played on my Camino. Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” begins to play and I swear I can start to feel the Camino again. I start to feel my legs grow stronger and I begin to move a little faster. And suddenly, before I know it, I’m flying.