Feet and Faces on the Camino

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Walking 500 miles on the Camino takes me back to basics. After the first day, I became especially aware of what moves me from place to place- my feet. Being constantly surrounded by others, I also noticed the great variety of bodies moving along that Camino.

Since I probably have good peasant ancestors, my feet are broad which is great for carrying my own extra weight and the backpack’s extra weight. As on other hikes, I bought boots a size larger so that I could wear thin liner socks. Because friction would build between the liner socks and heavier hiking socks, not between the heavier hiking socks and my skin, I didn’t have any serious blisters on my toes or the backs of my heels. However, because I bought larger boots, I forgot that there might be a problem elsewhere. Yup, because of the slippage from larger boot size, I developed blisters on the sides of my heels. Strangely, during my third week, I developed a set of different blisters close to these original blisters, but a little bit lower. In each case, I paid attention to the blisters, draining them with needle and thread so that they would heal properly.

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My attention was drawn not simply to the blisters on my feet, but with pain below my right knee, and then, two weeks later, pain below the left knee. I had never had knee problems before. However, the length and steepness of the descent from the top of the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles was a real killer. That evening, probably every peregrine complained about their aching knees. I said to somebody that night at dinner: “an entrepreneur could make a fortune flying drones carrying knee braces to the hikers.”

Hiking the Camino is an opportunity to get in touch with one’s body. Of course, such awareness, even if it comes from hiking 500 miles, is not the same as walking the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. Although half of the time I stayed in albergues, often large dorms where walkers could sleep on bunk beds with 10 to 150 of their best “singing” (snoring) friends, I eventually began to sleep in hostels and hotels with private rooms so that I could rest my body. Regardless of where I slept, I learned with each step that I needed to listen to the warning signs of blisters or muscle pains that my body would send.

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I also became aware of others’ bodies. While people might smile, and look fresh when they begin hiking 12 or 15 miles that day, by the end of the day they are not so smiley or fresh-looking. In fact, despite all the large poster ads featuring beautiful men and women models for clothes, perfumes, cars that I would see entering a large city like Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, or Santiago, I realized that most of us humans are not “beautiful” physical specimens. Our bodies aren’t necessarily ugly, but they are glamorized by advertisers and our own imaginations.

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Yet individuals on the Camino were beautiful. I might notice the eyes, drooping and dull, or bright and full of life. I might notice the mouth and lips, cracked, sunburned lips or upturned with a quick and welcoming smile.

In my romanticizing the Camino, I imagined that I would ask others profound questions and listen to others narrating profound realizations. While I did ask questions, and listen to moving stories, I realized that the Camino starts with something more basic: one’s body. Maybe that is why I remember vividly a sculpture on the Camino’s path in the city of Burgos of a young woman in a wheelchair and of a Leon museum which had exhibit explanations in Braille. Our bodies come in all shapes and sizes with all sorts of abilities and capacities or lack thereof. Yet, there is a “common uniqueness” to each of us being “bodied.”

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