Walking along an earthen track towards St. Juan de Ortega, I noticed a large blonde man whose full backpack tilted severely to the left. Thinking it might strain a muscle, I mentioned it to him as I approached.
“Yes, you´re the second person who has told me this,” he said, smiling, as if our concern was somehow quaint.
“I just thought you might want to know,” I said, walking on. Maybe he didn´t want any help.
Much later that afternoon, in an albergue in Ages, a few kilometers after St. Juan de Ortega, I saw him stretched out on a bed, in his blue sleeping bag, like a swaddled giant, his broad face somewhat blank.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I´m freezing. Shivering.”
“You probably have hypothermia,” I said. “We need to warm you up.”
I vaguely recalled from my limited wilderness first aid training that, in extreme cases, a warm person needs to lie next to the cold person to share body heat. Had he been younger and cuter (his features and complexion resembled those of Arnold Schwarzenegger), I might have offered to snuggle. Meanwhile, a Spanish woman approached, wondering what was up.
“We need to get him a hot water bottle,” I said to her in Spanish. “To warm him.”
She went downstairs to tell the albergue owners.
“Do you have other symptoms?¨ I asked.
“Did you drink enough water today?”
“Do you have a hat?” I asked. His head was bare, the heat escaping.
“That´s a good idea,” he said. He started to rummage in his pack but kept fumbling.
“Let me get it,” I said. “Just tell me the color.”
I dumped one of his stuff sacks onto the floor and pulled it out.
“Do you have a thermometer?” I asked. He didn´t, so I gave him mine. He stuck it under his left armpit.
I wondered where the hot water was so I went downstairs. The pudgy, bleach blonde albergue owner was checking in new guests, clearly a priority. Eventually, she went to the front of the house, found an empty wine bottle and spritzed hot water from the espresso machine.
“This won´t work,” she shook her head at our odd request and stuffed a cork in it. “Make sure it doesn´t spill on him.”
We brought the bottle upstairs and I told him to put it next to his body. Then, the albergue owners showed up. The man, gruff-faced, squat with a day´s worth of stubble, nearly poked the Pilgrim in the eye as he stuck his hand on the man´s face to see if he had a fever. The thermometer confirmed that his fever was 101.5. I wasn’t able to translate that into Celsius.
“I don´t have a fever, do I,” said the man.
“Actually, you do.”
“In Spain, if you have a fever, you take all the clothes off,” insisted the albergue owners, their faces red with indignation, as if our remedy was a national affront. “That´s what we do with babies. You don´t stay all wrapped up.”
I tried to explain hypothermia.
“Are you a doctor?” they looked at me suspiciously.
“No, but I am familiar with this condition.”
All they understood was fever. I translated for the man, who turned out to be German.
“They want you to strip,” I said.
Another American gave him some Tylenol. Later, after the hubbub subsided, he told me that he had started to get cold but was too lazy to put on warmer clothes. And he had walked 90km (54 miles) in three days, no small distance. Then he remembered that I had told him pack was tilted.
“Do you think that was the problem?” he joked.
The problem was that he wasn’t listening to himself, or anyone else.