“Where are you heading?” asked the man seated next to me in the scenic car as Amtrak‘s California Zephyr rumbled across Illinois. I was multitasking — peering out the window while reviewing photos on my laptop — and glanced over. With his worn sweater, baggy pants and bug-shaped eyeglasses that harkened from the 1980s, he was someone I might have otherwise overlooked. Had I not just walked the Camino, I might have given him the barest of answers and kept my attention on my computer, but I decided to talk to him.
“Denver,” I said. “What about you?”
“McCook, Nebraska,” he said. I had never heard of the place; it must be small since Amtrak rolled into that station at 3:43 a.m. “From there I’m going to Kansas. I’m doing something I’ve never done before. Returning to a place I once lived.”
“Where were you before?”
“I just spent several months hiking part of the Appalachian Trail,” he said.
“Really?” I swiveled my chair towards his. “I just walked the Camino, in Spain. How many miles did you hike?”
“Sixteen hundred,” he said. “But the weather got cold so I’ll have to finish it another time.”
“That’s amazing,” I said. The total trail is about 2,200 miles, or slightly longer than four Caminos, with the added difficulty of carrying a tent, stove, food and water, not to mention the absence of showers, hot or cold, and regularly available cafés con leche. “What made you decide to do it?”
“I’d been working at (some trail organization) and felt that I needed to,” he said. “For credibility.”
“And no other reason?” I asked. There must be a motivation, an inner journey to accompany the outer. He stared through the glass at the passing farms before turning to me.
“Did you enjoy it?” I asked.
“I met other people on the trail who kept talking about how fun it was but..” He shook his head. “It wasn’t that way for me. It was tough.”
I nodded in recognition.
“Well, it’s a huge accomplishment,” I said. “Most people could not do what you just did.”
He didn’t smile or otherwise indicate that he had taken in my comment. I wanted to tell him that he didn’t have to finish the Appalachian Trail, that he didn’t need to make himself miserable for the sake of being able to say that he hiked the whole thing, but rather than have my words fall on deaf ears, I said nothing.
I thought about him last weekend when, at a party, an acquaintance looked me in the eye and asked, “Did you finish?”
It was as if the value of my six week adventure resided wholly in whether I had reached the end, as if the destination was more important than the journey. In my case, I had decided (privately) to walk to Finisterre, a bit further than the traditional terminus, Santiago de Compostela, mainly because ending at a cathedral didn’t inspire me as much as the idea of walking from the Pyrenees to the ocean. Despite foot pain, I had chosen to keep that promise to myself and continue to the town named “the end of the earth”. Out of kindness to my body, should I have stopped in Santiago, like the majority of Pilgrims, or even much before, and returned to complete the walk another time? For weeks I wrestled with this dilemma. Each day, I revisited the question and decided to continue, sometimes easily, other times less so, wagering that the boost to my soul and spirit would outweigh the tax on my tendon. To my credit, I drew the line at Finisterre, even though some Pilgrims continued to the village of Muxia and encouraged me to go there, too.
“Yes,” I said. “I finished.”
Two days later, I lay on a massage table as a Korean healer stuck three long needles in the tendon of my left foot, part of a more involved program to realign my left leg, whose out-of-whackness is partly responsible for the pain.
“No hiking, no long walks, no dancing for you,” he said. “Not for awhile.”
Since those activities boost my mood and send my spirit soaring, I felt as if he were a judge issuing a prison sentence, especially as the Rockies now glisten temptingly with fresh snow. As I stared at the ceiling, waiting for his assistant to remove the needles, I wondered if finishing had come with too high of a price. And I wondered if, perhaps, my real Camino is just beginning.