If I Could Walk 500 miles...
September, 2014. I’m tossing and turning to the sweet lullaby of fifty people's raucous snoring--not something I imagined would become part of my nightly routine. The sounds were so loud, I wondered if many of them would survive the night.
My mind was on a continuous cycle of 'who's dead and who's alive'. “Their body’s are giving out, I just know it. Why are they hiking 20 miles a day if they can’t even breathe? He hasn’t taken a breath in 15 seconds, should I start resuscitating him?”
It was almost useless attempting to recall the life-saving techniques of a CPR class I had taken years prior, mentally preparing myself for disappointing failure. “Where the hell do my hands go again? On the ribs? Do we still touch lips these days? What if they have mouth herpes? I’ve gone so long without getting mouth herpes, what if this is how I get it?”
The mind has a tendency to wander without proper sleep--- and for the past month I don’t think I’ve had any decent sleep. I’ve been hiking the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage across northern Spain, where night after night is a re-creation of summer camp; 50 to 100 of the most randomly selected strangers all trying to sleep in tiny bunk beds. However, unlike summer camp for kids, this camp consisted of adults (many of whom, retirees) with bleeding limbs, bulk supplies of Advil and gauze, and a lack of proper breathing technique. Who knew so many people have sleep- apnea; it's amazing they all survived till the next morning.
Take a Hike
It was an attempt to unwind and get myself together after finishing 4 years of grueling graduate school. I finally had time to myself, and for some reason I thought to hike 20 miles a day for 5 weeks, alone, would be relaxing. Like a trip to the spa, but without the whole spa part.
I wanted freedom and room to mentally recover as well as an opportunity to physically test myself. What better way to test your boundaries than a hike across the Iberian Peninsula? Plus, there’s really good wine---so if the days are long and hard, at least the evenings would be short and memorable.
For years, I dreamt of hiking along the Camino, wandering through beautiful vistas, drinking wine from local vineyards while eating cheese, ham, and other regional Spanish delicacies. All of this happened, yes.
But I also got a blister for every toe on my foot. I listened to grown men sleep-talk, I was daringly close to getting lost on the trail in 100-degree heat, and I learned the art of speed-walking to race hoards of tired and very driven 'pilgrims' in order to secure a bed for the night. Day after day I woke up at 6:00 am in total darkness to hike before the hot sun would scorch my skin. We didn't have the privilege of sleeping until 7 and slowly enjoy a cup of café con leche---that's just absurd.
I spent so many years studying the human body, learning about the mind and speculating on all that could go wrong in an attempt to figure out what we can do to help fix it. In a way, I wanted to go on this hike in order to actually witness and endure what the body was capable of, go into the 'field' per se, and experience what was possible rather than read about it in text.
I wanted to know exactly what would happen to my muscles after walking 20 miles a day. How does one actually prevent baseball-sized blisters? Would my feet eventually fall off in protest? Would all the knowledge I accrued in graduate school give me any advantage? Did I even have the skill and technique to cure a headache or pop a blister? (shudder).
I wanted to know if I was strong enough, mentally and physically to walk alone for 500 miles. I wanted to prove I had the cojones to make new friends an ocean away, navigate myself towards a far- out destination and sleep in bunk beds used by thousands of people before me. Honestly, the latter was the scariest part of the trip----so many dirty bodies, heads, and FEET rested on the same light blue plastic mattress as myself. The thought was too much to bare, "just keep sleeping", "bodies are bodies are gross bodies". I was an expert at sleeping squarely on my bag---no leg spreading, no arms across the bunk---mummy style.
They don't teach you about cooties in graduate school, but I have a Ph.D. in avoiding other people's funk; the Camino is one way to overcome your funky fears. How can I be a health care practitioner and be scared of other people's funk? Mental issues or idiosyncrasies (as I like to call it) work in mysterious ways. I can easily listen to a patient talk about their most recent bout of diarrhea and vomiting without so much as a blink of the eye, but sitting on the inside of a booth at your local watering hole makes me twitch; the idea of being next to the wall with gum and gunk causes slight palpitations. My life is about the aisle, easy access in and out. No-gook.
Happiness in Simplicity
So here I was, trying to sleep in a powder blue bunk the size of a yoga mat, listening to 50 of the loudest snorers on earth. But I was happy.
Hiking, day in and day out, with nothing but the worry of your next wine and cheese break is the antidote to modern life. If you are overwhelmed by it all, this is the injection you need. Walking in and of itself is healing---a meditation of movement. It provides you a natural rhythm, and if you're lucky to be hiking with those obsessed with walking sticks, you're accompanied by the constant "tick, tick, tick" of your impending mortality---time just ticking away, step by step, literally. I can still hear the damn clicks of those sticks. Click...click...click....click. "Oh look over there, Tom! A free walking stick!."
So why, as a healthcare practitioner, with a blog about self-care, would I write about my adventure across Spain? Well, this was one of the most important self-care practices I have ever done in my life. The ability to go away and spend 5 weeks "off the grid". To be able to unplug and focus on the simplicity of life; eat, sleep, move, repeat.
Every day was the same routine but under different circumstances. I would wake up in one small town and 7 hours later end up in a completely different, yet oddly similar small town. I would meet different people, yet we were all oddly dressed in the same highly unfashionable quick-dry gear. I would drink different wine but all the same high quality, and sleep in different blue plastic beds, but all the same height and widths. The routine and choices the same, the surroundings different.
The Camino was a lesson in perseverance and patience. The forced slow nature of walking to your destination allows you to see time and distance in a completely different manner. It would take hours to walk the same distance a car could cover in 20 minutes. I couldn't speed by the small towns forgotten by time and highways. I had to see and experience it all, moment to moment; all the feral dogs and all the town's people. I'll admit it, sometimes I wanted to throw out those moments and exchange them for my precious time because blisters hurt a lot, and walking 20 miles on a mangled toe is no fun. Let's be real, not all of the Camino is rainbows and Rioja. Mmmm Rioja.
My problems got bigger and smaller at the same time. While I didn't have 100 messages, e-mails and decisions to make, I did have fewer yet bigger problems to solve. For example, where I was going to sleep at night. Would I find a bed? If not, should I walk another 3 miles and waste daylight? Few, but serious decisions. You know what I learned from that? I learned to become an extremely quick walker. I also learned that everything will be okay, as long as you pay attention. Help is abound, but you do have to find it, after all.
At the end of the trail, I was exhausted, thirsty and confident. What a method to boost self-confidence. The next time you feel like change is insurmountable, the only thing you are good at is Mario Kart, or you feel hopeless in decision making, try going on a long hike. Because when you realize that your body is this amazing instrument, willing to take all the hits, bruises, blisters, mountains, deserts and trails you throw at it, you learn to complain less. You are amazing. Your body is amazing. Your mind is amazing. Learn to use it often and learn to care for it more frequently.
Once you realize how far your body will take you, how much it will do to obey you, you realize how little you've been doing to take care of it. And this is why the Camino was the most important thing I did for my self-care--it allowed me to realize that I was worth caring for.