“If I take one more step, it will be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.” -Samwise Gamgee

There is an old road in Spain where you can feel its ancient history with each step. Where you can pass countless vineyards, farmlands, villages, and kind hearted Spaniards. Where you can walk in the company of pilgrims for hundreds of miles – and on the footsteps of many more over a time spanning over a thousand years. Where the kindness of a pilgrim’s spirit is known among the people who walk it. Where your path can become an inward journey as much as an outward adventure. Where with each step, your own tale becomes another part of the trail’s rich history.

There is an old road in Spain called the Camino de Santiago. And I was trying to reach it.

I had first heard about it several years ago from adventure bloggers who had posted about their own journeys online. And to be honest, it didn’t get my attention at first. I usually try to find ideas in more epic looking places like our national parks. But as I learned about it, it became more and more apparent that this wasn’t any ordinary adventure. And though I didn’t understand why I felt drawn to the old Spanish roads (and I still don’t even to this day), I could not deny my own incredible feeling of curiosity about them – right up to the point that I first made the nervous decision to book a flight to Europe and hike the Camino in the spring of 2019.

The problem was, I had no idea how. I had been on plenty of smaller hikes, but never anything of this scale. This was a 540 mile trek across an entire country. And it is not forgiving to the underprepared – something that really set in when I read this from a Camino message board, posted by a first aid medic on the trail who encountered a Swedish hiker in trouble:

Her problem was that she had put a Compeed onto a heel blister. The blister had grown over the days of walking until it burst and forced an edge of the Compeed open. Dirt got in and it became infected – what did she do? Just kept walking. When we saw her she had blood poisoning, her ankle had already started to swell. Had we not found her she may have died of that blood poisoning somewhere, going to bed with “just a little fever” and waking up dead. The doctor cleaned it all up, gave her horse-pill sized antibiotics and told her that her Camino was over, she had to go home.

This hit me in the face like a bucket of cold water. I went on, reading thread after thread, about the foot problems that so many of them were having. And how many different things they tried to prevent and minimize their suffering. Continuous walking, day after day, with your feet grinding into the ground. My ex is an active backpacker of many years who told me that she always gets blisters no matter what she does. While she seemed to have the experience and willpower to push through it, I didn’t yet know how this would play out for me.

The first thing I did was look for a good pair of trail runners at REI. I immediately liked the Altra Lone Peak runners for their mega-soft cushion and good traction. Then I started to field test them with every suggested maintenance strategy I could find. Thin socks, double lined socks, vaseline, antiperspirant, runner tape, moleskin, and any variation on the local city trails almost every weekend. All with a loaded pack at 20lbs. My feet were generally okay, even with hotspots that I learned to quickly cover with Rocktape.

I thought I was cruising. But something started to happen two weekends away from my trip. The backs of both shoes had broken in and started digging into my achilles. Which I knew for sure would cause a huge problem if I tried to hike with them for hours every day. I tried everything. I padded the shoes, put moleskin layers on my feet, doubled the socks. But nothing worked. And I knew I couldn’t rely on normal shoes for this either. Casual walking is one thing, but you figure out that hiking day after day with a pack is a completely different matter. Out of desperation I even cut the seams on the backs of my Altra shoes to relieve the pressure. That didn’t help either. It eventually got to be the night before my planned 540 mile trek. What the fuck am I going to use?

I came back to REI in one last desperate attempt to find something. I tried almost every runner and sandal they had, but nothing seemed to fit. The problem was that my left foot was starting to widen for some unknown reason, and made anything with arch support too uncomfortable. The simple fact is, if it’s not comfortable when you buy it, it definitely won’t be when you use it. I must have tried more than 15 different pairs. I left with nothing.

In a last ditch effort, I tried to glue moleskin padding on the backs of my already ravaged trail runners. But I made the mistake of using superglue. When it dried, the glue hardened through the padding, causing it to rub against my feet. It was shot. Unwearable, worthless, destroyed. I threw the fucking shoe across my apartment, and gave up the idea of figuring this problem out.

I flew to Paris the next day as planned, but had to reschedule the rest of my trip. I remember hiding in my hostel room for three days in Paris of all places, just to process all of the stress and figure out the next step. When I came back, I rescheduled my Camino for the end of the summer, giving me a few more months to reset and figure out a system.

I spent several weekends trying out minimal barefoot shoes, which seemed to work with my widening foot. Eventually, I realized that even with padding, they were too hard on my feet and I still needed something with more bottom protection. I finally found it when I revisited the Altra brand to see what else they had. The Lone Peak runners didn’t quite do it, but a different model perhaps? I knew it when I saw it: the Lone Peaks had a boot model. It was essentially the same shoe, but with higher ankle support – something that should mitigate the achilles problems I was having with the other ones. It’s what I’ve been looking for and bitching about for months. It’s what my feet wanted and I knew it.

So the shoe problem was solved. But now there was something else. My widening left foot was happening because of a lump that was growing on the upper inner arch for about a year. I didn’t know what it was, so I did what any normal person would do and probably shouldn’t: I looked for answers on Google. And while it was reassuring to read that most foot lesions are benign, the vast array of awful things that Google said it might be ended up freaking me out. I needed to get it diagnosed.

I went to an orthopedist a month out from my trip. After ruling out any bone related problems from an X-ray, he told me that I needed an MRI to properly diagnose the tissue mass. When I scheduled it, the earliest available MRI was on Monday, four days before my flight to Europe. I was cutting it close.

I spent three weeks waiting for the scan, paranoid, trying not to think about a worst case scenario (like a sarcoma, for example), trying to keep busy with work, and for fucks sake, trying to avoid Googling my symptoms. Then at the end of the Friday before the MRI, one week before my flight to Europe, I received an email that my scan was cancelled.

What??? Stunned and confused, I called the radiology center. The guy didn’t know why, but he told me that the next available date was on the 18th. Nine days after I was supposed to leave. I tried to stay as calm as possible with him, and bitterly rescheduled the scan to the 18th. Then I hung up the phone.

WHAT THE FUCK!!!! YOU FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT!!!! DO I HAVE CANCER OR NOT????

The reason it was cancelled was because MRIs are expensive, and the radiology center didn’t get coverage authorization from my insurance in time. So I had to delay the scan to allow more time for them to process the authorization. At one point I even tried unsuccessfully to reschedule the MRI sooner and pay it out of pocket. Welcome to America.

The scan was authorized and rescheduled, as was the doctor’s followup appointment to the following Monday. The same day that I had rebooked my flight to Europe to hike at least part of the Camino. I really was working this down to the wire.

On that day, my life would go one of two ways. The doctor would give me the scan results, I would either be well enough to leave on my plane to Europe, or I would have to stay in Chicago for more testing. And with that possibility, my life without a doubt would go in a completely different direction.

The only thing I had to go by as I waited was that malignant problems in the feet are extremely rare, as I already said. But I couldn’t get out of my mind the people in my life who have fought these battles. Some were taken seemingly out of nowhere, while others are living out normal lives in remission. And one fabulous woman I’m friends with is fighting and winning against her own stage 2. It really does come for all of us. But I was reminded as I waited how my life is becoming more and more precious with each passing day.

The first good report during the entire ordeal came in that Saturday. I received the findings summary of my MRI from the reviewing physician. Other than noting an insignificant cyst in my big toe joint and some mild bone degeneration, he noted that “no soft tissue lesion was identified” in the area in question. It was medical speak for what I assumed to mean that not only was it benign, but there was no evidence of a tumor in that area at all. While I still needed my ortho doctor to confirm it on Monday, it was already a huge relief.

That Monday, the doctor confirmed the same thing and told me it was a mass of overgrown muscle tissue, likely because of some kind of injury. As long as I wore flat shoes, I should be able to manage it. Then he and the resident assistants left. The appointment didn’t even last five minutes.

I went outside and called my parents to give them the news. And then I stood there on the street, unsure how to even take the next step. This situation had burdened me for months. To the point where I hardly even thought about the trail. Now here I was, standing on the verge of the next chapter with literally nothing holding me back.

It was time to let the arrow fly.

The Camino de Santiago Part 1: The Pyrenees

I hike up the steeply winding mountain road along the north foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. St. Jean and two other towns are visible from the ridgeside among the haze and rolling hills. I’ve been hiking with Dianne, a lady from California, for an hour. We look back at the countryside behind us. She is also walking her Camino for the first time. Reaching the small refuge of Ithurburia we run into six other pilgrims having a picnic. I refill my water and take my shoes off. “You got blisters already?” I hear a man say. “Not if I can help it,” I say back, inspecting my toes for any signs of trouble and applying Vaseline. We hike on, reaching a series of switchbacks and steep uphill grade, which eventually will leave the tree line, only change into alpine pastures and huge herds of roaming sheep.

I’m hiking the first and most difficult day of the Camino de Santiago from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port France, across a mountain pass of the Pyrenees to the Spanish town of Roncesvalles. It consists of a brutal twelve mile uphill climb and steep downhill for two miles to the valley floor on the other side. It is considered by pilgrims to be the hardest stage of the entire trek.

Clouds are shrouded on the ridgetops, but open up enough at times for the hot sun to burn on my arms. I’m out of breath and sweating as I follow a seemingly endless ascent to the spine of the range. I take a break at an overlook and air out my feet again. “I keep seeing you tending to your feet,” I hear Dianne say when she catches up. I do think I’m becoming the Foot Guy out here. I’m not yet sure just what my feet will be like on this trip. But I know that if there are any problems with my foot strategy, now is the time to handle it.

We hike on together in a group for another hour in the company of cows and grazing sheep. Soon we reach the refuge of Orrisson, an albergue halfway up the climb where many pilgrims choose to rest for the day. I consider it, but feel well enough to keep going. The truth is that I have no idea yet what I’m doing out here, how far I can get, how long I can go each day, and if my feet can handle the abuse of continuously walking across an entire country. What I do know is that I’m not going to finish the entire 540 miles of the Camino this time. I have given myself two weeks to get as far as I can, and as slowly as I have to. Then I will take whatever I learned from this trip and make it to the end next year.

Clouds have completely covered the high trail in mist. I continue on, feeling the weight of my jetlag as I push myself forward, exhausted. Chiming bells echo through the hollows. Farmers put them on one in every fifty of their sheep, and each bell has its own sound. When they wonder together, it makes a song. And when I hear that song, I want more than anything to lay down in the soft grass and sleep among the sheep and mountain fog. But I know that I need to find a hostel sooner than later. That, and I don’t want to wake up on a stone table with bound hands and feet, surrounded by 200 cave goblins. So I keep going.

I clear the summit at last and hike one final ridgeline to the downhill trail. The clouds break up and I see sunlight on the forested ridge on the far side of the valley. But no sign of the valley floor or the town. I have to hike steeply downhill for two more hours to get there. I have already overworked my legs by now, and with each step, my quad muscles are having spasms as I descend miserably on the rocky trail.

I finally reach the town at 5pm. It is the busy season on the Camino and all of the albergues in Roncesvalles are full. And in the town after it. So the monastery shuttles us to a campground hostel 3 miles ahead in the town of Urrobi. I check in, amazed that I made it this far in good health, and best of all, with no blisters.

Twenty of us sit together for a pilgrim dinner, drinking wine and celebrating the end of the first and most difficult day of our journey. “Buen Camino!” we all say together as we cheer our wine glasses.

I start west the next day after breakfast with the goal to clear two ridges today before stopping at a town in the Arga Valley. I catch up with a steady line of pilgrims after Espinal as we begin the first of two forested uphill walks today. I’m in good spirits and the morning is pleasant.

Around midday I’m at the top of the second climb and reconnect with Aulily and Lily, who I met in Urrobi yesterday. They are a French mother and daughter who started their pilgrimage on one of the French caminos a month ago. People start from far across Europe, heading south and west on ancient roads until they reach the Spanish Caminos. There are more Caminos throughout Spain and Portugal, though the one I am taking, Camino Frances, is the most famous. I join with the French peregrinas and we descend the ridge together, stopping for a midday break in the cold, rushing Arga River. I rest in the next town for the night and they continue on. But we find each other again at a café along the trail the next morning.

It becomes a common thing in the mornings for people to start early, hike a few miles, and stop for breakfast at an outdoor café. When twenty other people do this, you find other people who you recognize and reconnect, reinforcing the sense of a shared spirit among the pilgrims. As I start to work out my routine, these spontaneous community breakfasts become one of my favorite things about the trail.

I hike out of the valley, passing one town after another, walled in by the ridgelines of the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. There are many more hills which will gradually level out, creating a straighter, easier path to Burgos and the Meseta farther on. From what I understand, the worst climb is behind me. I won’t face anything close to it again until I reach the Galician hills in the west.

I pass by a weekend festival in Larrasoaña, and the trail goes by an abandoned building south of town. A dog starts barking and runs out. He’s a half grown German Shephard. Without a chain and no sign of the owner. And he’s growling at me. Between me and where I’m trying to go.

“Hey perro,” I say, inching along slowly. “No soy peligroso, solo un hombre caminando!” He isn’t buying it – the little fucker nips me in the leg. I have to stay calm or this could get bad. He’s not a big dog, but definitely big enough to give me stitches and ruin my morning. Especially if I have a loaded pack and can’t defend myself.

“Somos amigos, perro, esta bien!” I say as nicely as I can, carefully inching away from what he thinks is his territory. Perhaps he senses it. He starts to relax and wag his tail. I slowly put out my hand and pet him. There we go, I knew there was a good little guy under all that bravado. But I wonder as I continue on how many more people today will have to deal with him.

I spend the rest of the morning hiking out of the mountains and am suddenly surrounded by a huge crowd of people in the busy city centre of Pamplona. Today, I earned an easy half day hike and hotel room.

The first stage of my Camino is over. Tomorrow I head into more hills and farmlands.

This story continues on the Way to Burgos.