By Melissa Andersen
“What the hell were you thinking, Melissa.” This thought repeated in my mind like a broken record as I reluctantly dragged my blistered feet towards the summit of the Pyrenees Mountaintop. Spain’s July heat fried my tender skin, sucking away my energy with every ray. It was approaching noon, when the temperature climaxed to nearly unbearable. My 60-liter pack was filled to the brim, pinching my shoulders and weighing down every movement. Nevertheless, I had to reach to top. My camelbak was bone dry and the only fresh water source was conveniently located just beyond the highest point of the mountain range. So what did I do? I kept walking.
This was day 7 of the El Camino De Santiago. My 750 kilometers (466 miles) pilgrimage from St. Jean De Pied Port, France to Santiago, Spain. Yes, by choice.
5 of my toenails were gone. My feet went from pedicured with red polish to layers of blisters wrapped in silver duck tape. The antibiotics I started the first day of the pilgrimage to treat a tonsil infection made my skin photosensitive, leading to sun poisoning. What is sun poisoning, you ask? It’s overexposure to the sun causing red inflammation of the skin with symptoms of itching and burning. The cure: staying out of sunlight entirely. Too bad I still had 560 k (347 miles) to go mid Southern Europe’s scorching summer.
I was alone with no transportation other than a pair of worn out hiking boots. I didn’t even have a proper map. I began with no concrete plan. All I had was a piece of paper provided to me by an elderly Spanish man at the Pilgrims office. It was a basic list of towns with Albergues (pilgrim hostels) along the Camino Frances, and the distance between each. Also, pretty much nobody spoke english. So basically, I followed yellow arrows painted along the road in the direction to Santiago. Do you think I’m crazy yet?
In retrospect, maybe I was a little nuts. Yet in the end, it turned out
to be one of the most quintessential journeys of my life. I was armed with a passionate heart and a satchel full of stones from Spain’s coast to spread along the walk. Each stone bared the name of my father, engraved by the hands of my Mother and I the previous week. He battled cancer for 9 years, and the year prior, cancer won. In 2010 he also walked a portion of the El Camino, but I was going to finish it for him.
That day I soon reached the peak of the mountain, filled up my camelbak with pure icy water and took in the view. Rolling hills rippled towards the horizon as far as the eye could see. The sun painted a soft glow over the ancient Spanish town. Church bells ringing in the distance eased my tensed body, knowing both civilization and a fresh meal were within reach. A sense of triumph encompassed my spirit as I wrapped a cool cotton scarf around my shoulders to calm the heat. I placed a stone for my father atop the highest point, a spot I knew he would love. I then skipped down to the town wearing a grin, appreciating the small things in life… like the downhill of a mountain.
Life is not a sprint, it is a marathon. More like an ultra marathon, which you repeat over and over until your dying day. There will always be ups and downs, whether it it’s a hill or a full-blown mountain range. However, what goes up must come down.
You don’t stop when you lose a few toenails, because they soon grow back. The pain in your body will eventually diminish. Even sun poisoning fades over time. When you near that point of no return, and every cell of your body is screaming to give up, don’t. Don’t throw in the towel when times are tough. This goes for marathons, life or love. Allow the pain to fuel your body and drive you to the finish line. Once you arrive you remember how blessed you are. You appreciated what you have… because of the pain along the road. You kiss your blistered feet in gratitude for pulling you through. Because the stronger the pain, the more magnificent one finds the beauty at the finish line of life.