As I stood in the hallway putting the final touches to my departure preparations, the hospitalero came over and thanked me for staying while he hugged me goodbye. This was an unusual occurrence. Then he pointed me towards the much anticipated seventeen-kilometre section ahead without café or shelter of any kind. Thankfully my visit to the local shop the previous evening had provided me with the necessary sustenance for such an adventure.
Although it was dark at first, in the distance I could see Sergio, a lovely Italian man who had left a few minutes before me. He had very little English, but still we had bonded. We had both received the individual blessing in Carrión de los Condes, and later when we spoke about it, the memory brought tears to our eyes. Sergio was a very purposeful walker so I didn’t catch up with him, nor did I try to; I was happy to walk alone.
Although the red soil felt soft underfoot, it didn’t support any trees for shade and respite from the hot day. Yet I enjoyed walking and felt an extraordinary peace throughout. In some ways the landscape became my playground and I found myself talking to what was around me. The small creatures and the low-level prickly bushes became my companions. Looking ahead and around, everything appeared exactly the same; without anything to distract my eye, there was infinite nothingness, and in that there was everything. It was the most perfect spiritual container, spiritual in the sense that it was so pure: just me and the Camino. It felt like an encounter with God: on the one hand vast and infinite, and on the other so very intimate.
After walking alone for five hours, I stopped at the first opportunity – a bar situated at what was more or less a crossroads. Eugene and Heather were already there when I arrived, as they had powered past me earlier. I felt relaxed in myself and had an easier conversation with Eugene than on any previous occasion. ‘This is the happiest I’ve seen you. You’re shining,’ he said. Almost immediately a discomfort arose in me. Even though he had said something nice, I felt uneasy. After lunch we left together, but I was unable to regain my earlier ease and I wondered what had happened.
At the albergue in Mansilla, the party was in full swing and I felt happy to be there. In the dorms we were packed in like sardines, while outside in the courtyard everyone seemed to be on holiday and I felt my spirit rise. With my return to joy, I began to see the road I had travelled since my Camino began. In particular, I reflected on what Eugene had said to me a week earlier about taking it all too seriously. As I looked back, I saw that my lightness had gone and with it, my light had been all but extinguished. By way of contrast, I thought of Diane, the singing nun from Peru, and how much joy she carried in her soul. What struck me most clearly was the realisation that despite all the people I had met, no one knew me. For the first time I saw how closed I had been to others. So often I had wanted people to move away quickly or I would move myself. I didn’t want anyone to really see me, preferring to be among strangers than people I knew. In hindsight, I could piece together my story and accept without judgement that I wasn’t able to be any other way.
Many times over the previous three weeks, I had thought about a man and a relationship that had ended, but it wasn’t until that day in Mansilla de las Mulas that I acknowledged I was still mending a broken heart. No one knew that; in some ways not even I knew that. I didn’t want my Camino to be about him or about my broken heart; I wanted to be past that and on to another chapter. What I didn’t realise was that I had to go deeper into the pain before I could be free of it; only then could I let go of the hurt, anger and resentment that I was projecting onto the world. Wanting is one thing, being ready is quite another.