Seven Stages Completed, and Some Regulators Quieted

My inclination is to apologize for not writing an update sooner, but as I’m not really sure anyone is following this and apparently every person who walks the Camino has the same experience of starting off writing and photographing extensively only to see both fade. Given that I am attempting to write this on a bus to Santander and the past few days of relatively gray and wet skies, I’m glad there’s an update at all.

I am grateful for this experience. I’m grateful that, even though my Spanish has proven even worse than I imagined it would be, every host I’ve stayed with, from the kind woman at the Pamplona Catedral albergue who gave me ice packs for my legs to the Colombian owner of a house I stayed in who served me a chicken dinner despite neither of us understanding a word the other had said, has treated me with kindness and generosity. I’d like to think I could someday be as considerate to the people I know as these people have been to complete strangers.

I’m grateful for the chance to walk and think without worry about anything other than where I might stay that night and perhaps whether that sign that said 4.8 kilometers what seemed like hours ago might not have been a cruel hoax. No papers, no bills, no phone calls. You can’t know how wonderful those are without experiencing a few days without.

I’m also for a chance to have put my regulator to the test. Some of you have no doubt heard the excelent Radiolab episode called Limits, which explores the limits of of the human mind and body. They discuss people who ran triathalotons, endured cross-country bike races, and the power of memory. One of the powerful concepts they discuss is the idea of a “regulator” in our minds, which, at its core, is the voice that tells us to stop pushing ourselves, some kind of evolutionary devellopment that maybe kept cavemen and women from running all day until they passed out. The regulator is the voice that tells me to get off the elliptical machine at 20 minutes, even though I rationally know I can continue for much longer. It’s deep, and it’s primal: a powerful voice that says enough is a enough—and usually wins at 40 minutes.

There were moments on the seven days of my hike when the regulator told me I was done. The first day, crossing the Pyrenees, when all I wanted to do was take a nap, and the third, shortest day, when the streets of Pamplona seemed endless and the pain on my blistered toe seemed unbearable. But I pushed myself to keep going, because I know that voice, powerful as it was, was just a lie. In the end, I walked just about 100 miles in seven days, nothing terribly impressive for many of you, I know, but something I simply wasn’t sure I could do. Hell, the first two days were the longest single-day walks of my life, and there are certainly days when my regulator tells me I can’t walk a mile back home, much less 18.

I may be stretching the metaphor a bit, but I have another regulator in my life. I’m a private, shy person, and there’s a powerful voice in my head that often tell me not to talk to strangers, to diminish in a crowd, and to retreat into solitude. I did some of that on the first few days of the Camino, but in Pamplona decided that I needed to reach out to people and connect with them. I had four great days of walking with people from all over the world, from the respiratory therapist from Montreal to the students from Korea, the “traveler” from Australia to the lawyer from Texas whose jaw dropped when I showed him pictures from the Highline Trail in Glacier. Putting aside the regulator that tells me to put in my headphones and just be alone was just as important as putting away the one that tells me I can’t push my limits physically.

I don’t know what’s next. Tomorrow, I head for the Santander Airport and out to a beautiful cabin in the woods, from which I hope to explore Cantabria and do some real writing. I may return to the Camino and pursue those last 100 kilometers or I may become one of those people who does the whole Camino in stages, over the course of a life, starting in Logroño next time. I may never walk a stretch again. No matter what, I’ve taken away more from these seven days than from a lot of travel I’ve done, and am hopeful that I’ve done just a little to silence my two regulators going forward.

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