By Sarah Fox
It had been raining for two days. With each step, my feet squished into the soles of my hiking boots. The straps of my backpack dragged my wet clothes across my skin, chafing it with my every movement. My hood fell into my face and water dripped onto the tip of my nose. I still had 12 miles to go, and I was miserable.
There had been two days of rain, but I’d been miserable for much longer than that. A year and a half ago, I had crawled into a tiny hospital bed in Philadelphia with my boyfriend, Chris. Pressed together by the tightness of the guard rails, I nestled my chin into his bony shoulder and listened to him say that there nothing left to do; his body was rejecting the new lungs he had received two years before, and he was going home to die. It was a week before his 31st birthday.
His impending death from cystic fibrosis was drawn out longer than expected, and for months I watched his world shrink along with his body. As time dragged on I was unable to concentrate on anything else. I lived in a daze: at work, with my friends, with him. I struggled to return emails and phone calls. I could barely get into the shower. After he died, I floated through my days, plagued by a feeling of complete disconnection. I was too exhausted to make any impact on my life, so things happened around me and I let them.
I’ve always been an avid hiker, and before Chris died, he gave me a book about a man who walked the Camino de Santiago. This 500-mile hike follows an ancient pilgrimage route through northern Spain and ends in Santiago de Compostela (where the apostle St. James is believed to be buried). Chris gave me books all the time, but this one in particular inspired me. I told him that I wanted to walk it after he died, and he asked if I would carry his ashes with me, because he regretted that we could never travel the world together. After his death, I was too overwhelmed to plan anything, so it was only an idea in the back of my mind.
Six months after he died, I was finally ready to break myself out of the rut I had fallen into, so I traveled to Paris and caught a train down to the beginning of the trail. I began alone in the small town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the base of the Pyrenees mountains, on September 11, 2013. In the stillness of the morning, I walked alone. I carried my 18-pound backpack and tiny metal container the size of a keychain filled with some of Chris’s ashes. In the dark, I passed farmhouses and heard the tinkling of bells on the cows grazing in mountain pastures.
For 34 days I woke up and walked all day. I walked through barren plateaus, shaded forests, and endless fields of burnt sunflower husks. There were small, bucolic mountain villages and seamy industrial areas on the outskirts of cities. Huge blisters bloomed on my feet, and I covered them with bandages so I could continue. I wore a knee brace and bought a walking stick to temper the shooting pains as I climbed down mountains. At night I would drop my backpack on the ground to massage my aching calves and stretch my hips. I hadn’t set out to make myself suffer; it was only as I walked the trail that I realized how my physical pain was reflecting my inner turmoil.
On the path, I met other young people walking with the grief of losing their partners to car accidents or diseases. There were mothers who had lost their children, men whose wives had left them, and people whose lives hadn’t turned out as they planned. While we pushed ourselves physically, our emotional walls fell down; there was simply no energy left to hold them up. We shared our sadness openly. I could say, “My boyfriend died,” without the conversation ending awkwardly.
I concentrated on following the trail markers. I listened when my body told me I needed a break, water, or something to eat. Sometimes it told me I had to stop short of my goal for the day, but other times it allowed me to walk further than I thought possible. The emotional angst I had been feeling for so long merged with the physical pain from the walk, and the two became so tightly woven together that I couldn’t tell them apart. With every step, I grieved Chris with my body.
The rain cleared as I approached Santiago de Compostela, where the friends I had met along the way were waiting. I started the hike alone and crossed into the city with others walking beside me. Chris was with me, too.
The path had been mentally and physically grueling, but pushing my body to — and past — its limits had helped me reconnect with myself, with the people around me, and with the world at my aching feet.