"Our Favourite Things of 2014" ~ Dana's Journey Through Spain

To give reverence to a wonderful year gone by, we each will be taking turns sharing a story or two to celebrate our favourite moment(s) in 2014. In need of a pick-me-up? Read on as Dana shares her moving and inspirational story of what it was like to walk 800 kilometres.

Written By: Dana Sawatzky, RMT

“How is he moving so fast?” I think as his bright orange backpack disappeared into the fog ahead of me. He looks to be in his mid 60’s and trekking along at a pace, which to me, seems impossible for the mountainous terrain surrounding us. I sigh deeply and attempt to adjust my 10 pound overweight backpack into a more manageable position. I stop walking and look out at what is usually a magnificent view, but today it’s foggy, and rainy, and I can barely see 6 feet ahead of me. I’m in the Pyrenees, on the first day of an 800 km pilgrimage across Spain, and, much like the thousands of pilgrims before me, I’m having more than a few misgivings about this decision. 

The Camino de Santiago, also known as The Way of St. James, has been around for centuries. Is remains one of the most prominent pilgrimages in the Christian church and has significantly increased in popularity over the past decade. Ancient pilgrims began their journey from their homes, all over Europe, and trekked hundreds or thousands of kilometres to a City called Santiago. It is believed this place holds the cathedral where the remains of the apostle St. James were laid to rest after he was martyred in 44 CE. Modern day pilgrims can commence their pilgrimage from nearly any large city in Europe, although the most popular and prominent route begins in a small town in France called St. Jean pied de port. 

It was in that small town, on a rainy morning in May 2014 that I began my 800km journey. I hardly slept, and believed an early start to my day would be best. The rhythmic clicking of my walking poles seems to be echoed by other pilgrims unseen through the thick fog. I had been warned that the first day would be one of the hardest--36km over mountainous terrain was bound to be strenuous for anyone, never mind someone who trained in the prairies. I set my mind to my task and continued to walk. Powering up the hills, I cursed the weight of my backpack and was embarrassed by my laboured breathing. I thought I was in pretty good shape, but it was quickly becoming apparent I had not trained properly for this. 

Although the uphill portion was strenuous, when it came time for the down-hill my celebration was quickly met with a pain I had never felt before. My knees were excruciating. As a massage therapist I helped people with this kind of pain but, until now, never experienced it myself. I knew I should take it easy, slow down a bit and maybe rest. But I am young, had 10km to go before the hostel, and my ego wouldn’t let me stop. 

By this time it had rained on and off all day and the path was slick with mud. My clothing was soaked and the poncho I wore billowed in the wind, blocking my view more often than not. Suddenly I slipped on a particularly slick rock and ended up flat on my back. I felt like a turtle flipped on it’s back, struggling to flip over. My backpack was heavy, my body ached, and the thought of getting myself up and over seemed monumentous. For what felt like the 100th time that day I cursed my decision to be here and cried. 

While wallowing in self pity and pain, a group of three young Italian men emerged out of the fog and came to my rescue. What a sight I must have been, this sobbing mud caked westerner rolling around in the mud trying to right myself. My heroes picked me up and dusted me off and, after I thanked them profusely, they walked ahead of me into the fog once more. 

Two minutes later I fell again and found myself in a similar state. Flat on my back, in pain, exhausted and emotionally fried. From the fog ahead of me came my rescuers once again. Apparently they had not gone far and heard me fall. Again they hoisted me up, brushed me off and this time when I thanked them, they did not go ahead, instead they flanked me, and matched my pace. They were protecting me, making sure I didn’t fall again. We didn’t speak, silent tears mixing with the rain on my face. As the hostel came into view, one of the men turned and looked at me, He asked if I could make it safely to the hostel from here. I said I thought I could. I thanked them again and they chuckled. One looked into my eyes and said, “Ultreia,” another squeezed my shoulder and spoke the word “courage” and they were gone. I made my way to the hostel, had a hot shower, a meal and talked with other pilgrims. I later found out that “Ultreia” is an Latin Camino greeting, roughly translating in to “ever onward”. I never saw those men again, and never knew their names. But their encouragement is still with me. 

It took me 32 days to complete my pilgrimage and, although the kindness and generosity I experienced on my first day was profound, it only seemed to increase as the journey continued. I met amazing people, became fast friends with fellow pilgrims whom I walked with during the day and ate with and played card games with at night. We tended blisters, massaged our aches, ate whatever we wanted, drank the ever-flowing wine, and we walked. 

The profound impact that this journey has had on my life is something I will be unpacking for years to come. The full realization of what I had accomplished didn’t really hit me until I saw I documentary about the pilgrimage, a couple months after returning home. Six weeks walking through a foreign country along a road thousands of people have walked can be a daunting task.  But just as life can be overwhelming at times, we can sometimes find ourselves flat on our backs covered in mud, and there are those that will find us, pick us up, dust us off and encourage us on our journey. 

So for you on your journey, whatever that may be, and whatever it may look like, take courage and ever onward.