January 14, 2020 by Melissa Haun
The Hardest Part of Walking the Camino Portugués Alone
I recently completed a daunting challenge: walking the coastal Camino Portugués alone. It turned out to be one of the most difficult and rewarding things I’ve ever done — which was exactly what I expected. But what I didn’t expect was how far I would have to push myself, and how much I would have to endure, in order to reap those rewards.
As the journey progressed, I kept marking milestones in my head: today was the hardest day so far; that was the longest distance I’ve gone without stopping; this was the worst moment. And then, one by one, those milestones were surpassed. There was always a harder day, a worse moment to come, all the way up until my last full day of walking… which I suppose you could call the hardest part if I have to pick one.
Before I began the Camino, I did my research. I read a wonderful article by Atlas’ very own Ellis Dixon about her experience on the Camino Portugués, which opened with a vivid scene of being stranded in the rain. As it turns out, this was an ominous bit of foreshadowing.
Let me paint you a picture: it’s 11 a.m., the skies are gray, the wind is whipping, a chilly drizzle is falling, and I’m walking down a deserted highway. A sign ahead warns that this is the last bit of civilization for 15 kilometers, so I stop at a café for some stale pastries and hot chocolate. And then I keep walking, draping my plastic poncho over myself and the backpack that’s basically a part of my body by now.
The first few kilometers are easy; today is day 15, and I’ve settled into a rhythm. One foot in front of the other, daydreaming about my next meal, the next place I’ll sleep, and the next several months of my life (in that order). And then it starts to rain. Horizontally.
Okay, I think. No problem. That’s what the poncho is for. I check my mental map and remember that there are two stops before I reach the next town: both churches of some sort, where there’s bound to be shelter. I’ll stop and have another snack, dry off, and then continue.
I reach the first church and see that all the shelter space is occupied by two pairs of pilgrims, huddled together under the eaves. I don’t exactly feel like third-wheeling with strangers, so I keep walking. I’ll stop at the next one.
By the time the next one comes, I am very wet. The poncho is raging a valiant battle against gale-force winds and losing. The rain is coming at me from every direction, including, somehow, below. Is that even possible?
Finally, I find the other church. This one is mercifully empty, and I even spot a little shelter that’s marked as a “pilgrims’ refuge.” Perfect. I peel off the slippery poncho and dig out a bag of peanuts.
The snack break is necessary, but what I don’t see coming is the cold. Sitting still, without my poncho, I catch the kind of chill that doesn’t go away. Not even when I start walking again, at a pace so fast I’m almost stumbling.
Soon, every single thread of my clothing is soaked. Each of my toes is totally numb. Rain is running into my eyes. I’m cursing the wind, the weather, and the world — literally, at the top of my lungs. There’s no one around to hear me. And there are still several kilometers to go.
I start to wonder what would happen if I really couldn’t make it. What if I got hypothermia? What if my body refused to go on? There’s no one to ask for help. No place to take refuge. I can’t even call someone—what would I say? “I’m in the middle of the forest somewhere, too cold and wet to walk. Help!”
I fully realize, for the first time, that I am completely alone. This is it. There’s nothing but the road, and the rain, and the thousands of meters standing between me and the rest of the world. And no matter how cold and tired and over it I may be, I have no choice. The only thing to do is walk.
So I do. I grit my teeth, scream in frustration, let my tears mix with the rain, and walk. And there’s something about this moment, this complete and utter loneliness, that draws out all of my rage and fear, and also my determination. Because it’s not just about the rain or the wind or the path — it’s about my life. It’s about everything, all at once.
In this moment, I understand that I’m all I have. That it’s up to me to keep walking, to keep trying, to keep pushing through anything and everything in order to get where I want to go. In order to survive, in the most literal sense. And I know that it will take much more than a hurricane and the loss of feeling in my extremities to stop me.
So how does this story end? The only way it could have: with victory. I reached the next town. I found a relatively warm bar and limped inside, dazed and dripping. I collapsed into a chair and ordered a three-course meal of hot soup, grilled fish, French fries and flan. I came back to life.
Or maybe not — maybe I was most alive in that forest when I accessed the most indestructible part of myself. When I hit my limit and kept going anyway. When I decided that nothing would stop me, not then or ever. Maybe that was truly living, and the daily comfort that we take for granted is only shielding us from who we really are.
There are different kinds of hardship and various levels of suffering. I know I’m lucky to only have experienced the most temporary and mildest forms of it. But it’s not about comparing your suffering to that of others; it’s about what you do in the midst of it and how much you choose to learn. It’s about whether you keep walking. And it’s about realizing that when it comes right down to it, you’re the only one that can put one foot in front of the other.
You are your own savior. You are your own strength. You are going to make it. And sometimes you need to be blinded by rain to finally see it; numbed by cold to truly feel it; and totally alone to realize you’re all you need.