This special feature is a sneak preview from Joyce Rupp's forthcoming book, Walk In a Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons on the Camino, to be released in September through Orbis Publishing.
Be Attentive to Your Body
(The Camino is a 500 mile pilgrimage across northern Spain to the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago. In the 37 days it took Joyce Rupp to walk that distance, she discovered many life lessons. The following is one of the Camino's significant teachings.)
Blisters! Big ones! I read numerous descriptions in the Camino literature about the gruesome possibility of these unwanted creatures. One author told of seeing silver dollar sized ones on a pilgrim's foot. If this wasn't enough to convince me to avoid them on my own feet, I was certainly convinced when I saw these blisters on other pilgrims' feet. I winced when I saw a young American caressing his foot after a long day. He moaned as he stuck a needle through the huge, puss-filled blister covering his entire heel.
To ensure that our feet would be blister-free, my walking partner, Tom Pfeffer, and I searched out good hiking boots. In December I found a pair on sale. They were a bit uncomfortable but most boots are until they're broken in. I presumed this was the case for mine. I walked every day in those hiking boots for three months. Finally I admitted they were killing my feet. Calluses developed. Corns on my little toes hardened. Anticipation turned to anxiety. I decided if I kept using those boots my feet would be ruined before I ever walked the Camino.
Tom was also having problems with his boots. He told me about some new ones at Beaverdale Back Country, a store where we bought most of our equipment. The day I went to check on those boots was a joyful day for my feet. I found a pair of Garmonts, a new style with a wide front area that was much more humane. My toes loved those boots.
It was not just boots, however, that kept my feet blister free on the Camino. My friend Bill sent me an article about a couple in Arizona who recently returned from the pilgrimage. I couldn't believe what I read. One of them used Vaseline on her feet. She stopped every two or three miles, took off her boots and socks, and greased up. She insisted she never got a blister. I bought some Vaseline. I'd try anything.
Then I heard something even stranger. A young woman in Des Moines who walked the Camino a year or so before us said she used duct tape. Well, I knew duct tape was good for just about everything, but blister prevention? Sue told us that whenever she felt a 'hot spot' on her foot, which was an indication of a blister preparing to form, she stopped to put a piece of duct tape on that spot to prevent further abrasion.
Amazingly, not one blister developed on our feet in our 450 miles. Much of this good fortune was due to the sound advice we received from those two women. Tom and I stopped every three or four miles, took our boots and socks off, aired our feet, and applied either Vaseline or duct tape. I must admit that when I looked at my greasy feet with the little pieces of red duct tape on them, I smiled at how ridiculous they looked. But it worked! As I took time tending to my feet before I put my boots on each morning, I often thought: "If I am good to my feet, my feet will be good to me." And they were.
Besides blisters, I was concerned about possible dehydration. Keeping sufficient moisture in the body not only lessened the possibility of blisters forming, it also guaranteed stamina and energy. Some days we walked over 17 miles in the hot sun and were never sure there would be a village where we could find potable water. One pilgrim I met collapsed on the Camino because of a lack of water so I was a bit compulsive about having a sufficient supply of it. I carried three bottles at all times, each holding twenty-four ounces. The bottles added a lot of weight to my pack but I didn't care.
On the hot, dry, 100 or so miles of flat land called "the mesa" dehydration was a particular issue for our bodies because there was so little shade. The possibility of sunstroke or collapsing from lack of moisture was real. I was thirsty most of the time. Another pilgrim counseled us about having enough potassium in our systems when Tom and I both complained of being exceptionally tired. She suggested the strenuous days coupled with the high heat might be depleting our systems of this important mineral. With bananas often unavailable, we bought some potassium pills. They became a regular part of our daily diet. I don't know if they made a significant difference but we both felt better.
During those weeks on the mesa, we protected our bodies as much as possible from the powerful sun rays. Tom and I heeded the guidebook's advice about wearing hats not only to protect our facial skin, but to keep us cooler. We also slathered sunscreen on us to avoid a nasty burn.
On the mesa and everywhere else on the Camino, stopping to rest was vital. It was a continual challenge to not keep pushing on and ignore how our bodies felt. Walking in a relaxed manner was crucial. Stopping to rest slowed us down, which meant it took longer for us to reach our day's destination. However, it also assured us we would walk with more energy, as well as promising our legs and feet less soreness and fatigue.
Resting is not an American trait. Siesta is not in our lifestyle. If anything, needing to rest is seen as a weakness. ("Oh, you need a nap? Too bad. Something must be wrong with you.") Tom and I learned that taking a quiet pause of ten or twenty minutes refreshed our bodies and also refreshed our spirits. Because of this, we walked the extensive miles each day with greater ease and with less of a spirit of grudging endurance.
Another huge "body lesson" pertained to sleep deprivation. Walking twelve to eighteen miles day after day was exhausting. At the end of the day my legs ached, my feet were hot and sore, and my back and shoulders were greatly fatigued from carrying my backpack. When I got into the bunk-bed at night, I simply collapsed and "died to the world." I almost always had at least eight hours of sleep on the Camino, which was quite different from my six and a half at home. Snoring of other pilgrims, harsh overhead lights, and numerous noises rarely kept me awake once my head hit the pillow. When I awoke in the morning, I was astounded at how much better I felt. Though it might still be stiff and sore, my body was ready to walk again. The exhaustion of the previous night was gone. Sleep continually gifted me with renewed resiliency and strength.
There were other body lessons to be learned. One of the things Tom and I had a good laugh over was that for all our care and attention to our bodies, we missed what they were telling us completely about mid-way into the journey. One day we stopped to take a breather. Tom pointed to his legs and exclaimed: "Look! I don't have bandy -rooster legs anymore. All this walking has finally given me muscle." We both laughed as he went on and on about this physical change.
I then took a look at my legs and gasped at what I saw. Mine, too, had firmed and developed a lot of muscle. Only mine looked like large, round fence posts. I moaned and groaned about this development and we laughed some more. We promptly forgot about our muscled legs as we continued onward. It was several weeks later before we realized that what we took for "muscle" was actually swelling from all the walking we had done on the hot mesa. By the time we reached Santiago, Tom reclaimed his bandy-rooster legs and I happily ended the fence post stage.
This inability to accurately recognize what was happening to our bodies ought not to have surprised us. Paying attention to our bodies and tending to their needs was not something that either of us grew up with in our homes. The unspoken motto of my own family in regard to the body was "Tough it out. If you ignore it long enough it will heal itself." I don't think my farmer dad ever spent a day in bed from illness even though he had the flu and bad colds like the rest of us.
So I grew up basically ignoring what my body felt and needed. It was not until I was well into my adult years that I learned the value and importance of being kind to this important part of myself. By the time I headed to the Camino, I valued eating healthily and taking the time to exercise but there were still areas where I neglected my physical temple. Sufficient sleep and pausing to rest were low on my list of bodily care and maintenance.
Weeks of walking the Camino showed me how I failed to give myself sufficient sleep. Since my return from Spain, I deliberately get more sleep. A part of my calm and energy since the Camino is due to this lesson of taking care of the whole "me." I discovered that sleep is a magnificent healer and restorer of energy, a gift never to be taken for granted. On the days when I am rested, I look at the day's problems with a positive attitude. During times when I am tired and drowsy, my enthusiasm quickly wanes and it is much easier for me to whine when things do not go as planned.
Studies show that many Americans are sleep deprived. They still subject the body to their overly full schedules, eat too much fast food, omit exercise due to time pressures, and rarely get adequate amounts of sleep to restore their body's energy balance. The Camino taught me that the body is more than a frame or a house for the soul. The body is an integral part of us. If we boss and push our body around for too long, or subject it to our whims of over-work and lack of leisure, we become more and more off-balanced and unhealthy in our mental and emotional capacities as well.
Being attentive to the needs of the body was a very important life lesson on the Camino. When I was on the pilgrimage I tried to treat my body as a "thou," offering my compassion when there was pain and soreness, giving thanks when there was health and energy. Each day I grew in appreciation for my body's helpfulness and resiliency. I gained a new sense of wonder at how the human body does all it can to assist us physically, no matter how lacking or inadequate our care might be.
When I returned home from the Camino, most of the skin on the bottom of both my feet sloughed off. That this would happen was not surprising. My soles had been red, swollen and hot for the last two weeks of walking. I thought the sloughing off was symbolic. While the soles of my feet were letting go of old, dead skin, I was letting go of old, dead ways of treating and tending to myself.
Joyce Rupp describes herself as a "spiritual mid-wife." She is the award-winning author of numerous spiritual growth books. Walk In a Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons on the Camino is her latest, due out in September 2005. (Orbis Books)
Visit Joyce Rupp's website: www.joycerupp.com for more information on her books and her speaking schedule.
(The above excerpt is reprinted with permission by Joyce Rupp, OSM, and Orbis Books.)