Inspired by reading Dianne Homan’s Walk Your Own Camino and a recent hike close to home.
The Physical Camino
September 24, 2020
Yesterday Kent and I took a walk in the Sandia Mountains on a trail I always thought of as moderate, although it goes steadily up for a couple of miles, and the switchbacks start to seem endless before the trail reaches a lovely flat spot where we once camped. From this place, where a large long-fallen log provides a place to sit, one can choose to continue up on the South Crest Trail which winds around and if followed far enough will lead over 20 miles to the north end of the mountains; or one can take, a bit to the right, the CCC trail, an unmarked, unmaintained (although none of these trails seem to have had any maintenance in the 20 years I’ve been walking them) trail that is much shorter than the Crest Trail, but heads straight up the mountain, providing a real test of stamina and, especially on the way down, a challenge to the knees. A third choice, the Upper Faulty Trail goes right and north, passes through some lovely stands of Ponderosas and makes fairly gentle ups and downs across some small arroyos and through pleasant open woods, eventually intersecting with the Lower Faulty Trail, which can be taken farther north or back to the Lower Crest Trail, meeting it below the switchbacks, a quarter-mile or so above the travertine falls. There are a couple of steep descents on the Lower Faulty, the worst one on loose scree that descends precipitously to the junction with the Crest Trail. That was the route we chose, and it was at that last descent that I panicked.
I was already very hot and tired and my knees, feet and even my hip joints were beginning to hurt. I was terrified of slipping because there was nothing to stop a long slide to the bottom, so I braced myself with my poles, testing them each time I planted them, hoping they would not slip, and that my feet would not slip when I placed each foot carefully in what I hoped was the next safe spot. I was so hot on the sunny slope that my eyes began to burn from the salty sweat that ran into them. My shirt and shorts were also damp. Why had I not brought my bandana, that could have doubled as a face mask and kept the sweat out of my eyes, or at least wiped it from my face? The face mask hung uselessly from my wrist, as there were no other people on the trail, and I was so hot. My lips were dry, but happily I found a chap-stick in my waist pack. My water was almost gone. When I finally reached the end of the descent I was shaking and lightheaded, so we paused for a while in the shade. We had another mile or so to go to the parking lot. The trail was rough with irregular rocks, requiring careful attention to the placement of each step. At the travertine falls there is a short-cut with another steep descent in full sun – this one not so slippery, and not so long, but I was terrified going down, all the same.
By the time I reached the shady rock at the bottom where Kent waited for me, I felt terrible. Shaky and hot, I took off the hat that was stuck to my damp head. My hair was wet and stiff with salt. I panted, felt lightheaded, and suddenly nauseous. We had only a tiny bit of water left. I drank most of it and wanted more. We sat there for a very long time, watching the birds (Red-breasted Nuthatches, Stellar’s Jays, a Townsend’s Solitaire) flitting through the trees and visiting the slight the trickle of water in one small section of the dry travertine. A gorgeous Abert’s squirrel, his light tail waving and his black ears erect, scampered up the rough stone. I leaned forward and rested my head on my hands on my poles, wondering how I’d gotten so out-of-shape and so old that this trail was so hard. After what seemed like a long time, I started to feel better, took deep breaths, stood up and slowly continued the rest of the way to the parking lot without feeling worse. There was an unopened bottle of water in the car, and although it was as warm as hot tea, I gulped down half of the bottle. When we got home, Kent made a pitcher of lemonade and I downed 3 huge glasses. I looked up my symptoms on the internet and read about heat exhaustion caused by dehydration and overheating during strenuous exercise. Next time, I will take extra water, some electrolyte tablets, and my bandana. According to my phone we walked just over 6 miles in about 5 hours, although the trail guide gives the distance as closer to 4.5 miles.
I thought about moments on the Camino, when I faced similar challenges and moments of despair. The most recent Camino from Arles to Toulouse just one year ago had many steep ups and downs, often very rocky. Steep descents in loose rock are my least favorite parts of any walk, and there were many on this route. I remember standing at the top of a hill, seeing the village we were heading for a heart-sinking distance below, and wondering how I would ever manage to get down. My despair was deepened by the fact that the last sign had said it was only 4 km to the village, leading me to think the day’s journey would soon be over. I was not expecting two km of precipitous descent.
During these times of physical trial on the Camino and on other walks, I often wonder why I am doing this. Perhaps because it feels so good when I stop? But I think there are other reasons. I am testing myself and my endurance, and I’m putting myself in the position of many walkers who are walking now and who have walked in the past who have had no choice, whose way Is hard, life-threatening and challenging. I remember walking through endless mud on my first Camino, ten years ago, thinking I was paying for my sins. If our Caminos were just “walks in the park” we would have no stories to tell, and no challenges to test ourselves and make us strong. We experience humility and awareness of our human frailty, which I hope brings us closer to all life and to God.