After serious knee surgery, a traveler is forced to confront her limits as she attempts Spain’s most famous pilgrimage trail. This story is part of our “How Travel Changed Me” series.
I have a scar on my knee. It runs from the top of the patella down to the groove where the femur meets the tibia. At first glance, it looks like a straight line, drawn as if with a ruler, cleaving the pale flesh on either side in two. On closer inspection, the scar is raised, uneven; with ridges that resemble a tiny mountain range as seen from an airplane window. The vivid mauve hue is unsightly, ugly even. It is as if a parasite has burrowed its way into the skin and taken up residence in the kneecap; a temporary reminder of mistakes made; lessons learnt.
There are many routes to Santiago. The most popular is the Camino Francés, or “French Way.” It begins in the French village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the foothills of the Pyrenees and snakes its way across Spain, echoing the curve of the coast but denying pilgrims even a whiff of the sea’s salty tang. Popularized by the Spanish-American film, “The Way,” the Camino Francés sees hundreds of thousands of travelers every year, creating an 800-kilometer gash in the land as they trample their way towards the holy city.
The Camino del Norte is different. As the name suggests, it runs perpendicular to the Atlantic Ocean, hugging the Spanish coast from Irún to Ribadeo before finally giving way to the lush countryside of Galicia. On a map, the Northern Way is an almost-straight line that mirrors the square edge of the Iberian Peninsula. Up close, it’s a different story. The route is avoided by the majority of pilgrims due to the mountainous terrain, the frequent ascents and descents that cause even seasoned hikers to flag. For those seeking solitude, the Camino del Norte provides.
On either side of my worm-like cicatrix, there are two smaller scars, each composed of two silver-white lines that bisect each other at their centers. X marks the spot. One Wednesday afternoon, the crosses were keyholes for a surgeon’s tools; the arthroscope with its tiny torch and camera; the shaver with its whirring blade that slices through the damaged tissue.
Six months later, I sat with a map of Spain spread across the kitchen table and marked two crosses on the Euskadi coastline. San Sebastián and Bilbao: two Basque cities, linked by a section of the Camino del Norte measuring just shy of 125 kilometers with some of the most solitary and mountainous etapas (stages) of the entire route. Into a rucksack, I packed my kit for the hike. Amongst other things, there was a flashlight, a camera, and a Swiss Army knife with a blade sharp enough to slice through flesh.
The next day, with the morning sun glittering in the bay, I set off from San Sebastián. A scallop shell was proudly fastened to my rucksack, the mark of a pilgrim heading west. Aged 28, I had moved across Europe in a nomadic fashion, hitchhiked alone in the countryside, couch-surfed with strangers, climbed derelict buildings, and engaged in a smorgasbord of adventures, each one more thrilling than the last. Bar a shattered meniscus caused by a particularly enthusiastic bout of caffeine-fuelled boogieing, I had emerged from each experience remarkably unscathed. Buoyed up on my own confidence and the necessary swagger of the lone female traveler, I began the hike. I was determined that this next week would offer me the chance to be alone with my thoughts, to reflect on my next steps in life, and to bask in the silence of my own company. I didn’t need anyone else, after all.
Eight hours later, as I trudged along a concrete-fringed harbor, I was forced to admit that a little company wouldn’t go amiss. Forehead slick with sweat, feet pounding, rucksack straps cutting into my armpits, I focused on a solitary figure in the distance, willing myself on with the aim of overtaking this mystery pilgrim and marching triumphantly (in my own head, at least) into Zarauz, my resting place for the night. As I drew level with the figure, I saw a stocky man, around 45 years of age, plodding leisurely yet determinedly along the footpath. He turned, and his furrowed brow softened, a broad grin spreading across his face. “Puto camino, eh?” he remarked. I agreed that it was indeed a bloody awful hike.
Five hours later, fed, watered, and considerably less sweaty, I let my swollen feet slowly deflate in the briny sea air. My Camino companion and I each nursed an icy lager, skating between English and Spanish as we narrated our lives with the fast intimacy that bonds strangers in a foreign town.
“And you? What are you doing all alone on the Camino? What’s wrong with a normal beach holiday?”
“I — well, I wanted a bit of a challenge, I guess. A chance to be on my own in nature and to reflect a little. And, you know, I also had knee surgery early this year. I wanted to push myself to get back to where I was before I injured it.”
“Well, just be careful. This isn’t the easiest Camino, that’s for sure.”
I bristled suddenly. “I can take care of myself.”
We said our goodbyes and sloped off to our respective hostels, easing into bed as the sun sank below the horizon and was swallowed up by the ocean. In the morning, I woke before dawn, strapped a brace around my knee, pulled on my walking boots, and stumbled out of the town. I was keen to get a head start on any other stray pilgrims, including my friend from the previous evening. The day passed without incident, the Camino winding round the coast, through ancient vineyards, and up over the hills. Every turn brought new surprises: a house with an archway that perfectly framed the sea; a flock of sheep dozing placidly in the dappled shade; and a ragtag litter of kittens, all teeth and tails and eager batting paws. When I finally arrived at my destination, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of sadness that I had no one to share the day’s experiences with.
The Deba-Markina etapa is one of the most mountainous sections of the Camino del Norte. Beginning at sea level in the beach town of Deba, the path rises 200 meters over the first three kilometers, reaching a total elevation of 500 meters halfway through the 24-kilometer trail. In winter, the footpath is wet and muddy, increasing the risk of injury. In summer, the dusty scree is similarly hazardous, while the lack of tree cover forces pilgrims to hike under the burning sun. Experts recommend always hiking this section of the trail with a partner in case you get into difficulty.
The Deba-Markina etapa was gruelling. There was no other word for it. Several hours in, I looked at the map and was dismayed at my lack of progress. Even a blazing orange sunrise that momentarily bathed the path in gold couldn’t assuage the agony of the never-ending climb. There were no villages, no places to rest. No mobile-phone signal. Five hours in, my feet were on fire. I sat by the side of the path and took off my knee brace, my walking boots, gingerly peeled back my socks. Bug-eyed blisters looked back at me. Sighing, I removed the Swiss Army knife from my bag, liberally coated it with iodine, and used the blade to pierce the bulging film of each blister. Clear liquid flowed out. I took a needle and thread, repeated the same disinfection process, then sewed through the dead skin, tying knots so that the fluid would continue to drain as I walked. Pleased with my ad hoc roadside surgery, I pulled my socks and boots back on and continued the uphill slog.
At last, the path leveled out, tall pines offering temporary relief from the burning midday sun. I continued along the trail, a new lightness in my gait, a new appreciation for the vertiginous views out over the Basque countryside. And then, my left leg — my bad leg — buckled beneath me. I fell forward onto my brace-less knee, almost as if genuflecting to Mother Nature. A sharp pain shot through my leg. I looked down to see a six-centimeter gash running the length of the kneecap, dark-red blood gushing forth. I froze in shock, nausea rising in my throat, my vision already starting to blur. One hand trying to stem the flow, I crouched on the blood-splashed track, head between my legs to prevent unconsciousness from taking hold. After several minutes, I gritted my teeth and pried my sticky hand from my knee. The blood was still flowing. I looked at my phone. No service. I knew that I was still 10 kilometers from Markina, the nearest town. I began to panic.
“Hey there, stranger!”
A stocky figure rounded the corner.
“Oh fuck…,” he said.
My Camino companion took his water bottle from his rucksack, used every last drop to wash the dirt and gravel from the gash in my knee. He produced a roll of masking tape (“I didn’t think to bring a first-aid kit”) and wrapped it tightly round my leg, staunching the flow to a mere trickle. Then, he hoisted my rucksack up onto his chest, offered me his arm, and helped me hobble on down the track.
I didn’t finish the day’s hike. I never made it to Bilbao either. My friend and I met a hill-runner on the trail who led us to a farm. The kindly farmer made me sit in an ice-cold stream to constrict the blood vessels and stop the bleeding. Using her Wi-Fi, I called my friends in the nearby town of Durango, who drove up the narrow mountain track, took me to the hospital, and dropped my companion off in Markina to continue his Camino. I spent the rest of the week relaxing on their sofa, one bandaged leg raised up on a cushion while they bustled around, attending to my every need. I was so grateful for their kindness, for my friend’s kindness, and for the kindness of the strangers who helped me on the mountain. I expected to feel resentment that I couldn’t finish my hike, but all I felt was an overwhelming sense of gratitude.
I have a scar on my knee. It runs from the top of patella down to the groove where the femur meets the tibia. It is gradually fading; one day it will have the same silver-white hue as the two Xs on either side. For now, it still serves as a reminder of those few brief days hiking the Northern Way. A reminder that we don’t have to make this journey through life alone, that it’s okay to rely on others. That we need other people when the path becomes treacherous. When we falter. When we fall down. A reminder that one day in the future, I will finish the Camino del Norte.
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