The salty Mediterranean air blew inland from the coast and danced across my nose. A long, slender shadow cast by the morning sun stretched out awkwardly on the pavement in front of me as I marched west with my bulky backpack. The gravity of what I had set out to do finally began to sink in. My best estimates showed it would take me nearly sixty days to cover almost a thousand miles by foot through the south of France and the north of Spain. This was no vacation; it was more like an endurance test. I had only just begun a journey that was sure to challenge me not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally in ways I couldn’t yet imagine.
Maria, a German businesswoman I met that first day along the way, couldn’t quite understand it.
“Wait, you’re going where?” she asked me for the second time.
“Santiago de Compostela,” I repeated. “Well, today I’m headed southwest to a little village about 25 kilometers away called Gabian, but my destination is the western coast of Spain.”
“Oh, so you’re going to take a bus from Gabian?”
“No. I’m gonna walk from there to St. Jean Pie-de-Port where I’ll cross the Pyrenees into Spain.”
“OK, and then you’re going to take a bus from there, right?”
“Nope. I’m gonna walk.”
How could I blame her for asking so many questions? Even I had questioned my own sanity. Not only was I undeniably short on money to cover my most basic needs along the way, assuming I actually did make all the way to the end, there was still no flight in Santiago waiting to take me back home to Los Angeles. During the middle ages, setting out on a journey like this might have been justifiable, but today, what I had planned to do defied modern logic.
The truth was, over the past several years, for me, life itself had become increasingly illogical. By contrast, an adventure like this somehow seemed to make perfect sense. From outside my own head, though, the only conclusion others could draw was that this was just another one of my elaborate escape attempts. And though those around me nearly had me convinced, deep down I still knew my real motivation wasn’t what I was running away from, but rather what I had been desperately chasing for so long—answers.
Placing one foot in front of the other, I traversed the tiny square in the center of the village and passed the only restaurant in town. The checkerboard pattern tablecloths caught my eye through the oversized window that faced the street. Instantly, the words of my former boss came rushing back from recent memory. “I see the way you treat the customers. They really respond to you. Think about it, Ryan, serving could be a great career for you!” My stomach turned and my eyes filled with tears. No matter how good of a job the owner thought I did, the very thought of making a career out of waiting tables nearly made me sick.
The entire second half of my life had been a struggle to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. Over the past sixteen years I had tried on a number of professional hats in a relentless search for the one that fit. In addition to serving in a restaurant, I had also earned money answering technical support questions in a call center, teaching English as a second language, flipping burgers, running carnival games, hosting a television show, pushing papers in a corporate cubicle, dancing and dining with cruise ship passengers and more. I had held jobs that were enjoyable but low paying, jobs that were very well paid but completely uninspiring and jobs that were fun but personally meaningless. In exactly two months, I would turn thirty-two and had yet to come across any job that was fun, well paid and personally fulfilling.
“Look, there’s no such thing as the perfect job. In this economy, you should be glad you have any job at all!” my coworkers used to warn me. There was no doubt I was grateful for the opportunity to earn some quick cash at the restaurant, but my heavy heart and a persistent soreness in the arm I used to clear away dirty dishes, were screaming for a change. Three weeks later, I served my last customer and the very next morning I made my way to one of my favorite places in the city—the airport.
At the 6.5-kilometer countdown the GR78 turned and guided me into a hallway, carpeted with thick green grass and walled by impenetrable berry bushes and young fruit trees. All perspective lines met at the center point on the horizon and no matter how much effort I put forward, my headway was nearly imperceptible. I was on a treadmill. After traveling at a moderate pace for what felt like hours, the separation between the two leafy partitions finally appeared, along with another trail marker at the end of the corridor. As I eagerly approached, I tried to be optimistic about my progress. “I gotta be almost there—one or two kilometers more, max!” But when I was finally close enough to read the sign, I froze in horror: Pamiers, 5.5 km. Stunned, I protested aloud, “What the hell!? That can’t be right! I know I walked way more than just one damn kilometer!”
Frustrated, I followed the direction of the arrow down a single-lane road where a farmer buzzed back and forth on his tractor moving bales of hay from one field to another. As I walked, my body heat rose and steam escaped through the gap around my collar. The erratic downpours all afternoon had convinced me to stay suited up in my impermeable gear, but it had been hours since the last rainfall. Now, I was just overheating. Leaving plenty of room for the passing tractor, I stopped beside the road, took off everything waterproof piece by piece, and tucked it all away into its proper pocket. Mere seconds after I closed the last zipper and picked up my bag, the sky opened up and started dumping buckets right on top of me. Furious, I threw my bag down in the middle of the road and started to put everything back on in an angry fit. Still several hundred yards away, the tractor began its methodical approach. “IF YOU WANT TO GET BY ME, YOU CAN GO AROUND!!” I shouted at the top of my lungs. And then, just as abruptly as it had started, the rain stopped.
Desperately surveying the landscape for any sign of my destination city, I continued onward, turning right and hobbling down a dirt track into an open field. The unrelenting miserable weather had made it nearly impossible to properly care for my feet, and by now, a full seven hours had passed since the last time I had removed my shoes. Shifting my attention downward, I began to realize that my entire left foot was actually soaking wet. Something was definitely wrong. With each step, the insole squished like a sponge. “This damn boot is leaking!” My pinky had been rubbing back and forth against the toe next to it for hours and now it was starting to burn—a clear indicator of a blister. I had to stop the friction immediately. Using my left leg like a cane, I took short, careful strides to immobilize the ball of my foot. But after just a few yards, my poor posture had taken its toll on my battered knees and hips, forcing me to reduce my advance to a snail’s pace.
The dirt path crossed over a small asphalt lane and into even more isolated farmland where yet another trail marker waited to mock me. Pamiers, 2.5 km. The signs had become downright insulting, just like the conversations in my own head. Why in the hell did I ever think I could do this? I should have arrived hours ago! If I had to walk for nine months like the Germans or live out of a tent like Megan, I’d probably shoot myself! “I HATE CAMPING!” I roared out into the emptiness, shaking my fists in the air and stumbling forward.
Though the rain came down in thick sheets, it couldn’t begin to put out the fiery blisters that were now ablaze inside both of my failed boots. As I limped forward, slower still, shallow pools of teardrops collected and grew heavy in my eyelids, but I fought back hard. Drawing in a long, deep breath, I held the air in my lungs for as long as I could, and then let it go with a heavy sigh. Step after grueling step, the suffering in my lower body intensified, trickling down like gasoline onto my smoldering feet. There, in that moment, my anguish erupted into a powerful firestorm of emotion. I staggered forward a few inches more, collapsed into a pile of self-pity at the foot of a large oak and wrapped my arms around its trunk. As I tried to bury my face into its wooden bosom, the sharp bark scraped my soggy cheeks and scored my brittle fingers. Tears flooded my eyes and blurred my vision as I began to wail shamelessly into the lonely countryside.
Anger, confusion, frustration, disappointment—one demoralizing feeling after the next came crashing down upon me like violent waves. As I lay there bawling next to the trail, not even one grain of hope remained from the mountain of possibility upon which I had begun my adventure just ten days ago. Now, the very fabric of my journey was coming apart at the seams, starting with the one piece of equipment that I relied upon most—my hiking boots. After all that research and all that preparation, now this!? From that point, one dismal hypothetical outcome led to the next in a completely imaginary downward spiral of negativity. “Well, if my shoes continue to leak then my feet are going to keep getting wet, and if my feet are wet then I’m going to keep getting blisters—and with blisters, I can’t even walk, SO WHAT’S THE DAMN POINT!?!?!” My hope had been replaced with rage, and in that brief moment of total darkness, I managed to convince myself that it was absolutely impossible to continue. “What am I even doing here?! I WANNA GO HOME!!” I screamed in between sobs. “I WANNA GO HOME!!”