My husband Hal was freaking out. We had been walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage across Spain for almost six weeks and had only one day to go to reach the sea. But the next two kilometers suddenly loomed larger than the 870 kilometers — approximately 540 miles — behind us.
Ostensibly, the problem was one of nomenclature. We were headed for a town called Olveiroa, and the signage looked promising. But, as it turned out, Ponte Olveiroa wasn't Olveiroa — a minor linguistic distinction that signaled another half-hour of highway-shoulder hobbling between us and the real Olveiroa, a cafe chair, and a garnet-red glass of vino tinto.
To be fair, the root of the problem was more a spatial one: The guidebook mapped out a 33-kilometer day, but our mental odometers knew different, and a friend's GPS had us at 38 and counting. We'd been rope-a-doped into logging 23 hot miles on our longest day yet.
For Hal, whose tortured feet by then resembled raw, pulsing livers, the straw landed at about the time we spotted an "OLVEIROA — 2km" sign where we figured a "You are here" sign should have been.
"F$%# this!" he said, as the camel's spine snapped. "I can't do this @#$% tomorrow!" Buses were mentioned. Oaths sworn. Error-ridden maps denounced.
I kept quiet, but my mind was spinning up for the dance. If you've ever been a couple, you know the one — that pas de deux shitshow that ensues when your partner loses the plot and you respond by making it all about you, bowing up, and tossing your own flaming assholery into the mix.
"Nuh-UH!" my brain escalated. "There is no way I'm walking all the way from the Pyrenees and then taking a fucking bus on the last day! I am walking to the ocean, if I have to do it by myself ... "
And then I looked at Hal and, finally, really saw him, sweaty and limping, his walking poles tick tick ticking along a colorless stretch of hot asphalt that hadn't changed for hours.
This wasn't about me. This was about Hal, exhausted and hurting, shattering into tiny pieces.
He's in no way tiny. He's a broad-shouldered, confident and hirsute fellow, potentially intimidating upon first contact. And in preparation for our journey across northern Spain — from France to Santiago de Compostela, and thence, to the Atlantic Ocean — he'd cultivated a truly magnificent beard, pilgrimesque in its lushness.
In a word, the essence of Hal is bigness, of person and of personality. And the meltdown he had that day was similar in scale: a fur-flying, thundering ursine wonder of sound and fury. It was a cover for pain, weariness and fear. In a word, smallness.
I forget this sometimes, because I break apart differently.
My first Camino meltdown happened four days in. I'd soared over the Pyrenees and into Pamplona on an adrenaline jet stream feeling ecstatic and strong — and magically unblistered. I can do this thing! I told myself, pushing harder and faster, fueled by ego and strong Spanish coffee. But on day four, I limped theatrically into a little town called Puente La Reina, my ankle swollen and blue, for reasons undetermined.
After dinner, I couldn't put weight on the foot at all. Hal loaded me onto his back, hauled me back to the albergue (a pilgrims' hostel), and folded me into the bottom bunk.
When the bunk-room hive started buzzing the next morning, I wiggled my foot and knew I wasn't going anywhere. Our new Aussie friends packed up and waved goodbye, and a Frenchman who'd matched strides with us for many hours put his hand on my shoulder kindly. "I'll see you in Santiago," he said, with a sympathetic smile. I doubted I'd make it that far.
I buried myself in my sleeping bag and wept. As the room emptied of pilgrims, I sputtered and bubbled my tiny-little-girl despair at Hal. My Camino was done. My ankle was done. Our new friendships were done. Sunshine and all things of excellence were done. I had failed, and the fun was over.
Hal did what he always does when I lose the narrative thread and go preschool on him: He waited until I'd finished emitting snot strings, and then he switched into Big Strong Man mode. In this case, that meant shouldering both packs and human-crutching me to the nearest hotel, where we iced ankles and ate chocolate for the next 22 hours. He acted like this was the thing he most wanted, in all the world, to do. And with his singular ability to fill any space with his big laugh and bigger heart, he made the forced rest day into a wickedly fun hooky-playing adventure.
It would never have crossed Hal's mind to leave me there, I reminded myself three weeks later, as he cursed the various and sundry Olveiroas. I felt small-hearted, and ashamed of my ugly little thought.
"Grow big," I told myself. "Right now."
Theatrical breakdowns aside, there are benefits to bigness. Bigness can carry a lot of weight — and did, for me, both times my ankles and resolve failed us on that trip.
But two kilometers shy of Olveiroa, the heavy lifting fell to me. It was my turn to be Big Strong (Wo)Man.
Sometimes I forget that I can. I'm a small person, and when I melt down, I get even smaller. I shrink and whimper. Maybe that's why I fail to grasp that when a Big Strong Man breaks, he breaks big — there's volume, and hair, and spectacle. But that's just him, fighting the smallness with everything he has. Small isn't who he is, and he is not having it.
But even though Big Strong Man was the role Hal was made for, he shouldn't have to play it all the time.
That afternoon, with two kilometers to go, he needed me to carry him to Olveiroa.
Hal comprises roughly two of me, so I can't actually lift him. But after 13 years, I occasionally manage to form sentences that can. "We don't have to decide anything now," I said, waving my arms in a "no big deal" sense. "In a half-hour, we'll be drinking wine in Olveiroa, and it'll all be OK! Then we'll see how we feel tomorrow. Maybe we'll take a rest day."
"I'll even rub your feet," I grinned.
With that, Hal got quiet and resumed putting mutilated feet to pavement. Becalmed, he may have looked a size smaller, but he grew a little, just enough to finish the last two kilometers.
When we dragged into Olveiroa, I folded Hal into a cafe chair, brought him a glass of vino tinto, shouldered the packs, and checked us into the albergue. Within the hour, he was his regular-size self again, his sonic-boom laugh swelling to fill the long, sun-soaked afternoon, Northern Spain, the world. My world.
I delivered him a second glass of wine. And the next day, we walked to the sea.
I wouldn't dream of doing it without him.
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