I am often asked about the tattoo of a scallop shell on my leg. As I go on to explain how the shell is a symbol of the Camino de Santiago, I sometimes tell the much deeper meaning of the shell to me. On the Camino I overcame more than the average pilgrim. What made me different from most is the added challenge of having a progressive neuromuscular disease called Becker muscular dystrophy. In St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, before even beginning my hike, the walk up the steep road to the Pilgrim’s Office left me exhausted, out of breath, and questioning my sanity to come here. The entire trip felt like a horrible mistake I could not escape from. All I could do was walk.
Besides the challenges of crawling up rocky hills and hundreds of falls, my slow pace in comparison to other pilgrims quickly became one of my biggest mental hurdles. Although I found a group to accompany me over the Pyrenees, most pilgrims realized that maintaining a long-term companionship with me was not possible if they wanted to reach Santiago quickly. With everyone I wanted to walk with moving ahead, I felt lost and alone.
After explaining my predicament to a fellow pilgrim, I was told something that changed the way I viewed the journey and my physical challenges. He said, “Slow? There is no such thing as slow on the Camino; there is only your own pace. We all have our own difficulties, and we all deal with them in our own ways.” Focusing on my own pace would become my mindset as other pilgrims came in and out of my journey. Feeling sad about leaving my initial group was natural, but everyone has their own path to follow. The difficulty people have in focusing on their own pace in life relates to the problem of understanding strength. Most people, including myself, see themselves as weak in comparison to someone who is stronger or more physically capable. On the Camino, I was starting to realize that the idea of being weak only holds true when we compare ourselves to others. When we face challenges from our own unique reference point and not through the eyes of others, we become truly strong.
Walking at my own pace caused me to change the way I viewed a Camino tradition. At Cruz de Ferro, pilgrims are expected to leave behind a rock that represents a burden they have brought onto the trail. Clearly my burden was having muscular dystrophy, but how could I leave this behind? When I thought back on the wisdom about walking at one’s own pace, I realized that finding your own pace was about accepting the burdens you carry. So maybe my rock did not have to be about leaving something behind, but rather taking something with me, or swapping the rock for something else. What I sought on the Camino was to embark on an adventure while my body still allowed it, and that meant embracing truth. Muscular dystrophy would be a part of me for the rest of my life. When I put my rock down, it was not to let go of a burden, but to swap it for truth. Every moment in life is a chance to change everything we were in the moment before. This moment at Cruz de Ferro, was the moment I chose what my future would be. I embraced the present and accepted my burden. There were probably bigger physical difficulties in my future, but I was headed there no matter what. The only other option was to continue down a dark path of denial. People cannot always choose their burdens, but they can choose how they carry them.
The tattoo of the scallop shell on my leg represents not only what I overcame on the Camino, but what I carried onto the trail and continue to carry today. The defects in our DNA, in some cases, may define what we are physically, but they do not need to define who we are. No matter how we find ourselves in this world, we cannot deny the beauty of life that we all have the choice to discover.
To hear about my full journey on the Camino, be sure to check out my book My Own Pace: A Story of Strength and Adversity on the Camino de Santiago. Now available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle eBook. Visit my website or come follow me on Instagram or Twitter.
Check out my e-book, A Wild Woman’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago for practical advice on preparing to walk the Camino de Santiago including snippets from my journey and stories from Camino pilgrims. Click the link to download your copy.