A week or two out of Le Puy, a Swiss pilgrim named Sascha told me he preferred walking uphill to down.
At the time, I thought he was crazy.
I wasn’t in particularly good shape when I set out, and the Le Puy route starts out with the cruelest terrain of the journey to Santiago: a few weeks full of steep ascents and descents.
Going down wasn’t a lot of fun, particularly on rock-strewn paths where the wrong step could send you slip-sliding away, and quite possibly end in a twisted ankle. But with a good walking stick for support, the descents were manageable.
The ascents—particularly the steep ones out of places like Monistrol d’Allier, Conques, and even Cahors—were the worst.
If you’re twenty-eight years old (as I was then), it’s seriously embarrassing to have hordes of French retirees pass you with ease, leaving behind only the echo of the click-click-click of their trekking poles.
You tell yourself it’s because the bulk of their luggage is in a van on its way to the next gîte d’étape while yours is all on your back, and besides, those trekking poles seem to give ordinary people super-human endurance.
But you don’t really believe it, so you push on and on, even though every cell in your lungs is screaming for air.
And then, of course, you end up looking like a fool anyway, when you finally have to stop and your breath comes in shuddering gasps.
If you’re alone on the trail, you take it a little easier: two or three steps, stop, gulp some oxygen, repeat. All the way to the top.
But the nice thing about walking for hours each day is that you do eventually get into shape.
I began to understand what Sascha meant around week five. Going up hills was still physically tough, but I could actually breathe rhythmically as I did it. Ascents became a bit of a challenge—sometimes even fun—instead of nearly insurmountable obstacles that might kill me.
After you’ve spent six weeks walking up to them, even climbing the Pyrenees isn’t so bad.
And Sascha was right—the knee-jarringly steep descents really are a lot worse.
Now, I wish I could tell new pilgrims that that’s just how the Camino is: it starts off physically difficult, but it’s all downhill (or uphill, as the case may be) from there.
Alas, it’s not that simple.
It did work like that, for me at least, in terms of being able to walk over hills and mountains. But there are other factors.
I thought if you got blisters on a hiking trip, they were supposed to come at the beginning, and then fade away as your foot hardens.
It didn’t work like that for me. My blisters (an matched pair on each heel) arrived on the way out of Cahors, a few weeks into my walk.
And then there’s this lassitude that in my experience—and from what I witnessed in others—descends on many pilgrims, often after weeks of walking. It can last for periods of anywhere from a day to around a week.
I figure it’s at least as much mental as it is physical. Even though your body is perfectly willing to sprint up mountains, every action somehow feels like twice as much work.
It may only hit you once, or maybe a couple of times for relatively brief periods. Everyone is different. I also suspect it’s more common among people who are doing longer walks than the Camino Francés.
Of course, the converse of those periods are the times when everything comes together, and each action seems twice as easy and filled with joy besides.
There are a lot of ups and downs—in more ways than one—when you set out to walk the Camino.