Editor’s note: Bryan Steward, who lives with Becker muscular dystrophy, set out in August to hike the 500-mile Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain. A few days ago, he completed his incredible journey. He shared with us these final reflections of his last days on the trail, and, once again, Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray, two other Camino hikers whose film I’ll Push You will be released in a one-night only screening at select theaters nationwide on November 2 and will benefit MDA, engaged in a dialogue with Bryan below, remarking on the similarities of their experiences. Read previous entries in his trail diary here, here and here.
On October 2, I finished the Camino de Santiago. Forty-six days and 500 miles after setting foot out of St-Jean-Pied-De-Port, I arrived in Santiago de Compostela.
The last week of my Camino proved to be the most challenging of the entire journey. During my walk up to Cruz de Ferro and the descent down the mountain the following day, I was forced to do something I had not yet done on the Camino: crawl and drag my pack. Without the help of a group like I had in other difficult portions of the Camino, I had to rely on myself and find ways to adapt. The many rocky portions of the trail in the Galician Mountains were so slick and steep that I was unable to keep my balance without taking off my pack and climbing over the rocks. At several points other hikers would come across me struggling and lend me a hand over a rocky portion of trail or carry my pack up a hill. This continued on the climb up to O Cebriero and descending down to Tricastela and Sarria. Although help was available from other pilgrims passing by, I was alone for this, the most difficult portion of the Camino.
Some of these moments when I faced the Camino alone in solitude were the most powerful. When we are alone we are aware of ourselves more than when we are with others and it is harder to hide from who we really are. For me the Camino was also about understanding myself in ways I did not before. After completing the Camino, I am without a doubt more aware of my limitations and how Becker muscular dystrophy effects me. What I learned most is that we do not have to let disability define who we are, but we can learn to define the abilities we have and truly live our lives.
The day before Cruz de Ferro, I happened to run into an American husband and wife from Florida, Dennis and Argyro, whom I first met in Uterga during my first week. After reconnecting with them, I would see them nearly every day until I reached Santiago. This is one of the beauties of the Camino that you will not see someone you met for weeks and then all of a sudden run into them again. They would prove to be two of the most helpful and kind people I met on the Camino. At one point during my last few days on the trail, I fell and broke my walking stick. With muscular dystrophy, a walking stick was my most valuable possession on the Camino. To my amazement, Dennis and Argyro offered me one of their hiking sticks to use for the rest of the pilgrimage. This was one of the greatest moments of kindness I witnessed on my journey.
My difficulties continued during the last week. After leaving Portomarín, I developed a pain in my left hip that began to worsen on my 40th day. It became so bad I had to stop early that day and rest. I thought for sure this was the end of my Camino. With a few days of shorter mileage and some ibuprofen, I made it to Santiago at a much slower pace. The several days of rest in Santiago before my flight home allowed my hip to heal.
After arriving in Santiago, I had a chance to reconnect with some of my friends I made along the way, including Dennis and Argyro and David from Australia, who is the only person on the Camino I met who started the same day as me and received his certificate of completion known as the “Compostela” on the same day as me too. Also in Santiago I was able to see Mari from Finland one last time before her flight home. Mari was one of the kindest and most helpful people I met on the Camino even though we only walked together one day.
Reaching Santiago was one of the single greatest accomplishments of life. My journey was accomplished not only by facing challenges with nothing more than my own determination but also by accepting help from others. Although you can always crawl and drag yourself when the going gets tough, sometimes it is easier to have a hand to reach for.
My experience changed me, and I do not think I will ever be able to look at the world the same way I did before the Camino. Facing such difficult challenges and accepting the help of so many people is humbling.
At many points on the Camino, when I thought about how much people have helped me, I have wondered how I have helped others. Although I was never able to offer much physical help to others, whenever someone helped me I always seemed to notice a change in how they acted. People seem to be happier when they are helping others and happiness is one of the greatest gifts we can give. The Camino can be emotionally draining and being with someone and helping them creates an environment where no one feels alone. A simple change in your mood can make the biggest difference on the Camino, and if I have been able to give this to others then I have been able to help others as much as they have helped me.
No one is in this life alone and when people learn to realize this, the world becomes a better place. We all have one chance to live our lives, and no matter what circumstances or challenges we find ourselves in, we all have an opportunity to live life to its fullest.
FROM JUSTIN AND PATRICK
Bryan, you made it! We are so amazed at what you have accomplished. Pushing through struggle, fear, pain, and exhaustion; you have done something incredible. The thoughts you have shared throughout your journey have been profound. But perhaps the most impactful for us is the reminder of the power that exists in human connection. From people helping you up slopes, to carrying your pack, to replacing a broken stick, to just walking with you, there has often been help when you needed it, and so much beauty exists in these moments. But this beauty isn’t limited to the act of giving. Your words sum it up perfectly:
“Although I was never able to offer much physical help to others, whenever someone helped me I always seemed to notice a change in how they acted. People seem to be happier when they are helping others and happiness is one of the greatest gifts we can give.”
By receiving help from others, we are able to give them the gift of happiness, the gift of joy. But we must willingly receive what is given for that happiness and joy to flourish. This is what you have done on your Camino.
Whether this concept is entirely new to you or if it is something you have been practicing your whole life, keep embracing it. Let it be a part of who you are because the full beauty of humanity can only be seen when we willingly give and receive with grace and humility.
Your Camino and your life are inspiring. Hold close the lessons you have learned and make the world around you a better place.
Help Bryan raise money for MDA so kids and adults like him can live longer and grow stronger!