Editor’s note: Bryan Steward, who lives with Becker muscular dystrophy, is hiking the 500-mile Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain. He recently wrote about his decision to take on such an arduous hike and updated us on his progress last month. He wrote to us again about his experiences on the trail. 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, responded to Bryan below.
I finally parted ways with Ruth and Kari on the morning of my sixth day in Uterga, but just as quickly as they moved on ahead, someone else stepped in to help in their place. I began walking with a Finnish girl named Mari who was walking with her mother from the United States and her mother’s friend from Finland. Mari’s willingness to help was quickly obvious when I fell down and scrapped my knee and she bandaged me. I soon found out she was a nurse and I knew she would be good company to walk with. My sixth day would turn out to be another difficult day with steep hills and rocky terrain to ascend. Mari repeatedly carried my pack up the hills I struggled with. At one particularly steep hill, Mari and another woman named Jennifer from Malaysia who I have been occasionally running into since my first day, linked arms with me and helped to pull me up the hill.
My sixth day was also the last day I had a chance to walk with an American husband and wife from South Carolina named Don and Mary whom I have become friendly with. Don said something that still resonates strongly with me. While talking about my slow pace on the Camino, he said, “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.” This seems to explain the problem with understanding strength. Most people, including myself, see themselves as weak in comparison to someone who is stronger or more physically capable. Now I am starting to realize that the idea of being weak only holds true if 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.
I parted ways with Mari and her group on the next morning in Lorca. They wanted to move ahead further than I did, as I was taking a shorter day due to the heat wave that had been putting the temperatures near 100⁰ F for the past few days. My pace has me out waking much longer than most hikers, walking through the hottest parts of the day. I continue to keep in touch with Mari, and I hope our paths will cross again on the Camino soon. Luckily, the days that followed did not present much terrain I needed help with. It seems that help presents itself whenever I need it. I walk mostly alone at this point, occasionally walking with someone else for a day or a few hours. Walking alone gives me a chance to think and really enjoy the Camino as a solo hike. On my 14th day in Grañon I became ill and had a rest day, and thanks to the hospitality of those at San Juan Bautista, I was ready to continue walking the following day. As I near the midway mark of the Camino, I feel myself getting stronger and Santiago seems more and more within reach.
On the morning of my 31st day on the Camino, I arrived at a place known as Cruz de Ferro, an iron cross fixed atop a wooden pole on a pile of rocks. At an altitude of almost 5,000 feet, it is one of the highest points along the route. Tradition has it that beneath the cross each pilgrim places a rock they have brought from their home. The rock represents leaving behind a burden that has been carried. After my 12-day trek through the desolate Meseta leading up to Cruz de Ferro, I had a lot of time to think about what burden I would be leaving behind.
My burden I left behind relates to something I have dealt with the entire walk.
On the Camino I am constantly asked the same questions whenever someone sees me struggling up a hill. Are you okay? Are you hurt? Do you need help? My explanation that I have muscular dystrophy usually surprises people that I have made it this far. Unlike my normal life, on the Camino one of the first things I end up telling someone about myself is that I have muscular dystrophy. Usually my condition has been something I keep from others as long as I can, and whenever I have been confronted with a difficult situation, such as a staircase I struggle to walk up, my usual explanation is that I have a bad knee or I have a leg injury. The Camino has made me realize that having muscular dystrophy does not need to be a secret anymore.
I guess I always thought people would think less of me or treat me differently if they knew about my condition, but the kindness of others has taught me how much better it is to be honest about who you are than to hide from something about yourself you cannot control. This is what I left behind at Cruz de Ferro, the burden of keeping from others that I have muscular dystrophy. The Camino has forced me to face difficulties I cannot avoid, and the more I try to avoid something the harder it is to deal with. As muscular dystrophy becomes something that affects me more in the future, it is necessary to let go of the fear and embrace life for what it is. I think the fear I had of letting others know about my condition was related to the part of me that still didn’t want to admit that things are going to get harder and impossible to ignore.
The Camino has changed the way I look at challenges, and now I’m okay with whatever the future brings. I am nearly finished the 500-mile walk to Santiago, but every day I still wonder if I will make it all the way, and every day I keep putting one foot in front of the other and continue moving forward.
FROM JUSTIN AND PATRICK
Bryan, thank you for sharing your thoughts and struggles with the world. So much of what you have shared here feels familiar. The blessing in Mari carrying your pack up the steep hills and the gift in Mari and Jennifer linking arms with you to help you up the terrain is a powerful reminder of the strength that exists in letting others in. Sometimes others can carry a burden for us, and other times they can carry our burdens with us. But one truth has to be embraced… none of us can do life alone.
Don’s words – 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. – are a great reminder. We all walk through life at a different pace, with different experiences, different skills, different strengths. We are firm believers that the greatest of these strengths resides in our weakness. When people let others carry their burdens for them, or with them, they experience that very strength… the strength of vulnerability. Through their willingness to let others be a part of their story, and do what they cannot do on their own, they are demonstrating remarkable strength. They are facing the fear of being seen as weak, they are facing the fear of rejection, they are facing the fear of not being enough; and that takes a remarkable amount of strength. The same strength you have demonstrated here. And because of your honesty, and your vulnerability, you have experienced the strength of others. This is what the Camino is about. This is what life should be about.
Thank you for the beautiful reminder of how we all should face the struggles of life.
Help Bryan raise money for MDA so kids and adults like him can live longer and grow stronger!