It was the day after Thanksgiving that I moved to Colorado last year. I rode the Colorado Mountain Express from Denver International Airport to the Frisco Transportation Center that evening, full of excitement for the big move and my first season as a ski instructor. On the CME with me was a jovial driver who had spent the off-season walking the Camino de Santiago, and a member of the U.S. paralympic ski team. The man was in a wheelchair, but needed no help loading his luggage in the van, or climbing into the front seat. He was an athlete in every way, and had done more amazing things in his lifetime than I could even dream about. But when our driver started speaking of his time on the Camino, the man grew silent. The driver and I spent the better part of the drive in an animated discussion about the trip, and it wasn’t until the twinkling lights of Summit County came into view that the man spoke again.
“So what exactly is the trail like?” he asked.
The driver grew silent. We exchanged looks. Everyone in the car knew what the man was really asking. And I slouched in my seat as I prepared for the answer.
“It varies quite a bit,” the driver said, skirting the question before turning the conversation in another direction. Sitting in the backseat behind the two men, I could see the defeat in the skier’s posture. The driver had said the trail varies, but what he meant echoed loud and clear in that dark van – it was no place for a wheelchair.
My heart ached. I think it was then that I decided walking the camino was something I needed to do. Before that moment the walk was on a list of fun vacation ideas, but after it became a tangible goal. It wasn’t fair that my body was healthy and easily mobile while another’s wasn’t. This man had achieved all sorts of things in his life, but completing this 500 mile pilgrimage wasn’t going to be one of them.
Austin was waiting for me when we pulled up to the FTC. The man’s ride had not yet arrived. It was dark and cold as we pulled away, and the image of the man alone in his wheelchair under the streetlight is still burned into my memory. I knew then I needed to walk the Camino not because he couldn’t, but because I could.
Even so, I will light a candle in the Cathedral of Santiago for that man. I don’t remember his name, but it is largely thanks to him that I will be there to begin with.