(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

Yes, I’m a smart girl, and I know better than to hitchhike. And, let’s be clear, there are no excuses. But I’d just come from a month of traveling the backroads of England where kindly strangers pulled over to the side of the road offering me a respite from the obvious heft of my bag. Some of my best travel stories are born in these moments and these people who wanted only to share their time with me. I’d kept looking for ulterior motives in them to no avail. And so my guard was down. I wasn’t careful. And Spain is not England.

So there I was—with my thumb out.

The man slowed his bike, and I got on the back. I told him where I lived. He nodded, and we were off, dust kicking up in the shadows of our past. He kept trying to talk to me. In Spanish. No comprendo. He tried again. And again. I thought he was making polite conversation. Mi Español es muy mala, I offered. And then he said something I understood: Yo y tu.

The man began driving recklessly and laughing. Talking and laughing. Speeding up. Slowing down. And laughing. He used his left hand, the one with the wedding ring on it, to reach around behind him, and grope me. It was the most fun he’d had in a very long time. I knew this from the echoes of his delight.

With no weaponry of my own, what I had in my arsenal was only my anger. And I can tell you that I have never had more of an instinct to kill. Never. When something like this had happened to me before, I was first a defenseless child and then a floundering teen. So now understanding what it would take for me to put back together the pieces of myself in the aftermath of violation, I would sooner imagine mine being the hands of a murderer. And so I did. I looked at my hands, shaking with fear and fury, and I pulled the nylon strap from my camera between them, testing its durability. In one swift move it would be around his neck.

But I knew it would be better to get off the bike. If I choked him while he was driving, it could get ugly. I looked at the ground moving beneath my feet. Stop, drop and roll; just like a fire drill, I thought.

I noticed that if he groped me he wasn’t paying attention to his speed, and he’d slow down. I waited for his hand to reach back toward me again, and that’s when I did it. I threw myself off the bike, hit the ground and rolled into the ditch, disoriented. A thousand pieces of information barreled through my head, processed, evaluated and sorted entirely apart from me. Everything was suddenly useful or not useful. Black or white. Right or wrong. Good or evil. I evaluated the weeds, dirt, grass, sticks, pebbles. There was nothing with which to protect or defend. And nothing with which to retaliate. To torture. To brutalize. To maim. I clawed a handful of small stones as I rose from the ground, an animal. I could dart into the field and lose myself in tall reeds, but a momentary flash of forewarning had me raped and bloodied and dead, my body never recovered, my parents forever wondering. I could run down the road in the opposite direction heading for nowhere, hunted. Or I could be the hunter, engage the enemy, launch the battle.

I looked back at the man on the road, on his motorbike, stopped, watching me over his shoulder, idling. My eyes bore into him, ready.

Don’t. Fuck. With me.

I clawed a second handful of dirt and stones. I let the dirt fall through my fingers holding back the stones—bullets—it’s what I had. And I moved toward him.

He raised his eyebrows. Did I surprise him with my fury? His right hand turned on the gas, the clutch disengaged, the engine racing. Without taking my eyes off him, I dropped two handfuls of pebbles into my pockets and bent down, dragging my fingers through dry earth for more. He engaged the clutch, moved forward away from me, turned his head to watch me over his opposite shoulder, and then he turned the bike with him. Toward me. He was coming at me. And I was going at him.

My body quickly filled with the sense of familiarity: I have been here before. In every situation where I have believed myself to be capable of killing, my strength has failed me. This time, I doubted. He was coming at me, and I doubted.

I sneered at him with the hatred of the ages, the wrath of injustice, the scream of the powerless. Maybe what I had, more than strength itself, was the illusion of strength. So help me God, he was not going to know that I doubted.

Two more handfuls of stones filled my pockets. I reached down and scooped up the last of what I was capable of carrying.

He circled me. Leering.

I walked the centerline of the road. Arms swinging. Eyes forward. Jaw set. Every cell of me burning with rage.

He was cutting a wide path. Around. And around. And around. The wagon train circling. Like a vulture. After a long time, ten minutes, maybe two, he stopped. He was ahead of me on the road, and I just kept walking toward him. I’d come within striking distance, and he’d move forward, staying out of reach. Cat and mouse. He kept doing it, moving forward, letting me catch up. So I called his bluff: I began to run. Right for him. Fast as I could. And that’s what did it. He drove off. This time without stopping. But I didn’t believe him. I kept running. With my pockets filled with stones, my hands clutching more, I ran at what easily could have been World Record pace. My eyes never moved, my lungs never gave out, my heart never raced, my muscles never cramped. I simply ran. All the way home. To the same address I’d given him. And once inside, I checked every room. I bolted the door. I emptied my pockets. And I screamed.

I pulled a log from my stack of wood, carefully selecting one with a short piece of branch emerging from it. I took the Swiss Army knife, the one I’d left in my bag, and I whittled a point sharp enough to penetrate. And I walked around the room practicing my sword fighting moves. Until my body ached. That’s when I noticed the blood. My pants were torn. The shin and knee of one, the hip of the other. Stained with dirt and grass and blood.

I went into the bathroom, closed and locked the door, turned on the hot water and filled up the entire tub before I undressed. I took off the elephant pendant necklace and put it on the counter next to my safety log, my weapon. And I looked at myself. My ankle had swelled to a bulbous stump, and now that my shoe was off, fluid was filling up my foot. My shin was gashed and filled with dirt and pebbles. My knee was already purple and engorged, and the opposite hip, scraped and bruised.

I looked at myself, emotionless. Ow, that must hurt. I stepped into the hot water, which was not really the thing to do but God, I needed something, and ice wasn’t going to cut it. I lay in that tub with my leg hanging out, watching it bleed. I was there for at least an hour, until the water had begun to turn cold. I picked pieces of debris from my shin with tweezers until I couldn’t stand the pain. I held my breath underwater until I thought my lungs would explode. And I marveled at how fast I had run. Like the wind. Because now, and for the next week, I couldn’t even walk.

…to be continued…