Walking 15-25km a day across a country is a little nuts. I mean, why would someone deliberately volunteer to undertake such self-abuse? Ah, but walking the Camino is a magical experience.
I began my first Camino de Santiago in mid-April, 2018, walking the more popular route, the Camino Francés. The path starts in St. Jean Pied de Port in France, and ends in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It took me 45 days to walk 740km. I confess, I skipped some sections because of mental and/or physical reasons. In my mind, in my heart, I walked the distance. I walked my Camino.
Okay, so carrying a load and trekking fifteen to twenty-five kilometers a day is a bit extreme. Doing it solo as an almost fifty-year-old? Some may have thought I was losing my marbles.
How did I even hear about the Camino?
In the early 2010s, I was living vicariously through travel bloggers who were travelling full time. I worked for a Fortune 500 company in a job I liked, but didn’t love. One of my favourite bloggers at the time was walking the Camino, so I followed her journey. By the time she made it to Santiago, I knew I wanted to walk the Camino at some point, too. I’m not sure what spoke to me about her journey. I’ve revisited her posts since, and admit, I didn’t find them very compelling. It felt kind of like watching a TV show you loved, way back when, but when you view it again, you wonder why you ever wasted so much time. But whatever it was, the Camino idea took hold.
I didn’t know why back then, but I felt the Camino calling me.
There’s a power in the unknown. A power in the desire to test human endurance. And while I’m not one who finds physical challenges enticing, this was different. This was a long-distance walk. Not a marathon. Not a through-hike. This was something I felt I could do, one step at a time.
Besides, deep down, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. And I needed the time and space to find out what was truly important to me. The ‘noise’ all around me was doing my head in. Life comes down to the very basics on this Camino pilgrimage: Eat. Sleep. Walk. Repeat.
I needed to carry what I absolutely needed and nothing more. Physically and metaphorically.
It was also a time for me to tap into my own spiritual being. I am not a religious person, but I found the history of the pilgrimage fascinating. From town to town, I sought the solace of cathedrals and churches. They are ancient and beautiful, and the essence of these buildings was unlike anything I’ve experienced in the world. Maybe it was because I was more in touch with that part of myself? I could sit and be still and let the world happen around me, with the need to move or converse. I listened to my inner voice, the one that I’d buried for too long. I contemplated what brought me here and what the future should look like in the surrounding silence.
Knowing so many others had done the same in these centuries-old buildings gave me a sense of peace, and a feeling that I wasn’t alone on his journey. I’m not talking about a connection with God. As I said, I’m not religious. Rather, I’m inclined to listen to the Universe, to Mother Nature, to the opinions of friends, then come to my own conclusions.
As I made my way along the way, I learned to trust the strength of my intuition and to listen to my heart. Without the noise, the drama, the judgements of the world, I could really assess what I wanted from my life. It didn’t come in some kind of ‘ah-ha’ moment. In fact, most of what I learned didn’t come until I’d walked the Camino a second time (in 2019). But I arrived in Santiago in 2018, clearer than I’d ever been before.
It wasn’t easy. I faced some serious challenges.
Walking should be simple. Put one foot in front of the other and follow the yellow arrows (or shells) that mark the way.
Yes, walking IS simple. But the Camino is not like a normal day-hike, strung together day after day. It’s physically demanding. When you leave Saint Jean Pied de Port, you climb eight kilometres to get three quarters of the way up the mountain to get to your first stop. You can either keep going over the mountain to Roncesvalles, or rest and continue the next day. I chose the latter. But getting over the mountain is just the first challenge. Walking the entire distance, you walk over three mountain ranges.
Your body adapts after about a week, but there are still a lot of challenges ahead. You deal with things like: Descending a hill that’s entirely shale, with cyclists whizzing by. Navigating slippery rocks and squidgy mud that can be silently hazardous. Navigating knee deep snow (if you’re walking early in the season). Dealing with the threat of thunderstorms, deluges of rain, sleet, hail, or even the sun beating down on you (with no shade in sight). Walking along the edge of busy roads. Not seeing another soul for miles, wondering if you’re still on the right path. Dealing with long distances between public toilets – and it’s always a time you really need to go! Finding nothing but closed cafés, when all you want is a hot drink to warm your hands or a place to refill your water bottle.
Despite the challenges, there are plenty of things that keep you going.
There are mornings where the dew clings to the spider webs spun overnight along the fences. Sunrises that will catch your breath they are so breathtakingly beautiful. Mornings where it’s so quiet, the only thing you can hear are the birds tweeting and the sound of your footsteps on the gravel. Walking quiet city streets after a well-deserved rest day. Seeing paddocks of wheat and barley dancing in the breeze. Experience the help from locals when you least expect it. The smell of almond flowers so pungent, that you will stop just to work out where that incredible scent is coming from. And best of all, deep and meaningful conversations with other pilgrims that will keep the kilometres spinning by.
I didn’t realise how mentally challenging the endeavour could be.
One thing the Camino allows for is skipping past the banter, the small talk. You may meet someone for a day and have the most profound conversation of your life. You may walk with someone for a week and feel you’ve known them forever. For all the discussions I had, two questions stood out:
Was I happy as a child – and now as an adult?
What did I want to do with the rest of my life?
The latter was buried in a conversation of how brief life can be and the need to take the reins, seize the day. These conversations stayed with me for days, then returned to me again when I arrived in Santiago. Walking the Camino turns off the noise and allows you the time to have the feelings, the ideas, and the memories. But with all of this, it can drain you emotionally and mentally, too.
What I also realised was if I spent too much time alone, my mind went dark. I wasn’t aware of this part of me before the walk. (Which makes for great novels but learning to manage the dark thoughts is another skill altogether.)
This journey can feel like a test.
Many people told me they would have quit after facing just a few of the challenges I encountered on my solo Camino Wander in 2018. At one point, I wondered how many ‘tests’ I would have to endure. Here’s what I faced:
- My knee buckled as I boarded the plane from England to France and I was already recovering from a twisted ankle from two weeks prior.
- Navigating ankle-deep mud as I walked the Napoleon Route on day two, I banged my knees hard on rocks when I stumbled on the descent.
- Party girls caused a ruckus in my hostel in Logrono all night, vomiting in the bathroom at 5 am. (Serves them right). I got up and walking twelve kilometres non-stop, early the next morning, angry, without eating and overtired. (Not good!)
- I threw out my back in Burgos. I couldn’t move for three hours. After realising I was alone and needed to save myself, I crawled (almost literally) to an osteopath after the reception desk helped me find one. The osteopath got me walking and back onto the trail after resting for three days. This was the first time I sent my backpack forward.
- I lost three toenails. (Losing toenails is not uncommon).
- I got the flu, which turned into pneumonia. I kept walking (it must have been walking pneumonia—LOL!), determined to get Cruz de Ferro.
- I had an allergic reaction to lavender while walking to El Acebo. Combine that with still recovering from pneumonia, I was forced to take a rest day, then skip a day ahead to avoid more lavender along the trail.
- I stayed in a Russian Albergue that had no heat at all. I spent the night shivering, wearing every piece of clothing in my possession.
- I was followed by a guy in Leon who spat out lewd remarks at me as I made my way to my hotel during siesta. I wasn’t attacked or anything. It just creeped me out.
There were days I didn’t believe I would make it.
There were days I wanted to keep walking, and days I wanted to quit. But I didn’t. I kept going. I was the Little Blue Engine That Could.
When I reached Santiago, I walked through the last tunnel, trying to ignore the bagpiper blasting his pipes. (I’m not a fan of bagpipes). The last steps of my journey had arrived. When I stood in the Praza do Obradoiro, facing the Cathedral, a pure and emotional moment washed over me.
I was at once relieved and overcome with the reality of my extraordinary accomplishment. Probably more the disbelief that I had I had made it. I cried. No, that’s not true. I sobbed. I had walked across Spain. One step at a time. I may have left Saint Jean Pied de Port in France alone, but I walked into the square in Santiago with my Camino family. If it had not been for those who I walked with, I doubt I would have kept going. Not to mention those who followed my journey online. People lifted me up, kept me distracted from discomfort and pain, and helped me see the strength within me. With their help and my perseverance, I had finally made it to Santiago.
You’ll notice I have used the word ‘wander’ a lot.
Consider me a ‘Slow Stroller’. I am a wanderer. I set out to wander the Camino. I took my time, and I savoured my journey. The ‘wandering’ state of mind helped immensely toward my mental and physical wellbeing. I got to smell the roses, figuratively and physically. It may have been the secret to my finishing the Camino. Well, that and the amazing people I wandered with. Conversations with other pilgrims can make the kilometres whiz by, and it makes the journey a hell of a lot more interesting.
Did the Camino Change Me?
I didn’t see it while I was walking. I was too busy putting one foot in front of the other. But I wondered if the Camino would change me as I walked. It wasn’t until after I left Spain that I noticed not only how it had changed me, but how much it had.
Life had more clarity.
I was calmer.
I learned what I really needed in life – and what I didn’t.
I learned what genuine friendship meant. I met some amazing people whom I am honoured to call friends. They are now my Camino family – and I don’t use the word family lightly in my life.
I let go of some of the emotional burdens I’d been holding on to for way too long.
I realised what I wanted to do with my work life. My travel blogging days ended after 2019’s Camino Wander. It was time to write the book I’d always wanted to write, and continue writing the others that were swirling in my head.
In the end, I realised who I was and what I was made of.
“As Frankie said, I did it My Way.”
PS: Special thanks to Bon Jovi for their epic anthem ‘It’s my Life’. That track kept me going on the tough days.
If you enjoyed this post, would you…
After wandering TWICE across Spain, I wrote a women’s fiction novel, CAMINO WANDERING, inspired by my own Camino wanders.