I was not a hiker. I was not a religious person. I was not trying to ‘find myself’ (although some might have thought I was lost).
Why did I walk the 500-mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage….over and over again? Some might wonder. Some might question my sanity. But after walking six ‘Caminos’ in six years, most of my friends and family now FINALLY understand my obsession. There are many, many routes of the Camino de Santiago where ‘pilgrims’ have been walking since the 9th century. All routes (from origins all over Europe) end in Santiago, Spain, where legend has it that the remains of St. James are buried. The most popular route, the route I walked on my virgin camino, is the Camino Frances. It traditionally begins just over the Pyrenees on the border of France, a 30-day walk for
the average pilgrim.
Walking a camino is a lot like running a marathon. Some people, like me, can’t imagine running even one mile, so the thought of a marathon is like a day in Hell. Others get hooked, the obsession begins and it becomes ingrained in who they are. Even those runners who have side cramps, finish last (followed by the ambulance for 26 miles) or who whine all the way to the finish line, run marathons again. The camino shares the same phenomenon: everybody returns for more.
Why am I, personally, drawn back again and again? It is the unique combination of the many facets of the camino. It is the camaraderie, physical challenge, spiritual journey, monasteries, chapels, cultural exploration, global connections, laughing and crying with people you just met, learning more about myself, roughing it, reflection/thinking time, enjoying nature’s beauty, overcoming challenges together (mental and physical), and of course, following of the historical pilgrimage route with others. One or two of these facets alone could entice me back, but when all are found in one unforgettable experience, the pull to return is extra powerful.
When I blindly agreed to walk my first camino in 2013 with a few friends, I knew absolutely nothing about it. I have always been an adventurous traveler, but this was different. I was stepping out of my comfort zone into a world of experienced hikers on an adventure of the body and soul.
European pilgrims a thousand years ago would start walking to Santiago from the front steps of their homes, with nothing but their faith. For me, however, I preferred to supplement with a quick shopping trip to REI. REI provided me with everything necessary for my little stroll. In fact, my 15-18 pound filled REI backpack became an extension of my body for those 30 days, and, after 30 days, I felt
naked without it. While it is possible to send your backpack ahead each night, carrying everything you need on your back is traditionally part of the experience. It also helps to teach us pilgrims how little you really need in life.
What do pilgrims hope to get out of the experience? Everyone has their own personal reason for walking and everyone’s reason is different. Many walk when going through a major challenge or change in their life and the camino provides the perfect therapy. Many, including the original pilgrims, consider the camino a pilgrimage of prayer, a spiritual experience. More often today, however, pilgrims walk (the first time) for the physical challenge or hoping to have tranquil, peaceful moments or possibly just for a fun adventure! Why does everyone return? They are seduced back by sensational memories.
Although the camino routes are walked by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year, and they have become increasingly more popular, they are definitely NOT for everybody. If you are high maintenance, finicky with food, asocial, germaphobic or prone to blisters on your feet, you might want to stick to a more conventional vacation.
There is lot of talk along the camino about different ways to walk… spiritual vs. non-spiritual, never taxi, hostel or hotel, 10 days or 5 weeks,
sightsee or beeline…So many options, so many ways. Although the talk is plentiful, there is no right or wrong way, no official ‘rules.’ No matter how you do it, it is your camino.
That being said, it is my personal opinion, the camino is meant to be walked alone. It is virtually impossible to not meet others immediately, so you are really never alone. You are always near other pilgrims from around the world and the camino magic (yes, it is magical) brings you together over and over again. You can start anywhere, on any route, with anyone, for any reason, but no matter who you start with, who you finish with, who you meet along the way or who you are walking in honor of, any pilgrimage is still about yourself, a personal journey. Friendships bring support, encouragement, laughter and often tears, but it is a pilgrim’s own heart, soul, determination and conviction (and treadless trail runners) that ultimately guide him/her through the archway to the Santiago Cathedral.
Occasionally I need some alone time on my journey, my ‘way.’ My favorite technique for ‘losing’ a friend, or politely telling someone I’d prefer to walk alone, is “I’ve got a rock in my shoe, I’ll catch up to you in a minute.” One day I met and walked with a handsome Dutch man, and would have considered going his way…but after walking together for awhile, he told me to go ahead because he ‘had a rock in his shoe’….and I never saw him again… hmm.
It is a simple life. You wake up early, get dressed (although some people sleep in their walking clothes!), then walk as far as you can. Find a bed, shower, get some nourishment, maybe some vino tinto, tend to any ailments, probably socialize, crash by 10pm. Get up and do it again. Simplicity and routine bring plenty of time to contemplate life and time to enjoy the beautiful Spanish intricacies that can be truly appreciated only on foot.
Miracles happen every night on the camino. Often at the end of day, my body could not have gone one more step. What happens every night with every pilgrim, however, is the body heals, the mind forgets, and the next day you get back out and do it again, rain or shine. If the sleep doesn’t completely heal the body, putting it back on the road seems to work out the kinks. Each day brings a brand new beautiful start.
The camino can be done on a shoestring budget. However, as a girl who enjoys a small splurge now and then, a ‘camino splurge’ was when I
paid 10 euros at a hostel for a night (instead of the usual 5). I selfishly, luxuriously, got to sleep on a normal single rather than a bunk bed. Yes, occasionally it was worth an extra 5 euros to not feel and hear every move made by the 200 pound stranger sleeping/snoring on the top bunk. Some of the most memorable sleeping experiences were at historic monasteries and churches that had been converted into hostels, albergues and hotels. For an added bonus, they often included pilgrim blessings, gatherings, community meals or musical performances, which enhanced their charm.
On their final day of the camino, each pilgrim hobbles into the cathedral in Santiago as a different person on their outside: fewer toenails, tighter asses, more scars (those of us attacked by cows!), sleep deprived and often oozing blisters. OK, maybe there is a bit of suffering after all, as walking 10 to 20 miles a day will take its toll on a body, but some believe that suffering is part of, even necessary for, the true
But more importantly, we proudly arrive in Santiago different on the inside: possibly a new personal outlook on life, new appreciation for other cultures, new spiritual connection, and of course, special bonds with new lifelong friends (many from backgrounds and lifestyles that you never would have crossed paths with back home).
The camino journey changes a person. Whether you start walking with that intention or not, you change. There’s no fighting it. Whether
it is a crazy fun adventure or a solo spiritual journey, you change. All six caminos have been different for me and all 6 have continued to change me. With each one, I learned more and more about myself and about others. I learned how to accept help from others and how much I enjoy giving back. I learned to appreciate the comfort that religion gives to others and most importantly, I learned how fortunate I am to be
able to live a life of freedom and how little I really need to enjoy that life. I learned how much I crave global connections and need to
continue to fuel and nurture those connections. I learned that encouraging others to do the same is how I can do my part in making the world a little smaller and a little better.
It has been said that the Camino is the link between who you were and who you will become. I have always been very lucky in life, but for much of my life, I wasn’t the true me. Each camino brings me one step, or 500 miles, closer to ‘who I will become.
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