Walking the Camino Frances in 2022, the most popular route of the Camino de Santiago, was undoubtedly one of the most memorable and life changing travel experiences I’ve ever had.
Why I Embarked on the Camino de Santiago:
I read about the Camino de Santiago years ago during my undergraduate program. The Camino (or The Way) is a historic holy pilgrimage that traverses Spain and ends in Santiago de Compostela, where the Apostle St. James is reportedly interred. For thousands of years, pilgrims have made their way on the Camino in search of God, purification, and/or themselves. The entire route is nearly 500 miles of mountains, plains and forests that you cross on foot, bike or horseback. Something about the trail called out to me then, and I added it to my bucket list of things to do. The list stayed there for years as I finished school, started working and settled down.
But COVID-19 changed everything (shocker!), and after two long years of pandemic and ensuing pandemonium, racial justice protests, chronic work burnout and personal crises, my world had entirely collapsed. It was the first time in my life where I had no idea what to do. Not a single plan. I felt paralyzed by grief and fear.
I had arrived at this turning point in my life and it was all too much. I needed a healthy way to cope and just focus on one step at a time.
So, the natural solution was to go for a walk. A really long walk.
Preparation (or lack thereof!):
I bought one round trip ticket to Madrid set to depart six weeks from the date. I had no reservations for hotels, no itinerary, and certainly no fitness training plan. I had amassed quite a few credit card points during the two no-travel years, and decided to cash them in (after a
couple few glasses of wine).
The Camino Frances:
I decided to walk the most popular route, the Camino Frances. While I didn’t have enough time to complete the entire 500-mile tour, I did have enough time to do just under half of it. I charted out a path from Leon to Santiago de Compostela, and tried to map out the different stages of the journey. I expected to walk about 12- 14 miles (21-24 km) per day and stop along the way for rest days, in case I needed them. *Plot twist: I did need them.
As the weeks progressed, I got a guide book and watched as many YouTube videos on the Camino as I could to figure out what to pack, where to find lodging, and how to prepare for the journey. I also was fortunate to do a training hike with my local chapter of American Pilgrims on the Camino, where I got ENORMOUS help from pilgrims who shared lessons learned and advice. One pilgrim gave me clothing tips, another how to navigate albergues (hostels specifically for pilgrims), and one more event lent me the backpack I used! Each person was so kind, and I recognized that this would be the spirit imbued throughout the Camino.
Finally, I collected my gear: A few clothing items and toiletries, that was nearly it!
I planned on walking alone for the 200 mile trip, and so I expected that the Camino would calm my mind and bring solitude and peace. I was also hoping to spend time in nature and pray for clarity in my next chapter in life. I left for Madrid in mid-May and feeling sheer excitement.
Arrival and Adjustment:
I’d had the pleasure of visiting Spain a couple times before, so I knew that this trip would be a wonderful time. However, the minute I arrived in Madrid and caught the train to Leon, I immediately felt joyous! The adventure unfurled before me in each moment; I savored looking out the train window and seeing the green plains in front of me, and I felt so excited and unburdened.
Starting Out on the Camino Frances
I woke up early on my first walking day, unsure of what to expect. A bus dropped me off on the outskirts of town, and it was not long before I began seeing Camino markers on the road and hikers following the direction. Many had scallop shells that adorned their backpacks, an ancient symbol of pilgrims on the Camino, and as they passed we’d exchange the pilgrim’s greeting of “Buen Camino”. Within five minutes I started chatting with someone, and we walked for a pleasant while together, swapping easy stories of where we were from and how we came to be on the Camino. After we parted, I walked alone for a time before I met other folks and we’d repeat the ritual. Easy come, easy go on our own respective journeys. It was amazing – everyone was open and friendly, so you could jump into conversations on nearly any topic without apprehension. I wasn’t ever lonely at all!
Before I knew it, I’d finished my first day of walking! And although I would’ve definitely benefited from a bit more advance training, I had made it! I got into town and looked for an albergue to stay in, as I hadn’t made any reservations for accommodations. But there’s a saying that “the Camino provides,” and despite the many travelers on the road, I was able to find an albergue to sleep in (with a Paella dinner included, at that) and prepare for the next day.
Finding My Way
I got into a rhythm on the Camino: wake, walk, wash, eat, sleep, repeat. It’s not glamorous at all, but once you get into a groove, it’s highly meditative. The routine was so simple that it allowed me to engage with my thoughts, nature and others in a highly sensitive and sensual way. I learned to literally stop to smell roses on the road or listen deeply to what a new friend was telling me.
Speaking of new friends, I soon became part of a Camino family of other fellow solo travelers. We walked together and looked out for each other. We bonded over the trail and our own stories, and soon we paced our days so that we’d all reach each other in the same town by the evening. On the tough days, we’d sing and joke as we walked and would take our time to get to the next town.
Each day was different. Some days were foggy and cold, where I’d walk long stretches in mountainous terrain. Other days were sunny and the Camino stretched lazily and flat in front. But each day reignited life in me. I was aware of the present moment and of how I existed in it. Moreover, the Camino illuminated this spirituality that God was all around and that the Camino would provide.
Santiago de Compostela
I felt content and fully alive while walking. I felt freer than I ever have, and I got to meet the lightest and happiest version of myself. Fourteen days total and I walked 193 miles from Leon and I had arrived in Santiago. Curiously, getting the Compostela (the certificate of completion) in Santiago was not as meaningful as the journey. I wasn’t ready to let it end, so I walked on to the final stop on the Camino since I couldn’t bear to let it end. I arrived in Finisterre and it was beautiful – sunny, beachy and bright. I stood at the final Camino marker which read 0,0 km. After over 200 miles, I’d made it to Finisterre, or “the end of the world.”
The Three Caminos
I think that there are at least three Caminos. Of course, there is the physical path that was full of vibrant nature, weather and the picturesque Spanish landscapes. I don’t know that I’ve felt more joy than when I felt the rain falling through the tree canopy in the Galician eucalyptus forests, or when I reached the mountainous summit of O Cebreiro. The scenery alone is enough to make you want to return.
The second Camino is the one you take with others.
I experienced friendship, generosity and so many laughs with people that I met on the way. And because we were walking the path together, we were able to bond in create goodwill in a very special and touching way.
And of course the third Camino is the journey that you undergo in yourself. I wish there was a clear way to put it. I arrived on the Camino, and it doesn’t seem to want to leave me. It’s like a new space has opened up inside me that allows me to keep the things I learned with me as I go. The Camino de Santiago has given me the ability to pause and breathe more, and worry less. I’ve been able to be in the present moment, and as a result I’ve become more open and meet new people more as well.
I wish I could say that I got home and was instantly able to fix the problems in my life. Work and its demands, the fallout from personal problems, anxiety from news headlines – well, it’s all still a process for me to learn to let things go. But I think the beauty is that I now have a renewed mind and more room to tackle what comes.
I also know that freedom comes from trusting that God does and will provide, and will show me the way in each small step. Finally, if I can accept that grace for myself in each moment, I can certainly try to extend it to others and help them along the way. After all, we’re each walking our own Camino, with its unique challenges and joys. The least I can do is try to make the trek a little kinder.