Beginning on April 15, 2018, I wandered from St. Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostella in Spain.
This route is also known as the Camino Francés of the Camino de Santiago.
It took me 45 days to walk 740km. I confess, I skipped some sections due to mental and/or physical reasons. In my mind, in my heart, I walked the distance. I walked my Camino.
“As Frankie said, I did it My Way”
That Bon Jovi song, “It’s My Life“, was the song that stuck in my head for much of the wander. Some days it gave me the gumption to keep walking.
WHY I Walked the Camino.
People always want to know why. It’s a legitimate question and a common question asked by fellow pilgrims. Everyone is always curious about why others are walking such a distance. I mean, let’s face it, walking 15-25 km per day (sometimes more, sometimes less) is a little bit nuts. So, it’s a great way to get to know the ‘other nuts’ you’re walking with.
I decided to walk the Camino in 2013, ironically after reading another blogger’s journey. By the time she had made the journey herself, I had decided that walking the Camino was something I wanted to do at some point in my life. Looking back now on her blog posts, now I’ve walked my own Camino, I can’t even tell you what it was that she wrote that convinced me that’s what I wanted to do. Her blog posts weren’t that detailed or that persuasive.
I didn’t know the reason why back then, but I did feel the Camino calling me.
They say that happens to those who end up walking. There’s a power in the unknown. A power in the desire to test human endurance. And while I’m not a marathoner or someone who finds physical challenges enticing, this was different. This was a long distance walk. 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.
Another reason, probably a more important reason, was to allow me the time to find out what was truly important to me, without all the ‘noise’ around me. When you walk this pilgrimage, life comes down to very basics: Eat. Sleep. Walk.
You carry only what you absolutely need 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 out the solace of cathedrals and churches. They are ancient and beautiful. The people have been supporting pilgrims for centuries. The buildings are unlike any other I’ve experienced in the world. Maybe it was because I was more in touch with that part of myself?
Along the way, I learned to trust the strength of my own intuition and listen to my heart. Without the noise, the drama, the ideas of others, the judgements of the world, I could really assess what I wanted from my life. Sure, there are things I’m still sorting through, as we all do as we go through life, but I am clearer now.
There were days I didn’t believe I would make it.
There were days I just wanted to keep walking. There were days I wanted to quit. But I didn’t. I kept going.
And, when I walked through the last tunnel, with the bagpiper serenading the last steps of my journey, and wandered into the square to stand in front of the Cathedral, a pure and emotional moment washed over me. I cried. Despite the massive challenges I faced, I had made it. I had walked across Spain and I had finally made it to Santiago.
The When – And Why I Chose That Time
I decided on walking in Spring because I was eager to see the wildflowers in bloom.
I was so pleased that the views did not disappoint. One day, as I headed to Portomarin, I counted over 20 different types of wildflowers within a 5 km distance. It was just breathtaking.
I also decided to walk early in the Camino season when the number of pilgrims would still be low.
I didn’t want to deal with crowded trails and I wanted to take my time, not feel the ‘bed rush’ that many participate in. To explain that, many pilgrims leave very early in the morning, dash along for 20-30km, and find a bed around 12-1pm. They don’t book accommodation ahead. (You can only book private accommodation along the Camino, not the municipal Alburgues). What ends up happening in busier seasons, is that a competition takes place to get to the next destination quickly. The so-called ‘winners’ not only claim a bed, but they have their choice of the best beds available.
You’ll notice I have used the word ‘wander’ a lot.
I never wanted to participate in the bed rush. Consider me a ‘Slow Stroller’. (There’s a facebook group of that very name, made up of like-minded people.) I am a wanderer. I wanted to wander – and I did. I took my time and savoured the journey. The ‘wander’ state of mind helped immensely toward my mental and physical well being. I got to smell the roses, figuratively and physically. I truly think it’s the secret to my finishing the Camino. Well, that and the amazing people I wandered with, along with the amazing support I received from friends and family.
The weather was a big factor for the timing of my Camino Wander.
By leaving in early April, I was able to enjoy the still cool weather. But, on Day 2 of my Camino Wander, sleet greeted me in the Pyrenees, and one section of the Napolean Route still had snow, as deep as my knees. Just a reminder to me to be careful of what I wished for.
It warmed as I strolled across Spain, with most days still cool enough to wear my merino long sleeve top. At the end of the 45 days, I walked into Santiago wearing my now infamous “Super Woman” t-shirt. In some sections, the weather was really warm. (Although probably no more than 25 degrees Celsius, but with the sun coming down on you, it can sometimes feel so much warmer.) I have a lovely ‘Spanish farmers tan’ to prove the sun did shine (and yes, I did wear sunscreen!).
Walking should be simple.
Put one foot in front of the other, following the yellow arrows or the shells that mark the way.
Yes, walking IS simple. But, walking extreme distances is physically challenging. To complete this journey demands mental toughness. And believe me, whether you expect it or not, there is an emotional price to pay too.
I faced a lot of challenges on this wander.
At one point I wondered how many ‘tests’ I would have to endure.
Many people have told me they would have quit facing just a few of the challenges I encountered.
- I began my wander with a sketchy knee and recovering from a twisted ankle from two weeks prior to starting.
- I fell down hard onto my (already sketchy) knees onto rocks. I slipped navigating ankle-deep mud as I descended the Pyrenees mountains on Day 2.
- 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 12km 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. I realised no help was coming. I had to save myself. Somehow, I managed to crawl (almost literally) to an osteopath who got me back walking and onto the trail.
- I lost three toenails. (Losing toenails is not uncommon).
- I got the flu, which turned into pneumonia. I kept walking (must have been walking pneumonia – LOL), determined to get Cruz de Ferro.
- I had an allergic reaction to lavender while walking to El Acebo. That, along with still recovering from pneumonia, forced me 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 in every piece of clothing I had with me.
- I was accosted by a guy in Leon who followed me for a while. (I managed to lose him after paying him no attention.)
And yet, in the end, I made it to Santiago but boy did I learn a lot – about myself, about people, and about life in general.
Did the Camino Change Me?
I didn’t see it at the time. I was too busy putting one foot in front of the other. But, I did think about it a lot on the Camino as to whether it would change me at all.
It wasn’t until after I left Spain until I noticed the ways the Camino had changed me.
Life had more clarity.
I was calmer.
I learned what I really needed in life – and what I didn’t.
I learned what true friendship means. I met some amazing people whom I am honoured to consider my friends. They are now my Camino family. 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 also learned the true meaning of perseverance.