Camino de Santiago: The most worthwhile journey I’ve taken

November 20, 2015 in Europe, Spain

Today’s question for the Indie Travel Challenge centers on life changing journeys. We’ve taken more than our share of grand adventures. I’ve had the privilege to go places, and see things, that not many do. Even so, far and away the most life changing journey I’ve taken is one that is far from exotic and not that difficult. One that many, many people have taken and continue to take.

The 500 miles I walked across Spain two summers ago… the Camino de Santiago… rocked my world, and trashed my feet. Rereading this today… homesick for the Way… missing my Camino family. You probably won’t get it unless you’ve walked it. Go walk it.

Santiago friends

And just like that… the journey ends.

I walked into Santiago on the sixth of July, in the company of good friends; strangers I’d never have chosen to spend a month with. Through hot, dry wheat fields and steep wet mountains, through long days of sore feet and sunburned shoulders, toiling up muddy, steep inclines and scrambling down rocky hillsides on knees and ankles that told the tale.

We walked together.

Laughed together. Wept together. Hand washed foul smelling socks together and prayed to the sun god that they’d get dry before morning. We shared gauze, tape, and beer, marginal pilgrim’s meals and a big pan of the best lobster paella Galicia had to offer.

We drown sorrows and celebrated joys in the same bottles of Spanish wine (except when the Italians insisted on “their” wine!) “No vino, no Camino!” was the Irish girl’s mid morning mantra.

We stood at the iron cross and helped one another lay down things that meant everything, and things that meant nothing.

We woke in the predawn together to walk between arrows. We waited under trees and in cafes for those with a slower pace. We watched the path for one another when somebody had to pee. We shared water and fruit, Twix bars and piles of pistachios. We bandaged one another’s feet and rubbed one another’s sore legs and backs. We hollered encouragement to one another.

We let one another rant when the trail just got to be too much. We pushed through the pain together. We were sometimes a little hungover together.

We were friends and siblings, therapists and priests to one another as we walked. We braved the landscapes and the harsh elements together, internal and external. We kept walking, past each yellow arrow, searching for the next one together, yelling at the guys who made a wrong turn to get back onto the path, to move forward, to keep going.

800 kilometers… one step at a time

Street musicians, making use of the acoustics of the ancient arched passageway were playing a lusty version of, “When the saints go marching in…” as we entered the square and we couldn’t help but laugh and swing our arms as we rounded the corner to stand in front of the enormous stone monument, the Cathedral of Santiago.

It is a strange thing to come to the end of a slow but steady project that’s taken well over a month of constant effort; 6-8 hours a day of hard walking being just the tip of the iceberg. Santiago and the the tomb of St. James seemed like a mirage until the very last day. An illusory place that existed in theory, that we believed in on the credibility of those who passed before us, that we took on faith, based on magical pictures of compostelas procured by friends with faster feet and who assured us it was real.

“Are you going all the way to Santiago?”

It was the question everyone asked. We’d answer with a confident yes, and then debate our ability to make the last ten kilometers straight up the big mountain into O’Cebreiro that night. We were rarely walking to Santiago. Most of the time we were walking only to the next cafe where fresh squeezed orange juice could be procured, boots could be removed for a bit, and aching toes aired out in the Spanish sunshine.

The bones of St. James rest in a silver box beneath the alter, if you believe in such things. Since I don’t, I didn’t climb the steps and hug his statue either. I did attend mass, floating among the arches on the clarion, angelic voice of a withered little nun, picking out pieces of the sermon in rapid fire Spanish and translating what I could in a whispered voice for the pilgrims next to me.

Arrival in Santiago

And then… we hugged.

  • We laughed.
  • We sat down on the stones and simply rested in the shade of the great cathedral.
  • We swapped stories.
  • We hunted down friends who’d come in a day before us, and we shouted and clapped for the friends who arrived after us.
  • We took photographs and the Irish girl did a handstand.
  • We stood in the street outside a tapas bar and sang the silly muppet song that we’ve been singing for at least 700 kilometers, in call and response style, the famous Italian conductor leading the chorus.

Just like that… it was over… and at the same time, only beginning.

If the Camino is calling to your heart, I encourage you to answer.

Finding five or six weeks to drop everything and walk it tough. I get that. I nearly killed myself in the three months leading up to get all of my ducks in a row to make the space, and I know that when this plane touches down in an hour and a half I’ll spend another two months picking up the threads. That’s okay. It is worth it; infinitely worth it.

Don’t let your age, or experience, or differences in ability or health hold you back.

  • We met a mother daughter team in which the two daughters were in their mid sixties and the mother was eighty-four walking.
  • We met several folks with support teams making the journey in wheelchairs.
  • Overweight people, walking slowly and right out of their excess pounds.
  • Children as young as four and five, walking short days with adventuresome parents and stopping at every swing set for a play.
  • People mid career who arranged a break.
  • Folks who were walking it a week at a time, five years in a row, on the one week holiday they had.
  • Retirees who stayed in nicer hotels and shipped their bags to make it easier on their joints.
  • A guy who’d had a knee replacement.
  • Teenagers on their first solo adventures.
  • Grandfathers walking with their grandchildren.

If you want to take this walk, you can find a way to do it.

Last night I sipped wine at a cafe in Paris with my friend, late into the night, early into this morning.

She asked me about the walk, what I’d learned, what it was like, how it will affect me going forward. I stumbled over my answers. Not because I can’t tell you about the journey or the stories of the days and nights of adventures, or where to get the best wine, cheese and blister pads in each town, but because the real adventure, the real action, all took place in my head.

There’s really no way to sum that up when people ask. Physically, it hurt like hell. I probably should have stopped walking at week two if my body and my physical health were primary considerations. I didn’t get up and walk 25-30 km a day because I was enjoying it so much in my body. Mentally, emotionally, socially, it was all consuming. The wide landscape of the interior begged to be explored and the only way to do that was to ignore the physical considerations and keep walking. So I did.

The best I can do, by way of explanation, is to tell you that walking the Camino de Santiago has been, far and away, the most worthwhile journey I’ve made in my entire life, on a personal level.

For those of you who know me a little, that might mean something. I set out with a sincere desire to support my friend Jade in the pursuit of her dream, and what I found was that I was on this journey for me. She laughed at me when that lightning bolt struck, somewhere between Logrono and Navarette. “Yeah, I told you that months ago,” she smiled, “You have to walk this for you… I have to walk it for me.” Walk it, we did.