“That’s a long hike”, the running store customer said to me with a surprised look. “Yea, it is”, I replied.
He overheard me telling the salesman that I needed a trail runner which would hold up for a 250 mile stretch of the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. I was probably the tubbiest person in the store and I was certainly the oldest, so I am hardly their most likely customer to embark upon such a quest.
The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage route which converges in Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Saint James are interred. Over 275,000 walkers take a Camino pilgrimage every year and in 2014, I was one of them. I walked 306 miles of the northern Spain’s Camino Frances trail.
I embarked upon the pilgrimage to reboot my life. I had recently quit my 9-5 and was using the Camino as a head clearing exercise to help me figure out my next move. Everyone does it for a different reason. Amy needed time for herself after the death of her mother. Pony wanted to explore the Catholic churches. Callan wanted to roam around the Spanish countryside. We were all seeking something and hoping that the Camino would provide it.
The Camino delivers for the most part, but doing it is difficult. When I completed that section in 2014, I didn’t think that I would want to return. I was exhausted, blistered and besieged by bug bites.
Read also: How to Get to Saint Jean Pied de Port for Your Camino
Battling Blisters, Bedbugs and Exhaustion
Blisters. Dear lord, the blisters. There are whole forums clogged with advice for avoiding them, but for anyone with sensitive feet unaccustomed to walking 14 miles a day, they are inevitable. I blister on a good day and the long Camino trek caused them to sprout up in the most unlikely locations.
Bedbugs. Those bastards. It’s everyone’s greatest nightmare to get bedbugs and while they aren’t always a problem on the Camino, they were in fine form in 2014. They ate me alive, leaving me an itchy, weeping mess at a medical clinic in Portomarin.
Exhaustion. Bone weary exhaustion. The Camino is a marathon and after the first long days, the body can and does rebel. I suffered from a low appetite when I should have been pouring on the protein. Sometimes, I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep in the communal dorm setting. Callan got an intestinal bug. Claudia injured her ankle. Jony had terrible shin splints. On a long pilgrimage, the body will force you to pay attention, or else.
Es Parte De
“Es parte de”, said my brother-in-law Scott in an email to me after the clinic visit. It’s a Guatemalan phrase which literally means “it’s part of” and which figuratively means, “shit happens in life, deal with it”. He gave me this advice when I was at my most miserable and it transformed my attitude. Yep, I signed up for the slog and I had to figure out how to turn around my discomfort. I managed it with the kind help of fellow pilgrims and the healing power of the trail.
Pilgrim prayer at the Cruz de Ferro
Lord, may this stone, a symbol of my efforts on the pilgrimage that I lay at the foot of the cross of the Saviour, one day weigh the balance in favor of my good deeds when the deeds of my life are judged. Let it be so.
Why I’m Going Back for More
After all that, why would I subject my blistered, bone weary, bedbug bitten body to another round? Because in the end, I loved doing the Camino and five years later, I feel ready for another good long walk. The Frances trail is 550 miles and while I covered 306 of it, the remaining 233 miles have been nagging at my goal-oriented ego.
But it goes beyond that. I’ve found myself missing some of the finer things about the Camino, like the camaraderie and the landscape. The Dude may abide, but the Camino provides and it’s for that reason that I’m returning.
Despite the exhaustion, bedbugs and blisters, or perhaps because of them, the Camino has a clarifying power. It strips you down to 16 pounds worth of belongings and the will keep walking. It points you west and pushes you onward. The Camino manufactures the kindness of strangers and it cuts across cultures, turning strange bedfellows into good friends.
Has the Camino been on your mind? If so, I encourage you to do it. You don’t have to walk 500 miles, or even 200 miles, just walk as much as you can. You don’t have to quit your job, just take a week of vacation and walk as much as you can. You don’t have to be an elite athlete, just go slowly and walk as much as you can. It’s a remarkable experience that is definitely challenging but it wields the power to transform you.
Since originally writing this article. I did indeed go back in 2019 to walk the remainder of the Frances between St Jean and Burgos. No bed bug bites that time, but joint pain and blisters did plague me. And so I said never again.
The itch came once again and I scratched it in 2022 by doing the Camino Primitivo. It gets in your blood, it does!
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More resources for planning your Camino
- Get advice and inspiration for doing the Camino solo.
- Sign up for our FREE budgeting spreadsheet and a printable packing list using the form below.
- 10 tips for Camino first time pilgrims.
- Get ready for your pilgrimage using our Camino training guide, which includes trail tested tips and a 12-week fitness planner.
- Then move on to our packing list. It includes everything you need (but nothing more). It’s thorough but it will ensure that you bring a light pack. Then use buying guide for Camino backpacks to find the right one for you.
- You should also check out our article on how much the Camino costs. It offers advice for different budget levels.
- Read up on the Camino with this list of 31 books featuring inspiring memoirs and wacky tales of derring do.
- If you prefer movies to books, we’ve got you covered. Check out our list of inspirational Camino movies (but don’t forget to bring the tissues, because some of these stories are very touching).
- Find the right Camino de Santiago app or guidebook for you.
- Plan a longer stay in the region with one of these guidebooks for Spain.
- If you are planning the Frances, use our guide for getting to St Jean for the start of your hike. If you aren’t sure where you are starting, then check out these 10 popular start points.
- Learn what it’s like to stay in Camino pilgrim albergues.
As they say on the trail, Buen Camino.