“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.
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. 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 14 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.
If you need a little inspiration, check out this list of books on the Camino de Santiago and this resource for finding the right guidebook or app. It includes inspirational stories and practical advice from people who have been there. If you are already planning a pilgrimage, you can also check these resources which include a packing list with planning tips and a budget calculator.
As they say on the trail, Buen Camino.