I turn 40 next month.
Forty years on this big ball of rock. It’s been a hell of a ride so far.
In my early twenties, I thought I knew exactly what life had in store for me. Of course, I didn’t have a clue back then, and I still don’t. Approaching my fifth decade, I have little more certainty about anything than I did in my second. Some people would struggle with that, but oddly, I find it comforting. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, and I don’t want to.
My current ideas for next April, for instance, see me simultaneously in New Zealand, Guatemala and Portugal. 2016 could see me settling in Spain, or wandering from beach to beach around Central America, or something else entirely. Hell, just today Lauren and I talked about visiting the Maldives, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India or Myanmar later this year, and as usual, ended up making no decision at all.
Right now, there’s really only one thing I know for sure.
A little under a month from now, early in the morning, my alarm is going to go off in a little French town at the base of the Pyrenees. I’ll get dressed in a hurry, throw my backpack over my shoulders, and quietly let myself out the door. Looking up at the mountains, I’ll pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and slowly start walking down the road to Spain.
And I won’t stop until October.
The Camino de Santiago is a term used to describe a web of Catholic pilgrimage routes that finish at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, in the northwest of Spain. Medieval walkers started from their homes throughout Europe, meeting up with others along the way in what became pilgrim routes.
These days, people walk these routes for all kinds of reasons — even those apathetic towards organised religion, like me, are welcomed on The Way just like anybody else.
When people talk about “The Camino,” though, they’re usually referring to the Frances route that starts in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French border, and runs 800+ km across Spain. That’s the route I’ll start and finish on… but whether I stay on it the whole way is anyone’s guess.
In recent years, due to books, media coverage and movies like “The Way“, the Camino Frances has become very popular. In peak times, apparently, it can be hard to find a bed in the dorm-style albergue and refugio pilgrim accommodation that lines the route, and there’ll be other people in eyeshot much of the time. I’m not looking for days of solitude on this walk, but a bed and a bit of alone time wouldn’t go amiss.
Starting at the end of August, I’ll be avoiding the worst of both heat and crowds, but not by much. As a result, I’m leaving my options open.
A little under three weeks into the journey, the path passes through León. There, I can either continue on the Frances, or take a detour up to the town of Oviedo and continue on the Camino Primitivo for the last couple of weeks instead. That route is apparently a little tougher, a lot prettier and at least somewhat less popular. We’ll see what happens.
So why do I want to walk close to a thousand kilometres through sun and rain, over mountains and along highways, likely enduring the worst blisters of my life? Why I am volunteering to sleep in hostels full of snorers and farters, wash my clothes in the sink for a month and carry everything I need on my back? Why will I be celebrating my 40th birthday with strangers somewhere in northern Spain, instead of having a huge party with friends and loved ones back home?
All kinds of reasons, really. Some of them fall into the “why the hell are you doing this?” category, the others “why the hell are you doing it now?”. They’re both good questions.
I’ve always liked to walk. Even back when I was a fat bastard who rarely exercised and wouldn’t run to leave a burning building, I still enjoyed a hike. Not, say, one for several hundred miles, but maybe for a night or two. Ever since I first heard about the Camino a few years ago, the idea of a multi-week hike in Spain has wormed its way into my brain. Slowly, quietly, irresistibly, it went from a crazy idea to a challenge I could possibly consider one day to something I was just going to do.
I spent a week with a couple of friends on a different Camino route back in March, and that sealed the deal. It was hard, my feet were killing me continually, and I wanted to catch a bus home from about the second day. And yet, as I limped into Cordoba to finish that journey, I’d already decided to walk a longer route in September.
I love setting myself challenges. Not things that are completely impossible, but those that take a lot of effort and come with a chance of failure. Walking many hours a day for five weeks or more falls into that category, I think. The physical challenge is one thing — will my body, especially my feet, be up to the job?
The mental challenge is something else. It’s a long time inside my own head, away from anyone I’ve known for more than a few days at best. Friends come and go on the Camino, as differing plans and walking speeds rip new acquaintances away from you just as you start to get to know them. I hate saying goodbye at the best of times.
Disconnecting from ‘the real world’ is very appealing. I spend much of my life in front of a laptop, dealing with the dozens of different things required to make a living online. Hell, I run a travel technology website. Being offline just isn’t something that happens very often.
Focusing on a few simple tasks every day seems amazing. Get up. Walk. Wash. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. No laptop. No camera. No tablet. No blogging. I’ll have a phone for photos, maps and emergencies, but it’ll be in flight mode whenever I’m walking. Any writing I do will be in a journal, with a pen. Of all the things I’m looking forward to about the Camino, this is the part that excites me the most.
Obviously the main reason I’m doing this now is because I’m turning 40. It’s an important birthday, and I figure it needs a milestone to go with it. Getting drunk with a bunch of friends is not much of an achievement. Walking across the top of Spain is.
I’d like to improve my Spanish, too, and using it every day will help. I’ve spent several months in Mexico and Spain, yet my language level sucks. I know maybe a hundred words, just enough to understand a menu, ask basic questions and occasionally understand the answers. While there’s apparently a reasonable amount of English spoken on the Camino Frances, I don’t want to rely on it — and if I branch off on other routes, I’ll definitely need it. Either way, if I end up in Central America or Spain next year, knowing more Spanish can only be a good thing.
My fitness level has plummeted since I’ve been travelling, and I’ve complained bitterly about it in the past without much change. I’ve finally been able to take up running again recently, which has helped, but walking 800km or more seems a better workout to me. If my shorts aren’t falling off me by the time I get to Santiago, I’ll be a little disappointed. Blame the jamon.
And finally, I’m doing it now because it’s the right time. I’m living in Madrid for a few weeks — getting to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port needs merely a couple of bus rides. September may not be the perfect time to walk this route, but it’s far from the worst, and I can switch things around if I need to. I live a life that, with a bit of preparation, lets me take several weeks ‘out of the office’. I don’t need to quit my job, or beg a boss for time off. I just postpone whatever I can, get a month ahead of my deadlines, and walk out the door. So that’s what I’m going to do.
28 days from now, all going well, I’ll be atop the Pyrenees, gazing west towards Santiago like hundreds of thousands before me.
Wish me luck.
PS: If there’s interest, I’ll likely write up a ‘logistics’ post before I go — the preparation I’ve done, what I’m taking and not taking, more details about the route(s), that kind of thing. If you’ve got any questions along those lines, just leave them in the comments.