CORPORATE RUNAWAY. WORLD WANDERER. COFFEE DRINKER.

Reflections on the Camino

May 9, 2016 | Spain | 40 Comments
Camino - single walker

Seven months ago I stumbled down a beach and into the Atlantic Ocean. That wouldn’t have been very exciting, had I not walked 865km across northern Spain to get there. That beach, in the small town of Finisterre, was where the road and my Camino ended. It’s taken this long to process the experience, and put fingers to keyboard to explain what it meant to me.

Unlike many who walk the Camino de Santiago, I wasn’t looking for an epiphany. I wasn’t recovering from a messy divorce, had a health scare or sudden death in the family. I wasn’t suffering from a crisis of faith, or a midlife one, and I hadn’t just been laid off from my job. Instead, my thought process was much simpler than that. I’m turning 40. I want a challenge. I’m in Spain. How far can I walk?

There’s a saying among pilgrims, though. The Camino provides. It gives you what you need, whether you know it or not. Sometimes that need is physical — food when you’re hungry, drink when you’re thirsty, a bed when you’re tired — but sometimes it’s more than that.

It also gives you time, and space. Spending six, eight, ten hours a day moving slowly across an enormous landscape, week after week, gets the brain working in unfamiliar ways. The Camino provided me the opportunity to think, to reflect, to meditate, free of distractions and complications beyond my immediate needs.

I didn’t have many expectations from my walk, and wanted to just let the experience turn out as it would.

So how did it turn out?

It Was Easier Than Expected in Some Ways

Camino - sunrise in the Pyrenees

I began the Camino expecting it to be gruelling. The first day out of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port was forecast to hit 36 degrees Celsius (97F for you Americans), as I climbed over the Pyrenees. That’s a 28km walk, up 1200m and down 450m, in the beating sun. I hadn’t trained enough, wasn’t in great shape, and last time I’d walked a similar distance, ended up with blisters on both feet that ruined the next several days.

In the end, I was fine. The climb out of town was tough, but starting at 6am kept the temperatures down for a while. I didn’t walk too fast, drank lots of water, stopped for food anywhere I saw it, and checked my feet often. I was sore and exhausted when I stumbled through the door of the albergue (pilgrim hostel) in Roncesvalles early afternoon, but a shower, nap and ibuprofen did wonders.

And then I got up the next morning, put on my shoes and did it all again. And the morning after that. And the morning after that. I tried to keep distances relatively short for the first week or so, giving my feet a chance to adapt to the mild torture I was putting them through. Somehow, without me really noticing, they did.

Other things were easier, too. Even though I’d delayed my start until the end of August to avoid peak walking season, I had some concerns about being able to find a bed every night. As it turned out, there was exactly one night I couldn’t get a bed in the first albergue I walked into… so I went to the one five minutes down the road instead. It might have been different if I’d started a month earlier. That’s why I didn’t start a month earlier.

Camino - laundry

Doing laundry was straightforward — there were washing machines available at least half the time, and always a basin and clothesline. I only wore damp socks and underwear to bed a couple of times, to make sure they’d be dry in the morning. You get used to it after a while…

Eating was easy, too — much easier than on the week-long section of the Camino Mozárabe I’d walked earlier in the year. With so many pilgrims wanting to be in bed by the time most Spanish people start thinking about eating, bars and restaurants served dinner much earlier. Quality was sometimes very good, usually ok and occasionally awful, but always provided enough calories to keep going.

As is so often the case, the problems I worried about ahead of time turned out to not be problems at all.

 

And Harder Than Expected in Others

Camino - bunks

If the walking and logistics were easier than expected, other things definitely weren’t.

I’ve stayed in my share of dorms over the years, so I didn’t expect the communal nature of albergue living to be a problem. Much of it wasn’t — the bathrooms were cleaner than those in most hostels, and with everyone generally asleep before 10pm, it was rare to be kept awake by talkers or latecomers. The one thing that did keep me awake, however? Snorers. Dear god, the snorers.

I’m a light sleeper, so I knew earplugs would be necessary. Apparently I should have taken industrial-grade earmuffs instead. Some of my fellow pilgrims seemed to treat snoring like an Olympic sport, and they were going for gold. After a while, I could guess the chance of a decent sleep long before lights out — there was a particular type of overweight, middle-aged man who was guaranteed to be lifting the roof that night. You’d think by the time you get to that age, you’d have some idea you’re a snorer… and have learned enough compassion for your fellow humans to book a single room.

Apparently not. The only people in the room who’d got a decent night’s sleep, they’d also be the ones bouncing out of bed at 5am, shining their torch around, nosily stuffing things into their backpack and dropping at least five items on the floor before eventually departing.

Walking 25+ km on two hours of broken sleep was not my idea of a good time, especially when it happened a few nights in a row, and those were the days I came closest to quitting… or at least booking a hotel and passing out for a week.

 

I Didn’t Have One Camino Family. I Had Several

Camino - feet

People talk about their “Camino family”, a group of people they meet in the first week or two, and end up walking with the rest of the way. Bonded by the shared experience, these connections typically last much longer than the blisters and tears that mark the end of the road.

For me, the experience was a bit different. I ended up with several small families instead of one larger one. I met Steven and Christine on my second day, and walked with them for a week until they finished in Burgos. Cath, Ludo and Mallory became my new family for the next ten days until we split up in Leon, all headed on different routes. I walked the rest of the way to Santiago with Jessie and Wayne, and finished the last few days with a friend I’ve known for 30 years. Between them lay a motley collection of characters, young and old, from all over the world, who slipped in and out of my story, each adding their own little tweak to the tale.

Saying goodbye, on the Camino as with travel in general, was painful and inevitable. I’m not sure whether having multiple families made it better or worse, but it sucked regardless. I wanted to keep them all in my life.

 

It Was Stunningly Beautiful… Sometimes

Camino - mountain view

Even though I’d read plenty of descriptions of the route before starting, I had a romantic notion it’d be all stunning views, isolated trails, tranquil countryside and gorgeous little towns.

It wasn’t.

All of those things existed, for sure. The first few days in the Basque country were fantastic, as were the last three from Santiago to Finisterre, and there were many other beautiful patches along the way. I loved walking through dark forests at dawn, silent except for my footsteps, or sitting on a stone bridge beside a burbling stream in the middle of nowhere. The melodic ringing of cowbells as I crossed the Pyrenees, gentle chirping of birds through Galicia and whistling wind along the meseta form some of my favourite Camino memories.

Camino - Sheep and horses, day 1

On the flip side, there was plenty of ugliness. Outskirts of cities are rarely attractive, and that’s no different in northern Spain. Entering Logroño, Burgos, León and even Santiago was a slog — there’s nothing fun about walking past smoky factories and airports, chain-link fences and grey concrete buildings for hours, whether you’re on the Camino or not.

The bigger issue was the main roads. While it was rare to walk beside any true highways, there was a lot more time on asphalt than I’d hoped for. It was hard on the feet, and on the busier roads, hard on the ears and lungs as well. Large trucks belched diesel as they ground up steep hills, while cars and motorbikes flew by at speeds that made crossing the road dangerous. Even when the weather was good, these were my least-favourite days. When it rained, it was downright miserable.

Camino - walking into Leon

You can’t have it all, of course. The route runs from town to town, as do the roads. With towns comes decent accommodation, hot showers, and good food and coffee. If I wanted unspoiled countryside and no evidence of other humans, I’d have walked a different route — and carried a tent, cooking equipment and everything else I needed for survival. I came to understand and appreciate the trade-offs… but that didn’t make my feet hurt any less.

 

I Felt Stronger Than Ever Before

Camino - Dave and cutouts

Humans were meant to walk, and we’ve been doing it for tens of thousands of years. As someone whose life is largely spent hunched in front of a laptop, walking around 25km a day for five weeks was amazing. Sure, it was tough for the first few days, or when it was particularly hot or wet, but it got easier week by week regardless. Distances became a challenge rather than a problem (“36km? Sure, I can do that…”), and I found myself picking up the pace the closer I got to the end. I’d expected to take rest days once a week, but in the end, didn’t need them. I didn’t want them, either — it wasn’t worth losing touch with my walking buddies just to sit around for a day. I was hooked.

Stretching the stiffness out of my muscles at 6am was never fun, but after that, I felt like I could walk forever. I lost maybe 5kg along the way, but it was muscle strength and mental attitude, not weight, that changed the most. By the end, the thing that had seemed the most daunting — walking long distances for weeks on end — had become straightforward, almost easy. I didn’t want to finish, and if I hadn’t run out of land, I wouldn’t have.

After a week, I wondered if I’d be able to keep going. After a month, I couldn’t bear to stop.

Simplicity Is Addictive

Camino - empty road

What did I love most about the Camino? The simplicity. In a world of constant interruptions and multi-tasking, projects and problems, having very few options for several weeks was deeply rewarding. Everything I needed, I carried on my back, and there was nothing more to do than wake up, walk, eat, wash, and sleep. Follow the arrows west, day after day, for a month. The people, views, and details changed, but the basics stayed exactly the same. It gave me a rare chance to switch off my brain, to stop thinking about the small things and let my mind wander wherever it wanted to go.

Camino - follow the arrows

That, plus hours of walking, led to some deep, enlightening, remarkable conversations with people. I live for those moments, but typically only have them a few times a year. On the Camino, it happened almost every day.

Equally valuable, though, was the silence. I wanted time to think and reflect, and I got it. Some days I walked by myself for hours, chatting briefly to the people I passed but choosing not to linger in their company. Even when I was walking with others, at times we’d naturally drift apart for a while, an unspoken need for time alone taking over until we regrouped outside a cafe further along the trail.

Graffiti dotted the path towards the end, often with recurring themes. “Real pilgrims walk in silence” was a common refrain. I couldn’t help but agree.

 

Café con Leche Powers the Camino

Camino - Cafe con leche

Café con leche. At its heart, it’s simply what the name translates to – coffee with milk. It’s more than that, though. So much more. That little cup of espresso and dairy gets thousands of pilgrims started every morning. It’s a vital part of every breakfast (and second breakfast, and on one memorable day, third and fourth breakfast as well. Don’t ask.) After hours slogging in the rain, it’s a tiny parcel of warmth to hold between your hands in a steamy cafe. It’s an excuse to stop in a picturesque village, pull up a table outside the nearest bar, and rest your tired feet for a few minutes.

Camino - breakfast of champions

And it’s uniformly excellent. I must have drunk over a hundred of them on the Camino, and I genuinely didn’t have a bad one. No matter how small the town, tired the establishment or stoic the person behind the counter, my drink was always strong, smooth and delicious. I shiver now just thinking about it… although that could well be caffeine withdrawal.

 

It Changes You, Whether You Like It or Not

Camino - before and after

I didn’t start the Camino looking for an epiphany, but the experience moved me regardless. Just ask Lauren how often I talk about it, how it somehow finds its way into conversations with friends and strangers alike. She’s surely sick of hearing the stories, and yet still, they keep coming.

It’s hard to pin down the reason why I keep going on about it. Part of it is undoubtedly ego — walking 800km is a big deal, at least to me, and I’m proud to have done it. Part of it, too, is establishing common ground, especially when I meet others who like long-distance walking. The Camino de Santiago seems to be on a lot of people’s bucket lists, so it’s an easy thing to strike up a conversation about.

I think the biggest part, though, is wanting others to have the same experience. It was so enjoyable, challenging, rewarding and remarkable for me that I’d hate for others to not have the opportunity. I try not to get too evangelical about it — the world doesn’t need another zealot — but walking the Camino was one of the most meaningful and satisfying things I’ve ever done, and I want to share.

Even writing this post, going back through the photos, thinking about the thousands of little moments that made up the walk, I felt a physical longing to be back doing it again. A few weeks before I started, I met up with some friends who’d just finished their fourth Camino. At the time, I wondered why they did it. What kept driving them to hike for weeks, putting up with injuries and discomfort, towards that big cathedral in northwest Spain?

Camino - the end

I don’t wonder any more. I get it. The strengthening of the body and resetting of the mind is addictive. I’ve planned my next two Caminos — a shorter one this September, a longer one next spring — and already I can’t wait. I know long-distance walking will be part of my life for many years to come. Walking across a country, or a continent, no longer seems an impossibility. Now, it almost seems an inevitability.

A good pair of shoes, a small backpack, and a little money is all it takes. As with many other things in life, starting is the hardest part. After that, it’s just one foot in front of the other, rain or shine, until you get to the end.

Here’s to many more starts.

 

Enjoyed this post? Pin it on Pinterest!

Reflections on the Camino de Santiago



My Ridiculously Detailed Camino de Santiago Packing List: What Worked, What Didn't and Why
On Stopping

40 Comments

  1. Reply

    Kaitlyn

    May 9, 2016

    I very much enjoyed reading this post, especially because I begin my solo camino experience in a little less than 2 weeks. Thank you for sharing!

    • Reply

      Dave

      May 10, 2016

      You're welcome! Have an amazing walk. :)

  2. Reply

    Francesca

    May 10, 2016

    When you first wrote about walking to Camino my first thoughts were honestly, "why on eearth would you do that?". Now I can't but think "why on earth would you not!".

    • Reply

      Dave

      May 11, 2016

      Hahaha -- perfect! :D

  3. Reply

    Romy Colbert

    May 11, 2016

    Great post! Thanks for sharing your experience.

  4. Reply

    Fahmida

    May 11, 2016

    I really want to do this walk, even more so after reading this post! thanks

  5. Reply

    Keir Briscoe

    May 11, 2016

    Thanks for the great story. I am definitely in the camp where I never considered doing this hike. But now you have me thinking that maybe even I could do it. Cheers!

    • Reply

      Dave

      May 11, 2016

      Barring serious injury or disability, I think most people could walk the Camino Frances. It's tough in parts, sure, but there are no time limits or deadlines, so you can take it at your own pace. It's very worthwhile! :)

  6. Reply

    Rachel Grimes

    May 13, 2016

    I had many Camino families as well, it was at times amazing and very sad. One girl and I stood in front of the Cathedral in Leon and balled on the day we parted, the Spaniards had quite a show. Beautiful recap and I too want to walk again.

    • Reply

      Dave

      May 14, 2016

      I know that feeling well -- I felt very sad as I crept past my sleeping friends and let myself out the door into the darkness in Leon. They were taking a rest day before heading north, and I wasn't, so I sent them an email saying goodbye while eating breakfast. I got a reply a few minutes later, saying they'd woken up just after I left and rushed downstairs to try to catch me... but alas, too late. We tried to meet up again in Santiago, but the timing just didn't work. :(

  7. Reply

    Ian

    May 13, 2016

    Fantastic story. Great read.

  8. Reply

    Mary Kelly

    May 13, 2016

    Thank you Dave. I am on this journey now, will be in Santiago in 5 days. Everything you mentioned is so true, except for the weather now. Started April 15, 2016 in SJPP, now in Sarria.

    • Reply

      Dave

      May 14, 2016

      Nearly there... you can almost see the cathedral! ;-)

    • Reply

      Janis Couvreux

      May 17, 2016

      Hurray! I'm sure you are done by now, and are ecstatic. Congrats!

  9. Reply

    Alison Armstrong

    May 13, 2016

    Walking the Camino sits like a pearl at the back of my mind, and has done for fifteen years. For many reasons it hasn't happened yet, but here I am reading another recounting of the experience and wanting it as much as ever. I have no idea if I can or not but the seed is still there and trying to sprout. I'm 65 now, and my husband is 73. We've done quite a lot of hiking but never day after day.
    Alison

    • Reply

      Dave

      May 14, 2016

      If it helps, I met plenty of people in their 60s and 70s who were walking the Camino when I did it. The oldest guy I met was 80, and he was covering the same sort of distances as people a quarter his age! With a reasonable amount of training, and being prepared to limit the distances day by day depending on how you're faring, it's definitely possible!

      • Reply

        Nina

        October 1, 2016

        I met two fantastic Ladys on my way. They startet in Belgium . Both were around 70....go for it :)

  10. Reply

    Shaun

    May 14, 2016

    Thanks for a great story. I only heard about walking the camino this year and what ive heard about it and reading your story in the bucket list now...... thank :-)

  11. Reply

    Lori Kimbel

    May 14, 2016

    I'm planning my Camino for September of this year. I'm already changed just by the thoughts of becoming a pilgrim. Thank you for your post. I look forward to reading more of your work.

  12. Reply

    Janis Couvreux

    May 17, 2016

    I just recently came across this and loved it. A lot of what you tell is much of what I experienced, having been on the Camino about the same time as you, it would seem. I was there last Sept./Oct. I too did it more for "just because,": Can I walk across a country?, versus any spiritual reason, but there definitely is a change in oneself afterwards. I too envision doing other sections in a year or two. You might be interested in my spin on it that appeared on my blog in the Huffington Post last December: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/janis-couvreux/walking-journey_b_8734442.html
    Maybe we'll see each other somewhere on the Camino, redux.

  13. Reply

    Stephne Roche

    May 19, 2016

    Delightful read Dave, re-awakening my joy at walking the Camino in 2005... 1600km from le puy en velay in France to Finisterre. I suspect you would love the french side of the Jacobean route? :)

    • Reply

      Dave

      May 19, 2016

      I suspect I would! The friends I walked with from Burgos to Leon had started in Le Puy, and had nothing but good things to say about the French part of the route. :)

  14. Reply

    Barb

    May 22, 2016

    Dave, I loved this! It is the most realistic, non romantic, just-get-er-done commentary on the Camino I have come across yet and I've been researching for a while. I have followed you on Too Many Adapters and when I saw you were walking the Camino you really got my attention. I am planning to do the same in April/May of 2017. But then I didn't hear another word about it! It appears I was following the wrong blog, lol.

    • Reply

      Dave

      May 23, 2016

      Thanks Barb! Haha yup, I only wrote the one post on TMA about it, just about the tech side of things. Apparently I had a few more words to put together on this site! ;-)

  15. Reply

    Rebecca

    May 22, 2016

    What a trip! Well done Dave!

  16. Reply

    Beth Meyer

    May 23, 2016

    I died at industrial grade earmuffs. Love this post & I've never thought about doing something like this myself, but now I'm curious! Well done! :)

  17. Reply

    Tim UrbanDuniya

    May 24, 2016

    What an amazing journey! Great to read about this - an honest portrayal of the Camino, which is something I was never too familiar with. Thank you for sharing - it sounds like an incredible experience.

  18. Reply

    Margaret

    June 1, 2016

    Loved reading your blog! I do a talk about my Camino and so much of what you say is in my script. It is like you walked with me and my experience is mirrored in yours. Thank you for writing your thoughts

  19. Reply

    Kevin

    June 22, 2016

    Finished the Camino two weeks ago. Still in withdrawal. Your blog is spot on, though I would like to add that the beer and wine are right up there with the café con leche.

    • Reply

      Dave

      June 22, 2016

      Absolutely... I just find the beer and wine a bit harder to stomach at 6am. ;-)

  20. Reply

    Hamid

    July 12, 2016

    What a pleasure reading your memoir!! You are an artist Dave! Simplicity, minimalism and yet profoundness in your words are the magic! I have been 'day-dreaming' for a while doing the Camino,, but, so far, it was not meant to happen. Hopefully, meeting you this summer in France, might encourage me to do it soon,,,,, cheers,,

    • Reply

      Dave

      July 18, 2016

      Thank you so much! :)

  21. Reply

    Flora

    July 30, 2016

    It's been almost a year since we sat in that coffee shop in Santiago & compared notes about our first Camino journeys - and I'm now in the same boat as you, trying to decide which route to walk this summer :p I'm excited to hear about your next Camino & so glad it's still resonating with you a year later!

    • Reply

      Dave

      July 31, 2016

      Hah! Well, if you want to try to time it so we can have another coffee in Santiago in October, I'm up for it! ;-)

  22. Reply

    Mariza

    August 5, 2016

    Hi Dave, I just stumbled upon your blog. love how you put in words your Camino experience. it made me relive my own camino trip last year to Santiago as well. It was definitely one of the memorable trip i have ever done. thanks again for sharing your experience. Cheers Mariza

  23. Reply

    Kelly

    September 4, 2016

    I walked the Camino with my mom in June 2014 and can relate to so much of this post. The snoring, the changing family members that come in and out of your journey along the way, the beautiful simplicity. Still something I think about a lot. Thank you for your reflections on this wonderful experience :)

  24. Reply

    patricia charrier

    October 11, 2016

    Have you ever thought of writing a book about your Camino walk. I would like to read it if you ever do.

    • Reply

      Dave

      October 11, 2016

      I did vaguely think about it, but couldn't really come up with a story that hadn't been told before. As great as my experience was, it wasn't particularly different to that had by many others who walk the Camino Frances. There are several of those stories out there already. Still, I really appreciate the vote of confidence! ;-)

  25. Reply

    Becky S

    April 30, 2017

    Love this! My twin sister and I (along with our husbands) are walking part of the Camino Frances for our 50th birthday in June 2017. I'm looking forward to the challenge and adventure. I can identify with not knowing exactly what I'm hoping for, but I do believe it will be a kind of reset in my life. More simplicity. Get back to the basics. Thanks for writing!!


Would you like to share your thoughts?

Leave a Reply

WHAT'S DAVE DOING? IS A BRAND OF TRAVEL TECH MEDIA LIMITED.
©2009-2017 TRAVEL TECH MEDIA LIMITED.