The thought of walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route across northern Spain seemed exciting and yet so daunting. Thoughts eventually became reality last September when I began my Camino journey – a 19-day, 230-mile “jaunt” across Spain to Santiago de Compostela. I was stepping way outside my comfort zone but I was richly rewarded with an amazing experience.
Why did I decide to become a Camino pilgrim? Certainly, I wanted the “traveler experience” of seeing Spain’s natural beauty and meeting its friendly people. But I also wanted the personal and spiritual growth that comes from doing something really challenging – physically, mentally, and emotionally. The Camino both attracted and terrified me – probably in equal parts!
I wanted to have the “full” pilgrim experience – walking the Camino solo and independently (not part of a tour) and carrying my backpack loaded with sleeping bag and all the needed possessions. I also wanted to stay (at least much of the time) in the pilgrim hostels with their infamous bunk-bedded dorm rooms. So, yes, that was my plan.
My Biggest Concerns & Fears About the Camino
I had seen the 2011 movie “The Way” (with Martin Sheen) but there were still a lot of unanswered questions. As I began to plan my trip, a whole array of questions, concerns and some outright fears began to pop up. Here were my main ones:
The Backpack Thing! – I would imagine for many people, the most common concern would be the physical aspects of the long walk. For me, however, my #1 concern/fear was the packing part. How in earth was I going to fit everything I needed for almost three weeks in one medium sized backpack and not have it not weigh a ton!
- Going Solo – Even though I wanted the experience of going alone, I had concerns about being a solo pilgrim. Was the Camino safe for a woman (or anyone) walking alone? What about the social aspects? Would I make plenty of friends or would there be times I’d be eating dinner alone? Would I feel lonely?
- Being Physically Miserable – Like most people, I don’t like being uncomfortable and/or miserable. Would the weather cooperate or would there be times when I was way too hot or too cold? Worse yet, would I get caught walking in a nasty rain storm for hours? And, of course, there’s the physical part. What would it be like to walk so many kilometers each day, day after day, carrying a loaded backpack? Would my body hold up?
- The Whole Pilgrim Hostel Experience – There were lots of concerns here. Would there be a problem finding a place to stay some of the nights at my planned final destination? What about sleeping in one big open coed dorm room in bunk beds? And yikes, what about the snoring – would it be hard to sleep? I also heard some of the bathrooms are coed. I am no prude but this was all going to be quite a “stretch”!
- Loss of My Beloved iPhone – Like many pilgrims, my smartphone (iPhone, in my case) was going to be “my everything” on the Camino – my camera, email and internet access, and storage of contact info & key documents. What would happen if I lost the phone or it got stolen?
- The Issue of Appearance – Makeup (even though I don’t wear much), hair dryer and hair products (like gel) were clearly on the “leave behind” list. Guess it was gonna be the “au natural” look. At times, I thought I might feel like a “bag lady” in my less than fashionista pilgrim garb – especially in the bigger cities where hip Spanish people look so stylish.
Despite these valid concerns, at my core I knew it would all be okay. Like a lot of fears, I tempered them with good knowledge (and lots of answers to my questions from my mentor DJ, the Camino books and forums). I reminded myself that hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have gone before me – and they all survived just fine!
Packing The Backpack – My First Big Lesson
As mentioned, packing was my big concern, in part because I tend to “overpack.” It’s not that I don’t take the right things when I travel. I carefully choose travel clothes with multiple purposes and color schemes that mix and match, and I have lots of travel gear in compact sizes.
The problem lies in that I am a “contingency packer.” It’s in my nature to be prepared and ready for anything. For example, I’ll take two pairs of sunglasses on a trek – just in case I lose or break one. Especially when traveling to developing countries, I carry a fully-equipped medical bag with lots of meds (the former nurse in me)! I also like the convenience of having what I need, when I need it.
However, packing for the Camino was going to be a very different animal. A few months before the Camino, I began my research in earnest. I got great help from my good friend DJ (above) who had walked the full Camino just four months before me – she was my invaluable mentor.
I went to REI and bought the same 36-liter Osprey backpack that had worked so well for DJ and carefully followed her finely-tuned packing list. I was super strategic about every item I was taking – asking if it was truly necessary, as small a size and weight as possible, and did it have multiple functions. Every ounce was critiqued. And, yes, I was taking only one pair of sunglasses!
The day before my departure, I finally started to put all the assembled items into the backpack. I was disheartened to see how “stuffed to the gills” my backpack was – and then I weighed it. To my horror, the pack weighed in at 20 pounds – and this was before the 2 pounds that carrying one liter of drinking water would add. Yikes, I was nowhere close to what had been my 15-pound goal.
At that moment, I had a horrible sinking feeling and a bit of panic came over me. OMG – could I really do this? My packing fear had come to rear its ugly head – and test me! Luckily, I was taking another suitcase to Spain for pre- & post-Camino trip items. So, I would keep packing and sort this out more in Madrid, my first stop.
Later in my Madrid hotel room, I began a new critical look at all the items in my backpack and ruthlessly began to remove items. These included my third hiking blouse, my third pair of underwear and socks, a swimsuit bottom, a fleece headband, some energy bars, and a disposable rain poncho. By the time I started my Camino (with further culling), I had gotten my pack down to 18# plus water so a total of 20# – an acceptable enough weight. Phew!
Facing My Fears in Madrid – Reality Sinks In
The reality of what I was about to do didn’t really sink in until my second day in Madrid. I was spending time in Spain’s magnificent capital city sightseeing and getting over jetlag before beginning the walk. I had been so incredibly busy before I left for Spain that I didn’t have any time at home to worry about things not related to getting me packed and on that airplane!
However, once in Madrid, I could finally start to relax. I was on my own, so it was just me and my thoughts. No more distractions! With the Camino start just a couple days away, the immensity of what I was about to do – and all those same initial concerns – came flooding back in. I had a real visceral reaction of fear that afternoon as I walked back from touring the Royal Palace. Physically, this Camino will be tough – so many miles to walk. So many unknowns. I felt so vulnerable. Could I really do this?
I had to take some deep breaths to get grounded and do some positive self-talk. Luckily, I am a spiritual person and truly believed that I would be guided and protected. Of course, I would do my part to be safe and smart. I also felt there would be people (fellow pilgrims & the Spaniards) to help and guide me along the way, as I had already experienced in Madrid.
My Journey Begins / Easing Into the Experience
The next morning, I took the train from Madrid to Leon, where I was going to spend my final night as a non-pilgrim. To treat myself, I was staying at the Hostal de San Marcos, Leon’s beautiful parador housed in a historic old convent.
The following day, I continued by train to Sahagun, the town where I would start my Camino the next day. In Leon, my extra suitcase had been shipped to Santiago so now it was just me, my hiking boots, Camino guidebook, iPhone and backpack. I was really a pilgrim now, albeit an untested one!
As I was checking into Sahagun’s municipal albergue (pilgrim hostel), I met Kate, a delightful 70yo pilgrim from Ohio. We started chatting and I nervously shared that I was a total newbie – this was my first hostel and I was just starting my walk tomorrow. Luckily, Kate was a pilgrim pro. She had begun her walk almost 3 weeks ago in St. Jean Pied de Port, the traditional beginning of the Camino Frances.
I was a novice pupil, peppering Kate with the myriad questions I had about the realities of Camino life. We shared adjoining bunks and she helped orient me to hostel etiquette and routines. That afternoon, we went to the market, explored the town and went to dinner together. We also attended an evening Catholic vesper service which ended with a pilgrim blessing. It was a very good beginning to my Camino!
Awkwardness of Being a Newbie Pilgrim
Friday, Sept. 16th: The big moment was finally here – my Camino Day #1. That morning, I was one of the last to leave the hostel as it took me quite a while to pack and get organized. Luckily, this improves with daily practice. Kate had gone ahead, after our making plans to meet up later that day at an albergue in Calzadilla de las Hermanillos, a town 18 km away.
First, I needed to “backtrack” on the Camino, since I wanted to officially start my “half Camino” at the two stone monuments that mark the “Center of the Camino.” The monuments are located about 2-3 km east of town so I started walking in that direction. Unfortunately, I got lost trying to find the route – and it was just my first hour! Finally, from the road I saw a path across a field with lots of people walking in my general direction. Voila, pilgrim traffic – I was back on track!
Walking back to Sahagun, I started chatting with some delightful pilgrims. Like Kate, these ladies had also started in St. Jean. I was the total newbie, feeling like a “pilgrim imposter.” I was still fiddling with my backpack & fanny pack – everything was still a bit awkward. I would make an apologetic “It’s just my first day” to the pilgrims I met. But everyone was very nice and supportive. They reassured me it takes a few days to get it all figured out but it would come.
On the walk back into town, I suddenly realized that I had left my nice hiking poles inside the Sahagun hostel (photo on right). Yikes, another rookie mistake! Luckily, the hostel’s doors were going to open again at 10am, so I waited at a nearby café until I could retrieve them. I was initially flustered by this but soon I was able to relax, regroup and really enjoy the pretty scenery along the Camino.
I arrived at 2pm at the lovely private albergue, where I had called ahead to reserve a private double room. Kate was already there waiting for me. That evening, we had dinner at the albergue, joining the most fun group of four other pilgrims (Camilla & the “3 Cayman lads”) who became very good Camino friends (photo below).
Day #2 was another fun day of walking with these new friends, as Kate liked to depart earlier than I did. Once again, I met up with Kate at our next chosen albergue. There we continued to meet more cool pilgrims and have interesting, lively conversations.
Already by this second day, I was feeling much more comfortable and like a “real” pilgrim. I had made some good friends, better knew the pilgrim routines, was more at home with my backpack and gear, and my body was holding up okay. I had survived the initial “newbie pilgrim” awkwardness.
The Camino Provides & Comes Bearing Gifts
The Camino comes bearing so many gifts, often providing pilgrims with just what we need when we need it. There are many rewards when we step outside our comfort zones and fully into the Camino experience. Here were some of my Camino Gifts:
- Camino Angels – Kate and DJ are at the top of my list. DJ, my friend and mentor back home in San Diego, so beautifully prepared me for the Camino. Kate became my friend and mentor the first eve in Sahagun. We spent three days together until she stayed behind in Leon for a rest day. By then, I was “launched” and feeling confident as a new pilgrim. Kate was a true gift from the Universe – and I told her that many times!
- My Camino Family / Pilgrim Friends – I met so many wonderful people along the way and made some deep enduring friendships. We shared stories, laughter, meals, and helpful pilgrim advice.
- Spain’s Beautiful Landscape – I never tired of the amazing and varied scenery, always wondering what was around the next corner.
- Unplugging from My Normal Busy Life – The Camino offered a wonderful respite from all my ‘to do’ lists back home. It also gave “my soul a chance to catch up with my body.” It was great to get off the grid for a while, unplugging from regular email and especially “the news.”
- The Peace & Quiet of Nature – For a city dweller like me, it was a gift to be able to spend so much time outdoors walking amongst Nature’s majesty – including through many beautiful woods and forests. I really enjoyed the silent periods where I could revel in the beauty of the landscape and nature all around me – essentially a walking meditation.
- Delicious Simplicity of Camino Life – I quickly settled into the daily pilgrim routine. The few decisions of the day usually involved what to eat and where to stay. Packing is a breeze – the same stuff that came out of your backpack is what goes back in. Same ease with deciding what to wear when you only have two shirts, two pairs of socks, etc. It’s the clean one!
- A Real Sense of Pride & Accomplishment – Wow, I really did walk 230 miles over 19 days carrying a 20# pack on my back. And I slept in coed dorm rooms, sometimes with up to 50 other pilgrims. Gosh, if I can do that, I can do anything that I put my mind to! The Camino helps us pilgrims tap into our inner strength, build our self-confidence and increase our resilience. It’s given me a whole new “scale of relativity” for many things.
- Life-Affirming – I’ve been doing personal growth & spiritual work for over two decades, so I’ve been able to create a life that is pretty much to my liking. Thus, I found my Camino to be more “life-affirming” than “life-changing” – ie, I didn’t need to come home and quit a mind-numbing job or break up with a bad partner like some pilgrims have been known to do.
- The Opportunity to Practice Trust – Every day you get to practice that inner knowing that all will be okay – that the Camino (or Life or the Universe) really does provide. We pilgrims certainly need to do our best thinking and planning but then release and let go. I know there will always be surprises and challenges, but I trust that ultimately everything will work out – including that the right people and situations will be there to help me out.
The Camino Teaches / My Camino Lessons
Just as the Camino comes bearing gifts, the Camino also teaches – providing pilgrims with important life lessons and insights. Here were some of my Camino Lessons & Insights:
- I Trust But Not Fully – I Still Have Room to Grow! – I am one of those people who likes to be in control and have things well-organized and figured out. Can you possibly relate? On the Camino, my “trust issues” showed up most around my lodging. I felt “uncomfortable” showing up after a long day’s walk to a destination town with a limited number of albergues – fearing I would not have a place to stay. Since my September Camino was pretty packed with pilgrims, I frequently made a reservation for the next day’s lodging – to be safe.
- The Camino Provides: One of My Lessons – I unsuccessfully tried to make reservations ahead in the small mountain town of Rabanal but the hostels weren’t answering their phone. So I nervously walked into town at 2:30pm and the first two albergues were fully booked. My anxiety level was climbing. When I checked at the next hostel, the sweet hospitalera told me that their two bunk rooms were full but she had a bed on the floor in the overflow room. I gratefully said please! It turned out to be a huge spacious room (above) with just 8 mattresses (comfortable!) on the floor – which was way more pleasant than the packed bunk rooms. Yes, the Camino did provide for me that day!
- I Do the Camino Like I Do Life – I didn’t really figure this one out until I got home and reflected on my experience. On the Camino, I never had much down time. I packed every minute – pilgrim routines, socializing with other pilgrims, and exploring the new town. Then, usually later, I was doing my daily detailed journal updates and Facebook posts – often past the 10pm lights out (in a separate room). Hmm, I need to explore this insight further!
- Physical Lessons – Thanks to good advice not to go too fast or too far (for your particular body) each day, I took it easy and didn’t overdo. I also trained for the Camino and tried to do all the right things (hiking boots, socks, etc.) So, happily, my body & feet held up well for the whole Camino. I guess the physical aspects weren’t a major part of my “The Camino Teaches” lessons – phew! They certainly were for many of the pilgrims!
- Not Enough Quiet Time on the Walk – I was expecting to have more quiet, solo walking time on the Camino – where I could be lost in my own thoughts, deeply observing the beauty around me. However, I found I spent much of the time chatting with fellow pilgrims as we walked along. Unfortunately, I was not as observant and able to take in the beautiful scenery when engaged in these interesting conversations. On my final day of walking into Santiago, I did enforce a “chat time out” so I had no conversations with friends on the trail, just at the café stops. I loved it! On my next Camino, I plan to find a little better balance between social and quiet, reflective time on the walk.
- Overpacking – I’ve already shared that packing was my #1 concern and my big lesson to learn. Yes, carrying a pilgrim backpack teaches all of us how to take only what we REALLY need. And, if we do end up needing something on the Camino, we can usually get it there in Spain or we find we can live without it.
In the beautiful book Camino Voices, one pilgrim shared this wise gem: “The whole Camino has been a lesson in what you don’t need – physically, emotionally and mentally.” I say Amen to that!
What’s Your Camino? / Finding Life’s Magic
Walking the Camino de Santiago was, for me, an amazing experience! The Camino is filled with countless joys and gifts along with the “blessed” challenges, lessons to be learned and valuable insights to be gained. But to experience the “Magic of the Camino,” one needs to be willing to step outside their comfort zone and face down their fears.
My purpose here is not to convince you or anyone else to walk the Camino. I totally understand it’s not for everyone – the Camino either calls to you or it doesn’t! Instead, I wanted to share my personal Camino journey – of taking a great big step outside my comfort zone and not letting my fears and concerns stop me from doing something I really wanted to do!
“Everything you’ve ever wanted is just one step outside your comfort zone.”
Everyone has their “own Camino” – some dream or goal that seems exciting yet a little bit scary. What is yours? Is it a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal), a cute term I remember from the business world. Perhaps, it’s taking that dream trip you’ve always wanted – like a Galapagos cruise or a safari in Africa, hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, or taking a cooking class in Tuscany or a tour of Thailand.
Regardless of what it is, I hope you will take to heart the inspiring phrase highlighted above and to the right. And, perhaps start moving with a first, small step in the direction of that dream – to walk your own Camino. Here’s to creating some Magic!
For More Articles About My Camino, Check Out:
- Spain’s Camino de Santiago – Tales from a Successful Pilgrim (shares “day in the life” experiences and photos from my pilgrim journey – scenery, hostels, pilgrim friends, food, etc.)
- Walking Spain’s Camino: A Journey of the Spirit That Inspires & Transforms (focuses on the inner journey of the overall pilgrim experience)
COMMENTS: What’s “your Camino”? Have fears and strong concerns ever kept you from taking a special trip you wanted? If you’re a pilgrim who has walked the Camino, what were some of your biggest fears, gifts or lessons?