I had a few weeks’ time to fill in May, so I decided that I would hike the Camino de Santiago across Northern Spain. My husband Chris had done it two years ago, and he said it was great, I’d love it, after our Nepal hike it would be a breeze. So I flew to Madrid and took a bus to Burgos and got started.
The Camino can be started at almost any point in Europe- some paths start from Germany, France, or even Rome- although generally peregrinos start it in St Jean Pied de Port, at the border of France and Spain. From there it is 800 kilometers to Santiago de Campostela, and it takes around 5 weeks. This year approximately 22,000 pilgrims are estimated to hike the trail.
I only had three weeks to spend hiking, so I decided to start in Burgos and hike 500 km to Santiago. I was issued my credencial, a passport-like booklet, and told to get at least one stamp a day, and two stamps a day in the last 100 km. The only requirement to get a certificate at the end is that you walk the last 100 km, so the Camino can get quite busy with people doing that final stretch.
The first few days went pretty well. I made some friends along the way, I listened to the birds chirp in the mornings, and the weather was nice- crisp in the mornings, warm in the afternoons. I had Spanish ham at almost every stop, wine or beer in the evenings, and creamy cafe leches every morning. Since we stay in alburgues with restaurants each night, there’s no need to pack a tent or cook your own food. And since we’re hiking four to seven hours a day, we can pretty much eat whatever we want and still burn those calories. It’s a win-win situation!
On the third day I developed a blister on each foot, and a sore knee. Blisters are the most common peregrino problem, so I wasn’t too worried. I bought some blister care, and a knee brace at a pilgrim store (they have everything a hiker needs, and there’s one in every so-many towns). Life was good again. Then a couple of days later, I developed a second set of blisters, and ankle pain. When I stopped after a particularly long day (29 km), my ankle was super swollen.
I made it to Leon- I had hiked 170 km in a week- and took a rest day. I saw a physiotherapist, who massaged it, taped it, and recommended that I take it easy for a few days.
I wanted to finish in the three week time frame I had given myself, and I wanted to try to mostly stay with a group of friends I had made that would all be finishing around June 5 as well. Finally, with a heavy heart, I bought a bus ticket that would speed me 40 km up the road. From there, I’d hike a few half days, and then hopefully be strong enough to get back on schedule and finish.
I felt like such a failure taking the bus that day. I had set out to walk 500 km on the Camino, and after only 170 km I was facing the choice of dropping out completely, or having to skip sections in order to finish.
After the bus dropped me off in Astorga, I walked just 10 km to Santa Catalina de Somoza. I walked slowly, mindfully. No music, no podcasts. I thought about the Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St James. After Jesus’ death, his disciple James came to Spain, and preached the Gospel in the province of Galicia. He died and was buried here, and in the 9th century, a shepherd had a dream and discovered the bones of James. A cathedral was built, and pilgrims came from across Europe to receive a blessing, pay penitence for a sin, or to show their righteousness. The thing is, it is said that in the time James preached in northern Spain, he only converted eight people. Which made me wonder, did James consider his endeavor a failure, or did he call it a success for getting it started in the first place?
In fact, many of the people I knew on the Camino felt like we “failed” in our own way, by having to take a bus, having to fly home for a family emergency, or getting ill and having to radically change plans. I choose to think that James, with his eight converts, and all of us with our grand plans and less-grand results, are a success. It is better than not trying at all. I may not have been able to do the whole Camino, but I was able to do My Camino. And that’s all any of us can do.