In May 2012, I clicked SEND and put in play a turn of events and a journey that would change my life forever. In my sixth decade and in good health, I knew this was the time. With that SEND, I purchased my air ticket to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago. While I had heard a little about the Camino over the years, it was a book by Guy Thatcher called A Journey of Days that really whet my appetite. I thought “I can do this!” and I promptly began reading and researching everything about the Camino. With each new piece of information, I knew my fate was sealed and I was compelled to go.
The Camino de Santiago or the Way of Saint James is the 800 km path that starts in St. Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees and winds its way westward to Santiago de Compostella. It follows the ancient pilgrim route first established in 950 when Christians from all over Europe began to travel to Santiago to pay homage to St. James, one of the disciples and the patron saint of Spain.
While some pilgrims walk for religious reasons, my journey was about wanting to test my limits, step out of my comfort zone and seek new experiences and insight. Little did I know that I would do all that and more.
The very first day was a test like no other. Still jet-lagged and culture-shocked, I began the trek over the Pyrenees carrying a 20 lb. backpack and a big bottle of water. The climb was steep with no way stations for the first 10 km. I was pushed to my limits of stamina and fortitude. With the altitude came wind and fog and no shelter so the only avenue was to carry on – one foot in front of the other and one breath at a time.
When I arrived at the hostel in Roncesvalles 7 hours later after the steep climb then an even steeper descent, I felt jubilant but exhausted. I already had a big blister on the inside of my left heel. I slept well for my first night in a dormitory room with 30 other people. My bunkmate was a Dutch fellow from Rotterdam.
The days rolled on with 6:30 AM starts in the dark and wonderful chats with fellow pilgrims from all over the world. Everyone, it seemed, had specific reasons for doing the Camino and was adventurous, positive and interested in life. You discuss so many things about your life and open up to people who were complete strangers a few minutes before. It feels so uplifting and cathartic especially for an introvert like me. I found my ideal walking pace and began passing others who started out ahead of me. But it’s all about finding your own space and pace and letting your mind soar.
The scenery was beautiful – wheat fields, vineyards, rough steep hills, rock outcrops and views for miles. It’s especially exciting when you can see your next destination ahead. I always walked faster then.
Viana, a small town between Los Arcos and Logrono, proved to be the highlight of the trip. As we walked into town around 11:30 after a short but steep hike from Los Arcos, a festival was going on with bands playing and everyone dressed in white with red scarves and belts.
The streets were packed. We were told that the ‘running of the bulls’ would be taking place at 1 PM so we hurriedly checked into our hostel, showered and changed and joined the festivities. At 5 to 1, all the tables and chairs were moved from the street and promptly at 1, amid much shouting, whistling and thundering of hooves on the cobblestones, 5 bulls appeared and raced up the street while bystanders took swipes at them and tried to provoke them into a face-off. After a few good runs with no untoward incidents, the bulls disappeared and the tables and chairs returned.
While this was going on, a fellow helping with the event noticed my blister and promptly took me under his wing and marched me to the health clinic to have it examined. I met his wife and family but no one spoke any English and my Spanish is limited so all our communication was by sign language and facial expression. Even with this handicap, we connected immediately and enjoyed a wonderful evening together with music, dancing, and camaraderie. At 10 PM, I had to say good-bye to make curfew at the hostel. I had tears in my eyes as I hugged and kissed them goodnight. They had become instant friends and were so kind, helpful and generous. It reminded me of the old adage about the kindness of strangers and the threads that connect people from all over the world.
With each step, each panoramic view and each personal encounter, I learned more about myself and felt all the old baggage fall away. I thought about my mother and how much she would have enjoyed this trip and my ancestors who came to Canada from Scotland on their own difficult pilgrimage in the 1800’s. By the end, in Santiago, I knew I was a different person – more open, confident, invigorated, empowered yet humble. It was the trip of a lifetime. I wish everyone could experience what I did on the Camino de Santiago. I never did see any bedbugs.
Rosemary is from Elora Ontario and has had a lifelong interest in and compulsion to travel, starting at an early age. She has a Master’s in Geography from McGill University, is currently retired but itching to get away on that next adventure. She completed the Camino in October 2012.