Updated June 27, 2018
The Camino de Santiago: How I Started…like many grand schemes, it began with a vague notion that simmered for a decade. Then–who knows how or why–suddenly a 500-mile walk seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
“A pilgrimage across northern Spain to the sanctuary at Santiago de Compostela is the finest journey in Spain.” wrote James Michener in Iberia.
Camino De Santiago: How I started…
I am about to become a Peregrina. A female pilgrim.
Michener was not the inspiration for the 500 mile endeavor that I will begin in early September. I recently ran across his quote while doing research on how to prepare for the six-week hike. But, yes, I intend to take “the finest journey in Spain,” to walk the ancient Camino de Santiago.
How does one come to this decision, anyway? If you read the accounts of those who have gone before–and this goes back well over a thousand years–people choose to do the pilgrimage for a variety of reasons…probably as many reasons as pilgrims. (About 150,000+ folks do the trek each year.) In the early centuries, it was purely a religious walk…if a pilgrim could touch the bones of St. James at the Cathedral de Santiago, all sins would be forgiven. People left home, were gone for a couple of years, maybe to return–or not. No great means of communication back in the 1100’s.
A seed planted ten years earlier
Crazily, I’d heard about the Camino about ten years earlier, at my annual Beaujolais party. My French friend, Marc, talked about it; he had done a few stages out of Le Puy. Somehow it intrigued me, this idea of a grand walk. I even ordered a book on it–although it was not the best choice for an introduction. Sort of an encyclopedia on the Camino, covering all the cultural sights. It was waaaaay too much information for a beginner. When I left Seattle, I donated it to the Friends of the Library, and abandoned the the whole idea.
Until last year.
I grew restless, feeling that I was lacking…something. It was a vague and elusive need. But definitely there. The idea of the Camino returned to me. I’ve never had more than two weeks off since junior high school. Exactly why I’d want to huff and puff my way across a country that I really know little about, with limited language skills, carrying a backpack limited to 10% of my body weight…well, that list is still hatching.
When the student is ready, the teacher appears
Funny how once you start to consider these things, the universe kicks in and begins delivering reinforcement, right to your doorstep:
- I found the exact guide book for my trip…muchas gracias, John Brierly.
- “The Way” fell into my lap; a film with Martin Sheen, showing how the Camino and the “Camino Family” unfold. Here’s a little preview for you…with Alanis Morrisette singing “Thank You.” It’s a touching film with a sweet story, even without the spectacular views along the path. Highly recommended.
- REI sent the first catalog I had received from them in a decade. I bought some hiking boots and trekking poles, and started to test them out in Gainesville, Florida, where I was living at the time. Very funny, because people hadn’t seen the poles before and assumed I was a skiier. Definitely a conversation-starter, those poles.
- Checked every single book out of the library that had anything to do with the Camino. What I couldn’t find, I bought. Along with a National Geographic map of northern Spain. (Okay, that was pretty intimidating…the green line of the Camino Frances spanning Spain goes on and on and on and on…)
Then I took a deep breath and made the commitment. Starting in France, crossing the Pyrenees, then into Spain. From there, 35 more days along the Camino Frances, ending at the Cathedral de Santiago, in Galicia. A million steps, they say.
All by myself.
The structure of the Camino de Santiago
Make no mistake: This is not a wilderness trek. I’m no Cheryl Strayed, and there’s no Wild going on here; the Camino is marked with yellow arrows and markers, to point you in the proper direction. I don’t have to haul a tent, stove, or means to make a campfire. No dehydrated food for this pilgrim girl. There are albergues–dormitories meant only for pilgrims–all along the route. Some are ancient, with no hot water. Some are modern, with kitchens so you can cook your own dinner. Some even have washers and dryers, so you don’t have to wash out your clothes everyday and find a place to hang them. Internet? I hear that it’s becoming more common.
The albergues sleep anywhere from about 40 to over 200, usually in bunk beds. Males and females together in a big room, first-come, first-served. Forget whatever it is you’re thinking right now. Everyone is exhausted at the end of the day, so it’s all about sleep….and tolerating the snoring that every single pilgrim mentions. Along with the issue of bed bugs.
Water is apparently plentiful; every village has a public fountain. Food and wine abound; part of the walk passes through the famous Rioja district. There’s even a village that has a wine fountain to fortify “thirsty” travelers! (Note to self: Don’t get there on a Sunday. It’s turned off.) And, according to previous pilgrims, it’s nearly impossible to spend more than 50 Euros a day.
Just one favor: Please don’t tell my mother that I am going alone.”
Ready to start your own pilgrimage?
This post was originally written in early 2014, as I began to prepare for my first long-term trek, the 500-mile walk from southwestern France to eastern Spain in September of that year. Recently someone asked me how I began to plan for the eight-week journey. I promised to resurrect my original post.