A few days ago I dismantled a temporary display of Camino photographs I was using to illustrate my Camino story to friends and family. The process prompted me to think again about my Camino experience: why I had done it, my main impressions and what the experience means to me now.
“Walking the Camino”, to use the cliched phrase, was an ambition of mine since 10 odd years ago when my wife walked part of the Camino Frances and spoke passionately about it. Over the last several years I kept meeting people who had “walked the Camino”. I read articles about it and was generally intrigued by the idea of this ancient pilgrim walk. Two of my children walked the Camino Portugues from Porto to Santiago de Compostela and spoke of the beauty of the walk and the many personal encounters they had and their experiences generally.
I like hill walking and walk regularly and so all I really needed was the time
opportunity; unexpectedly the time opportunity presented itself in 2019 after I retired from my job in IT. And so, with my wife’s generous encouragement, I made plans to walk the Camino del Norte from Irún in north-east Spain to Santiago de Compostela. I picked the Camino del Norte (northern coastal path) because I liked the idea of being close to the sea, with, I hoped, the opportunity to swim along the way. And aside from anticipating the freedom of walking in the beautiful Spanish countryside and the encounters with people from other countries, I sought time and space to put distance between myself and 35 years in corporate IT.
At one level, the practical level, my preparations were probably similar to lots of people who have walked all or part of a Camino route: trawl the internet sites about Camino; look at the advice on key sites such as Camino Society of St James (csj.org.uk) and Camino Society Ireland (caminosociety.com); speak to people who have “done a Camino”; request a pilgrim passport; make a kit list and assemble appropriate and essential gear for walking late August to early October; weigh my rucksack and practice packing and unpacking to get it to something
approaching manageable weight (per advice, approx 10% of body weight).
Not having had any recent experience of hostels/albergues, I decided to book accommodation for the first few nights in advance. My preparations also had a mental/spiritual dimension. I was connecting with a centuries-old tradition: a pilgrim (peregrino) on the Way of Saint James. And so I read Camino articles, experiences and stories and a small number of books, most notably “Contemplating the Camino ~ An Ignatian Guide” by Brendan McManus SJ and “Camino to Santiago – a spiritual companion” compiled by John Rafferty.
I left home with lots of good wishes and support from family and friends and although a little apprehensive about some of the practical challenges of taking on to walk 830 km, I had a profound sense that all would be well. A close friend wrote a poem for me before I left home. I particularly like the last six lines of the poem which are, in my opinion, a beautiful anticipation of being looked after.
***For Stephen, As He leaves for Santiago***
My field of stars
Floats on the meniscus
Of a watery sky
That I look up to.
Sun-glints on its surface
Are my constellations;
The shy side of a flower’s parasol,
Drifting. White. Fragile.
But yours –
You will recount
The stones, and dust,
The many beds,
The heat, and dryness,
And the Gift,
At the cowped jar’s rim,
At your need.
Angela Graham, 21st October 2019 (reprinted with permission)
I started in Irun on 27th August 2019 and walked into Santiago de Compostela on 2nd October: that was 37 days including 4 rest days. I carried between 8 and 9kg of clothes/kit in a 40+10 rucksack. After Santiago I took 4 days to go to the western Galician coast, specifically Muxia and Fisterra, something I would absolutely recommend. I was away from home for 45 days. Talking to other pilgrims it became clear that there are a multitude of reasons motivating people to walk the Camino. And although there are lots of shared experiences, each person’s Camino is personal and unique.
My Camino experience can be summarised in three overarching aspects: (
- 1) gratitude;
- (2) encounter and connection; and
- (3) rejuvenation.
Before I arrived in Spain I felt extremely lucky for the opportunity to fulfil my Camino dream. Walking the Camino reaffirmed my sense of gratitude on many levels: having the time; physical well-being and capacity; freedom to make day-to-day decisions about destination etc. And, paring back one’s day-to-day existence to what you carry in a 50 litre rucksack doesn’t half help one appreciate basic comforts we take for granted at home
The Camino del Norte traverses the Spanish regions of Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia and covers many different types of terrain: from forests and rough tracks to farmlands and country lanes, from cliff-top paths to beautiful beaches, from hamlets and villages to big cities, from modern roads to centuries-old cobbled paths, from flat and gently undulating slopes to mountains, steep climbs and descents. The pace of walking permits one to really see things: people, animals, views, sunrises, sunsets, colour, architecture, countless churches, historical monuments… Leaving aside some less than beautiful industrial areas around cities en route, I found the countryside and seascapes to be breathtakingly beautiful. And I repeatedly marvelled that I was there in the middle of it, to just walk and be present to it all.
Although I met many people, I had lots of time when I was walking alone, most particularly in the mornings. I loved the stillness of mornings in the forests and countryside which, coupled with beautiful sunrises, afforded time to think, reflect and feel grateful for all that I have in life. On a practical level, my feet and boots stood up to the physical challenge: I had no blisters, which was beyond lucky.
Encounter and connection
I went to Spain alone but I was not alone in walking the Camino. In my journal I recorded the names of more than 90 people from 25 countries with whom I had a conversation, walked or shared a meal. These encounters were wonderful and enriching: there is nothing quite like hearing and sharing our individual stories, motivations and experiences. I had the experience of meeting people, not seeing them for a week or more and then being overjoyed at meeting them again. There were encounters too with the local people who I found to be universally welcoming, kind, generous and encouraging; a day would not go past without a warm smile and “Buen Camino” from someone. And, I suppose like many pilgrims, I became friends with a few kindred spirits and conversations continue across email and WhatsApp.
As I sent photographs home, my family commented on how I looked “years younger”. This reflected how I felt. Walking several hours each day, in a (mostly) warm, sunny climate does have a physical benefit! I would not wish to give the impression that there weren’t some challenges and low moments along the Camino: a few weeks in I felt the distance/separation from home which possibly exacerbated the effects of these challenges; there were wet days as well as sunny days and one particularly challenging day of torrential rain and wind when I got thoroughly drenched, despite good gear; there are poor Albergues as well as good ones; dehydration after 3 weeks of walking which led to a couple of unexpected rest days. But, although I did not invite these experiences, with hindsight I can view them more positively and see them as part of the overall Camino adventure.
Overall, I felt physically and mentally refreshed and energised by my experience.
Every pilgrim knows to follow the yellow arrow signs to get to Santiago de Compostela. Although most of us had guidebooks or a Camino App for the phone, I and most of the people I walked with were looking out for the yellow arrow signs from the moment we set out in the morning until we reached our daily destination or decided to stop for the night. In his booklet Contemplating the Camino, Brendan McManus talks about being “open to the possibility that the Spirit or a divine power is working through your experience” and “to be attentive to this inner voice …. and cooperate with it”.
For me, part of this cooperation was to let go of my usual approach of pre-
planning and pre-arranging everything (my day job is project management) and to trust in providence – much easier said than done. And so, I tried to live this approach through my Camino and day by day take stock of what I was feeling. I now think of yellow arrows in a wider sense, a metaphor for life generally: the things and people who point me in the right direction on life’s journey. Before I went to came on the Camino I was told by a few people that “on the Camino you get the help you need”. My own experience confirmed this and in my encounters I heard lots of pilgrims express the same experience in different ways.
I like to return to the poem (printed above):
And the Gift,
At the cowped jar’s rim,
At your need
A few days after arriving in Santiago de Compostela and just prior to returning home I had a serendipitous encounter with a fellow pilgrim whom I had not seen for 2 weeks. As we said our farewells he invited me to bring the Camino spirit back to our everyday lives. I could not but agree immediately; it was like a bond between us. I hope I can keep faith with that intention.
Thank you to Stephen McCormick for contributing.