Walking a Dream

| January 4, 2011 | 7 Comments

The Camino de Santiago de Compostela (A Thru-Hike for those who like pillows)

Submitted by reader, Joannie Warnshuis of Lawrence, MA. Joannie shared with us that she completed her Camino de Santiago pilgrimage at the age of 62.

In May, I was at JFK waiting to fly to Madrid, decked out in hiking clothes, with a full pack, hat, and sticks. All around me, Spanish people were smiling and friendly to me – they all knew who I was and where I was going. They knew I was off to become a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. The gate at JFK is where my pilgrimage really began – the planning, the training, the packing worries were all behind me. And I was in a warm and generous environment that would travel with me for the next 4 weeks.

These days, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela is a long-distance walk that spans 500 miles across Northern Spain. Its destination is the city of Santiago near the western coast. That’s where, so the story goes, the bones of St. James (Santiago in Spanish) were discovered by a hermit in the 9th century, and as relics and pilgrimages became important in medieval life, Santiago grew into an important religious destination. If you went on a pilgrimage, you went to Jerusalem, Rome, or Santiago.

Today, the Camino is a journey through towns and villages across Northern Spain. Its historic path is well marked with yellow arrows, and there are hostels and simple cafes all along the way. It’s ideal for someone traveling alone – it’s safe and affordable – no ‘singles supplement’ charge for a bed in a hostel. Even traveling alone, you are only alone when you want to be.

Why would a sane person want to go alone to Spain, for 4 weeks, on a 180-mile walking trip? Well, first of all, I’m not entirely sane. Also, I’m not an athlete – I can’t do anything with a ball, but I can walk. Most importantly, there’s the dream thing.

You see, I grew up in a family where dreams were not encouraged. Being passionate about something was never even mentioned. Being practical was the important thing. Dreams would just cost you money and lead to disappointment. Better to not get your hopes up in the first place. Stick to being thrifty, productive, and practical.

But then I went off to college, and I heard about hiking and backpacking. I met kids who were fanatic about their hiking, camping and skiing. Some of them, like me, didn’t have much money, but they would pretty much go without food to go skiing. Hey, maybe dreams weren’t such a bad idea after all. So I started hiking and camping, and found my passions.

Then, I found myself with a family of my own. You know how it goes – you get busy with everyday life and making ends meet. My adventuring dreams got set aside. For a little while, I even forgot I ever had those dreams.

Beautiful Camino

When I heard about the Camino, it was kind of like a “last chance.” I planned the trip, but I kept quiet about it – it sounded so crazy. I didn’t tell anyone outside of the family. The first time I talked about my idea, out loud to friends, I could hardly get the words out – it was so scary to actually say it. Saying it out loud meant committing to this crazy thing, and I cried hard, as I told them what I wanted to do.

My friends were great – I was so grateful for their support. And I was so surprised at how emotional it was to make my plan public and how passionate I was about making it real. I knew I had to do the Camino.

I started my trip in Leon, straight north of Madrid. Most days, I’d walk about 6 hours, 12 miles or so, stopping every couple of hours for a leisurely break – a Coke or a simple meal, and a chat with other pilgrims. Usually by mid-afternoon, I’d stop in my destination town. Other pilgrims are doing the same, so you chat and share stories, and maybe make plans to have dinner together.

So, what’s the Camino like? You go through tiny villages and fair-sized towns, through beautiful rolling misty mountains that look like Ireland, through forests, farmland, marshes. Also dry hot stretches and a few industrial suburbs. Sometimes you’re walking alongside a highway, but more often you’re on a country road. Or no road – just a path. It’s a very old path, so it wasn’t designed to be easy. If there are hills ahead, the path doesn’t go around them.

Always, always, there are churches, even where there is barely anything else. Even when all that’s left of the church is a few stones and a part of its empty bell tower.

All along the way, the Spanish people are friendly and helpful, genuinely glad we are there. And not just because we bring what may be the only money coming into their areas – the Camino is important to them, it is their cherished religious heritage, they are proud of it, and they’re glad that we have come to experience it. I especially loved chatting, in my pathetic Spanish, with the farm women along the way.

I loved talking with the farm women on the way.

The pilgrims, like the countryside, were a constantly changing kaleidoscope. Many walkers start out way back in the Pyrenees, others take shorter trips, as I did. We met one fellow who walked all the way from his home in Latvia – and when we met him, he was on his return trip, walking all the way back. The Pilgrims come from all over the world. One fellow kept count, said he’d met walkers from 35 countries

For some, it is a religious journey. One of my first companions was Tricia, an American living in Italy who has devoted much of her life to St Francis. She’s quiet about her faith, I only found out about it when I wondered why she was living in Italy. One day, we walked next to a wire fence where people wind sticks through the wire, to make crosses. I watched Tricia solemnly make her own cross, and I was glad to have a hint of how very much it meant to her.

The friends I made were walking for lots of reasons: companionship with their friends, adventure, culture, history, personal growth. For all of them, there was a spiritual element to their Caminos.

The Camino and its people became much more than just a walk to me. The Camino was a kind of organism, a giant colorful protective caterpillar, rumbling across the countryside, its contents of Pilgrims constantly changing. It reached back 1000 years, and forward too. Our time on the Camino overlapped with those who started ahead of us, and with those at the other end, just starting out.

Our destination

My friends and I ended our Camino together, officially, at the noontime pilgrims Mass in the Cathedral at Santiago. Even if we couldn’t understand most of the Spanish words, we knew the Mass was a celebration for the pilgrims who had done the Camino

There’s a final ritual on the Camino, going to Finisterre (“Earth’s End”). Finisterre is a small fishing village on the seacoast, the site of some medieval miracles. Here, the pilgrims for centuries have hiked to the top of the cliffs, and watched the sun set over the Atlantic. Traditionally, they light a fire and burn old clothes. Pilgrims toss in clothes, or hiking socks. They share their food and wine and stories, and watch the beautiful sunset together. It’s a perfect way to end the journey, and to wish each other “Buen Camino” for wherever our journeys take us next.

I loved doing the Camino, it was everything I expected and much more. I grew and learned…learned about being open, about friendships, about giving and receiving help. And I re-learned about wonderful homecomings, how very important my husband and family, and friends, are to me.

Also, I stretched myself by walking the Camino, by getting out of my chair and doing something I’ve wanted to do for years. I found out, again, that dreams are really important. I have to work to make them come true, they don’t just come knocking at my door, ready-made. It really is important to have people who support you and help you reach your dreams.

I didn’t do the Camino to inspire anyone, but I’ve found that my trek has inspired others, especially other women. Maybe one of them will think about that gal who trekked in Spain by herself, when she is thinking about her own dreams. And maybe someday I’ll hear my granddaughter say, “Hey, my Grandma, she did the coolest thing……”

Recommended Camino reading:
“Walking in a Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons from the Camino” by Joyce Rupp (very thoughtful)
“Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain” by Jack Hitt (a hoot)

Leave a comment for Joan on our Facebook page here.

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Comments (7)

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  1. Ingrid says:

    At 60 I started doing long day hikes, usually alone…but you are never really alone…and sometimes with others. Next summer at 62 I plan to do 2 nights,3 days off trail and alone. Like you I tell few. Those who fear don’t understand. Like is what you make it and I am fortunate to be able to make these hikes.
    Keep on trekking. What you did was wonderful. We do need to set examples for our granddaughters. My mother lived on fear, more and more as she got older. I won’t do that. I admire my daughters who stretch themselves to their limits and dream big.
    You are wonderful!

  2. Susan Hartman says:

    You go girl. You sure inspired me. Even brought this 56 yr old woman to tears. Thank you.

  3. Helen says:

    What an amazing accomplishment. I am 48 this week and like Ingrid had a mother who was very careful, never taking chances or even admitting to having any dreams of her own. After a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s Disease she passed away at 72. I had a mother-in-law that was never allowed to do anything on her own, when she was widowed at 75 I asked her if there was anything that she wanted to do now that there was nothing to stop her? She said there wasn’t and she passed away a year and a half later. I don’t know if they truly did not have any dreams, but I know I have dreams and I want to find a way to make as many a reality as I possibly can.
    In the last few years I have forced myself to do things on my own. One thing was that I drove 22 hours to get to a Women’s Outdoor Weekend in Southern Ontario Canada. Though I had support, I was also amazed at how many women said they could never do something like that on their own. The road trip was wonderful, I traveled along the great lakes, saw beautiful scenery, stopped whenever I felt like it and at my destination I met other amazing women facing their own fears. Then I turned around and drove all the way back.
    I try to find something I want to do, then say it out loud with witnesses so that way I won’t back out. I like that this also gives me something to look forward to and when something is not going well I tell myself, “but I am going to ___________ and I can get past this”.

  4. jay says:

    It’s an amazing journey, the Camino. I did it last year, in fact had my 60th on the track….I walked 27 kms a day starting at St Pied de Port. It sure is a potpourri of people with many I met a lot older than 62 years.
    Its a trip anyone can do-I intend to do it again but this time not so quickly! Many Europeans do it part of the way and then go back another time to do the rest. I’m from NZ so when we go that far from home we do it in go!
    Have a fantastic time to those you do it……and a Happy Peaceful New Year to you all!

  5. Denise says:

    Hey Joan,

    I’m so glad to finally read about the trip you’ve mentioned with such enthusaism. What an accomplishment! You know I’ll travel with you any old time – I love your ‘can do’ mindset and adventuresome spirit as well as hearing about so many of your interesting life experiences. I’ve been tempted before to follow in your shoes – out west, the Camino, and other ventures you’ve undertaken. Keep inspiring! Love you, Denise

  6. Marti Campbell says:

    I love reading about adventurous women. You go girl! There are many more trails out there. In Sept. Of my 64th year 2008, 2 other women and I rented mt. Bikes and started our journey on the camino from the French border. Since we could move faster than the walkers we completed the ride in 15 days. The weather was cooler. What a journey, some steep paths we got off and pushed the bikes, even on steep downgrades we had to dismount. My passion is bicycling. This past sommer I crossed the northern tier of the US from Anacortes, WA to Halifax, Nova Scotia. June 18-Sept. 25.

  7. Nicole says:

    “Why would a sane person want to go alone to Spain, for 4 weeks, on a 180-mile walking trip? Well, first of all, I’m not entirely sane. Also, I’m not an athlete – I can’t do anything with a ball, but I can walk. Most importantly, there’s the dream thing.”

    This is a wonderful paragraph. It expresses exactly how I felt last month when I started my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. What’s wonderful about these experiences is that we don’t have to be the best at anything. Hiking isn’t a competitive sport. While it is athletic, and may people consider it a sport, to me, it’s just what you do. It’s unique and special to every person who does it.

    Thank you for sharing your story.



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