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.
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.
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.
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)