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What Walking the Camino de Santiago Taught Me About Life

‘El Camino no regala nada.’

I was trailing Iván, using his walking stick as a third leg as we trudged up a muddy incline somewhere between Santa Marina and Ballotas. I had joked around that my first and second breakfasts had not prepared me for the day’s long haul up and down ravines through western Asturias. But he was right – nothing on the trail came for free (except for the blisters – those were definitely free).

When Hayley and I decided to walk the Camino de Santiago two years ago, my mental preparation had begun and, even though my body never got the prep, I looked forward to two weeks where I had nothing to do but wake up, pull on my hiking boots and walk.

The Camino was, in many ways, a fourteen-day break from myself, from the pressures of daily life, from makeup and straightening irons. I cleared my head. I focused on eating and on sleeping and little more. Books and films paint a rosy picture of how the Camino has healing powers, about how one reaches the top of Maslow’s pyramid (totally made that up, but it’s not that far off), about how people’s lives change simple by trekking. Maybe they do, but mine certainly hasn’t changed in any profound way.

Don’t get me wrong – the Camino is still in the front of my recollection and I loved the experience I had (even the blisters – chicks dig scars, right?). Walking 326 kilometers along the coastline of Northern Spain may not have given my life a huge kick in the pants, but I wasn’t looking for it to, either. I didn’t go with a big question to wait and see if the road or God or another pilgrim answered it for me, nor did I set off hoping to find myself.

What I did take from the experience, though, was a better understanding about myself and my capabilities, a new dedication to seeking more from within myself, and the discovery that I have been me for far longer than I knew.

The Camino, as it turns out, it a great teacher.

What the Camino taught me about inspiration

“I don’t know,” said Antonio as he slid his insoles back into his boots. “For some reason, 3.000km just seemed like a good goal.” As we sat in the twilight of the municipal albergue in Vilalba, my jaw dropped. Hayley and I had done 200km or so, nothing compared to the number of footsteps Antonio had taken from Lourdes, France on his second Camino.

I was constantly inspired by the people with whom I shared the trail. Each person has their own story, their own reasons for walking to Santiago. The cook at the parador in Vilalba had walked to Santiago in 19 hours and was planning on walking the medieval city walls in Lugo 79 times for the victim of the Santiago train crash. Or the mother and her teenage daughter from Germany who were trying to learn how to get along. Or Pilgrim Peter, who was looking to find himself again after several jobs and not a clue what to do when he got back home (he never made it to Santiago due to a blood clot in his leg, and my heart broke for him).

I was inspired to come by a Spanish teacher, and just needed the impulse to actually go and do it. I needed to feel inspired. Once we set out, I was fascinated by the untouched landscapes, by the people we met, by the simplicity of pilgrim life. So inspired, in fact, that I can’t wait to do a second Camino.

What the Camino taught me about positivity

“I could complain, but it’s really no use.”

My friend Hayley says she’s a born complainer, but we realized its futility once we were walking on the second day near Soto de Luiña. This would be the day I’d get two blisters on my left foot and we’d arrive to Santa Marina with cramped muscles, but it was only the beginning.

Injuries, getting lost and arriving to find that there was no more room at the inn temporarily dampened our spirits. The thing is, there were always other pilgrims who had more ailments, or personal demons, or didn’t get along with their companions. Guido got shin splints from pulling a cart along the looooong stretch of the N-634, the Coastal highway that hugs the Bay of Biscay and the Cantabrian Sea. Iván’s back was so sore, he couldn’t carry his bag, let alone walk the 26 kilometers from Ribadeo to Lourenzá uphill. Hayley had sun rash on her right arm.

Everyone suffers on the Camino.

But everyone also pushes on within their abilities. My biggest ailments were my bad knees and shins after years of gymnastics wreaked havoc on an otherwise healthy body. I could have complained that there were snorers in the albergues, that some pilgrim meals were not worth the 10€ they charged, or that townspeople seemed to think everything was only a little further one (three kilometers after 25 of them is NOT ‘only a little further along’). But it didn’t make sense to sweat the trivial parts of the experience.

What the Camino taught me about vanity

I didn’t even bring a pair of tweezers with me on the Camino (thank goodness there was a pair of them in my Swiss army knife – saved!). Makeup, moisturizer and other beauty products, minus my sunscreen and a comb, never made the cut when packing my backpack. Every day we’d wake up, slather on some sun protection, put our hair in pony tails and arrive a few hours later, sweaty and dirty, to the next pilgrim inn.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I forgot all about how I looked, if I had any zits or I had forgotten to suck my gut in. I wouldn’t consider myself high maintenance by any stretch of imagination, but I’ve noticed that I’ve become even less so in the six weeks since the Camino. I did treat myself to a pedicure because my feet actually hurt with the blisters, and I think the girl who had to buff off the old, dead cells was disgusted by the state of my tootsies.

I came to love my fresh faced look, and found my skin even seemed to improve. I felt more, well, me.

What the Camino taught me about my body

Speaking of vanity, I think I came to know more about my body while walking. When you’re in the middle of a forest or skirting around some hidden beach, there’s nothing between the ground and the sky but you and your body. By not worrying about makeup or clothes, I could concentrate on getting to know my body and its grievances. I listened when it needed water or a snack, and I allowed it to have a nap for as long as it needed. As a matter of fact, my body felt more rested at the end of the Camino!

Every morning, my body took priority over anything else – I would wrap my blisters, spread vaseline on my feet, gingerly put on my socks and hiking boots. I’d then spend 10 minutes stretching every single muscle, just as I did when I was a gymnast. I could soon feel every rock under my feet, I knew just where my back would be sore according to how I’d re-packed my bag that morning. While on the trail, I could calculate just how much fuel it would need during the day, and I rewarded its hard work with half a litre of vino nearly every afternoon at lunch (que Dios bendiga pilgrim meals!!).

When I didn’t cooperate, my body made sure I knew it – I had knee problems thanks to an old injury and tendonitis that had me ready to flag down us a bus when we were in Mondoñedo. Knowing that the rest of the day would be an uphill climb to Gondán, I freaked myself out, thinking it would be impossible to push on. But Hayley and I had promised that we’d be purist pilgrims and walk every last kilometer into Santiago. That night, we had to decide between sleeping on the floor of the sports center, or shelling out 19€ per person for a hotel room. Duh.

I also realized just how strong I got during the two week trip. After four days, we could log five kilometers in an hour and we could walk longer and farther after a week. My calves and glutes were working on overdrive. When we got to Santiago, I had half a heart to cancel my plane ticket and arrive to Fisterra. Even after returning to Seville, I began walking more often to the center (about four kilometers) or even Triana.

What the Camino taught me about grieving

I wasn’t only carrying a 15 pound bag on my back during the Camino – I was carrying my friend Kelsey in my heart. Kelsey fought cancer for seven years before she passed away in late 2011 at 21. The Oficina de Acogida de Peregrinos allows pilgrims to walking in memory of someone who has died or is physically unable to make the trip, something called ‘Vicario Por.’

Whenever by body hurt, I thought of Kelsey. As I curled up in bed one drizzly night in Miraz, I buried my head under the thick wool blanket and cried soft tears until I fell asleep. And when we arrived to Monte do Gozo, the final climb before entering the Santiago city limits, I cried for her and for her memory, big sloppy (and most likely, very, very ugly) tears while Hayley told me to cool it before she lost it, too.

I expected to grieve for Kelsey on the trip, and it felt right to remember her in this way. In some strange way, everyone on the Camino is grieving or remembering or getting over something or someone, evident by the piles of rocks left atop way markers and the need to go to Fisterra and burn one’s clothing. I left small orange and purple ribbons – the color of sarcoma and leukemia awareness, and also her favorite colors – in important places during the last few days, as well as a photo of Kelsey and a small scallop shell in St. James’s tomb when we went to pay our respects.

I left behind a part of me that will always remember, but I did the grieving I needed to in order to move on. Kelsey said she always wanted to go to Spain. She didn’t get there physically, but she’s been all over the North by now.

What the Camino taught me about myself

I didn’t expect a grand epiphany when we ascended Monto do Gozo and finally saw the end in site – in fact, I was quite sad to know that the journey was all but over, and a day later I’d be sleeping in my own bed in Seville. There was no moment of clarity or understanding or forgiveness or whatever it is that pilgrims are supposed to feel when they complete the Camino.

In fact, I was the victim of a surprise attack from a pilgrim we’d run into two or three times who hugged me before I could hug the one who’d stuck with me through the whole thing. Maldito Tomás.

I knew I would enjoy the Camino, despite the warning of ampollas, of cancerous peregrinos, of the threat of getting bedbugs for the third time. I just had no idea how much I would love the experience of sharing the road with strangers and of hearing the ground move under my feet. In fact, my feet became the center of my universe for 14 days.

I learned a lot from doing the Camino de Santiago, but mostly about me and my capabilities. I’m strong physically and mentally. I’m headstrong and can push myself.

As my friend Alvaro from Bilbao put it, “Every step you took towards Santiago was a step towards your own destiny, to a story that you have for yourself that no one else will ever have. It’s all yours.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Camino de Santiago, check out my articles on what to pack, how to read the waymarkers across Asturias and Galicia and about the beaches and quaint towns we saw along the way. 

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arrow64 Responses

  1. 6 mos, 3 wks ago

    ahhh this is lovely. I need to send you those interview questions. Thanks for writing!
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  2. 6 mos, 3 wks ago

    Cat, this is just beautiful. I love the experience you had and they way you have shared it with all of us. You make me want to pack up Alan and the kids and do it too. Hmmmm…. I must start planting a seed with them.

  3. Jill
    6 mos, 3 wks ago

    Thank you Cat, for an account written with openess and insight. How wise of you to wait a few weeks before writing this, to allow time to reflect. From this comes such warmth and honesty.

  4. 6 mos, 3 wks ago

    I loved your reflections about the Camino. Great writing! I noticed the same thing as you did when I walked the camino – even without makeup, my skin seemed to get clearer, fresher, more vibrant. Must be all the nature, fresh air, time spent walking, and lack of mental stress (physical stress there is plenty).
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  5. 6 mos, 3 wks ago

    This was very touching, Cat. Thank you for sharing your experience, which I imagine must have been hard to put into words!

    Will there be a Camino ’14?
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  6. Christine
    6 mos, 3 wks ago

    Very beautiful and inspiring. Thank you!

  7. 6 mos, 3 wks ago

    Fantastic post. It’s something I’ve long thought about doing and your blog brought the experience vividly to life. Beautifully honest and real.

  8. 6 mos, 3 wks ago

    I smiled so hard when I read the part where you said ‘I felt more, well, me’. What a beautiful story, and memories to treasure for a lifetime.
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  9. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 3 wks ago

    I’m blushing (no make up on, either!). Thank you!

  10. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 3 wks ago

    Thank you for reading!

  11. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 3 wks ago

    Thanks, Jack. It’s an incredible thing to do for yourself – stop thinking and go…just not now. It’s cold now.

  12. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 3 wks ago

    Thanks, bonita!

  13. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 3 wks ago

    I did see quite a few kids once we hit Arzúa and hooked up with the Francés. If your kids are willing (they’d take the most convincing), I would do the French route because there are more chances to stop for the night and snack bars are more common. The Northern Route is also very strenuous. Get at me if you have questions!

  14. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 3 wks ago

    It was definitely a process to write, Jill! Thanks so very much for your input!

  15. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 3 wks ago

    Here’s hoping! I’m debating between Poland and a part of the Francés or Portugues for Semana Santa, though I don’t think summer will hold a Camino – I want to go home!

  16. 6 mos, 3 wks ago

    Thanks Cat
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  17. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 3 wks ago

    Looking forward to getting them!

  18. 6 mos, 3 wks ago

    Very nice, Cat. You’re so right about what you learn on the Camino. The main lesson for me was that I can do anything I want, even if it’s walking 800 KM across a super heated Spain. Loved the part about your friend, too. You have a big heart.
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  19. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 3 wks ago

    It’s really amazing what we’re capable of, isn’t it?

  20. Beautiful story! I’m currently on a big trip to Asia and Oceania but I would love to hike the Camino one day, It would be the ultimate challenge and hopefully it could teach me something about life like it did for you.

  21. Mickey
    6 mos, 3 wks ago

    Beautiful read. Thanks for sharing.

  22. 6 mos, 3 wks ago

    What a life changing event – reading this made me really want to take a journey, not just a trip. I cannot imagine the physical and emotional demands and what they would cause me to discover about myself, but reading yours was super empowering!
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  23. 6 mos, 3 wks ago

    Great piece Cat
    Living so close to the Camino, I see pilgrims all the time. I’ve often wondered over each individuals reason for their journey. I suppose it’s like the meaning of life – different for each of us.
    Thanks for sharing yours.

  24. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 3 wks ago

    Thanks, Steph! I sincerely believe that every step is a journey, and I’m sure you’re living one, too!

  25. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 3 wks ago

    Thanks, love! When are we going?!

  26. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 3 wks ago

    Aw, thanks! I mean, I’d rather be walking to the bar (or beer tent!), but it was a nice break!

  27. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 3 wks ago

    I can imagine! I recognized Monforte from your book immediately, as it’s on the Frances. The question of ‘Why walk?’ is often the first thing you’re asked on the trail. I loved listening to each person’s story and sharing mine.

  28. 6 mos, 3 wks ago

    This was lovely to read. Thanks so much for sharing. I am hoping to do the camino frances in the spring, and I always soak up writing about people’s experience on the camino.
    -Meghan

  29. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 3 wks ago

    Ahh, you’ll have a wonderful experience! I’ve got loads of ideas about packing (though I take it you’ll be biking?), so don’t hesitate to get in touch! Enjoy and buen camino!

  30. 6 mos, 3 wks ago

    This gave me chills and made me teary. First, when you described the people you met and there reasons for walking, and especially your own reason. Your journey sounds incredible and soul-cleansing in exactly the way you needed it to be, nothing more, nothing less. Thanks for sharing xx
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  31. 6 mos, 3 wks ago

    Oh man, what a post. This was great! Very, very down-to-earth description of what the Camino is actually like, blisters and all. I think a lot of blogs and books about it tend to over-mysticize/dramatize it, but your series of posts have kept it real.

    “There was no moment of clarity or understanding or forgiveness or whatever it is that pilgrims are supposed to feel when they complete the Camino.” << Yep, I felt EXACTLY the same. Walked in to the Obradoiro plaza and I was like “welp…it’s done now…what next?” There wasn’t much of a the-heavens-opened-and-it-was-glorious moment, probably because it was overcast and rainy but eh, typical Galicia ;)
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  32. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 2 wks ago

    Why, thank you!! I get asked often about the Camino, and all I can really say is, it’s a beautiful experience. Because it is an experience, and it’s different for everyone. Perhaps that’s why I liked it so much – it was mine, but it was shared.

  33. 6 mos, 2 wks ago

    Oh my gosh. I write this with tears falling onto my keyboard…such a realistic post that manages to be beautiful and extremely moving at the same time! Thanks, Cat!

  34. 6 mos, 2 wks ago

    I am not a Peregrino but I met a few in Burgos, Pamplona, Puente de la Reina, and Santo Domingo de la Calzada. There are so many great personal stories. I really loved the atmosphere in those “pilgrim” towns. You have some good images of the mojones and shell signs.
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  35. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 2 wks ago

    Agreed, E. We didn’t have as many pilgrims in our stops, but Ribadeo and Baamonde were great fun. Arzua was overwhelming because of the pilgrim shock at seeing soooo many people, but we enjoyed the solitude on the Norte.

  36. Wow – this definitely sounds like a journey I’d love to make one day. All of the lessons you learned about yourself along the way seem well worth the blisters and back aches. And I’m very sorry to hear about the loss of your friend, but glad to know that this experience allowed you to grieve. I also commend the fact that you learned to listen to your body and were able to rest fully in spite of the physical demands. Learning to rest is a lesson that I’m still struggling to learn.

  37. 6 mos, 2 wks ago

    Cat!!! I’m sorry I’m just now reading this. I shed a few tears at the end….. my Camino friend Matt who I walked with wrote those Tom Petty quotes all over the Camino. I watched him write this last one as we walked in to Santiago. Sigh. I love that we were able to share a Camino moment even though we were on different paths at different times.

    I have so much to blog about and no time. Now I’m really itching to write more about the Camino. Great post. Even greater place on Earth.
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  38. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 2 wks ago

    I was just thinking of you yesterday! And, really, my heart just welled up knowing YOU witnessed that quote. It might have been when I really lost it on the trail, knowing that we were all but finished but had a lifetime of memories. Even on two different trails at two different times, we could have a shared experience!

    NOW GET WRTITING!

  39. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 2 wks ago

    Thanks, Dana! The Camino is, for many people, a life-changing event. In some ways, I feel different, but I think the Camino made me more self-aware. Buen Camino!

  40. 6 mos, 2 wks ago

    Lovely, poignant piece and congratulations on completing your goal!
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  41. Patti
    6 mos, 2 wks ago

    Love this! Great pics! Wonderful insights!

  42. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 1 wk ago

    Thanks, Patti! Many people do it on bike…tell Dwight to put it on his bucket list!

  43. 6 mos, 1 wk ago

    I think you learned exactly what it is to be learned from this experience. The modern life makes us run around in circles doing what others expect us to, and we never have the time to look inside and understand what we really need.

  44. Fantastic post! It definitely proves that it’s all about the journey and not the destination.
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  45. 6 mos, 1 wk ago

    SO beautiful, Cat. Because I can’t walk much due to my disabilities, this was even more important for me to read than I thought, upon reading the title. Thank you – what a gift!
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  46. Pedro Meca
    6 mos, 1 wk ago

    you’ve got a gran corazón thinking of your friend.

    i’ve never done the camino, but if i did it i wouldn’t follow the steps everyone follows, i mean, people go to the same inns, they get a paper with seals stamped that proves that you have done the camino, etc i think that it has become not natural.

    a person can do his camino on his own starting in any part, not getting any paper with seals, yet the person can feel as satisfied as any other who’s followed what is supposed to be the correct way.

  47. 6 mos, 1 wk ago

    Huh. I hadn’t heard of the Camino before this week and this week…well, your article is the third (and most inspirational) one I’ve seen this week! I like how honest you are about your experience. The blisters, the doubts at various points. We are all more capable than we think we are. Really enjoyed the read. Any more long walking trips planned? Once your feet heal :) ?

  48. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 1 wk ago

    The Camino seems to have gotten quite popular in the last few years,especially since the film ‘The Way’ was released. I knew it wouldn’t be a cake walk, but it was a really great experience – and, yes, I’d love to do a different route from start to finish! Thanks so much for your words and for reading, Megan.

  49. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 1 wk ago

    Why, gracias!! Yes, the Camino is definitely a gran metáfora for life in the end, and walking one route or one way doesn’t mean much if you don’t take it to heart or do it just to do it. This is exactly the reason why I waited. I met a few pilgrims who seemed to walk as an obligation, and I don’t think they enjoyed the experience and what it teaches.

  50. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 1 wk ago

    Thank you!!

  51. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 1 wk ago

    That is, in the most concise form possible, the best way of describing it. It’s amazing how little we can live on, really. Thanks, Brian.

  52. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 1 wk ago

    Jessie, the next Camino I walk will be vicario por then, and for you!

  53. 6 mos, 1 wk ago

    Such a lovely post, Cat. I’d love to walk the Camino someday – maybe when my little ones are a bit older :)
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  54. 6 mos, 1 wk ago

    So inspiring. I loved every bit of this post!
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  55. 6 mos, 1 wk ago

    This was one of the most interesting and well-written posts I’ve read in a long time. I had never considered the Camino something for me (and maybe it’s still not), but I do like the idea of challenging myself with a goal that forces a little self-discovery.

    Thanks for sharing your story, Cat.
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  56. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 1 wk ago

    Thank you so much, Larissa! I’m discovering that I really like the challenges that I keep dreaming up…! Maybe getting over my immense fear of bungee jumping is next (not!)?

  57. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 1 wk ago

    Thank you, Sally!

  58. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos, 1 wk ago

    Thank you, Micki! I saw plenty of families walking the last few stages, so I’d definitely consider it if your kids enjoy walking and the outdoors!

  59. 6 mos, 1 wk ago

    Great post — I feel like it could be part of a book one day :)
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  60. 6 mos, 1 wk ago

    It is so amazing. I love the experience you had and they way you have shared it with all of us.
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  61. What a wonderful journey on so many levels — and a great read. I love how experiences like this strip life to its essentials.
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  62. Sunshine and Siestas
    6 mos ago

    Thank you, Terry! Probably a bit more exciting than elbowing your way through human traffic and slush in your neck of the woods!

  63. 5 mos, 3 wks ago

    I lived in Santiago de Compostela for a year and thought maybe one day I’ll return walking, doing the Camino. After all, one of the Camino’s paths passes right in front of my house in Portugal.
    Same as you, I’d do it for the experience, to unwind, even for the sake of exercise.. not expecting to be a life-changing experience. Still, I think it’d be very enjoyable!

  64. Sunshine and Siestas
    5 mos, 3 wks ago

    It’s written in your life plan!! I was so touched by the people whose houses we passed on the way to Santiago. They must say ‘Buen Camino’ a hundred times a day. I’m the creep on the bike in Seville who says it to people on my way to work, and it passes close to my old house, too.

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