What I expected: A seven-day solo hike in which I spent the majority of time inside of my head and stopped along the way to sit and write.
What I expected: A community of nice people who would see one another and talk during dinner at the albergues (hostels). Since El Camino de Santiago is historically a religious pilgrimage, I imagined much discussion of Catholicism, with me, the Unitarian, as outsider, only listening.
What I actually experienced:
It all started after I paid .70 euros to enter the women’s bathroom at Charles de Gaulle airport. I used the bathroom and groomed myself after the overnight flight to France. A woman with long red and pink braids and a diamond nose stud approached as I was finishing up. “Are you walking the Camino?”
“Would you mind watching my backpack?”
She soon helped me exchange my computer printout for a train ticket, and we talked on the platform. It was her fourth time doing the trek. Seats were assigned, so we talked again on the next platform. She was from Canada, but she and husband had recently moved to the Dominican Republic. Somewhere along the line, we remembered to exchange names – hers was Pamela. Later, she bought me a beer while she waited for the third train and I, a bus. Then, in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the medieval town from which our pilgrimage was to begin, she saw me looking at map and sign. “Where’s your albergue?” She yelled across the street.
“Across from the pilgrim’s office.”
“Come with me.”
Pamela dropped me off at my destination, and we knew we’d see each other at Orisson, our albergue halfway up the Pyrenees, the next day.
I entered Beilari just in time for dinner. Our warm, wonderful host, Joseph, had us introduce ourselves and tell the reason for our sojourn; then, we toasted with wine. Joseph referred to us as a “Camino family,” and that set the tone perfectly for the trip to follow.
In Orisson, the “why?” was also asked. Between those nights and subsequent conversations, I learned that while some folks were on a religious pilgrimage, reasons varied: healing from loss was a biggy– loss of in-laws, having been a primary caregiver; loss of a husband to cancer, having become a young widow; loss of first love to breakup; loss due to a bout with cancer. But there were others reasons, too: parent/child bonding – there was even a three-generation family, grandma, mom, and two boys; weight loss; challenge; and perhaps a more general sense of need to move beyond what a person had known and been, to see the world through new eyes. One boy introduced himself and said, “I am nine, and it’s my first camino.” That got laughs. Another child said that he was in it “for the food.”
I bought Pamela a beer the next afternoon at Orisson, and we sat exchanging life stories for about two hours, before having dinner, where we sat with Marianne and Michelle, a mother/daughter duo from Denmark.
Pamela with Michelle and Marianne (at the Paella Plaza Party)
From day one forth, each proved different. The first day’s trek was the steepest and perhaps hardest with our backpacks. We left a medieval town of Basque architecture and cobblestone streets and wended our way upward through green fields and hills.
It was hot, it was hard, and we rejoiced that we made it! We awoke to mist below us, tucked in nooks and crannies of lower peaks, sunrise a glimmer above. Day two was gentler but longer. There were memorial cairns, stone storm shelters for shepherds, a shepherd with three dogs, sheep and a sheep bell, cows and a cowbell, horses roaming free, crossing the road. We leap frogged one another alone, in pairs, and small groups. We reached the magnificent peak and took photos individually and together. We entered Spain. That night, we slept at a monastery, where we received a pilgrim’s blessing in Spanish. We rejoiced – we had made it over the Pyrenees!
At 3 AM entering day two, I decided to set intentions for each day. For day two, I was going to let go of the people who had mistreated me and remember how well I’ve been loved and how blessed I am. As I climbed to the peak, I let go of past bullies and mental abuse. On the way down, I stopped, with no one around, and conversed aloud with the universe, thanking it item by item for all of the love and blessings. That moment stands out for me the most. I could cry, just thinking about how fortunate I felt.
Sophie from Sweden, Jenifer from Canada, Me, and Stefan from Germany, at Pyrenees’ Peak
Days three to seven were filled with forests, lavender fields, sunflowers, vineyards, olive trees, and two smaller mountain ranges. They were filled with additional intentions pondered. They were filled with delights, such as a vino fountain filled daily by monks and a boy who sells lemonade and has his own pilgrim’s stamp.
But here’s the thing: instead of finding myself withdrawing into myself, I met and came to appreciate my Camino Family. We started a What’s App thread and kept each other abreast of plans, shared progress, and provided useful tips. My best night with them was in Pamplona. Pamela and I decided we should have a pinchos y cerveza café crawl. It was akin to being a carefree teen again, meeting people at different venues and en route, sharing and laughing together. Only this was an international community of individuals from Germany, France, Denmark, Brazil, Canada, Australia, Sweden, and other countries, all ages, all walks of life. We hugged each other in greeting and good-bye as if we’d known one another since childhood.
Pamela and I walked together from the latter half of day two until I reached my destination, Los Arcos. Through a sweet woman, Marie from France, who said we were “like the animals who wore houses on their backs,” we became the “snail sisters.” We’re about the same height, which meant our legs were shorter than most other hikers. But we always arrived at our day’s destination! We’d lock step without trying and walk in sync for hours. About the same age, we shared our life stories and learned there were many parallels. Conversations ran deep in still waters.
And we laughed. And laughed. We sat on boulders and greeted people as they passed: “Bonjour!” “Buenos dias!” “Buongiorno!” We luxuriated on the roadside, lying back upon packs, asking hikers, “Cookie?” as they passed, offering our Spanish lime sandwich treats. One Asian couple, who we leap frogged with daily, always smiling when we did, were among those who stopped for cookies and a chat.
The night before our Los Arcos, Spain, arrival, and my 50th birthday, Pamela announced on our text thread that the next night there would be a “paella plaza party.” That morning, a birthday text from Marianne and Michelle came, filled with Danish flags, and when we saw them at breakfast, the duo handed me a present, a Camino shell bracelet, which I’ll enjoy always. As Pamela and I walked through woods, we suddenly heard from behind, “Happy Birthday to you…” Sophie from Sweden and a married couple from the United States hiked quickly up to me singing, hugged me, and went on their long-legged way. It was the nicest birthday “attack” I’ve ever received!
At our albergue later, a woman I’d never seen before asked if it was my birthday. The news had traveled up and down the Camino. I said yes, and she wished me a happy birthday in French and did that warm European two-cheek kiss thing. It was lovely, as was the paella plaza party that night, with my Camino family. A warm Japanese man, who was 69 and walked at a good clip, took our photos and had us write down our names, as if to make them indelible in memory. And then I said good-bye.
The universe gives you what you need. I thought that I needed reflection and writing time, and I had some, but it gave me more – in a world gone mad and more specifically, in a country, the USA, that I understand less each day, it restored me via beautiful people and much joy.
I walked 92 miles in one week. I’ve heard tell that the first leg of the Camino breaks you down physically, the second, mentally, and the final leg puts you back together both physically and mentally again. I did the first leg, and it was a physical challenge: I had knee swelling, heat rash, and cankles (swollen ankles) all for the first time. But I did it! I would love to return to finish the trek, from Los Arcos to Santiago, and then on to the west coast, to Finesterra, if time, health, and money permit. (And Pamela and I have also discussed walking the Portuguese Camino together.) I’ve kept track of my Camino Family by text thread and smiled and mentally cheered and cheered as they’ve reached Santiago, many in groups formed along the road. But in case the stars don’t align, don’t allow for such further adventure, I have the memory of this trek to embrace for the “second half” of my life. Just writing about it, I am awash in peace.