In a fast pace universe amidst the rocks and trees of North Western Spain, I walk in a peaceful and untouched part of the world. I walk with a community that never fails to protect, guide and support me with every step taken. I walk with grace and an extra bounce during those golden hours and broken arches during those moments where it feels almost impossible to continue up that last hill. I hear the words of encouragement behind me,
“we are strong, we are brave and we are healthy”
It makes me feel grateful to hear it coming from new friends but most of all, it brings me to a grand realization. As I look out over the vineyards and rolling hills, I think to myself:
There is so much more in this world to appreciate than to complain about.
To go through each and every person that has given me direction and wisdom on this journey would be near impossible. I knew going into this that everyone would have a story. I was sure that I would be walking alone but never really feel alone at all. All of these things proved to be true. What I didn’t expect was the overwhelming sense of selflessness from each and every pilgrim I’ve encountered. Their generosity baffles me. There could be an injury or a hungry traveler and seven people would hand out bandaids and granola bars. It’s happened to me and I’ve seen it happen to everyone else too. We all look out for each other. It’s the people you start with that you tend to stick with through each albergue and trail but it always surprises me who seems to come out of the woodwork when you’ve been walking on the same path for days.
Our first day was known to be the worst and as stated in the hundreds of books about the Camino, it was the most strenuous of them all. This 27km day took us up and over the Pyrenees. It felt like 34km if you calculated the steep incline. The funniest part is, this wasn’t my hardest day. In fact, I’ve almost wished to be hiking over the Pyrenees again through a few days recently. I was more than ready to walk on that first day and take on everything it threw at me.
I arrived in St. Jean Pied de Port last Thursday and was exhausted by the time the bus stopped in the parking lot. The clan of us coming from Pamplona, backpacks and all huddled together and shuffled along trying to locate the pilgrim office as best as possible. This town was absolutely adorable and looked like something pulled straight from a fairy tale. Upon arriving at the office I was greeted by a smiling blonde lady sitting on the other side of a table. The table and the lady looked exactly like what I had imagined I would start with which was comforting. I took a seat and my special pilgrim passport was handed over along with a map and some general rules to follow while walking. I could barely sit still and was already thinking of getting started. Of course, no walking would be done that night but even the words 27km, uphill and no food for miles didn’t discourage me from our start tomorrow. With that same grin, the stamp came down with a thump and marked my clean passport with a beautiful symbol saying I had begun. It was monumental almost. My first stamp of the many I would be collecting over a 500 mile journey to Santiago.
It was the beginning of September and later in the evening which meant most albergues were full with no space to sleep. Every trip to a new city seems to get to me emotionally. It takes over without warning and before I know it, I realize I’ve left behind a place I was just beginning to get comfortable with. Mix that with the start of a spiritual journey where I’m supposed to be finding myself and you’ve got yourself a breakdown. The words “I don’t think I have enough space” after hearing it plenty of times before had finally hit me. Poor Sabine. The tears came out of nowhere and it certainly wasn’t her fault but she seemed to look guilty. Taking me under her wing, this empathetic owner gave me a bed in a room for two after some rearranging. Bless her heart. My first taste of the people to come. It had been a lot to take in after a long day of travel and just as I was contemplating hitting the hay far earlier than expected, a young girl came walking into my room to take the empty bed beside mine. Sarah was the very first person I met on the Camino. She made me feel safe right away and my tears dried as soon as we started talking. She’s from Denmark and studying medicine. Neither of us had the clearest idea of why we were walking this pilgrimage. We both agreed that the question would be better asked when we reached the end.
The two of us took a long walk through this cute little village to find a super market but learned that things close quite early in a town that size. Lucky for us, we settled in at a restaurant that sold Moules de Frites. After all, we would only be in France until we crossed the boarder the next day so this one French meal was crucial. It was delicious and I couldn’t thank Sarah enough for the honest conversation we shared over the night. It was just what I needed to bring back that excitement for the big day ahead!
The mornings from then on each started around 5:30am. It’s impossible to sleep any later because everyone is raring to go bright and early. I was surprised at my ability to rise out of bed and feel incredibly rested and coherent! Imagine that. Mornings are now my favourite time of day. Who have I become?! It’s the goal of a new destination and determination that drives you to feel right as rain each and every days beginning. The thought of watching the sun rise over the hills always diminishes any unhappy feeling that the morning could bring. The air was cool and the sky dark as I took my very first steps in my trusty Keens. The golden sun rose quickly behind us and I stopped to look out over the scenery. It was even more breathtaking than I dreamed it to be. The rolling hills and farmers fields created a stunning landscape of colour and depth. We walked past fields of sheep, shepherds and majestic horses roaming about in the tall grass and planes. To this day we still pass by stunning views and it never gets tiring. It’s the one thing that can always keep us going without fail. A soft mist was flowing across the path and into the fields. You could see it travel along in a slow and mystical way. Some people were disappointed of the obstructed view because of it. I thought it was magical and different. It added such an amazing atmosphere. One of my stand out memories from this walk will be the sound of the sheep’s bells as they ding with each bite of grass. They echo through the trees and paired with the sound of our footsteps on the rocky path, nothing could be more simple. It’s a meditative sound that I know I’ll try with everything I have to bring back in my memory.
We lucked out big time with the weather. There was a perfect early morning breeze blowing through the trees as we walked and it stayed late into the day. At one point I was bundled up in all the warm clothing I had brought because the temperature toward the top of the hill was freezing for an hour or two. Let’s be honest though, those were the things you needed to focus on while climbing up, up, up this steep mountain. I’m talking a solid 80 degree angle at times I’m sure. They didn’t lie about it being difficult but thankfully I had enough new energy to last me the entire day.
It became obvious very quickly that I would always be able to find conversation and company. Moments alone are very important on a walk like this but it’s amazing how accessible a new connection can be on the Camino. I ran into couples, solo travellers, someone who grew up in Kitchener, mother and daughter duos and people well beyond my years passing me with big strides. Just because I’m young doesn’t mean the 60 year olds don’t wiz by me from time to time! We all come from very different parts of the world yet we’ve created this diverse and beautiful community as time has gone on. Each passing pilgrim greets you with a hello in their native language and a happy “bon Camino” or “buen Camino” as they bid you farewell. What’s even more beautiful is the buen Camino’s that come from the locals. People who aren’t even walking this trail themselves provide support and it makes you feel like you’re a part of something that is so deeply appreciated and important.
I was worried about getting lost but the trail is clearly marked with the scallop shell and those darn yellow arrows that tend to hide when you need them the most. Some towns even have shells on plaques in the ground or on the fence creating a guide to the next fork in the road. It’s such a supported adventure in these communities because in a way, we are such a huge supporter of them and their local businesses.
Sarah had long gone after about an hour of walking which was something I needed to get used to. The trick to getting as far as I’ve traveled is this: Go at your own pace. Know that this is not a race. Everyone you meet will come back into your Camino experience on their own time, it’s a given. Don’t worry about losing anyone, they’ll find their way to you. She mentioned something I had never thought of before I left. Can your mind even go for that long alone? How much could you possibly think about without human interaction for miles? The answer is a lot. More than you know. It’s been a challenge to turn it off at times and just think of nothing for a few minutes. It opens your mind to a whole bunch of new ideas and thoughts when you walk alone. You become entranced by the sound of your steps and develop such a rhythm that by the time you reach the next town, you think only minutes have past. Time is not a concept we have here. I don’t have any reason to know the date, month or time of day on this trek. It’s a very simple life we all lead and it will take a great amount of getting used to when I enter the big city again.
Freshly picked blueberries from my day! Amazing!
About three days in, an amazing group of five was formed. I met Kate and Michael on the second day and wanted to get to know them right away because of how interesting they both seemed to me. Kate is from New Zealand and Michael is from England. The two of them met in Greece at a dive shop and decided to do this hike together after just barely knowing each other. She is such a character and booming with personality. Michael is calm and happy which makes me feel the same when I’m with him. Gustavo is from Brazil and is such a generous and kind soul. Someone you just feel happy being around. Jale joined us on day four and is a definite soul sister. “Jolly. As in happy”, she told me. She lived up to her name. Jale was told by four different pilgrims that the two of us needed to meet because I was bound to be a perfect version of her younger self. The second we started talking I could already see our similarities. We shared an energy and a zest for life that clicked perfectly on every gruelling hill and long conversation into the hot sun. I’m fascinated by every single one of these people. Each of us brings something vital to the group and together our dynamic is the perfect blend to travel on such a walk. We know when alone time is needed. We respect the fact that sometimes we get separated but will always meet for a beer in the next town. It’s all smiles and laughs because what could we possibly be upset about? Every night we gather around for a pilgrim dinner. Each town offers a special that is normally three courses and no more than 11 Euros at most. The group of us and occasionally other pilgrim friends join and we drink red wine and enjoy a celebration toast for our days accomplishments. It’s become one of my favourite parts of each evening. I love sitting down with my temporary family and feeling completely happy and blessed that we’ve all crossed paths and can continue to travel on them together.
The life changing moments that are such an outlined part of this experience happen slowly and carefully. You don’t notice them right away. It’s only when I’m writing down my thoughts or thinking back to the days events that I see the change in my mindset. It’s those moments when my brain goes wild walking alone that I can hear myself growing even more. When you walk up a hill titled “The Peak of Forgiveness”, it gives you a lot to think about. More than you expect pours out of you and traveling that length solo was cathartic release at its best. I’ve liked that although I’m traveling with a group of younger people, there are a lot of older adults on this trail that seem to have such a grand sense of wisdom about them. It’s those conversations that start with, “if I could go back and do it all again I would…” that I cherish the most and take to heart with all that I have. It’s amazing how much I’ve been directed with the way I want to approach my future career, my views on love and life and greeting the day. In areas where I didn’t think it was necessary to look, my mind would go and people would help me get there. It’s been refreshing to get all this advice from people who have been where I am and genuinely want to help guide me. Some of them have a very specific reason for walking and others tell me that’s what they’re looking for. I look forward to seeing them all every night. You begin to specify each person by their country and everyone looks out of place and different without a backpack on. Those things become a part of you. I loved photographing just a portion of who I’ve met so far because while clicking away, I got to know them on the level I love most. It was my goal to capture what it was about each person that made them unique to me which is so important when you’re meeting loads upon loads of them per day. Meet my pilgrim family!
Someone that stood out very brightly was a lady named Michele, her brother Michael and niece Brittany. Michele is a contemporary artist, photography being a strand of her work. When I saw she was carrying a video camera, I was curious about her project. Brittany is twenty three years old and autistic. She is non-verbal and is traveling this pilgrimage with her father and then later assistant while Michele creates a documentary every step of the way. Faith, Hope and Love, Brittany. This film will be used to raise awareness about Autism, give hope for Autism and focus on faith and breaking barriers. I was touched by this brilliant family and the realness that flooded out of their steps and spirit. They inspired me. Brittany inspired me and I am very excited to be a part of their journey. It has been a joy to get to know them all and I’m praying that our paths will cross for a longer period of time so I can continue to learn about their incredible story. Please follow along and support Brittany at http://www.faithhopelovebrittany.com
See, it’s people like that who you meet. Those who inspire. It’s the little things that you cherish and hope you will never take for granted again. A fellow Canadian made me a walking stick that has become a part of me. I was given half a sandwich by Carol when I didn’t pack enough food. A lady studying Chinese medicine sat me down on the side of the path and worked out the kinks in my back. Taking my shoes off is euphoric. I can’t even begin to describe the sense of love I feel. It surrounds me, engulfs me even and to think this will be reality until the end of the month. I never want to let go.
Standing on top of The Peak of Forgiveness
Nothing worth doing doesn’t come with a bit of struggle here and there. To make up for the lack of blisters I’ve received, I sprained the same ankle twice yesterday. I could hear the crack as I rolled over it while stepping into a nice pothole in town. We have a priest traveling in our pack. He’s very silent about it and is always smiling more than anyone I’ve seen. I heard he had been doing a few hand healings on injuries lately but I didn’t expect he would approach me. After one of “those days”, hot and endless, he saw me struggling and approached me to introduce himself. With little said he sat me down and placed his hand on my ankle where it hurt the most. I could feel him breathe in deeply and a current rushed through my foot. It was very distinct, I could feel it clearly. It was as if he was sucking the negative energy out and replacing it with what is pure and positive. It was over within seconds and he walked away smiling peacefully. You don’t need to believe me when I say I could move my ankle perfectly afterward. It was as if it had never been sprained in the first place. Call it what you will but all I know is that I walked perfectly today as if nothing had happened. A true Camino moment.
We’ve travelled close to 200km now and still have many more days to go. There are many ups and there have been several downs but with a bit of singing and solid company, each day is exciting and challenging. I wake up wanting to walk every morning.
Santiago de Compostela isn’t technically the end of our route. A lot of us are planning to head to what is known as the end of the world. Finisterre. It’s three more days of walking added onto the original path and takes you to the sea. There, you burn your walking clothes, take a dive into the sea and your journey is complete.It’s all or nothing!
One step at a time we’re all walk to the same place together.