I recently spent nine days on the Camino de Santiago during Semana Santa, Spain’s holy week that’s celebrated around Easter time. (Someone recently asked me why we call it Easter in English, and I came up short, so if anyone knows, please advise!) It’s essentially their spring break. Instead of heading to sunny Andalucía, like I did last year, or jet-setting to another European destination, I decided to shove a bunch of stuff in my backpack and walk 137 miles across Spain.
Here is my recap of what it was like, in the form of 10 stages:
Stage 1: This will be a nice walk
At first blush, the Camino de Santiago isn’t all the intimidating. It’s just walking. 780 kilometers of walking, but still. It’s not like you’re running a marathon – or even hiking. I walk all the time. How hard can it really be?
Stage 2: I’m so not ready for this
Bed bugs? Blisters? I can only bring two sets of clothes? After doing some reading in preparation for my Camino trip, I started to feel really unprepared.
Stage 3: I can’t believe I’m doing this
Packing up all of the possessions I would have for the next nine days into a single pack and boarding a bus at 12:30 a.m., I started to feel like I had made a mistake.We would arrive in Pamplona at 8:30 a.m. And then, there were 220 kilometers (137 miles) between me and Burgos, where I had plans to catch a bus back to Avilés. If I didn’t make it all the way there, I didn’t know what I was going to do.
Why couldn’t I have planned to spend my week off doing something conventionally fun like going to the beach? or visiting Italy?
Stage 4: I can’t believe I’m doing this
Once we got on the trail, and people started riding past on bikes, wishing us a “buen camino,” I started to feel pretty confident about the whole thing. We passed other people on the trail, bought some lemonade from a friendly-yet-entrepreneurial kid on the roadside. And when we rolled into Puente la Reina that afternoon, I felt like we were really ‘pilgrimming.’
Stage 5: This is so much fun
I can only explain the next stage by describing it as what I imagine summer camp must have been like. You go to sleep early and wake up early with a sense of purpose. There are activities to be done! No time to lose.
Once we got on the trail, the birds were chirping, the flowers were smelling spring fresh. The morning chill was hanging in the air until the afternoon heat swept over. I was cruising along and saying ‘good morning’ to the international pilgrim crowd in as many languages as I knew. We were having riverside picnic lunches and busting out the bota to take hits of wine when the afternoon dragged on and the foot pain kicked in. We made friends. Walking through a town square in the evening was like being a popular kid in the high school cafeteria. You know everyone you see, and they’re all saying ‘hi’ to you and waving as you go by.
Stage 6: I guess if everyone is doing it…
Wearing flip flops around tiny Spanish pueblos in April, getting in bed by 10, sharing two bathroom stalls with 40 men and women, greasing up your feet, sleeping in bunk beds with strangers. Under normal circumstances, I would feel pretty uncomfortable doing these things. But on the Camino, this is just how it goes. You pop blisters in front of other people and shower at midday. You wash your smelly socks by hand and hang them out on a line with a bunch of other pilgrim’s stinky hiking clothes.
Stage 7: My feet are going to fall off
Fast-forward a few days and a few hundred kilometers. I was in crazy pain. My toes were burning. The bones in my feet were aching. My ankle tendons started to feel like over-worked rubber bands – useless and about to snap.
To keep on keeping on, I tried every trick in the book: singing, talking, gritting my teeth, doing handstands. At best, these techniques provided momentary relief. The only promise was the moment when you stumble into town at the end of the day, knowing you can to remove you torture-chamber boots and give your feet 12 hours to recover before doing it all over again. It’s a vicious cycle.
Stage 8: What the heck is happening to my body?
Foot problems are a dime a dozen on the Camino de Santiago. Read anybody’s experience and this is clear. It doesn’t matter your level of experience, athleticism, whatever. It happens. What they don’t tell you is that you might also be plagued by a series of unexpected and perhaps even embarrassing problems. Mine included: rashes, swollen hands, fat ankles, and a serious sprinkling of freckles on just the left side of my face.
I also discovered that I experience something called Polymorphic Light Eruption. WTF? Yeah. Luckily, it started going away on its own. But I had to wear pants all day, every day when the sun was out. Total drag.
Stage 9: I want this to last forever. I’m never going back to real life
Then, you acclimate to the rhythm of Camino life. Rising at 6 o’clock and eating a big breakfast, packing up everything you need, hitting the trail in time to see the sunrise, walking and walking and walking until you reach your destination. Then checking in, unpacking what you need, getting cleaned up, eating as much as you can, exploring the town, relaxing with a beer in the afternoon sunshine, eating something for dinner, and going to bed between 9 and 10 o’clock.
It’s so simple. Yet, you feel like you’re achieving so much. You log miles every day. You make actual progress that you can track on a map. You’re physically getting closer to your goal. There isn’t some long mental to-do list that’s always piling up – that you’re always putting off. You spend all day outside, moving your body, and you feel like you deserve the simple pleasures you get at the end of the day.
Stage 10: I can’t wait to do this again
It was nice to complete our 9-day, 220k walk from Pamplona to Burgos. We dragged ourselves into the city with a sigh of relief, knowing we had done what we set out to complete. But the relief turned to restlessness. I felt sad knowing we would be hopping a bus and returning home, rather than camping out in an albergue full of achy pilgrims and doing it all over again the next day. Despite the pain, despite the fatigue, despite the redundancy, I honestly can’t wait to get back out there and do it again!