I’ve been home from the Camino quite a while now—a year-and-a-half, to be exact. I thought I would write a final entry within the first 30 days of returning, but that gave way to 60 days and then 90, and then…I wanted time to let my Camino experience fully sink in before writing a debrief of my walk across Spain to help those who are contemplating such a journey. It has, now, although I didn’t think it would be this long before I wrote about it again.
I was once asked what I’d advise someone going on the Camino for their first time and what they could expect from the trip. Truth is, every person’s journey is different and what I experienced will probably be vastly different than what others will experience. The season, the weather, the route, the day one starts—even the time of day— and the people encountered will all be different. The best advice is to just GO…and to be open to what the Camino offers. Everyone’s journey is different. And everyone’s journey is similar in the end.
Given that, and looking back these many months later, here is my advice for those planning the Camino for the first time:
- Don’t Let Planning Get in the Way of Serendipitous Moments. Trust in the Way. It will provide. This goes counter to the planner in me, but once you are on the Camino, things tend to fall into place. One way or another. Let the road carry you. You can’t plan on the people you’ll meet or the experiences you’ll have, so go with the moment and the flow of the road. This isn’t a wilderness hike. There will always be food and a bed ahead.
When I was in the Army, there was a saying—attribute to General Eisenhower, I believe: “Before the battle is joined, plans are everything; after the battle is joined, plans are worthless.” And that holds true for the Camino– well, substitute walk for battle, that is. You can plan for months on end before you leave, and that is part of the anticipation, but once you are on the road, you have to be open to what is before you—and adjust to the circumstances. Truth is, you simply can’t plan for what will happen; all you can do is experience what will happen, and respond to it. Therein lies the mystery—and the wonder. Like I say, “If you find the meaning, you lose the wonder.” Be open to those serendipitous moments.
- Light the Candles. Although the majority of pilgrims I met weren’t Catholic or doing the Camino for religious reasons, I found going to Mass each evening in the village church to be meditative and healing. There is something soothing about sitting in a centuries old church and listening to Mass in a language different than yours, even if you can’t understand it. For example, every day I would light a candle for someone back home. That alone was part of my Camino ritual, my spiritual moment, it was a way I could offer up a Blessing for those I love. Those candle lighting moments were my Holy Moments… I loved the architecture—and marveling at how they ever built these churches in the first place. That goes double for the Cathedrals in Burgos, Leon and Santiago. It doesn’t make any difference if you are Catholic or not, there is something healing about being in these village churches and cathedrals. Remember, you are walking the way of St. James, so it kinda goes with the territory to at least go in a few churches along the way. And especially at the end, in Santiago. Especially then.
- Lighten Up: Your Pack. Be careful of carrying too much gear. This isn’t the wilderness where you’ll be bushwalking, but you will be walking on everything from trails to farm roads with surfaces ranging from loose rock, shale, ancient Roman Roads, mud, cobblestone and ascents and descents on steep hills. The two most important things you need to prepare for in advance are your backpack and your shoes. Get as lightweight pack as you can afford. This is one place where you can really reduce weight. Pay attention to the actual empty weight of the pack. You will probably be carrying 20 pounds or less, so you do not need a large pack with an external frame—typically, a 45L size pack will do just fine. Many packs in that size seem to weigh around three to four pounds, but if you’re able to invest more, you can get packs in the two pound or even less range. For example, an Osprey Kestrel 38 is three pounds and runs $160. A Hyperlite 2400 Windrider is 1.8 pounds and costs $300. Is saving 1.2 pounds on your back every day worth a one-time investment of $140 more? Walk 39,000 steps a day with it for some 34 days and then tell me. Whatever brand you choose, be sure to have it fitted properly—and learn how to put it on and wear it. Go to a backpack store like REI. Tell them what you are doing, your experience level and they can help fit you. Be sure to ask them how to put it on, adjust and wear it. I’ve seen too many pilgrims carrying their packs with the weight on their shoulders and not their hips and suffering all the way. This alone will save you much agony.
- Lighten Up: Your Shoes: If you are in your 20s you can probably do it in tennis shoes. If you are in your 60s then your footwear is more important. Regardless, you do not need hiking boots. There is a saying among backpackers that every pound on your foot it is like seven in your pack. So lighten your pack and your footwear and it will pay big dividends. I wore Merrill Moab 2 Mid Vent, nonGortex shoes—and if I did it over again, I’d use trail runners, to save a little weight. A mesh non-Gortex trail runner will let your feet breath and if it gets wet, it will dry faster. Just because a shoe is waterproof doesn’t mean that your feet will not get wet. There is no thing as a truly waterproof shoe: water will seep down your ankle into your shoes—unless you have gaiters, and those are not needed unless you go in the raining season. If you have foot problems, see a podiatrist. I had Plantars Faciitis nine months before I left and had custom-made insoles, which saved me. I’d suggest that everyone get a pair of custom-made insoles rather than use that come with your shoe. It will make all the difference in the world. Another tip when buying shoes: read the manufacturer’s spec about the sole. You want a sole that is good on wet surfaces. There is nothing worse than to be walking on wet surfaces and having shoes that don’t give you the confidence of solid traction. Not all soles are alike. And on The Camino, you’ll be walking on trails with shale and when wet, can be slippery. The same goes for those Roman Roads and steep downhills.
- Take Hiking Poles/Sticks. Again, if you are in your 20s, you can probably get by without these, unless you don’t bounce back up when you slip or fall. If you are in your 60s, they are a necessity. But many I saw on the Camino just kinda drug them along and did not know how to properly use them, so go to a store like REI and ask them to show you how to use these important tools. They can save your knees going downhill. Much of the Camino is on rocky roads and shale and you’ll be going up and down hills, many of which are quite steep—and when those get wet it is dangerously slippery. A fall can put you out of business. Hiking poles can be a lifesaver to prevent that. Experienced backpackers won’t go without poles. Neither should pilgrims. But, and this is a big but, learn how to use them! Most of the folks I saw were just kinda clicking them along. Go to a store like REI and have them show you how to use poles for going up hill and down hill. And get the lightest poles you can afford—there is a big difference in holding one pound poles and holding 1.5 pound poles. Multiple that extra half-pound over the number of times you swing your arms in a day and you get the picture. Your arms will appreciate it.
- Your Pilgrimage May be Selfish. In a recent Dan Mullins podcast (The Camino Podcast–a great site!), he commented about the Camino having a piece of selfishness to it. He’s right. If you are leaving a spouse/partner/young children behind, remember that you are the one leaving. They are staying behind. They will have to pick up the slack and take care of what you normally take care of. They may fully understand and be supportive of your trip, but all the same, they are not experiencing the people and places you will be enjoying on the Camino. They may well be sacrificing for you. Be mindful of this. Acknowledge it. See it from their perspective. Reciprocate when you return. And be a better person for it when you return.
- Know your Purpose, but be Open to Serendipity. Some folks go to find themselves, to recover from a divorce or loss, some for adventure, others to get away from work for a while, still others to sort out things in their lives and others for as many reasons as there are pilgrims. I went to fulfill a promise I made 19 years ago—and to reclaim a part of my spirit that was waning. I was simply getting too comfortable and was passing my days in a routine that was once comfortable and at the same time limiting. The Camino helped me accomplish both. At the same time, know your purpose but don’t be a slave to it once on the road. Opportunity will knock many times, open those doors and go with the flow of the moment. Doing so will lead you to places that may actually be your real purpose all along.
- It’s Not the Road, it’s the People. Like anything, it’s the people you meet along the way that makes the pilgrimage what it is. The Camino is a melting pot of nations and people. One doesn’t walk 500 miles across a country without meeting others. I met people from 28 nations and 17 states. Some days I would walk with other pilgrims, other days by myself. I found it possible to walk with others nearby and yet be by myself.
People on the Camino were a reminder that we need people in our lives: for companionship, for sharing experiences, for connection, and for support. Everyone on the Camino was there for themselves, but also to support and help their fellow travelers. Some were in my life for but a day, others I am still in contact with today.
There was Mary from France and every time we’d see each other she would holler, “Joseph” and I would answer, “Mary!” So we were known as Joseph and Mary.
There was 17-year-old Elena, who I adopted as my Camino granddaughter.
There was Debra from Colorado whose blister warranted its own name: “El Diablo.” And her husband, Rod, who section-hiked the Appalachian Trail the following year. Dear friends to this day.
My first night crossing the Pryenees I stayed in a refuge high in the mountains. This was pilgrim living, communal style:10 men and women in bunk beds–I didn’t have to extend my arm to touch the ceiling. One toliet. One coin-operated shower. This ain’t the Hyatt. And when night fell, the snoring competition began. Don, the Big American is a snorting walrus, the three Japanese make quick grunts like Kung fu fighting, the Korean sounds like he’s walking on hot coals. The German woman snores like the German Army on a forced march. The Korean girl in the bunk under mine calls me “hi-bed.” So I call her “lo-bed.” She’s very shy. But it made her smile. As a group we hiked together for several days and then saw each other intermittently throughout the journey. Great friends with great stories. It provided me with wonderful conversations, characters and dialogue.
And Richard and Monica from Australia who I met in Zubiri—Richard calls those he met in the early days his Stage 1 friends. I walked with them on and off and then we met up again in Santiago on the final stages over wine and beers and dinner. There was Amilee, the sweet, street-singing French girl, Nacha from Espania, Kirsty the Scottish lassie who walked playing her guitar, and Nadia the adventurous Australian.
There were scores more, each different, each with their own interesting personalities and stories. Each will be part of my Camino experience. The same will be true for you. The road is the Way to new friends and new relationships.
- The Camino Simplifies Everything. Your life will consist of a routine: walk, eat, sleep, repeat. Everything is reduced to the simplest element: What’s the weather? How far do I feel like walking today? Where can I eat? Will there be a room in the village tonight? Life on the Camino is all about the basics, the basics that we often take for granted in our lives away from the Camino. You only carry what you need—no extras, no mementos, nothing to weigh down your walk. You’ll find this forced decluttering freeing and liberating in many ways: there is less to worry about, less to carry, less that you actually need. As a result, you find yourself free from the “stuff” that permeates our daily lives. Liberating.
- Body, Mind, Spirit. For those walking 500 miles or more, it begins with the body—the legs, specifically. Depending on your age and fitness, it typically takes upwards of 14 days to “get your Camino legs.” If it is physically taxing at first, don’t despair. It will get better once you get used to walking 12-20 miles a day every day. Remember, for most people this is a new experience and it takes some time to get acclimated to the physical routine. Once you do, then the mind starts to relax. I tell my grandchildren, who are serious cross country runners, that the “feet achieve what the mind believes.” So if your body is complaining at the outset, your mind needs to take over and tell it that all will be okay. Of course, sometimes an Ibuprofen and Compeed can help as well!
The Camino is a meditate, spiritual walk as much as it is a physical walk. The beauty is that it asks pilgrims to trust in themselves and to have faith that all things will work out and to walk with faith and gratitude for what is provided. A pilgrim is a humble walker, who treats the land and the people encountered with respect and curiosity.
Sometimes you’ll find yourself in the middle of nowhere on the Camino and wonder how you got there. So remember: sometimes in the middle of nowhere is where you find yourself.
Go! Don’t wake up one day to find you’ve sacrificed your dreams to protect your days…
Then write your own “10 Pieces of Advice for Walking the Camino!”
aka Don Qui-Joe-te
Grandfather of the Camino
Man of LaMancha Memories
Back in my office, missing the Camino!