In September 2016, I walked 126 miles in eight days.
For as long as I’d lived in Spain, I’d heard people talking about the spiritual experiences they’d had while walking the Camino de Santiago. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to say it had changed their life. In fact, it was the norm.
The Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, is a network of pathways across northern Spain. The trail begins wherever a pilgrim leaves their doorstep and ends in Santiago de Compostela, where tradition states that the first martyred apostle is buried. During the Middle Ages, it became an important pilgrimage for Christians.
Today, the Camino is popular among both religious persons as well as individuals seeking a challenge and/or a respite from modern life. In 2016, over 176,000 pilgrims walked the popular Camino Frances (French Way), according to the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago.
I set off on my Camino expecting an epiphany at every mile marker (or kilometer marker because, you know, Europe). When it was all said and done, to say I was disappointed would have been an understatement. I’d walked all the way across Galicia…I’d trekked all they way to the Atlantic Ocean, and all I had to show for it were two blistered feet and a dusty backpack.
When I got back to Madrid, I told anyone who would listen that I thought the Camino was overrated. I was on a crusade to manage expectations. I didn’t want anyone else to be let down. Here are six reasons why the trail was just completely different to how I had expected.
1) I didn’t train properly
As a regular runner with several half marathons and a full marathon under my belt, I figured I was in pretty good shape. After all, the Camino is just walking.
Walking should not be underestimated, especially when you’re putting in 15-18 mile days. That’s a lot of time on your feet! On top of the mileage, I hadn’t trained much (read: at all) carrying a pack. On the Camino, you carry everything with you from town to town. In my pack, I carried water, clothes, a sleeping bag, an iPad and a few other miscellaneous items. Even though it felt light in the morning, my shoulders would always start to hurt around mile 10.
2) I didn’t wear the right shoes
To be honest, I didn’t do much research about the Camino. I was undertaking a spiritual quest! I couldn’t be bothered with guidebooks and advice! It was the first and last time I didn’t do my homework. I could have made my life so much easier just by having the right gear.
For starters, I didn’t have the right shoes. I wore a pair of hiking boots my mom had bought for a trip to the Swiss Alps a few years back. Pilgrims who begin their Camino in Roncesvalles must hike over the Pyrenees Mountains. However, on the portion I walked, which was from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela and on to Finesterre, the terrain was much less intense. Sarria is the most popular starting point, according to the Pilgrims Office.
Rather than traditional hiking boots, I should have worn something more lightweight and comfortable. I also wish I’d had a pair of those crazy zip-off trousers. Pants one minute, shorts the next! I used to laugh at people who wore those, but looking back, I would have traded all the cool in the world to make my pack even one ounce lighter.
3) It was boring.
At first, the Camino was fun. Day 1 was great! I liked the fresh air, Spanish countryside and physical activity. I liked it all so much that when I reached that day’s stopping point I kept going. What’s another 5 miles? I’m having the time of my life!
By day 3, I was over it. Walking was officially boring, and I realized I just didn’t have enough to think about. In Wild, Cherly Strayed is recently divorced and overcoming a heroin addiction when she sets out on the Pacific Coast Trail. I bet she had loads to think about! I, on the other hand, didn’t have two profound thoughts to rub together.
4) I never found my Camino family.
In the 2010 film The Way, Martin Sheen plays Tom, who travels to Spain and walks the Camino in memory of his late son. While on the Camino, he meets people from all over the world and falls in with three other pilgrims. The quartet form a special bond as they travel, overcoming challenges and helping Tom cope with his grief. They become a “Camino family.”
Camino families are a well-documented phenomenon, occurring when like-minded strangers encounter one another in their search for greater meaning in their lives. Many pilgrims stay in contact with the friends they make on the road long after the Camino ends.
I never found my Camino family. In fact, I felt an unexpected amount of animosity toward some of the travelers I encountered. I wanted to strangle the pilgrims who tried to race my boyfriend and I for beds in a notoriously small albergue (bare-bones hostel). We were 100 yards away when they came sprinting up behind us. I had to run up a hill after walking 18 miles! So much for camaraderie.
5) It made me feel weak.
In 2015, I ran a marathon. Those physically grueling, emotionally draining 26.2 miles were a walk in the park compared to the Camino.
On day 6, the path was almost entirely downhill as the Camino worked its way to sea level. My boyfriend and I had started the day walking with another couple. The guys took off ahead while the woman hung back with me. My knees and hips ached, and despite my best efforts to keep pace with her, I fell behind. Painful step by painful step, I walked the rest of the day alone. Hurt and frustrated, I did something completely and totally out of character for me. I cried.
6) It was anti-climactic.
When we finally made it to Santiago de Compostela, my boyfriend and I stood in the town’s center staring up at the cathedral. All around us, pilgrims were high-fiving and hugging. Everyone was congratulating everyone. The Dutch guy we’d walked into town behind fell to his knees and started sobbing.
My boyfriend took a step toward the cathedral, stopped and turned around. “Do you want to go get something to eat?” he asked. “Definitely,” I replied. The cathedral was beautiful, and I’m sure St. James’s alleged remains would have been fascinating, but after walking 76 miles and still having 56 to go until the coast, we passed. It was obvious that the people around me were feeling a lot of different things, but the only thing I felt was hungry.
7) I couldn’t figure out how I felt about it.
More than a year has passed since I reached the 0,0 km marker and watched the sunset in the place the Romans declared “the end of the world.” I’ve sat down at my computer time and time again to put all my thoughts down in one scathing post de-hyping the Camino. But, I could never bring myself to do it. My blisters have long since healed, but I still think about the Camino. I think about it every day.
Did I really hate the Camino?
Why I’ll Do the Camino de Santiago Again
Hands down, the Camino was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. When I decided to walk, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. My hatred for the Camino was born out of my ill-preparedness. I should have trained better. I should have done more research.
I should have thought more about why I was walking the Camino. Based on other people’s experiences, I thought spiritual growth was inevitable. Looking back, I recognize I wasn’t in the right mindset. The Camino doesn’t change you while you walk. You change yourself while walking the Camino.
Through writing this post, I’ve realized I want to walk the Camino again. I will walk the Camino again. I will wear the right shoes. I will pack those crazy zip-off pants. I will open my heart and mind to the Camino.
See you in Roncesvalles. Buen Camino.
This is a guest post by Alex Wittman.
After two years in Madrid, Spain, Alex recently moved to Querétaro, Mexico. In addition to traveling, she enjoys reading, running and red wine. You can find more of her writing on her blog, Backpacking Brunette.