Well, That Was Unexpected

Real life is stranger than fiction...depending on which authors you read, of course.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Reflections on El Camino de Santiago--Camino del Norte, Winter 2014

          Recently I’ve had what seems to be a flurry of people asking me about my experience hiking the Camino de Santiago. Since I’ve been meaning to write down a little summary of my experience ever since I finished the walk almost a year ago, this seems like a good time to get them written out while memory still serves and as it seems others are making plans for their own journeys.
          I hiked the Camino del Norte, a path that stretches from the Spanish/French border in Basque country and snakes the Northern Spanish coastline before turning southward toward Santiago. It is the longest of the Spanish Caminos and the toughest in terms of terrain. I admit I chose it entirely because I wanted views of the sea, which are even more plentiful than the guidebook said. There are multiple times in the first two weeks when you have the ocean to your right and a series of snow covered mountains to your left.
          If my insights and experiences are helpful, that’s wonderful, but I have a deep aversion to thinking my experiences are universal, so take from it what you will.

Quick Details:
Time of year: February-March (solidly the OFF season) If you were hoping to see almost no one, this is a great time to go. After meeting two fellow pilgrims the 4th night of my journey, we maybe saw 10 pilgrims in total for the next 21 days. And because of that, don't expect many albergues to be open, and many of the coastal services, like ferries are closed. 

Route: Camino del Norte, starting in Bayonne, France and ending in Santiago, Spain

Number of travelers: solo initially

Total days: 35 days, skipped seven sections in total because I had to get to Santiago to catch a flight.

Age: 35

Gender: Female

Citizenship: USA

On Purpose
           I had spent a month at a rustic spiritual retreat in Switzerland and a number of people there had done part or all of the Camino, which is how I learned of it. Having taken off a second year to travel and study for my LSATs (I know, what a spoiled asshole, but if it makes you feel better, I worked really hard and scrimped to save up money to travel for a year, which turned into two due to online consulting I was able to do while abroad) I found myself with time and my thoughts kept turning to the Camino.
            The Camino was an exciting prospect to me for a few reasons. 1) I love long walks. I’m the type who, wherever I live, likes to take meandering 5-10 mile walks to take in the city at foot speed. 2) I love being alone. Indeed, ever since I found myself relating strongly to the Julianne Moore character in The Hours who abandons her family to move to Canada to be alone and read, I’ve accepted that I need a lot of time by myself to be a tolerable human being.  3) I love spiritual reflection and meditation, but am easily distracted and had been yearning for a chance to get away for some hardcore meditation.  
             To anchor you in my spiritual geography, I guess I’m generally a Christian protestant. I attend a fantastic Presbyterian church when I’m in the San Diego area, but living abroad in Asia, where you kind of have to take what you can get, effectively robbed me of any strong denominational affiliation. My favorite spiritual writers are any of the Renovare crew: Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster, and then Henri Nouwen, Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther King, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Soren Kierkegaard, early Philip Yancey, early mystics, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. 
              Richard Foster is fond of spiritual disciplines and general suffering for spiritual benefit and I was also annoyingly intrigued by what he might mean and what sort of potential blessing and benefit might be in store if I undertook some epic pilgrimage. So I definitely had Christian spiritual purposes in mind, but it comes into play that I do not actually believe in certain of the blessings one might have in mind if they were strictly Catholic. I don’t believe in saintly blessings and I actually believe that I can confess to and commune with God at any time with no intermediary.
Lacking solid Catholic goals meant that my purposes were somewhat vague, but generally prolonged spiritual communion in beautiful scenery with a dash of adventure was what I intended.

On Expectation and Results
                Expectation and result did not exactly match up, but all for the best in my case. I think this is actually a pretty common refrain amongst pilgrims after they finish their journey, but I’m so hesitant to assume that my experience will be similar to anyone else’s that I echo what people told me beforehand, which was, “just go.” Maybe it will be just as you expect, maybe it won’t…but worthwhile either way.
                I expected beforehand that the journey would be one of really intense and ecstatic spiritual engagement. I expected profound solitude. I expected reverie in nature. I expected to work through my future goals and to take stock of my life to see if I was headed in a good direction, asking myself questions like, “Do I still really want to go to law school?”, “Do I ever want to have children?”, “Are there any particular amends I need to make?” My expectations were lofty. I expected to become physically stronger and thinner, to ponder societal injustice over glasses of red wine after feeling pleasant exhaustion, to read at least 5 books.
                The reality of my Camino was that I was, let’s say, a tad overoptimistic in how easy it would be to tackle the Camino del Norte in the offseason. I am skeptical of seasonality, I think it’s a delusion that stems from being a Californian. I think my physical reality was a little more treacherous than what I’ve heard from people on the Camino Frances, but certain essentials are the same.

                So in my days prepping for the Camino, I would take long 10-12 mile walks and hikes a few times a week and think, “this is so refreshing and exhilarating, I cannot WAIT to do this for a whole month.” What I was not accounting for was that these moments of solitude, that were such a refreshing change of pace, were taking place in the midst of a full and familiar life. I got done with my walk, got in my car or went into my warm, known house and often met up with friends or family. The Camino, however, is not known. (I’m sure doing it a second time brings out an entirely different crop of greatness and revelation, but I can’t speak to it.) My thoughts on the Camino were constantly peppered with “sweet Jesus, where is that yellow arrow? I hope I’m going the right way and do not end up sleeping on the street in the rain…”
                I was not able to account for full days of solitude and navigation. Full days of solitude were different, lonelier and more frightening, than a few hours per day of solitude. This was not a bad thing, it gave me a lot of respect for the desert mothers and fathers I was reading about on my kindle at night, and is its own sort of revelation. This experience was certainly heightened by the fact that it was offseason and offseason on a less traveled Camino (I, I took the path less traveled by…sounds so much more romantic when Frost says it than when you are stranded in some strange town in the rainy dark.) I literally ran into no other pilgrims on my first 4 days of the Camino and all the albergues were closed in France and Spain. The first open albergue I encountered was the hostel in San Sebastian. That means I had been sleeping in comfort, but it was comparatively quite expensive and involved a lot more uncertainty at the end of the day when I was incredibly tired, trying, with my super basic Spanish phone plan to find a safe place to stay not far from the Way. (As far as ongoing blessings, I experienced the inordinate kindness of strangers in both France and Spain. I am a woman’s woman, and the women I asked for directions nearly always walked with me where I was going and made sure I was taken care of.)
      So, for the most part I was literally in my own head, alone, for the first four straight days. It turns out my head is not a silent, peaceful place. The distraction I blamed on my phone and social media was lessened for sure, but my thoughts were also loud and random. I listened to music, to books on tape, to Spanish lessons, to my own breathing. Often I just focused on direction, but random observations, mostly mundane but sometimes profound, would flit in and out of my head. I got kind of sick of each of these activities.


       I expected to experience a lot of reverie in nature. While the views were often incredible, I wished I had given myself more time to savor them. I’ve heard that the Frances has some nice views, but that the act of the walk and the churches are more the attraction. The Norte has the natural beauty, but I didn’t have time to really soak it in because I always had somewhere I needed to get to before dark and being unsure of the upcoming terrain, didn’t want to get stuck on a hillside in the dark. If I were to do the Norte again, I would give myself a truly luxuriant amount of time and would try, to whatever extent possible, to allow myself to stay in more albergues at closer intervals. It became abundantly clear to me that I was going to learn lessons from the physical exhaustion I experienced, but that they weren’t really necessary. We ended up being so exhausted at day’s end and so concerned about getting clean, warm, and tending to our blisters, sore muscles, and feet that we often didn’t have time to sit and record our daily thoughts and reflections. (In the end there are lessons in that as well, but I’d be interested in what comes of a more relaxed journey.)
             That said, the more I walked, the more impossible it was for me to ignore my smallness. As part of a legacy of thousands to come before and thousands who would tread the same ground, I found my perspective being, well, I would say “righted” or certainly anchored in a grander scheme. Thinking of all those thousands of people and staring at the same ocean and the same mountains they did hundreds of years earlier, made me focus not on the purpose of my own life, necessarily, but the purpose of all life or the purpose of any life. Those thoughts lingered and returned more than any of my specific concerns, which just seemed like the right order anyway.


           I did end up becoming stronger, and indeed also lost weight, but happily that concern, which I find to be such a cancerous obsession in my own life and in American society in general, faded to a murmur as more primitive concerns became primary. I became incredibly thankful for the ability of my body to even take this journey, and it seemed ridiculous that I’ve spent so much time finding fault with it.

            I was traveling with someone for whom, until the pain of the average 1800 foot inclines and declines became apparent, it was very difficult to vary from the official route. I started out with a certain perfectionist strain as well, and felt very self-righteous about going the long way. The longer I walked, the stupider that seemed. Was walking 16 miles instead of 13 really going to inculcate any incredible wisdom? In my opinion, no. It seemed like unnecessarily subjecting myself to injury and the wildness of the winter nature. Pavement might not be pretty, but if it was a safer route and shorter, I always took it. My companion nicknamed me captain shortcut. He changed his tune after a bad, wet day when 3 blisters formed and ripped off and caused serious crippling pain. There probably is a sense of accomplishment from doing every step of the exact route, but I assume it depends on what you're trying to get out of it. (or send me a message in the comment section if there is some obvious virtue in it that I don't see, since I don't really believe in perfection.)


         I also made a list of all my friends and loved ones and designated people to pray for, and it was a lovely secret to pray for their wellbeing without them knowing.
         I was seriously disappointed that so many of the churches and chapels were closed along the Way. I found myself being pissed off at a Catholic church that would have spent so much money building incredible cathedrals, to the undoubted detriment of the poor at the time, and then close them off. It was immature. What I really was to see the pretty cathedrals and pray inside them. But early on it re-occurred to me that I was a freaking Protestant and believed God was everywhere and I could commune with God any time I wanted. And so I did. But I did deeply appreciate the feeling of legacy I got from praying in Cathedrals along the way when I was lucky enough to be able to do so.
          I can’t speak for anyone else but on a nearly daily basis I would ponder what a weird thing I was doing. Why did I think walking for a long time was a good idea? Why did anyone ever think it was a good idea? Why did I think God somehow appreciated physical suffering? Why was I intentionally putting myself in daily, compounding pain? I don’t have any great conclusions, but for whatever reason, I found the aftereffects of suffering in this safe manner, to be incredibly productive and rewarding.

Summary on expectation and results

              What I expected was to come to grips with some specific questions I had about my life, and what resulted was much more general. I ended my Camino and immediately noticed I had a marked increase in patience. I assume that is something that only really happens due to the long, mundane nature of the walk and the fact that I couldn’t force it. If I tried to force myself to go faster, I would injure myself. I came to understand that I would get somewhere when I would get there. And I had a strong belief that I would, in fact, get there. 
              I also found myself with a deep gratitude for nearly everything. Certainly every modern convenience. Hot water, cars, buses, electricity, Wi-Fi, the kindness of strangers, the time and effort my friends and family take to keep in touch; I was taking nothing for granted, I was so thankful for everything. It reminded me of the line in T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding “And the end of all our exploring/will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”
               I would say the other really phenomenal change I experienced was a renewed sensitivity to emotion and other creatures. I find it difficult to cry, I am unsure as to why that is, but it just is. Whether it was some hormonal change from so much daily activity or so much time spent thinking and being at the mercy of nature, the elements, and the kindness of others, the result was that I returned home with a sense of peace of place that allowed me to be less selfish and engage more fully with others, including having more sympathy for the human condition.
I’m not even going to try to pretend that this condition didn’t fade, but I do think that some has stuck, and even the memory of those good changes is enough to get me into a better head space.

On Pacing and Scheduling

             People are very different and you really just have to know yourself. As far as daily walking pace, my companion walked faster than I did, but he liked to pause for long lunch breaks. I am one for slow, constant movement. When I stop, I don’t really want to get going again...because it hurts! So my pace was slow and I tended to eat as I kept walking, getting sandwiches from taverns and stopping only long enough to swig down my coffee with Bailey’s and get some water. My big stop of the day was for dinner and, on days when we walked separately, we typically arrived within half an hour of each other, the first to arrive being tasked with finding the tourist office to see if there was an albergue open and/or get Camino stamps.
             We were a little bit handicapped in our daily plans because so many albergues and hotels were closed—one day I had to walk 25 miles because the albergue that typically broke up the walk at the midpoint was closed. That saved me a day…yaaaay. I hurt so badly. So so badly. In fact, teh last blog post I wrote was the day after that day. Here's a link--spoiler alert, it involves a coffee-drinking dog. 
              I would have scheduled more rest days. I believe I took 3 rest days along the route and each of them felt soooo luxurious. I think when it really dawned on me that this whole pilgrimage was self-imposed and that it was for my own edification, it seemed hilarious that I had hemmed myself in with such rigid dates. In my defense, I wasn’t sure that I was going to find the journey profitable at all and was trying, on the front end, to hedge my bets, so that if I quit after, say, a week, I wouldn’t be stuck in Spain doing nothing for 6 weeks. I had heard from someone who did the Camino Frances that the scenery could be really ugly, and I didn’t want to spend 4 weeks walking amongst dry, brown ugliness. In hindsight I don’t think that would be an issue on any Camino.

On Companions

Part of my intention for the Camino was to have time alone. So when I met my first two fellow pilgrims I was afraid I might end up spending too much time with them and that I might miss out on some of the profound insights I, optimistically, assumed were imminent. Again, I can only speak to our unique circumstances on a little-traveled route in the offseason, but I ended up really treasuring my companions. I also found that, since none of us had chosen to do that route at that time because we wanted constant company, it was pretty easy to either overtly say we wanted to hike alone that day, or to trail off and indicate that we would catch up. We formed a little trio. One of our companions was with us for about a week before taking a day or two off in Bilbao, and then my other companion and I were together for a solid 21 days. I think we would both say that the best experiences were days when we mostly walked apart (maybe we started or finished together—lots of singing and trivia!) but then we reconvened in the evening to debrief, commiserate, find accommodations, and dress each other’s daily wounds. There were also some pretty critical times when the Way was not well-marked and we could help guide each other through. I, for example, got lost in a forest, and my companion stopped, dropped a pin in What’s App, and stayed put while I made my way to him.
If and when I do another Camino, while I might not actively try to find a companion, I would have no problem going with someone who expressed interest because there is so much time in the day to be alone that I found a companion helpful and comforting rather than annoying. It is also possible that it was because we had very complimentary personalities, but it reminded me of the best parts of relationship—sharing, supporting, encouraging. Indeed, if I hadn’t had a companion, I might not have made it as many days and as long as I did. The expectation that someone knew me, knew I was on the path, and expected me to arrive, was actually an integral motivator at certain times. That insight was also profound when I applied it in the context of spiritual relationship.

On Sustenance

        The food in Northern Spain is delicious for a day or two, but it becomes abundantly clear after a day or two that, at least during the low season, the one or two little bars that are open will be serving you some combination of cheese, chorizo, potato, egg, some shrimp if you’re lucky, and bread. At one point, in a larger town, I paid the equivalent of a full day’s food budget just to have a salad.
Wine is delicious, but heavy. Since Spain is relatively cheap, I usually just had wine at dinners, though may I say that when in pain, a glass or two of wine can really take the edge off of an interminably long uphill section. Also, if you're a coffee addict like myself, a coffee with Baileys costs about 3 dollars. it would really be a sin NOT to get one at every stop. 

On Language
        I love learning languages, have spent time in Costa Rica and Guatemala trying to learn Spanish, and have no shame, so I broke out my terrible Spanish on just about anyone who would listen. 

On Things—What to Take

        One of the most exhilarating things on the Camino is the act of throwing things away. I never knew how little I needed to subsist until I had to carry it all on my back. I cull belongings pretty regularly and the Camino just made me even more ruthless in not attaching myself to crap possessions! And since I would never want to rob anyone of the delight of sending things home or leaving things at various hostels and albergues and feeling the subsequent relief in your shoulders and back as your pack lightens, I will instead tell you what I couldn’t do without.
  1. My Camelbak bladder. I bought it in Bilbao and it was worth its weight in gold. I had been carrying water bottles, which was pure nonsense.
  2. A tiny sleeping bag. Worth the extra money—get the lightest, smallest thing you can find. They really aren’t more than like 80 bucks, and especially if you hike the Camino anywhere near the winter season—the albergues don’t really have heat nor do the monasteries along the way. They do usually have blankets, but they are cheap and often made of rough wool.
  3.  A cheap phone plan that works in Europe. I bought mine while I was touring around Seville before starting the Camino. You can get a chip and refill it at the convenience store in most towns. Calling ahead to discover whether albergues are open and then finding hotels and using data plan to find restaurants saved us a lot of headaches.
  4. Guidebook. I got the electronic version of The Northern Caminos and, while I was making notes the whole time about improvements I would have made, it was absolutely invaluable in helping navigate the Camino del Norte.
  5. Rain gear. If you go in winter, you must get rain gear, unless you have absolutely no time limit. I got a crazy huge poncho and backpack cover. The bonus is that tromping through the rain and puddles brings a childlike glee…at first.
  6. Hiking boots and soft shoes. From what I hear, this is specific to the Camino del Norte, but there were a number of dirt roads that were really wet and muddy and which required serious grip. (at one point I had to dig my boots out of a mud puddle with my hand. fun story…afterward) But then these were sometimes uncomfortable on long stretches of paved road, which is when a light pair of highly cushioned walking shoes would have been awesome. A really self-righteous and judgy French guy that walked with us for two days as we crossed into Guernica had some French leather supertough lace-up army boots he got at a surplus store and that he had waterproofed and swore by. Assuming the boots themselves don't turn you into an ass, might be worth looking into. His feet looked dry, to my great annoyance,  From what I hear from others, on the Camino Frances you really need the soft walking shoes and not so much the hiking shoes. It adds weight to have the two pairs, (and probably flip-flops or shower shoes for communal showering, but necessary on this path)
  7. Toe socks--I was all posh and asked my relatives for injinjis. they may look ridiculous, but I had far fewer blisters than my companions. 
  8. Advil. Pain, so much good pain. dull it. you have somewhere to get to!

On Finishing
       So, when the journey is the destination (possibly not the case for Catholics?), it turns out that the finish can seem a little arbitrary. Like, well, I had to stop at some point, so here we are. It was a little underwhelming at first. Santiago is just the designated end, but the result is what has been working itself out along the way, with every step. I stayed two days in Santiago, and ideally might have stayed for one more just to soak it all in…and heal. It is really delightful to go to the pilgrim office to get the compostela, to attend the pilgrim’s mass, and then to suddenly have no destination and realize you are creating your own new destinations, both physically and metaphorically. For me it felt like life was reopening in front of me. 
        My friend Beth once wrote a poem about a song that Louis Armstrong wrote for the Queen of England, a recording, a unique miracle of audio that got lost in an airplane crash. She said that, when asked about it, Louis answered, "There are other miracles, there are other dreams" which is a refrain I think of often when I am about to embark on something and might be a little sad that, once accomplished, I won't have that thing to look forward to anymore. There are other dreams. 



Post a Comment

<< Home