On a semester abroad trip, you find yourself in many situations you’re really not prepared for. You learn a lot about just going with things and figuring it out along the way. I learned that there’s not much of a point to go into a situation with preconceived notions of what might happen because it probably won’t.
Flights get canceled, buses get missed, and hostels are questionable- things you can’t plan for. If I had known this much earlier in my semester, things may have been different, and I know I would have been more hesitant to do all the things that I did.
The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James in English, is a network of pilgrimage routes in northern Spain that leads to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. There are roughly 200,000 pilgrims each year, from all over the world traveling it for various reasons: religion, culture, adventure, sport, to end at the tomb of St. James. The most traveled route is The French Way, walking the last 115 km from Sarria to Santiago.
So, when my friend, Skyler, and I spur of the moment decided this was something we wanted to do, we were thinking it’d be an easy, relaxing, and cheap way to spend one of the last weeks of the semester. We thought we would buy some boots, fill our backpacks and then just walk some trails.
After talking with some friends we met who had done it, though, we realized we didn’t know what we had gotten ourselves into, and we’d already booked our flight so we weren’t backing out.
About a month before leaving, we were scrambling to get everything we needed: boots, sleeping bags, hiking appropriate clothes, and even real hiking backpacks. We borrowed what we could from our host families and then bought the rest.
I watched YouTube videos, read articles, and even read a couple books on what was ahead of us, and in all honesty, I was so nervous. We had planned for about five days of walking, so roughly 20 km each day. Not too bad, except the fact that we hadn’t walked that much in a day, basically ever, let alone up and down mountains.
We made it to the airport in Santiago, took a bus to Sarria and walked around the city a little bit looking for an albergue (cheap hostels). We picked one out, made a grocery run to get dinner, then went to bed to rest up for the day ahead.
The next morning we woke up at 7 a.m., before it was even light, and headed to start walking. Of course, within the first 5km was the steepest part of the Camino that we were going to walk, so naturally, we were already regretting our decision to do this, but we continued on.
We walked until about 2 p.m., then hit the first big city (and possibly sign of civilization) along the way, which was where we had planned to stop for the night. However, we were feeling good and had talked about trying to finish in four days instead of five so we could spend some time in Santiago, which meant a little less than 30 km each day. So we ate a carb-loaded lunch and kept walking. We did about 10 km more to the next open albergue along the way.
During the high season, there are albergues open just about every kilometer, but since we went during December, low season, many things were closed. This proved to be a difficulty because even if we wanted to quit somewhere, we had to keep walking to the next open place.
The next few days, we would wake up, eat some clementines, then walk. We’d walk roughly 20 km in the morning, stop for a big lunch, then finish our final 10 km in the afternoons.
After that, we’d be dragging ourselves into the city to find an albergue for the night. Check in, shower, lay for a little while with no hope of being able to move, and then we would stumble in pain to the grocery store to get food for dinner and breakfast.
On the fourth day, our morning was the same, but we were dragging ourselves into Santiago. Finally, we were getting to the end.
It was quite possibly the most difficult part of our pilgrimage mentally and physically because once we were inside the city boundaries we were ready to stop.
We didn’t even want to go to the cathedral because it required us to keep walking. However, with the help of some friends we made along the way, we did it. Just barely, though.
Rumor has it, though, that after day five everything gets a little easier, but we never got to that point since we only did the last portion.
Physically, this was one of the hardest things that I have ever done, especially with no prior training. Every muscle was tired and sore. I discovered muscles I really didn’t know existed. Socially, it was awesome. We met a lot of people along the way, sleeping in close proximity with strangers can do that for you. Mentally and spiritually, this was a fantastic journey.
You’d be surprised what walking for 8 hours can do for the chaos running around inside your brain.
Would I do it again? Ask me in another year or so once I’ve forgotten a few details, and I’m sure I’ll say yes. I would eventually like to do a longer pilgrimage, starting from further back and walking for an extended amount of time during high season so I can experience more of the pilgrim culture that everyone loves about the Camino.