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Follow the Camino
Q: How does a physical challenge in nature impact you?
Earlier this year, at the start of the summer, my friend Janice and I decided to take on the challenge of walking the Camino de Santiago. The Camino is a pilgrimage, a network of routes starting in different places in Europe but all ending in the city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Camino Frances, the most popular route, is about 800 kms in total and takes about 6 weeks to finish. With limited time on our hands, we planned to start in Ponferrada and cover 215 kilometers (133 miles) to arrive in Santiago de Compostela on day 10. Each day was different, but on average we walked about a half marathon (13 miles) a day.
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This will stay with me for a long time, I thought. This experience of the morning light, the mist in the air, the dew drops on flowers, the clouds moving in all directions all at once as though they were the main act of a dramatic performance. Forests full of varied greens, the sound of streaming water, the smell of the animals, of the earth - that sense of freedom from being on the road from dawn to early afternoon, the day stretching on for hours. Passing fellow pilgrims on the road with "Buen Camino" (have a good camino!) or running into folks that you struck up short but deep conversations with again. The magic of the Camino for me was a mix of communing with nature, pushing my body for hours and connecting with fellow humans of all ages and backgrounds.
Here are some of the insights from my journey -
Walking in nature is a cure for body and mind - The rhythm of waking up every morning at dawn and walking for hours through forests and mountains, passing trees that stood like guardians of the land and experiencing the sun rising every single day. This experience served to put me in a joyful state. My body ached, I missed little A, the food as a vegetarian was limited and often the mosquitoes or the heat kept me up at night, but I was happy every single day, flying high.
My body is strong and resilient. Leading up to the Camino I was afraid that my body wouldn’t be able to persist. After my pregnancy in 2019, I developed plantar fasciitis in my right foot so I was fearful that my feet wouldn't be able to keep up. After walking 15 miles on day 1 and literally limping through the last mile, I called my husband after checking into my room. With my feet up on the wall in a stretch, I was almost in tears - "I don't think I can walk tomorrow. Everything hurts so much. Why did I sign up for this?" But the next day I woke up at 5 am feeling rested. My body was creaky for the first few miles, but after that I got back into the rhythm. There were a couple days where the pain made me feel vulnerable - physically at first but then also emotionally. I learned to listen to my body - slow down, take breaks - and I persevered through the physical pain. I realized that so much of it was in my mind. Out there on the road, I was able to observe the monkey mind, let it do its thing and stop giving it too much importance. My body was strong and was willing to do what I asked of it.
There is no right time or right age to walk the Camino. Some of the people I met were going through a big life change and had come searching for answers. However, a lot of folks were just taking this trip for themselves, as either a break away from the routine of their daily lives, or to spend quality time with themselves or as a bonding trip with their close friends or family. Few were doing it as a religious experience, a lot were doing it as a more spiritual journey and a physical challenge. I saw people across all ages - from folks in their sixties and seventies, teenagers and even a family walking with a 5 yr old (the Dad was pushing a stroller for when the child needed a break). This has inspired me to go spread the word amongst my community, encouraging friends and family of all ages and life stages to take on the challenge!
I had fun capturing perspectives from folks we met on our journey. Here’s a video of some of those folks sharing their thoughts while on the road.
I've been lucky enough to travel to 40+ countries with many different travel experiences. From touring temples in Cambodia to gorilla trekking in Uganda, each destination had offered something unique. The Camino was going to be just another travel experience. What I didn't realize was that it was going to be transformative.
You may or may not go to discover it on your own. But I will describe the two feelings present on that journey that I've never felt elsewhere.
1. The Camaraderie. Individuals all traveling towards one destination, each at one's own pace and length. You may cross paths once, many times or not at all, but you'll always wish one another a "Buen Camino". It's solo and together all at once, and the energy that builds with each day of walking with your fellow pilgrims is unlike any other.
2. The High. An unbelievable sensation while walking through misty forests, lashes bejeweled with dew, the smell of damp earth rising, the sound of lone measured steps on gravel, the silence beyond. Mind and no mind, full immersion into nature, back to home, joy emanating from the soul.
This is the Camino.