Where do I start with this one? The Camino de Santiago is the El Jefe on my list of 65 New Things. Walking 500 miles with only a backpack and wits would challenge most anyone. And, I was one of them.
Preparation started in December when I scored great seats with miles to Madrid. Uncertainty began May 24 as Cheryl and I took our first step leaving St. Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees. And, again, when Cheryl left me in Frómista after 225 miles and 18 days to give me the solitude I wanted. I walked into Santiago de Compostela July 1 after 39 days and 500 miles, más o menos a few miles.
The lessons and rewards also began in December and continue to this day. Many define the Camino as a trio of challenges – physical, mental and spiritual – that correspond to consecutive geographical regions. As you conquer one, you are confronted by the next with distinct challenges. I think of the Camino as a sum; an adventure that intertwines challenges with rewards and lessons that carry throughout your walk and life.
Preparation is consuming.
What do I wear, what do I pack? What kind of pack? Sleeping bag or sleeping sack, poncho or rain jacket, Merrells or Keenes? How do I charge my iPhone? How do I get to St. Jean from Madrid? Are there buses, are there trains, how do I get a ticket?
The questions and choices are endless and become obsessive if you let them. And, personally, I did. I’m a Boy Scout when it comes to prep. I fretted, I checked and rechecked clothes, weights, and connections. But, in the end, the choices made in the comfort of home didn’t matter once on the Camino. Plans are defined by assumptions, not reality. And reality trumps planning every time. Adapt, not prepare, is the verb to live by.
Uncertainty floods your thoughts.
How will I cope with blisters, bedbugs, heat, cold, rain, people, the metric system? Where will I sleep, where will I eat, what will I eat, will I be safe, will they understand Spanglish, what if I meet weird people, what if I get the top bunk, what if…?
Personally, after the first few days, I stopped pushing the river and let things happen. This is an adventure to be embraced, not managed. By the way, I slept on the top bunk only once. Age has its perks.
Lessons and rewards
What just happened? Did I really follow yellow arrows for 500 miles? How do I feel about that? Should I be overwhelmed but grateful, loud and proud, or proud and humble? What happens post-Camino? Will I change? What will that change be? Or, is it just a page in my life?
Address the above as best you can. But, in the end, it just doesn’t matter. Personally, for all the prep and trepidation, I suffered one small blister, never intimate with a bedbug, never went hungry, never slept on the floor, never felled by heatstroke, but was soaked to the bone one day. Did I rue anything, at anytime? No, never.
I find it interesting people ask about the negatives first, and positives second. What was the most negative aspect of the trip? Nothing. Really? What about…? Sure, there was uncertainty and tribulation, but what doesn’t kill you makes you a better person. Right? If I wanted security and comfort, the Four Seasons would have been the choice. True, I suffered tendinitis the last ten days, but that affliction made the Camino that much richer. It caused me to slow down and appreciate the sights, sounds, and people of the trail at 2 mph.
Then I'm asked – Ok, if there were no negatives, there has to be positives? What was the best meal, the best bocadillo, the best albergue, the best person, the best…? When I answered the whole walk, I was told that was a cop out. People want me to define one thing as the best, and the overall experience doesn’t qualify.
I beg to differ. You can select things or people as the best – Degas pastels, TaylorMaid Coffee Bar, or your wife. However, the Camino is a sum total. It’s a living, breathing, challenging experience that melds individual happenings into a whole. Taken separately, they can be a three, or a six, or maybe even a 9. But bring them together, experience them together, and they are an 11.
So I stick by my choice of the bestest as the whole Camino experience, and the yellow arrow. If you travel the Camino someday, you will agree it's more than just an arrow.
If you want to read more, there are somewhat daily blog entries on my Facebook page starting at the end of May 2015. If you want to talk about it, meet for coffee, drop me a note on the Contact page. Or, join us Oct 10 at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts for a show and tell. And bocadillos for all!