Finding My Way on the Camino de Santiago
It takes a bold move to unstick yourself.
The Pyrenees were calling me. I don’t remember how I first got the idea of walking the Camino de Santiago in my head, but once there, I couldn’t shake it. It might have started about 15 years ago, when I was an architecture student, traveling whenever I could to broaden my mind. I had been driving through Northern Spain, caught a glimpse of these impressive purple rocky mountain formations and saw on the map that these were the Pyrenees. From this arose a romantic idea of the place and I noted in my mind that I would have to come back. When I learned about the ancient pilgrimage path of the Camino de Santiago, and that it crosses the Pyrenees Mountains, the idea was lodged in place.
I spent the summer of ’21 coming out of my dull, atrophied state brought on by the covid-19 pandemic. Bouts of depression had plagued me in covid times mostly due to that existential feeling of being stuck. Stuck at home; stuck in one life, dreaming of another; as a mother, bound to a life of caregiving which I found overwhelming at times. I was in a sedentary state for months, reminiscing miserably on times that felt so far away, those times in life when I had felt most alive, navigating my world boldly, with all decisions in my own hands. I have felt most alive when I had the freedom to take risks, fail or get lost, try again, change course and succeed, or at least learn more about myself and the world. I reminisced about wandering foreign cities, moving freely at my own pace, that visceral experience of traveling. In pandemic times, returning to travel did not feel possible, or at least not a realistic and safe aspiration for me and my family. This feeling of being stuck was crushing.
Falling into depression, I found it difficult to act, to bring myself to make a move on just about anything, including simple daily tasks. Walking was simple enough though. And I found that usually I could do at least that much. The rhythm of walking a path alone, quietly, in my own thoughts, or listening to an audiobook to keep me from my own spinning thoughts, was a kind of medicine for my stuckness. I came to realise that my need to be in motion, to live a life in motion, was at the heart of my despair. Once I started walking in earnest, with purpose, I started to emerge from pandemic life.
I walked around my neighborhood and through nearby forests, just a few miles at a time, whenever I could steal away from my husband and kids. I took three Saturdays and walked 35 miles on our local greenbelt trail. I wrote about my experience and made maps, solidifying my experience into something with potential value to others. I discovered I could walk long distances, which, after a year of being mostly stuck at home, felt like quite an accomplishment. I longed to walk more.
I decided it was time to walk a trail I had been coveting for years- the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage path through Spain. The Camino is in fact a network of trails dating back to the Middle Ages, that originate in places throughout Europe, though all roads end in the northwest of Spain, at Santiago de Compostela, the cathedral where Saint James the apostle’s remains are said to be interred. The paths have been rediscovered, marked and popularized in recent decades with people from all faiths (or none at all) walking for different reasons- for spirit, health, quietude, scenery or adventure.
For me, it was clear I needed a reset on life, a time to get clarity of mind. I felt compelled to do something hard, solo, to regain my sense of self, and to do it in solidarity with others, a collective movement. I know I am not alone in these lingering pandemic existential feelings.
Along the Way (as it’s called), pilgrims, peregrinos, pass through medieval towns, stopping to rest overnight in albergues, simple hostels where the hospitaleros provide communal meals and a bed before sending you on your way early in the morning. This hospitality and community building on the Camino is a powerful motivator to continue walking day after day.
My many obligations at home did not make this trip an easy decision. I thought hard about how many days I could reasonably take away from my family. Most people who walk the Camino these days have time constraints, so, many choose to walk the last 100 kms to Santiago in order to receive their compostela (a certificate that says that you walked the minimum distance to be considered a pilgrim).
I decided that finishing and receiving the compostela was not my intention. My desire was to simply start. How far I walked was not too much of a concern. I was in the mindframe of embarking on something new, and the Camino would be something I could begin this time and return to in the future, maybe with my kids and husband someday, maybe not.
And so I made the decision to walk for seven days on the Camino. With travel to and from the US, this took me away from my family for 10 days. My pilgrimage would begin in a small town in France, St. Jean Pied de Port, the unofficial start of the most popular, most well-marked path- the Camino Frances. I would walk for one week, crossing the Pyrenees Mountains, from France into Spain. This segment is considered one of the most difficult and most beautiful passages due to the mountainous terrain. I was ready for a spectacular personal challenge.
My husband has always supported my audacious ideas, but he has a much more prudent way of thinking, so his support comes to me with a lot of caution and a whiff of uncertainty. This tends to slow me down and sometimes not follow through with things I want to do. I have always been a free-thinker, with ambitions, but I tend to get dragged down when I don’t have a cohort cheering me on, believing in me wholeheartedly. I recognise this as a weakness that I let others have more stock in my thinking than I would like to admit. I’m trying to take more personal responsibility, which is difficult when you’re down, but easier when you’re on a high.
When I decided to walk part of the Camino, I preemptively told my husband that I did not want even a shred of doubt to be cast on me. If he was serious about supporting me, it had to be unconditional. He knew I was not being reckless or unnecessarily selfish- I was fully capable of this challenge, and I absolutely needed it for my mental health. A weekend away at a spa would never have the same effect.
I give him a lot of credit because from that moment on his support was enormous, overflowing. He told everyone about my trip with pride and answered their doubtful questions. Yes, he would be taking off work for a week and a half to take care of the kids, and yes, he is fully capable of caring for his own kids, and yes, he is proud of his wife’s awesomeness. His attitude spread to our kids who cheered me on.
It may sound simplistic, but I was right to think that a nice long walk would turn my life around.