The Camino…Sorry: Long Story, Long Journey

Suffice it to say, The Camino pretty much kicked my A$$. I enjoyed most moments though and did end up finishing. So, the big question while walking the Camino and the one you might have is, “Why are you doing this?” Honestly, I have no idea. The Camino has called me for years, but I don’t know why….still don’t, but I’m glad I did it. It was about 4 or 5 days into my walk that I learned…another of my big DUH moments…Camino means Journey in Spanish. I assumed it was a form of the word to walk which is Caminar in Spanish…or I walk…Once again, you learn something every day. “Buen Camino,” the common greeting you hear while walking from other pilgrims or from the people living in the small villages that you pass. It means “Good Journey.” It was at this point I realized I was taking a journey inside a journey…A walk inside my travels. Let me tell you…the travel part is way easier:) In fact walking the Camino is the first thing I’ve done that has scared the hell out of me since I left home because I wasn’t sure that I could physically handle it.

So that being said, without a doubt I was probably the least prepared person on the Camino. I think I was the only one without the travel pocket guide:). I did have some notes on my iphone which was stolen in St Jean Pied de Port the night before I started the walk:( Bummer, but I figure there must be a lesson there for me. Traveling has mellowed me though…I was bummed but did not lose it when I realized that my iphone was stolen. This in and of itself is growth! Yes, I deem it true:)! Of course poor Robert is the one who had to deal with it…he brought me a new phone when we met in Spain:) Thanks honey!

So a little about the Camino de Santiago for those that don’t know…It is an ancient pilgrimage that goes for miles through Spain. You can walk it, bike it or ride a donkey:) There are several different routes that can be taken and I have chosen to take the most popular route which is the Camino Francis. It begins in St Jean Pied de Port in France and goes over the Pyrenees (grueling) through the beautiful country side of Spain to Santiago. It’s a total of 775 km (that’s 481 miles) and takes anywhere from 27 (mega athlete) to 40+) days to finish. I of course am in the latter category but didn’t have the 40+ days:).

So my story begins… I leave Saint Jean Pied de Port with my way too heavy backpack wearing my now infamous rubber flip flops:) I meet lots of people along the way due to these flip flops so they are not all bad:) Most people think I am nuts and well…maybe! I normally would change into my sneakers about midday. Day one is awful. 24 km all up hill in the worst weather you can imagine. It’s cold, raining, sometimes sleeting and gale force winds. The problem is after the first 8km you have no where to go except Ronscavalles which is the full 24 km. I seriously thought about crawling in a ditch on top of my back pack and letting the buzzards just eat me:( Urged on by likewise suffering pilgrims, I did manage to change shoes and finally make it into Ronscavalles….of course not before falling flat on my face at the sight of the village…my first physical scar…the mental ones happened all along the way:) The 2nd day I did the same thing at the same place on my head and walked into the town muddy and scarred:) Two young men had to pick me up because I didn’t have the energy to get up with the heavy backpack on. I waited for them as they slowly made their way down the steep mud path to pick me up, all the while I lay laughing hysterically at my predicament. Es la vida!

But back to day 1…The Pyrenees were beautiful. I saw the top of birds as they soared through the sky. The terrain was amazing. Of course you won’t see a lot of photos because my iphone was stolen and the ipad was just too bulky to deal with. When I arrived in Ronscavalles I asked a Spanish couple if there was a room in a certain direction. They told me no and pointed to a large Albergue. I headed that way and stood in a long line and was told there were only basement rooms left. Next thing I know this couple is pulling me out of line and whisking me to the front. They only speak Spanish but I get it is about a bed. Later I understand the husband had taken pity on me because I was just such a cold, wet, hungry, pathetic looking creature. Obviously, this look works for me:) He wasn’t even walking the Camino. It was his wife and her niece (all of 4 years apart). The other niece could not make it so they had already paid for the bed and gave it to me. These two ladies, Mar and Nani, turned out to be my angles many times on the first string of the Camino. In the morning we were woken up by a man singing with a guitar “Morning Has Broken” throughout the dorm, letting us all know it was time to move on. By the time he saw our 4 beds he broke into a Spanish song…all the people were Spanish but me and for some reason a lot of people think I am until they actually hear me speak Spanish:)

Around day 5 I get to Obanas and meet the funniest Polish guy…at least the funniest polish guy that is living in Germany. We drink, laugh and talk for about 5 hours…he is my youngest sons age. It is about 9:30 pm when I am informed that I am not in Puenta La Reina but the village before it. No wonder I didn’t see anyone I knew. DUH! I leave at 5:00 am the next day before light…really stupid, but make it to Puenta La Reina and see all my amigos getting ready to hit the trail. Everyone is much faster than me especially on the hills. I have found my slow pace an advantage. I get to walk with people for awhile and then I tell them to move ahead of me and meet the next ones…I can’t stop for too long because all my muscles freeze up, so usually I see the same people pass me twice a day:)

There is this huge camaraderie on the Camino that is hard to explain. You’re all doing this thing for different reasons and everyone is from different countries and different walks of life, but you’re all in it together. It’s awesome…and oh yeah…painful:) I met homeless French people, a Lebanese corporate lawyer, an American retired mailman and everything in between. Once again I end up with my Spanish amiga’s in Estella and we end up getting a tour of the city and the historical facts about the Santiago by a school group of 7 and 8 year olds. They are amazing and one of their mothers own a hair salon. Afterwards they give me a lime green scarf that was found on the way and direct me to her mothers hair salon. Yep, now I’m getting my hair dyed in Spain. This hair experience entailed no pain, was totally normal and leaves me thrilled…off to dinner with Spain and France:) One of the things that makes Spain and France (all women) so fun is that Spain only speaks Spanish and a little French, France only speaks French and a little English and I only speak English and some really bad Spanish…it takes communicating to a whole new level:)

After the first week and a half, several of my favorite people are leaving the Camino. A lot of Europeans, because they are so close and have to work, just do a week or a section per year. I lost John from Ireland, my two Spanish amigas, Mar and Nani, the 2 accountants from Ireland Jean and Callum and Charlott from France…just to name a few. Others are just flying by me and I realize that I might not see them again. I’m meeting lots of new people but it’s different from the first week:( I miss my European friends.

One day I get into a town around 4:00 which is pretty late and I am exhausted. I thought I had walked 22 km, after talking to some people I am told I walked 30 km…DUH, no wonder I’m whipped:) By day 9 and 10 I have developed a swollen ankle. By day 11 I get to Villafranca and spend the last 2 km in tears…I hurt and I have to take day 12 off:( I’m icing my ankle, elevating my foot and eating ibuprofen and of course…drinking lots of wine:) I managed to set up a service to transport my too heavy backpack to the next town and for the first time I will walk with just a small one…this turns out to be one of the best ideas I’ve ever had! I never walk with that heavy backpack again:)

After dumping my bag I realize that I’m walking faster and also getting stronger. The uphills, which I still hate are actually becoming doable. I end up walking the last couple of weeks with a brother and sister from the states, Dave and Linda. They started out with another brother but he blew out his knee and had to go home:( Anytime we got to an uphill I would yell, “Damn it Dave” as if it was his fault because he was usually in the lead. Together we kept up each other’s morale to carry on.

So Camino evenings are usually spent eating and drinking a lot…this is the part where I excelled:) There are always new people to meet and lots of stories to share. We stayed in albergues (dorms) for the most part. Privacy and dignity pretty much cease to exist:) But everyone is so tired from walking 4 to 8 hours in a day that no one seems to really care. After the first week we are all pro’s at this. A routine is established…get to albergue, shower (but of course for me I always need wine first), then dinner (with more wine). I would always wear my next day’s clothes to bed. Get up at 5:30 or 6:00, brush my hair, put some deodorant on, brush my teeth…then start walking…AGAIN!!!!!!

The Camino is a bit of a roller coaster ride. It starts out so difficult with every piece of your body screaming at you, not believing that you are willingly subjecting it to this abuse. Then mid way your mind takes over and you begin to think…”really I have to walk again today? I could be laying on a beach some where.” At the same time you notice your body is feeling stronger and you realize that you’re actually doing this thing. Towards the end you just want to finish and will do whatever it takes. I notice my feet are starting to really hurt…in fact they still hurt. I’m not sure they will ever forgive me for what I put them through…but then you get to the finish line. Santiago…the Plaza, The Cathedral…it is all so emotional. I will never be able to fully explain it, but you see all these people that you have seen throughout the way and you are so proud of them and proud of yourself. You all got here, you all made it! It is the feeling of being in a family where you have all conquered something…and you didn’t do it alone. You always had your Camino family backing you up, encouraging you on…being there for you all the time with anything you needed. It just happens…people or things show up right when you need them the most.

A few stories and I will quit boring you:) All along the Camino there are yellow arrows showing you the way. It’s pretty well marked but occasionally you get tired and wonder if you have strayed off course. It’s always right at these moments that an arrow appears or a fellow Pilgrim. Sometimes someone yells at you from a distance because they know you missed an arrow and want to get you back on track. One time walking we met an older German gentleman who was frantic. He didn’t have his backpack and was mid way through the day. We had seen him several times off and on in the past week. You could tell he was very upset. We stopped, questioned him, he pretty much only spoke German. I stopped a young man to help us that spoke Spanish. We finally managed to call the German’s last hotel and get to the bottom of things. We, (through mostly sign language) explained that his bag would be at the next village we were all stopping at. I gave him my last 20 euro’s so he could eat and drink that day. He calmed down and seemed relieved so we carried on. Two days later I saw that German gentleman and we both ran to each other with open arms and after our embrace he reached in his pocket and pulled out 20 euros to repay me that he had obviously tucked away hoping to run into me. These type of things happen all the time on the Camino. People simply living day to day doing the most basic things in life…walking, eating, sleeping and talking…becoming friends and taking care of each other even when they don’t speak the same language. In this way a family is formed and a life experience takes place that will not be forgotten…especially not by this woman.

In the end, the walk itself was both difficult and wonderful. I still don’t know why I felt the need to walk the Camino but I’m so glad I did. I met some of the most wonderful people from all over the world and took myself way out of my comfort zone. I went beyond my self imposed limits and learned that life is really about possibilities and pushing yourself to new heights!

From Spain…Walk tall!

3 thoughts on “The Camino…Sorry: Long Story, Long Journey

  1. Sylvia Thomas

    Leigh Ann, So sorry I haven’t written in while, but I have to tell you, I am so proud of you! What a journey you are on, girl…both physically and emotionally.

    To push yourself even when you thought you couldn’t go another inch is amazing…and with incredibly sore feet as well! Trust me, I know how THAT makes you want to do nothing!

    Can’t wait to see you again, my friend! You have managed to make this an adventure for us all! Thank you!

  2. Rex

    What a wonderful accomplishment Leigh Ann. After Kim read your post she said, “Wow! She’s amazing.” Which was a spot-on summary of my thoughts too.

    Stay safe! Stay happy!


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