What I learned by walking the Camino de Santiago

by Kim on September 21, 2014 · 42 comments

It was a year ago today that I began my walk on the Camino de Santiago. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been so nervous as I was in the days leading up to my departure to Spain.

But by the time my plane touched down in Pamplona and I navigated by map to my hostel, then, later, to the bus station for a ticket to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and, later still, to pick up my pilgrims passport, my nerves were replaced by a wild sense of freedom. A journey stretched out before me. It was mine alone.

Camino day 1

The first morning of the Camino de Santiago, leaving St-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

Many people have asked me why I walked the Camino alone. The answer is simple. I needed to walk alone. I lean on my husband a lot and sometimes I wonder, too much? He’s the kind of guy who will carry more than his fair share of the load without complaint. I found myself getting too comfortable with it. I was allowing him to do things for me that I should have been doing for myself. I needed to prove to myself that I could still thrive on my own. And I did.

I wanted to then, and I still want to now, answer the question: What did I learn? But it’s a hard question to answer. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of visiting an ancient place or a famous landmark. You anticipate your arrival for months and you find yourself hoping you might experience transcendence.

But then you get there, to the Pyramids in Egypt or the Wailing Wall in Israel. It’s hot and you have to stand in line. The touts are hassling you. You’re uncomfortable and annoyed. You see what you have come to see but the sacred eludes you.

You leave. You walk for a while until you find a bit of shade where you sit down to rest. The world moves past you, kids in school uniforms, roadside vendors, dogs in the street. And that is when you feel it, not in the shadows of some ancient relic but in the ancient, otherworldly part of you: The everyday is holy.

Maybe I hoped for transcendence more than I would like to admit on the Camino. I thought, would I see God in some form? Would I know something profound at the end? Would there be a sign? Would it change my life?

I walked and I waited and I wondered why something big wasn’t happening. I was just having fun. Is fun the lesson? I wondered. I don’t want to learn about fun, I whined.

Now I see that my Camino was a journey of little moments, of small truths and simple revelations. Singing with nuns and walking into Santiago as the bagpipes wailed were moments of utter beauty to me, experiences that give me goose bumps upon remembering. But the seemingly insignificant moments stick with me just as much: the beautiful sunrises, the amazing people I met along the way, the feeling of sitting down in a café, all alone, and feeling absolutely comfortable in my own skin. I needed to pilgrimage outside of my daily comforts in order to see what was there all along.

Sunrise on the Camino de Santiago

On the Camino I mulled over my dreams and aspirations. I was lonely a little. I was awed a lot. I was me without anyone else to define or refine me. And over the miles I realized that I was truly proud of the woman who was walking across Spain on her own.

Maybe it happened on the Camino or maybe it has been a work in progress since I shed the skin of my former self and decided to run towards the person I really wanted to be. But today I feel so certain of who I am. I can’t tell you what a turn of events that is for me. I did not feel that way in my old career and in my old life. Maybe it’s a byproduct of growing up and growing older or maybe it’s because I went looking for it, not just on a dusty, rocky path through Spain but on a meandering journey around the world.

Walking the Camino de Santiago

reaching Santiago on the Camino de Santiago