Reflections of a (former) pilgrim

I’ve been home from the Camino for over a month now and I have some final thoughts to share. In case people are interested in doing something like this on their own, I have just a few pieces of advice to pass along. Everyone’s camino is different, and for me, when my experience was great, it was really great, but when it wasn’t good, it really wasn’t good. My camino was a struggle (although, everyone’s is in someway, I believe. We all have our own struggles and part of being a pilgrim and putting yourself willfully through something as challenging as walking across a country is going to be a struggle, no matter how prepared or experienced you think you are.)

But if I were to go again (which I am still not inclined to do yet), I would keep these ten things in mind:

  1. The best item I had was a pair of wool gloves. They had half-fingers that could be turned into mittens. They were perfect protection from the rain, cold, and blisters from the rubber hiking pole handle. It was a late addition to my pack from my Dad, who picked them up on a whim for me at a global market fest in Albuquerque.
  2. Take a sleeping bag. I was so cold many nights because I only had a sleep sack (like a liner). The extra weight could be an issue, but I think it’s really worth it. I thought that places would be heated and I was wrong. A couple of albergues provided some woolen blankets, which I had no qualms about using (although other pilgrims refused to use them because they didn’t believe they were ever washed). But, I only really had one or two nights (not in a hotel) where there was a radiator that actually worked in the dormitory room. Mostly, I was cold a lot.
  3. Go at your own pace. There is nothing wrong with walking slowly or walking quickly. If you find that your pace is too different to allow you to walk with others, just stop and have breaks; eat lunch with other pilgrims; chat; go to mass; hang out in the albergues. While walking with people is nice — the most social part of the camino is the albergues and your pace (no matter what it might be) will allow you to take part in the albergue experience.
  4. Take a break from the albergues sometimes. We all need space.
  5. Listen to your body. (This seems to really go well with tip #3). Stop and rest when you need to. Don’t let others determine where you need to walk to each day. Nobody knows your limits but you. Listen to your body if you want to walk into Santiago de Compostela. If you want to arrive in Santiago by train, bus, or taxi, feel free to ignore your body’s warnings. It will force you to stop if you refuse to listen.
  6. Do stay connected to family and friends back home, but don’t let that connection control your pilgrimage. Having a line of communication available is good — but not to the point of distraction. Family need to know you’re okay. The camino is hard and can bring up all sorts of emotions and it’s good for you to have the option of a text to a parent or sibling or child when you could really use the support. And vice versa. You’re wandering alone through a foreign country and it’s bound to make people who love you anxious for your safety. Give them a break and allow them to check in with you now and again.
  7. The synthetic exercise clothing reeks of sweat after just 1-2 days of walking. It’s awful. Cotton and wool clothing are best. Don’t buy that high priced sweat-wicking stuff. It might be great for quick runs in the suburbs when you can go home and wash it immediately after you’re done, but it’s not good for weeks out on a trail with few laundry options. All pilgrims smell, but when other pilgrims are commenting on how much your clothes stink, believe me, you reek. I met two pilgrims from Australia who stocked up on these types of clothes and only brought them, thinking it was the best way to go and they were so frustrated at how much they smelled and how difficult it was to get their clothes clean. Avoid their mistake.
  8. Don’t expect this to change your life. Don’t put so many expectations on this single experience. Really. It’s a walk. It may impact you enormously and it may not. It is what it is. Just try to enjoy it as much as you can. The peace of walking through nature is nice in itself, whether you end your pilgrimage with some monumental decisions made or not. Enjoy the walk.
  9. There will be moments/hours/days that will make you think this was a terrible mistake. You will think this was the worst idea you’ve ever had and ask how could you do this to yourself but remember: you chose this. Try to remember, when you are miserable and full of doubt, what made you want to do this Camino. Focus on that and it will help to get you through. When the whole thing is over, you will be amazed at what you’ve accomplished. It’s a big deal to walk far enough to get a Compostela. Each pilgrim earns that, whether they walked fast or slowly, from France or from Sarria. Each step is an achievement in itself and the self-doubt you feel during your Way is yet another shared experience with other pilgrims.
  10. People at home will not –on the whole– care to hear much about your Camino. This experience is personal to you and surreal to others. It is difficult to explain and not of interest to most of the folks who ask you politely how it went. It’s best to come up with a quick one sentence answer, usually a positive thing, and just stick with that.

I think those ten things cover most of the advice I feel qualified to give if anybody who actually wants to do this asks me about it, or reads this blog. Most people are impressed with the idea of walking so far, but don’t really care to delve too deeply into the particulars. And I’m okay with that. I don’t really want to re-live the Camino just yet. I’m still happy with being home, although I have begun to notice the peace of mind that I had in Spain during the walk is fading away back here in the busy everyday world of mine. I initially felt very settled back here in in Albuquerque. Moreso than I was before I went. I was restless before I left for Spain and I was happy to be home afterward. Happy to be back in my little apartment and back at work doing storytimes and helping kids find books. I felt like I was where I should be. I still feel that a bit, but I can tell it’s fading already. I’m not ready to go on a vacation again, but the peace of mind I had has been sort of chipped away at in the month I’ve been home. I think partly it is to do with the general hectic nature of the holidays. But, I hope to find that sense of calm again. At least I know now that a good long walk outside, away from the streets and honking horns of the city will do me good. I don’t feel like I personally did much soul-searching on the Camino. I don’t really think I had much in the way of huge dilemmas to focus on, no life-altering decisions to be made, no major upheavals to think about… but I did find an inner sense of peace and I did return with a less restless soul than I went out there with. So, I’m grateful for that.

I guess my final thought on this whole thing would be about the feeling that people need to make life-long connections on the Way. I met a lot of pilgrims who were almost obsessed with getting the contact information of every pilgrim they met. They wanted to connect on socialĀ  media, they wanted to text by phone, they wanted e-mail addresses. They wanted to stay in touch after the pilgrimage was completed. I was strongly adverse to this mindset.

I don’t think it’s necessary to stay connected to people you meet along the Camino. I think the interactions you have with other pilgrims is genuine and sincere and can be very deep and you will remember them for a long time, but you don’t need to carry the specific connections away from that pilgrim world into the everyday world of your separate lives. I still feel very strongly that, for me at least, it was important that I not know too much about these people’s lives back home. I deliberately didn’t learn last names or whether people were married or had children or anything. This doesn’t mean we only had superficial conversations. On the contrary, it was almost like you could speak more freely and sincerely due to the fact that these were people you would never see again. Every conversation was a chance to spill out your feelings to someone who was going to listen and respond in a way that they might not listen or respond to someone who they knew they’d be dealing with again for months and years to come. The camino allows for very deep conversations and arguments and real interactions with people for a very short time. Just a conversation over tea or over dinner or over a snack while sitting on the edge of a public fountain. That is what makes the camino special, to me. The fact that you have these face-to-face conversations with strangers that might only last a brief time, but which will stick with you for a long time to come. But you don’t know their names. This is why I think people say that there are angels on the Camino. I think there truly are, but I also came to believe that every pilgrim and every person you meet on the camino is angelic. They have a lasting impact, but are only with you for a moment. It’s really something. I don’t think I would treasure it as much as I do if I came home and saw on social media that these people I had wonderful conversations with over dinner are complaining about the refugees, or going through a bitter divorce, or are whining about their work life, etc. For me, I don’t want to know that stuff. I honestly don’t think I’d like some of the people I met along the Camino very much if I knew them very well. But, because I didn’t want to know too much about their personal lives, I feel like I can remember them with some sort of fondness. At least as part of a moment during a special experience in my life. So, I didn’t come home from this whole experience with life-long friends who I will send Christmas cards to and share inside jokes with about a pilgrim’s life on the Way of St. James, but some people do. Some people choose to “collect” other pilgrims as they go and make a strong effort to stay connected, as if the experience doesn’t mean as much unless they can have people to talk to who were part of it once it’s over. And I can understand that, too. Especially when you come home and realize that most people don’t want to hear much about what you’ve done. But, I think it’s just another personal decision that each pilgrim has to make on their own.