It’s a bit embarrassing that it’s been so long since I’ve written. I have been writing, instead, in my private Day One journal convinced that anything I have to say is of no interest to anyone else. But, I’m on to slightly bigger adventures this month–the last of 2021–so I thought I might share. Starting December 5, 2021, I’m walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela. A 115-kilometer walk down off-road trails and side-of-road stretches. I’m walking this in the span of seven days. In winter. Alone.
To some, this kind of adventure might seem a bit nuts, or a thrilling journey. In fact, the walk I’m doing is small in comparison to those who start off on any one of the full caminos that can be over 800 miles long. But nuts is what I feel like. I’m a 53-year-old, happily married mom of two, living a normal, content life in the suburbs of NJ, USA, and despite being in pretty good health and quite fit, the only thing I can complain about is that I suffer from nagging anxiety and I’m a hypochondriac (i.e I think I’m having a heart attack almost every day. No, really). However, this past year I was hit with tragedy after tragedy. My super fit family member ____ had triple bypass surgery. My best friend died in her sleep at age 52. Another wonderful friend of mine also died in her sleep in July at age 52. Should I even bother to mention my brother locked in a Bahamian jail at one point this year too? There were a slew of young deaths from over-dose in my hometown, a suicide, a suicide attempt, and of course, the chaos and uncertainty of the pandemic, which weighed heavily on all of us. These major events have devastated me, and exacerbated my anxiety to the point of having severe panic attacks. For months my nerves were so raw that I could barely stand up let alone talk to anyone. So…what does a girl do to process this kind of immense sadness and loss, feel less scared of the world, heal her weakened self and feel normal and happy again? Well, she can take Lexipro, see a therapist, get a gazillion medical exams that cost exorbitant amounts of money, and she can walk. And walk. And walk. And there’s no better place to do that that on the Camino de Santiago. At least, that’s what I hope.
The idea came to me when my therapist recommended the book Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. I had previously mentioned that, among other things, I felt I lost my purpose. That I was buried under a mountain of sadness and I didn’t know how to get out. She said, “try reading Cheryl’s story. You two sound like you have a lot in common.” I had read one of her previous books and thought, Sure, why not? And so, I bought the book. I decided, after reading only four chapters, that I too would walk. But what? Where? With whom? That’s when it hit me. I would be in Madrid, staying at my apartment for a couple weeks in December. I had three small tasks to accomplish while I was there: pay my taxes, get the ceiling fan fixed and be present during my hot water heater inspection. I had nothing else going on except hanging out with a few friends for dinner and drinks. A NJ girlfriend of mine who lives in Galicia had previously suggested I try the Camino Santiago, something she did every summer. And when Doug and I were in Madrid this past October, we met two couples that were both headed to the Camino Portugese. It sounded fascinating. It seemed like there were enough signs all pointing to The Camino. It also made perfect sense. I would walk alone in December.
I started training shortly after that. My goal was one long hike per week, one short, and an intense 40-minute spin, all of which I basically accomplished but not fully. Once in Madrid, the goal was to walk 8 miles per day. Fail. I’ve been here three days. Day one: I walked 7.7 miles; day two: I walked 7.1 miles. Day three (today): sheer exhaustion and impending monthly issues have me already taking a break. I walked one mile. I barely made it across the street to have lunch at my favorite little cafe Sésamo.
If I am not prepared physically, I am definitely prepared clothing-wise. Here’s a glimpse of some of the clothing and footwear I’ll be wearing on the rainy, cold Galician trails:
First things first, shoes. I am bringing two pairs. Some seriously comfortable trail running Danner’s, the women’s Trail 2650 Campo GTX, with gore-tex to be exact. And a pair of Vivobarefoot Magna FG minimalist hiking shoes to let my feet relax on certain days. As for layers and clothing, I have to prepare for 45F/8c, rainy weather, and so, tons of waterproof stuff– KUHL Frost Soft Shell hiking pants, Darn Tough Hiker Micro Crew Cushion hiking socks, some Merino wool base layers, REI Co-op XeroDry GTX Pants, Aspire GORE-TEX rain jacket, and the Arc’teryx Atom LT Insulated Hoodie. Thanks to REI, I think my clothes will finish the walk before I do.
And how is my mental state? Despite being incredibly excited (all this prep work has definitely strengthened me physically and mentally) I am also horribly worried (remember, anxiety sufferer here!) I’m worried about finding bathrooms, finding decent food, warmth and places to just simply stretch and relax. It’s one thing when you’re walking in warmer, sunny weather. It’s another when every day is 90% downpour and near-freezing cold. I’m worried about people (yes, people! I am also an introvert (and clearly a whiner too)). I’m mostly worried about being able to walk 15-16 miles in one day, uphill and down.
But! This is the challenge that I signed up for and this is the process of healing that I am choosing. Here are more particulars:
In order to do the Camino Santiago, as I learned, there is the possibility of doing it with almost zero preparation. You arrive as close to your point of origin as possible by plane, train or bus, and then, start walking. You walk until you’re tired and then, hopefully, find a bed somewhere and a good meal. No reservations need to be made ahead of time (unless during the busy season, perhaps). You carry everything on your back. That’s the way many thousands of “pilgrims” do it. But that is definitely not me. Nor how I am doing it.
I am a planner, which means that winging it no longer interests me. Nor does the chaos and suffering that comes with fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants. And so, I signed up with Camino Ways, which basically takes care of everything for me but the walking. They mostly fulfill two purposes: to secure booking in hotels instead of staying in albergues (bunk bed style hostals, with the potential threat of bedbugs, and the definite threat of strangers snoring all night, umm, yeah, no thanks), and to transport my larger luggage from one hotel to the next. This latter point has already made me the casualty of mild admonishment by some guy on a Camino FB group. Some people think you’re not a “true pilgrim” unless you are martyring yourself under the weight of a 50-pound bag. I actually martyred myself twice under the 50-extra pounds I gained with each pregnancy, and then I proceeded to push two humans out of my vagina and raised them over the course of 20+ years. Enough said. Oh wait. One more thing: I don’t consider myself a pilgrim. Not yet anyway. I consider myself a woman who is at a point in her life where she is desperate. Desperate to walk. And no 50-pound bag can shake a stick at the weight I am carrying inside me (the weight we are all carrying inside us!). As a kind man commented in defense of my situation: “This is your Camino; walk it your way.” Thank you, stranger for your wisdom. That being said, I have a lot of hope for this Camino. Let’s see what it brings. Let’s see what I am capable of.
I will post again from Sarria!
You can read Part 2 here.