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.
Thank you for sharing such an honest account. I look Forward to seeing how it goes for you. Good luck x
I wish you well. I’ve just turned 50 which feels like a season of transition and adjustment. And I totally hear your anxiety. I have thought about doing something very similar. Currently feeling too scared to do it and have every excuse/reason under the son why I shouldn’t do it! So I think you’re very courageous. Also I love your thoughts on doing it through a company. I’d had that dilemma too and was finding myself feeling swayed towards carrying luggage and praying for empty hostels! So you’ve challenged something within me there.
Well anyway I do wish you well. You’re incredible for even contemplating this. I look forward to your updates. Xx
Happy birthday! And thanks for sharing your thoughts. I can’t tell you to face your fears, only that when you’re ready, you will challenge yourself and it won’t be nearly as scary as your super creative mind made it out to be 🙂
Buen Camino! I walked my first Sarria to Santiago in 2017, in 5days. like you, a girl alone, an introvert. But it was the best choice I made. Being alone, makes you free to do whatever you want and that includes talking to anyone you want and when you want. Funnily enough on the Camino, I met many strangers with whom I wanted to speak to! Everyone has his story and want to share a bit of their sadness in a happy and peaceful environment of the Camino trails…. Then on the last day my feet hurted with blisters and knee pain. I rested in Santiago but the following day I decided to keep walking….and in 5more days I was in Finisterre!…. The Camino has thought me some things. One of them is: that we plan our lives, but sometimes you have to let go and move with the flow of the day. You have to be open to others, to new opportunities in life…. The Camino is special. Looking back at my life, I was divorced, had a hurtful breakup, now I have depression… recently lost my purpose in life…. must be the depression….but seeing your post and others who are doing the Camino…. I cannot but remember that I had planned another Camino. Next year, the Portugese…. Thank you for sharing your adventure and your beautiful blog. Buen Camino!
Thanks for the comment Christine. Introverts unite! (with a lot of time in between to be alone! haha). Your story inspires me! I can only hope I encounter such inspiration.
Hi..my name is Shanta and I am a 57 year old potential friend living in Santiago de Compostela and I own a small restaurant here. Let me know when you complete your journey and come and have some tapas and wine (my treat) to welcome you to our lovely city and to celebrate your achievement! In the meantime I wish you a wonderful enlightening and stress free adventure…and thermals as it is extremely cold and wet here at the moment. Sending you much love, peace and perseverance xxx
Thank you so much Shanta! I will definitely look you up 🙂
Thank you for sharing. You have made a fantastic choice. I will be back in the Spring. My first trip I went alone. It was daunting until I started walking. Then it all made sense. Step by step my mind, heart and soul quieted. It is magical. Buen Camino!
Thanks Carmel, I hope so too! Glad you had such a great experience.
I am 60 years old and would love to walk for the first time any of these routes I love nature, people and their stories but I love God first, I will walk next year will love to hear your story as you go thru your journey. Buen Camino!
Thanks C Cala!
Thanks for this. I just returned ( well, one month ago) from walking the Camino Frances. I had my 74th birthday the day after I came back. I am in such Camino withdrawal…so, what do I do? Read blogs and watch YouTube about the Camino. Aggh! I also walked solo and could not have done it any other way. I met up with and parted from many wonderful and no-so-wonderful people who helped colour my Camino. I wish you all the best and will follow.
Happy belated 74th, Isobel! I definitely worry that I too will have withdrawal! Eek! I don’t suppose you can just go back (hint, hint???)
Thank you for sharing. I turned 70 this year and I spent my month of celebrating by walking the El Camino with my husband. We walked at our pace as it is not a race but rather a walking meditative journey for us. A walk of gratitude for our good health. Go with the Almighty.
Thanks Elsa! Sounds like the perfect birthday month!
I loved reading your story. I just turned 61 last week and I want to walk. I quit my job with no job because the stress of life and constant traveling ( airport every week and no life was killing me). I plan to take a month off and just relax with no agenda. I want to watch your journey for motivation. I wish you the best journey.
Wow, Kimberly! That’s huge! Enjoy your freedom and relaxation! 🙂
Wow Tracy, although we have never actually met I feel a kind of bond with you and from your posts, I would never have guessed that you suffer from anxiety or that you have been through so much. You project a very strong and happy persona.
But I guess I do as well. My friends and family either think I am the craziest person they know or the bravest for making this move to Spain to be with a man I have spent little time with. I fortunately have not had the tragic emotional loss that death brings, but the past three years has brought many traumatic changes in my life. The end to an abusive 36 year marriage, the sale of the house I loved and built with a lot of sweat equity and my beautiful perennial gardens I nurtured from scratch. The decision to let go and leave my friends and family behind and move to Spain (a country whose language I do not speak … but will) to be with an honorable man who loves me, which in itself has brought many, many challenges and adjustments and questioning every day my ability to hold it all together and keep my sanity. My friends that think I am brave and amazing to do this have no idea how scared I am at times, how much I doubt myself. The only thing I know for certain is despite our disagreements, I love this man who walks with me for hours with easy conversation and I feel whole. I think walking is good for the soul. It give you time to reflect.
Tomorrow, December 5th when you begin you walk of healing, I turn 78. It is said that on your birthday, you should give to others to celebrate your life. This birthday, I give you my positive thoughts, my prayers, my strength, my courage and my support for your journey. You are braver than you know!
Barbara! Hugs from Madrid (I know you’re here too at the moment!). And yes, I know your story a bit. It has always reminded me of my own. I also married a man I met online MANY YEARS AGO, that I didn’t know very well. My mother was petrified for me. Hahah. It didn’t work out, and yet, we have two beautiful sons and I am still close with his family. You and I need to get together for a coffee and chat. Maybe when I get back. AND HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Thanks for the gift 🙂
I look forward to watching your progress. I will be starting my Camino on February 28, 2022. I will be 53 and also suffer from anxiety. I love your honest writing style. Buen Camino!
Fifty-three + anxiety! Ugh! Fun stuff!!! Good luck on your Camino in February.
What beautiful supportive people on these posts! I look forward to following your journey. I had planned a third Camino but was stuck in Australia due to covid .My partner that I’d actually met on the Camino in 2015 ended up to be a serial cheater who twice just stopped phone calls ! I had to hear via his family that he had “found”someone else .So doing another Camino for me will be bitter sweet as he was the one that always researched & planned the routes ,the accommodation etc . I will do it next year snd just go with the flow ! I am strong, ,I am enough,you got this girl and I will have it too!
Good luck! I’m look forward to reading your posts! I’m hoping to walk the Camino next year. I know just how you feel-
You go Girl!
I will be following you (from my couch in sunny and warm Brisbane, Australia) but will send you energy and good thoughts to help you along the way.
Looking forward to your daily? reports!
I can’t wait to read more!! I too am planning my Camino (Frances) for 2023 & like you do need a plan!
Praying and thinking of you! So excited for you. Looking forward to hearing about your journey! You’ve got this!🤗
Go girl! Congrats. On my bucket list too. Am 52 So hearing about yr friends is sobering. My deepest sympathy. What happened to them?
Go girl! Congrats. On my bucket list too. Am 52 So hearing about yr friends is sobering. My deepest sympathy. What happened to them?
I so look forward to following your adventure. I too live in US and have been Camino dreaming since Covid. All the best to you on your journey
Thanks Mary! I hope you get there soon 🙂