Hiking the Camino de Santiago was one of those things I’d heard about once. Something that for some reason resonated and stuck with me and as a result ended up on my ‘one day’ wish list. Something I’d get around to to doing one day, when I had the time. The thing is all the list seemed to do was grow longer and longer and the ‘one day’ on which I’d do some of the things I dreamed of never seemed to materialise. Perhaps it’s the same for you? However, an unexpected and significant change in my personal circumstances presented me with the perfect opportunity to make things happen. The one day had arrived.
Out of the blue, I was redundant. Redundant. It has a certain finality about it. Defined by the Oxford Dictionary as an adjective, meaning: ‘not or no longer needed or useful; superfluous’, it was certainly how I felt when I heard it said to me. Not the kind of thing you want to hear when you’ve worked hard at something for many years. Not something I expected to hear because there was still much work to be done. To be honest I’d never really given much thought to not doing the job I did. in the main I loved it and just got on with it.
Something else I’d never given much thought to, until redundancy, was just how much of my life and my identity, was wrapped up in my job. My every day structure and routine, the many things I did, the places I went, the people I worked with, my sense of purpose and fulfilment… and of course the income it gave me. It seemed all of me was wrapped up in my job. Without it, who was I? Without your job, and everything that goes with it, who would you be?
But redundancy is the topic of another post so I’ll say no more about it for now, except that instead of going with the advice of a number of people – which was to hit the ground running and get another job straight away – I decided to take a year out and do as many of the things on my ‘one day’ list as possible. I dug out my saved list and considered whether there was anything I wanted to add to it. Hiking the Camino was towards the bottom. At the top of the list was my sanity project (anyone who’s ever lost their job needs a sanity project), followed by finishing my masters (I didn’t), spending over a month travelling in Peru (doing some of the touristy things such as visiting Machu Picchu and Nazca, and some of the not so touristy things such as hiking Mount Salkantay and spending time with shaman and healers), converting the loft in the house I lived in at the time, and travelling to New Mexico to visit my good friend Bear.
Amazingly, over a period of around 8-9 months, the one topic that came up again and again, no matter where I was or who I was with, was the Camino de Santiago (and it wasn’t me bringing it up). I took it to be a sign and although I hadn’t set a specific date I began buying things in preparation, including a really good pair of walking boots. I went everywhere in them in order to break them in and they fit me a treat, as we might say in Yorkshire. They’d need to because to get to the end point, Santiago de Compostela, and in the time I’d decided I wanted to get there by, I’d need to walk around 25 miles a day.
One thing that fascinates me to this day was that I could get all the way starting point via public transport. I could literally get on the (then) 760 Leeds bus, more or less right outside the front of my house, and travel all the way there via buses and trains. And I did.
Filled with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, not least because of the many uncertainties the journey before me held, I stepped on the bus with just the clothes I was wearing and a small backpack with a change of clothes and other essentials. So began an adventure that lasted three weeks but which I’ll remember forever. A journey of around 500 miles.
The Camino de Santiago consists of a number of ancient trails, with many different starting points.The route favoured by the vast majority of people is what’s known as the Camino Frances, a journey which begins in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a small and picturesque village in the foothills of the French side of the Pyrenees. From there the first stage sees the traveller take a steep and arduous hike up and over the Pyrenees before crossing the border into Spain and descending down the other side and into Roncesvalles. Altogether it’s a journey of around 500 miles across the many regions that make up northern Spain. And what a journey it is.
It’s a journey of many types: physically, psychologically, emotionally and metaphorically. A journey of introspection and reflection. A journey where some people lose themselves, and some people find themselves. People talked about the camino being a ‘wake up’ journey. That they woke up to what was really important in their lives… and what wasn’t.
A journey of challenging simplicity, to life and the daily living of it. How far will I walk today? When will I stop? Where will I eat and what will I eat? Will there be a bed? What do I do if there isn’t.
It’s a journey of uncertainty, never really knowing what’s over the next hill or around the next bend.
A journey that kicks you out of your comfort zone(s) and connects you with growth, determination and resilience. A journey that can stretch your capabilities way beyond what you thought you were capable of, and tests your patience to the limit. Ever slept in a dorm with 49 strangers? Queued for an hour for a shower (that was then cold and little more than a drip)? Struggled to sleep because the person in the next bed would win an olympic gold medal for snoring, and yet she was only one of ten people snoring that night.
And then there’s the beauty. Beauty in the scenery, in the sunsets and the sunrises; in the moments that take your breath away, in the paths that wind their way across miles and miles of open countryside: endless fields of corn and wheat, grape vines and sunflowers, seemingly stretching out to infinity, and through dense woodland too. Through quaint, ancient, picturesque villages, delightful towns and sprawling cities.
And the incredible beauty of people. In the warmth, compassion and kindness of complete strangers, many of whom don’t speak a language you understand but who share a common language of connectedness.
Lots of people, hundreds of thousands in fact, from many different countries and from all walks of life, who set out to complete some or all of the Camino de Santiago every year. For some it’s a pilgrimage – the path of St James – for some it’s a challenge, and for others it’s an adventure. Of course it’s also all three, and probably more, for lots of people. As well as an outer physical journey it’s also an inner, psychological and spiritual journey
Along the way I met and talked with many people who were captivated by the challenge of completing a 500 mile hike but only wanted to do it the once. And then others who came back again and again and again. Not only because they loved to walk, but because of the experiential nature of the journey. The many aspects they got pleasure from and the sense of achievement and fulfilment that resulted both from the planning and completion. It was often shared that it’s not about ‘the’ Camino but about your Camino. It’s about what it means to each individual and that there are many, many lessons along the way… if you’re open to learning that is.
Perhaps hiking the Camino de Santiago is something you might want to add to your one day list?
Whether it’s on there or not don’t leave the things you’d love to do until it’s too late.