In honor of Thanksgiving on Thursday, I decided to start the week with my fourth and final Camino de Santiago post about the lessons I learned, since I am unbelievably grateful for having had the incredible opportunity of hiking across Spain. However, truth be told, I’ve been dreading writing this post. I think part of the reason is that I feel a certain pressure to share something profound with you. The other part has to do with fearing the end of my Camino journey—by publishing this final post, I somehow feel like I am done telling my story. But I’m not ready for that yet.
If you missed the first three posts in this series, you can check them out by clicking the links below:
So what exactly did I learn while hiking 500 miles across Spain over the course of 33 days? Before embarking on this journey, people told me walking the Camino de Santiago would change my life. I would agree with that statement—it has changed my life, but I can’t exactly pinpoint why or how. Something is just different (besides the daily cracking in my knees, of course). When I think back to my experiences on the Camino, I become overwhelmed with emotion, suddenly capable of erupting into tears at any moment. But what causes this passionate response? Was I primed to believe the Camino would change me, thereby convincing myself of this change? Or is the raw emotion truly a result of some enlightenment I achieved by completing a journey of this magnitude?
I can’t be sure, but what I can be sure of is this: the Camino is full of clichés. People often say to “slow down” and enjoy each moment life has to offer. It’s one thing to say that, or to hear that message and promise yourself to adhere to it in the future. But it’s completely different to actually live that adage. There was a moment while hiking the Camino that I realized I willingly chose to walk 500 miles from St. Jean Pied de Port, France, all the way to Santiago, Spain, when I could drive from Point A to Point B in only eight hours. Eight hours is all it would take by car, and I decided—along with thousands of other pilgrims each year—that I should spend more than a month to walk the distance instead. It sounds crazy, and on the most strenuous days of walking, it was a hard truth to accept. But by golly, if the Camino isn’t the definition of slowing down, then I don’t know what is.
The Camino teaches you to “appreciate the small things” in life. I never realized just how important a field of sunflowers could be, but on the hardest days of the Camino, turning a corner to find thousands of bright yellow petals, gazing at us like smiling faces, was the hope I needed to finish the day’s walk.
The Camino can also teach you to forget the destination and instead enjoy the journey. This cliché is more difficult to learn, as the name of the pilgrimage beckons you to Santiago, and every night you count how many miles and days are left until you arrive. My brother and I met several fellow pilgrims who never fully came to appreciate this lesson of the Camino, focusing only on getting to the next city as quickly as possible and making it to Santiago in the least number of days. While my brother and I still thought about our arrival to the pilgrim’s city, we learned early on after our detour at Zabaldika to free ourselves of deadlines and enjoy the slowness of each day, rather than obsessing over the destination. The farther I walked, the more I became lost in my own quiet reflection and the beauty of my surroundings, with Santiago fading in my mind. I learned to love the walks, not because they brought be closer to the end, but because they brought me closer to the philosophies, dreams, and lessons of the Camino that I pondered with each step.
The final cliché taught by the Camino was that “we’re not so different after all.” Growing up, children’s books, history classes, and Shel Silverstein poems would attempt to teach this lesson. But can you ever fully grasp that truth until you interact, in real life, with people who are so fundamentally different from you? We ate with an Indonesian man, we walked with a German boy, a French boy, an Italian. We made friends with a bubbly Brazilian woman and shared a meal with a Latvian-Australian couple. We exchanged stories with and about an eccentric Romanian woman and became lasting friends with an enthusiastic Korean boy. The Camino surrounded us with people from all over the world, who were different in every possible way: socially, politically, spiritually, socioeconomically… And yet, choosing to walk 500 miles across a foreign country made us all the same kind of crazy. The bonding experience of the Camino meant that we never ran out of conversation starters, and even when we couldn’t speak the same language as our fellow pilgrims, there was an undeniable bond between us. About a third into our journey, my brother and I ate lunch with a smiley bald German man, who was full of wisdom about the Camino and about life. He had already walked the Camino once before and told us how this time, arriving in Santiago didn’t matter to him anymore. For him, the destination was of such little importance that it wouldn’t make a difference if he never made it there again—he was in Spain solely to walk and to enjoy the company of those around him.
The German’s message that resonated with me most was this: “I think if all the world’s leaders could walk the Camino together for one week, the world would be a much better place.” The probability of this conjecture is completely irrelevant, but it’s what it says about the Camino that matters: through shared suffering and a shared goal, all the little differences wash away. Regardless of language, religion, country of origin, or anything else, somos peregrinos. We are pilgrims, and we walk together, finding camaraderie stronger than any differences that may drive us apart.
After 33 days of never feeling completely clean, of always wearing clothes that smelled, of not washing my face with anything more than lukewarm water, I learned one of the most important lessons of the Camino: all I really need to survive, I can carry in 20 pounds on my back. And as I experienced at the Cruz de Fero, all the pain, anger, and sadness that people hold onto only adds unnecessary weight.
Ultimately, the Camino taught me that life is about risks, and you can never anticipate what each day will hold. As a planner and someone with a type A personality, I always want to have the perfect itinerary and check everything off my hundreds of lists. But walking the Camino taught me to embrace spontaneity. There were several days where my brother and I decided to bypass little stops, not thinking much of them, only to find out later from our friends that those stops had the most amazing food or the coolest sello or the kindest people. This always deeply upset me—I would scold myself for not choosing to stop, for judging places as looking sketchy and not enjoying the journey enough. I quickly forgot that there were times when we were on the better end of that exchange, taking amazing detours that nobody else did. The Camino made me more adventurous, more spontaneous, and more willing to try what I’m apprehensive about because as I learned while walking, you never know what might be a hidden gem.
Pilgrims say that the true Camino never ends—it starts before you arrive in Spain and it doesn’t conclude once you reach Santiago. I believe that wholeheartedly and have been trying to live my Camino ever since returning home—sharing my stories, writing these blog posts, researching and planning Camino-related events and presentations in my area. The hardest part is translating what I learned on the Camino back to the hustle and bustle of everyday life. How can I remember what it felt like to slow down? To appreciate the little things like a smiling sunflower when I most needed it? To forget my tendencies to meticulously plan every detail and instead enjoy the accidental surprises of life?
That is the last great lesson of the Camino, and it is one I am still trying to learn.
I hope you enjoyed this Camino de Santiago series as much as I enjoyed writing it. Thank you for all your support, and have a wonderful Monday!
Miles of smiles,