One year ago today my brother and I were hiking 18.32 miles from Villafranca de Bierzo to Laguna del Castilla in Spain. 43,336 steps, give or take. We started early in the morning, before sunrise, with lights strapped to our heads as we walked along the Spanish highway through the pouring rain. It remained raining most of the day, as we passed through several villages and fellow pilgrims passed us. At one point we heard a very loud and unrecognizable noise above the sound of the rainfall, only to realize it was a honking donkey strutting by. And I can only imagine that at some point during our walk, my brother and I got into a spat about something silly, like that he was talking too much or that he ate more than his fair share of tortilla. After a slippery incline at the end of the cold, fall-like day, we finally arrived at our tiny town—no more than a single hostel and a restaurant—before settling in for the night, watching the movie Twister in Spanish as it played on the restaurant’s TV.
For those of you who are new or don’t know, I spent much of last summer hiking the Camino de Santiago with my older brother Sam—33 days, to be exact. The Camino is an ancient pilgrimage across Spain, and while there are many different “Caminos”, or routes, that one can take, my brother and I chose the most popular: The Camino Frances, starting in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, and spanning almost 500 miles to Santiago de Compostela, the ultimate destination for a pilgrim hiking the Camino. You can read more about the history of the Camino, how it works, and our reasons for walking it in this blog post. (Or maybe you’ve seen the 2010 movie The Way starring Martin Sheen, which re-popularized the Camino in the U.S. and was actually the first time I heard of this grand hike.)
Anyone walking the Camino is known as a pilgrim, and pilgrims typically carry a 15-30 pound pack on their back as they hike through Spain and rest in hostels, or albergues in Spanish, along the way. Now you may be wondering why someone would willingly sign up to walk 500 miles through varying terrain… Good question. In fact, it’s a question I began to ask myself those first ten grueling days, as my feet screamed with every step and my legs ached through the night, wondering if the journey would get any easier. Some people walk the Camino for fitness reasons, historical or cultural reasons, or religious/spiritual reasons, and I would say I walked it for a combination of all of the above, as well as to do something special with my older brother independent of our parents. Now, one year later, I have been rereading the journal I kept while abroad each day, reliving some scenes as if it was just yesterday and remembering details that I had totally forgotten about (like the fact that Sam’s and my safe word was “avocado”, which was to be used if one of us was annoying the other and needed some space—why we chose avocado, I don’t know).
It’s hard to believe that a year ago I was on the trip of a lifetime, experiencing something new and exciting every day, and now I’m at home, trying to imagine how to translate some of that newness or excitement to the routine of quarantine life. I wouldn’t necessarily say reading my journal every night makes me sad about how much the pandemic has changed everything and how much it has taken from us. In fact, COVID-19 has made me realize just how grateful I am to have experienced the Camino when I did. Sam and I planned the trip very last minute, and I had very little knowledge of the excursion and absolutely no training for the strenuous hike ahead. We basically went on a whim, and while I continue to tell myself that this pandemic is happening at the worst possible time in my life, the Camino happened at the best possible time. I am grateful that I didn’t invest the time, money, and excitement to plan an incredible adventure, only to have it cancelled… And I am grateful that I was able to go abroad so recently before traveling became such an unknown.
Even though hiking the Camino de Santiago and staying home during quarantine could not be more different, I’ve realized there’s one similarity between the two: that joy comes from the simple things.
As cheesy as it sounds, I discovered a peace on the Camino that I had never felt before. Once my body finally adjusted and got over the pain that accompanied walking about 20 miles each day for 33 days consecutively, I could finally enjoy the journey of the Camino for all that it offers, which to me is the beauty of a simple life. Every day consisted of walking, meeting interesting people, eating, and sleeping. That was it. All I needed to survive could be carried in the 20-pound pack on my back. The greatest stress I ever felt was the worry that my hostel would be dirty, or that I spoke Spanish incorrectly during an interaction with the locals—both very trivial matters in the grand scheme of things.
On the toughest days of the Camino, something as simple as discovering a field of sunflowers, like bright, happy faces staring back at us, would give us the strength to keep walking. Or sometimes it was the kindness of a stranger that pushed us forward, sharing deep wisdom in a thick German accent or reassuring us that our Spanish was good, even when it wasn’t. Even a donkey honking in the pouring rain as we sat shivering at an outdoor café made our trials worth it. (Not to mention, bathrooms that came with soap and paper towels or hostels that came with disposable bedsheets made us over the moon!). With each passing day, I began to forget what life was like before I just walked all day, and I let the tranquility of the Camino wash over me like the ice cold albergue showers.
While quarantine stress has been double or triple the amount of anxiety I felt on the Camino (maybe my entire generation will have gone grey by 2021), I’ve found that the joy of each day still must be found in the little things. Of course, some days that’s much harder to do, but other days it’s as simple as a pink and orange sunset lighting up the twilight sky. Or the child-like freedom of flying a kite in a park (socially distanced, of course). Even distracting myself through productivity and crossing something off a to-do list in color-coordinated pens has been a much-needed source of smiles recently. Oh, and have I mentioned the absolute joy that is cutting a watermelon in half, scooping out a little hole, and filling it with vanilla ice cream?! Seriously, it’s absolutely delicious, and I find something so magical about eating out of fruit like it’s a bowl.
At the time of walking the Camino, I felt that through my journey I had discovered some subtle albeit cliché life lessons—things I promised myself I wouldn’t forget as I returned to the hustle and bustle of regular life. Shamefully, though not surprisingly, I have not remembered to live most of those lessons in the past year since my trip to Spain. But with all the new stresses this pandemic has introduced, it has reminded me that even on a grand adventure like the Camino de Santiago, it was the simple things that made me smile each day. So why should it be any different during this pandemic?
If you’d like to read more about my trip and the Camino de Santiago, you can check out the series below, with some more of my favorite pics from the adventure!
I’ve noticed that a lot of bloggers have recently been posting travel bucket lists or even “reverse bucket lists”, where they share everything they’ve already done rather than focusing on what they haven’t. This blog post was kind of my version of that, since being grateful for my amazing trip last year is helping me get through all the cancellations of events this year. So tell me: What’s an incredible trip that you’ve already been on? What’s something you are so grateful to have done before this pandemic hit? Thanks for bearing with me through this sappy blog post, and I hope your week is off to a great start! Stay tuned for another Magnificent 8 collaboration on Wednesday of this week instead of my usual posting date on Thursday.
Miles of smiles,