The steep path up into Varcarlos made me realise how hard the walk was going to be.
Walking the Camino was the hardest and yet the best thing I have ever done. My journey to the Camino came from creating a bucket list some 12 years prior during my first episode of PTSD. After suffering a second bout of PTSD, I had to find something positive to do that would refocus my broken mind.
During the 12-month lead-up to walking, I wrote a book about my experience of PTSD, set up a fundraiser for my Camino walk, trained with a long-distance walking PT to improve my fitness and set up a Facebook page to share my journey, all while still working fulltime in the job that kept retriggering the memories I wanted to forget.
In mid September 2018 I set off alone to travel via Paris and France to begin my pilgrimage across Spain. As the bus drove across the mountains from Pamplona to St Jean-Pied-de-Port, the reality of what I was about to experience began to sink in. On that bus that afternoon, I knew that this challenge was going to be harder than I had ever imagined.
My trip was pre-booked accommodation, with meals included and the transfer of my big pack each day. Little did I know that this was to be my greatest nemesis along the way.
Leaving St Jean on 3 October, I had 42 days ahead of me. That first step onto the trail was filled with apprehension and much gratitude that I was finally fulfilling a long-held dream.
Walking many lonely empty streets on my own
My itinerary had me walking via Valcarlos as my first night’s stop, and I set off eager and strong, knowing it was only a shorter day’s walk. What I did not account for was how difficult some of the ascents and descents would be for me, an overweight, as yet still unfit, middle-aged couch potato with arthritic knees.
By the time I made it to Roncesvalles at the end of my second day, I was very sick and in much pain, due to the over-exertion of a walk I was not fully prepared for. It was here, on this beautiful mountain that I made the decision that I was determined to finish this walk, but I would need to find a way to do it that I wouldn’t injure myself, or die trying in the process.
The next day I was still very sick and needed to catch a taxi to my next destination as I couldn’t walk at all. I rested, slept, sat in the sunshine by the river in Zubiri and allowed my body to recover for the day.
From then on, I walked as far as I could each day and either used a taxi or bus to take me to each destination for the day. This weighed heavily on my mind, as I felt like I was cheating somehow, but at the same time I had taken some of the pressure off myself and I had much more time to linger and enjoy the parts I could walk, to soak up the sights and atmosphere of the locals in many of the towns I passed through. I had time to stop and say hello to people, to watch their everyday activities and to learn about the history of the towns and the trails.
Each day I walked alone as I was a very slow stroller and could not keep up the pace of other walkers. I met people in the cafés and as they passed me on the trail, and sometimes I was able to share a late lunch or dinner with them in the towns at the end of the day, but mostly in my pre-booked accommodations, I sat alone to eat my dinner and breakfast. In the times where there were other pilgrims staying in the same places, I met some amazing people and heard the most incredible stories of their lives and the reasons they were walking the Camino. As the days passed I would often see the same faces and slowly got to know some of them, but for the most part it was a lonely and difficult walk.
It was my purpose that kept me going. Along those long stretches of path with only my own thoughts, I struggled for many days to understand life, but slowly the routine of each day and walking in nature began to calm my mind and strengthen my body. I could walk longer and further as the days went by, and I was not so often haunted by the dark memories of the things I have seen.
We had walked mostly in beautiful warm sunny weather, but in Astorga, overnight the weather turned to cold and rain. I had spent a few shared meals with another pilgrim in the previous few days, and when we got to Rabanal the next afternoon, I knew she was going ahead and it would possibly be the last time I saw her. Up till this day, each time this had occurred I felt sad and at a loss because I had not found ‘my Camino family’.
My backpack was my very best friend along the trail
As I walked up to my room and opened the window to a magnificent view, then took a warm bath, I felt a surge of peace come over me. In that moment I let go of all the expectation on myself, and of what my Camino should have been like. I let go of the anger at what I couldn’t do and of my life journey up until this moment. Instead thanked my life for all the experiences I had until then, for the person it had made me become, and for my body and what it could do. I stopped focussing on all the sad and the wrong, what I couldn’t do physically and mentally, and somehow I was able to sink inside to my soul level and know that the rest of my Camino would be okay no matter what happened. I had been walking for 4 weeks by now and finally I understood the lessons the Way was trying to teach me. There, in my hotel room alone, I thanked the universe for who I was and discovered for the first time ever, a deep sense of self acceptance and self love.
A magical winter wonderland
Shortly after I went down to the bar to get a drink, and there I met a man who was to become my Camino angel. The person who by his story showed me a mirror of myself, and allowed me to become and understand all of who I was by being able to help out a stranger in need. Through an unusual set of circumstances, this person had left Astorga without warm clothes and had walked in the cold rain all day, and the next day was to bring snow. And by an equally odd set of circumstances, I had a spare warm jacket, gloves and hat that was graciously accepted by him. This tapped into my naturally caring side and reconnected me back to the core of who I am.
For the remainder of my walk into Santiago the journey changed. Many times I found slow walkers whom I could walk with, and I began to enjoy my alone stages. I met many more people and found companions in more and more places to talk and share stories with. I trusted my own body and listened to it, instead of fighting it. I still walked slowly, and I stopped to rest more often and began to walk the whole way between towns.
My most feared mountain was O’Cebriero, but I walked it every step in the cold rain and cried at the border of entering into Galicia. I felt at home again in these mountains, a throwback to my days as a child in the Blue Mountains of NSW. I knew with confidence now that I would walk each step from Sarria and get my Compostella.
My last evening and day on the trail were filled with tiny miracles. The accommodation for my last night on the trail was in a tiny, remote little town some 3km back from where the other pilgrims normally stay. By now the weather was sunny and cool and the days were a joy to walk. That evening as I booked in, I noticed a line up of other backpacks outside the rooms. I showered and went outside to get a drink at the bar: there was a whole group of pilgrims staying and on that last night I felt like a real pilgrim as we shared dinner and conversations. I was treated to a beautiful Celtic ceremony that was arranged for their group, and in the morning was woken early to have breakfast with them before they headed off.
Many moments pondering in the square in Santiago
I started walking once daylight started to peep through, and in the first little town towards Santiago, I met up with a group of slow strollers I had seen many times along the trails. Together we walked the rest of the way into the square and our first glimpse of the Cathedral. To hear the bagpipes playing as we entered under the arches, brought a flood of tears of relief, happiness, and joy. As I walked across the square, a couple of my Camino buddies who had gone ahead in the days before, ran across the square to meet me and wrap me in hugs.
Getting my Compostella brought another flood of tears at the magnitude of what I had just achieved. Over the next four days, I met up with many of the other pilgrims I had seen and spent time with along the trails. There were visits to all the usual pilgrim places – Finisterre, the pilgrim service in the Cathedral, the tapas bars, and many moments sitting in the square greeting other pilgrims as they walked in to complete their journey.
A final joy was seeing the botafumeiro swing at the end of the pilgrim service in the Cathedral on my last day in Santiago. I cut my travels short to return home, as tourist travel after walking the Camino seemed like it no longer fitted this trip. Returning home for me was the most beautiful joy, and the self love I found that day in Rabanal and the days after has remained strong, guiding my path as I walk through daily life.
I have no burning desire or deep need to do another Camino and yet somehow I know that I will go back and walk a long trek again, maybe from Portugal next time.