The Camino de Santiago is ancient pilgrimage that has been traveled for roughly 1,000 years. It began when a bunch of loyal followers transported the remains of St. James around 1000 A.D. Traditionally, the pilgrimage began when you stepped out of your house, and traveled however far, to Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims came from all over Europe. Today, many pilgrims will start at various points on the Camino. Census data shows that in the full year of 2015, about 260,000 people walked the Camino. In 2005 – 93,000 and in 1995- 20,000. These numbers will increase drastically on Holy Years, that are every 6 years, 2016 is a holy year.
The last 100 km of the Camino is where you see the tourists with bright colored clothing and curve hugging Spandex, headbands, and ski poles. If you can complete the last 100 km then you can still receive the same certificate of completion that the pilgrims that started in St. Jean Pied de Porte, France receive. All the five-day hikers come out with their gaudy gear and gargantuan luggage that is transported by companies, stop to stop. The guided tour buses and caravans of helpless sheep-like people litter the pristine atmosphere that was once only seasoned veterans. The bikers come up on you out of nowhere and don’t offer much warning and expect you to make way for their chariots with flashy sunglasses and aerodynamic, goofy looking helmets.
I started my journey on July 8th, 2016 in St. Jean Pied de Porte, France and after roughly 500 miles (800 kilometers), I arrived in Santiago de Compostela on July 29, 2016. I completed the hike without ever having picked up a map. I feel safe in saying the Camino is the best marked trail in the world. Yellow arrows and the Camino shell logo appear on stones, concrete, street poles, and signs when you least expect it and are in desperate need of direction. I did use an app that provided the distance between towns and hostels to stay in, but it had no GPS or map assistance. The adventure was in not knowing when the next town would be. At the end of a long day, if you had to decide to stay in a town or hike to the next stop and it was ten miles, it helped to know, so you wouldn’t die of dehydration in the hot Spanish Sun. One day I ran out of water 6 km before the closest stop for the day and I had no distance references as my phone was dead and the sun was at its highest point around 2 pm, it was a bit unsettling and nerve-racking . There is some Zen in the near hallucinatory state of dangerously low hydration levels, hunger pangs from having no breakfast and the sweltering afternoon heat of Spain. I enjoyed tapping into that rawness of animal instinct and survival that I, and so many other have lost touch with. Whether it was self inflicted in some situations or not.
The following posts are transcribed from a handwritten daily journal with minor edits and additions from memory. My memory of specific people, events, things feels unusually accessible for the month of July 2016. When you are constantly on the move all day long and sleeping in a new place every night, every memory is fortified by the novelty of each hostel, person, landscape and the accompanying sight, smell, and taste. I do not recommend turning the Camino into a race, as I did. Completing the trail in 22 days was vain and ego-driven and no one on the Camino cares how fast you walk the miles. The re-acquainting with nature, the quirky and tremendous characters, and moments of laughter shared are the enduring memories. My idea of an endorphin rush, or a “runner’s high” is just plain masochistic and a recipe for injury. Also, I am still nursing a stress fracture in my foot due to overexertion, 4 months later. What follows are my observations and re-telling of one of the most serene and strenuous months of my life.