What I Learned from My 80-Mile Hike on the Camino de Santiago
A few months ago I went for a walk with seven strangers. Eighty miles and a week later, I concluded my trek at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, a stunning, 800-year-old structure in the Galicia region of northwestern Spain.
The journey along the Atlantic coasts of Portugal and Spain traced the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route that people from all over the world have been traveling for an astounding 1,000 years.
Even though this wasn’t a religious undertaking for me, my journey was nevertheless a powerful experience that helped me gain perspective. It brought out an inner strength that I can now rely on every day.
Here’s what I learned from this once-in-a-lifetime walk.
Leaving Fear Behind
The inspiration for my journey came several years ago when I met a woman who had just completed the pilgrimage. She had quit her job during a personal crisis and decided she wanted to complete the Camino. I was immediately impressed with her commitment, and was certain I could never make such a walk myself. But a social media post and some encouragement from a friend helped me overcome my fear and take the plunge.
When I arrived in the beautiful Spanish coastal town of Baiona, there were seven of us ready to take the pilgrimage — all women and all strangers to me. Still, I instantly felt a sense of community and sisterhood with these women, a feeling of camaraderie that would only grow as our journey progressed.
The first day, at 16 miles, was quite a long haul along beaches featuring beautiful Atlantic Ocean views. By days two and three the terrain had changed to more of a forest landscape. Later we walked through urban neighborhoods and peered into backyards as we passed. The one constant along the path was yellow arrows that point the pilgrims in the direction of Santiago de Compostela.
On the very first day, I ended up walking with one of the women in the group, Renee, who became my Camino buddy. We walked every day together, completing all 129 kilometers with each other’s support.
A Surprise Spiritual Journey
Although the terrain of the Camino route we took is not especially difficult, the journey still requires considerable endurance, both physical and mental. In fact, walking such long distances day after day can cause you to psych yourself out if you don’t stay grounded. You start to get tired, you start to doubt yourself and you start to feel pain (not to mention the blisters!). You just have to push through.
Although a lot of people take the trek as a spiritual journey, initially I didn’t think of it as that sort of quest. What I discovered, however, is that whether you plan to or not, you realize a lot about yourself as you’re walking all those miles. You don’t really have anything else to think about. You just have so much time: Time to admire the scenery and the environment, time to think about pain, time to just think about “Why am I here? What’s important in my life? Why does this matter?”
By the time I got through the full week and we arrived in Santiago, Renee and I were holding on to each other and crying. We couldn’t believe we had done it. I had witnessed all these amazing people and their stories along the way. I’ve seen the beautiful countryside. Just to be a part of something that has gone on for over 1,000 years was truly special. I felt so much personal gratification for being able to conquer this physically and mentally demanding experience. I felt like a better person.
Finding Physical and Mental Strength
While I was on the path, alone with my thoughts, one of the things I had the opportunity to examine was self-doubt, particularly the fact that I didn’t even think I could go on this trip in the first place because I was so afraid. I realized that I put a lot of unnecessary fear into my own life, and that it prevents me from trying or even making an effort because I’m too afraid of what the outcome might be. It was a powerful revelation.
I also learned that I’m physically stronger than I ever thought I was. Every evening I would arrive at the hotel where we would be staying for the night, and I was absolutely exhausted with my feet hurting. Then the next morning when I woke up, instead of dreading going out again I was excited to go back out there and pick up where I left off the day before.
At first my enthusiasm really shocked me. I was expecting to just want to sleep in and have a day of rest, but the exact opposite happened. I just wanted to keep going. I wanted to see more of the landscape and have more of this experience on the route that so many people have traveled.
I believe diving into challenges and taking risks can help us discover our true inner strength. We just have to embrace the opportunity and not let fear get in the way. For a journey like the Camino, you have to be open to any type of feelings and emotions that come up along the way. You’re going to feel down. You’re going to feel excited. You’re going to feel happy. You’re going to feel physical pain. I had to feel all of those things to come out on the other side. If you’re pushing through something new, or hard, or painful, keep pushing. Believe me, it’s worth it.