Walking the Camino de Santiago: See You on the Way
Originally published in WildJunket Magazine Issue 1 (Jun/Jul 2012)
efore the sun even has a chance to peek its head over the Spanish horizon, the pilgrims awaken. Sleeping bags are quietly, expertly rolled up. Hiking boots are pulled on, as are layers of t-shirts and fleeces and rain jackets. Backpacks are snapped shut, expectant of the day ahead.
My first morning on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail has only just begun and I can tell there’s much I have to learn. While I fumble about the albergue (or hostel) in a groggy haze, many have already left, the clicks of their walking sticks echoing against the silent sidewalk below.
I carry my backpack and shoes downstairs and find a seat in the lounge. I’m eager to join the other walkers, but hesitant at the same time. My fingers linger over the shoelaces of my new boots, like a child searching for excuses to put off bedtime.
Now that I’m here, the question I’ve been asking myself for a month presents itself yet again. It isn’t so much do I want to do this, but can I do this? Can I walk an average of 15 miles (25km) a day for two weeks, with only my pack on my back and the road before me?
“Buen camino,” walkers call out to each other as they head out of the albergue and into the quiet streets of Sahagún. “See you on the way,” another says, and I can feel my excitement grow right alongside my nerves.
Slowly the sky outside lightens to a crystalline blue and I realize there’s only one way to find out if I’ll make it to Santiago.
Ready or not, it’s time to hit the trail.
Day 1: Full steam ahead to Reliegos – 32 km
El Camino de Santiago (which translates to mean “The Way of Saint James”) is a network of centuries-old pilgrimage trails running across Europe, all leading to the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Rumor has it that after the apostle Saint James was beheaded in Jerusalem in 42 AD, his remains were carried to the coast of the Iberian peninsula (some even say in a stone boat) and buried where Santiago is now located.
It wasn’t until his tomb was discovered in the 9th century that Christians across Europe began to travel to see it. This journey quickly became the most important pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, especially once the present cathedral was constructed in the 12th century. A thousand years later, and this same path is still walked.
Routes begin in cities such as Seville, Paris, and Porto, but arguably the most popular is the Camino Francés, which stretches nearly 500 miles (800km) from Saint Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees. Those who complete the entire trek take on average five weeks to do so, but as I only have time to walk for two weeks, I start my journey farther down the line, in a small town at the center of the Camino called Sahagún.
When I finally find the courage to leave Sahagún my first morning, I’m nearly alone but for a solitary pilgrim a few yards ahead of me. Walking east to west means the rising sun is to our backs and our shadows grow impossibly long in front of us.
The early morning air is crisp and filled with birdsong and to every side I’m surrounded by pastoral landscapes. Ochre colored furrows fold seamlessly into shamrock green fields, the patchwork pattern they create interrupted only by a few trees, their branches still barren from winter.
After three hours, I come to a tiny village called Calzada del Coto, where a few others from the albergue in Sahagún have stopped for a coffee. We’ve only gone 9 miles (14km) so far, but two pilgrims decide to stay for the night. To reach Santiago in time, I’ll need to cover at least 15 miles (25km) each day, so I decide to carry on to Reliegos.
“I think I’ll come with you,” says a British man named Ian, a counselor with a thick northern England accent. After saying goodbye to those staying behind, we stock up on necessities such as baguettes, chorizo, chocolate and oranges from a local tienda and are soon back on the road.
“I don’t like planning what route you’re gonna take, what albergue you’re gonna stay in at night,” Ian tells me as we walk. “I came here to feel like a free spirit. I’m just going to focus on putting one foot in front of the other and see what happens.”
I keep his words in mind as the sun grows warm above us and just the right amount of a breeze blows across our path. In a way, Ian becomes a guide for me my first day on the Camino, having us stop for regular water (and chocolate) breaks and advising me to take my shoes off at times to let my feet cool down.
“Well, Candace,” he says when we reach the albergue in Reliegos that night, “That’s what 30 kilometers on the Camino feels like.”
I pause just before crossing the threshold, feeling the soreness in my shoulders and feet, but also filled with a strange energy at having covered so much ground by my own momentum. As I’ll hear many pilgrims say along the trail, it’s an exhaustion that leaves you exhilarated.
Days 2-5: Following the yellow arrow road – 110km
The sky over Reliegos my second morning is tinged with a pre-dawn glow—golden orange at the horizon, a deep sapphire blue where the sun has yet to reach. The streets are empty when I set out; other pilgrims, including Ian, nowhere to be found. Part of me wonders if I’ll ever see him again.
Just outside the village lies the path. Gone is the dirt track from yesterday; in its place, two straight lines of crushed white stone. The only thing required of me is to walk it. This isn’t something I’m used to when traveling—not having a map or a guidebook, not having to worry about which direction I’m heading in.
All I’ve got is a list of the pueblos and villages I’ll pass through, along with the distances between each of them. Three miles (5km) from Reliegos to Mansilla de las Mulas, four more (6km) to Puente de Villarente.
Instead of a map to get from town to town, yellow arrows point the way. At times it’s impossible to miss them, clearly marked on the sides of houses or on pieces of wood stuck in the ground on stakes. At other times they’re barely noticeable, little more than a few quick lines spray-painted on flat rocks. Even still, my eyes are quickly trained to look for them.
I hunt for the scallop shell as well—the universally recognized symbol of the Camino. Out in the countryside, they most often appear carved into stone markers or on official signs posted along the way. When I reach the city of León at the end of my second day, bronze shells have been embedded in the sidewalk. And everywhere, actual real versions swing from people’s backpacks, identifying them as pilgrims.
Yet another set of yellow arrows and shells leads me out of León my third morning to a tiny pueblo called Villar de Mazarife; the next day it’s on to Astorga and from there to the mountaintop hamlet of Foncebadón. Each day brings new blisters, sore muscles, and paths dampened by rain. Each day brings new stamps in my credencial—a kind of pilgrim’s passport keeping track of albergues stayed in and towns passed through.
And each day brings me that much closer to Santiago.
Day 6: A snowy descent to Ponferrada – 26km
“What do you mean it’s snowing?” I ask two fellow pilgrims on the morning of my sixth day.
I’m just about to finish the last of my coffee and crusty pan de pueblo toast when they walk back into the albergue and start pulling out ponchos, covering both themselves and their packs in a giant swathe of neon plastic.
I press my face against the window, trying to see out into the darkness. What greets me is a world turned white overnight; every branch, every bough seemingly outlined in silver.
The hike ahead of us today was already going to be brutal. Foncebadón sits at 4,500 feet (1,400 meters) above sea level, and before reaching our destination of Ponferrada, we’ll have to scale over 300 more (100m) before starting a descent of nearly 3,300 feet (1,000m).
“Going up a mountain is one thing,” said a sharp-witted Australian named John at breakfast. “Going down is a totally different kettle of fish.”
I can only laugh when I set out on the frosty trail, wondering what John would have to say now about not only going down the mountain, but descending one concealed by several inches of snow.
What I find, though, is that the descent actually quickens my step, the weight of the pack pushing me forward and I can’t help running, almost skipping downhill. Another pilgrim comes up behind me, says a quick hello and then, “I got a rhythm today, I go fast.”
“Go, go,” I say, urging him on, his brisk speed even inspiring me to pick up my own. The day before, all I could feel was my heavy feet and still heavier backpack; today, despite the snow and the unexpected cold, I feel light and ready for anything, my pack pulled tight against my waist as we weave our way down the steep, pebbly slopes.
At 3,000 feet (920m), the snow turns back to rain. As suddenly as it appeared, the glimmering cover of white is rolled away and in its place, a heavy mist descends. My boots crunch once more against the path.
Days 7-13: Step by step through Galicia – 180km
I’m joined in Ponferrada by my friend Erin, a fellow travel writer from San Francisco. Despite having lived in Spain for four years, it’s her first time on the Camino and her adrenaline is a much-needed boost of energy at the halfway point of my walk.
Six miles (9km) outside Ponferrada, we pass by the village of Camponaraya just before breaking away from the carretera, or highway, and heading through rolling hills of vineyards. This is the point I’ve come to wait for every day—the point of leaving paved roads for dirt paths, when smells of the city and traffic are replaced by lavender and freshly turned soil, thick red mud sticking to our shoes.
The next day brings my second big climb, a steady trek uphill to an elevation of 4,300 feet (1,330mts). Just before reaching the summit, we cross into Galicia, the final region we’ll walk through before arriving in Santiago. It also happens to be Spain’s wettest region, and the rain that falls throughout the following week comes down cold, fast, and hard.
But still we walk, sometimes covering as much as 22 miles (35km) in one day, or stopping early at 11 miles (18km) when we can sense our feet need the rest. And as we move—with the number of miles to Santiago growing ever smaller—we find ourselves falling more and more into step with life on the Camino.
“I don’t feel like I’m in Spain anymore,” Erin says as we follow forested streams and cow-filled pastures, the melodious low din of their bells sounding across the trail. “This is like a completely different world.”
It isn’t just the feeling of pushing our bodies harder than we thought we were capable of; it’s the camaraderie and bonds we quickly form with other pilgrims. Each night I look forward to reaching the albergues; as much to see those I’ve come to know on the way as for a hot shower and the chance to put on flip-flops.
We don’t always see the same people every day. It’s inevitable that as we find our own rhythms, we break apart, sometimes moving ahead only to be passed two miles down the road. We leap ahead, we fall back, weaving in and out of each other’s journeys. But I’m starting to see we all get there in the end.
“Poco a poco,” knowing locals will say when we stop and speak with them, and it’s this phrase that I repeat to myself as I walk.
Little by little, step by step.
Day 14: One last push to Santiago – 23 km
Our last morning comes and we’re not waiting for the sun. Flashlights on, we start early, finding our way through dark wooded paths, fueled by anticipation. The twelve miles (20km) to Santiago seem to pass in a blur, and suddenly, after two weeks and 230 miles (370km), the Cathedral—where the Camino officially ends and the relics of Saint James are kept—is no more than a few steps away.
The range of emotions among pilgrims is extraordinary. Some sprint around the corner and fall to their knees as soon as they enter the plaza. A group of high school students holds hands and walks in their backs to the church. They stand in a straight line, count down from ten—diez! nueve! ocho!—and on the count of one, turn around at the same time, cheering loudly and looping their arms together in a dance.
But for me, and for many other people I’ve been walking with, we can’t help but feel a certain sadness. For weeks now, we’ve walked with purpose, our steps directed towards a specific destination each night. To find we’ve reached the end, that our days will no longer be defined by the number of miles walked, will take some getting used to.
After we enter the Cathedral, it’s time to receive the final stamp in our credentials. We make our way along the old cobbled streets of Santiago to the Oficina do Peregrino, or the Office of Pilgrims. It’s here that the details of our journey will be examined and we’ll obtain the compostela, or certificate of our completion.
As I fill out the office’s form, jotting down such details as where I started the Camino, how I completed it (on foot, bicycle or horse) and what my motives were, I suddenly hear a familiar voice. I turn to my left and am amazed to see Ian standing next to me.
It’s been two weeks since I last saw him, since we last walked the countryside from Sahagún to Reliegos together, and now here we are, reaching the end at the very same time.
Part of me is in disbelief, and yet another part of me isn’t surprised at all. My journey on the Camino has been about more than backpacks and blisters; it’s taught me to trust in how the trail works—how it can lead you to certain people, then take you in separate directions, and finally, at just the right moment, bring you back together again.
Every time I’ve said, “see you on the way,” to other pilgrims, it turns out that I really meant it.
Want to read more about the Camino?
This article was originally published in WildJunket Magazine June/July 2012.