In the fall of 2015, Dale and I hiked 425 miles of Camino del Norte, the northern-most branch of Camino de Santiago, a historic pilgrimage with starting points and routes all over Europe.
We had dreamed of walking the Camino ever since we saw the movie The Way in 2010. Yes, our inspiration for hiking hundreds of miles across Spain had come from a Hollywood movie. Occasionally cheesy but ultimately heart-warming, The Way is the story of an aging curmudgeon (Charlie Sheen) who carries the ashes of his deceased son (played by real-life offspring Emilio Estevez, who wrote and directed the movie) across Spain on the most popular Camino path, Camino Francés.
In the movie, Sheen’s character begrudgingly makes new friends and experiences huge personal growth, so that by the end of the movie he’s transformed into a more loving and open-minded man. The movie, actually filmed on the Camino Francés, depicts a beautiful Spain with generous people and lots of wine. We fell in love with the characters, with Spain, and with the idea of walking the Way of St. James (another name for the Camino), and we’ve watched the movie so many times now that we can repeat the best quotes at will.
Camino del Norte
We started Norte on October 1, 2015, in San Sebastián, in the Basque Country. It was hard, both physically and emotionally. We are not athletes, my husband and I. We love to hike, and before we gave away most of our possessions and took off for Europe, you might’ve found us hiking the mountains near our former home in Seattle. But these day trips didn’t prepare us for walking all day, everyday, carrying our belongings on our backs and putting ten, fifteen, sometimes more than twenty miles on our feet. There was a wealth of pain, for sure, as well as tantrums, fits, and break downs (mostly on my part).
But what I remember now, as I write this post, is the joy of exploring Spain on foot. It’s a marvelous country—consistently gorgeous and frustratingly inefficient, with a complex history and hospitable people. I treasure the five weeks that we spent hiking the Camino and sometimes ache for the days that were filled with nothing but walking. Walking, and getting to know what we were made of. It was frequently unpleasant—seeing yourself at your weakest is never pleasant—but we also discovered that we were stronger, both physically and mentally, than either of us realized.
Outcomes of walking the Camino
Doing the Camino will not solve all of your problems. If you finish it, you won’t necessarily have conquered all of your fears or figured out the meaning of your life. You probably won’t transcend into a fully-formed Zen master or exist in a permanent state of mindfulness; in fact, we met many people who kept returning to the Camino because they still had lessons to learn or issues to contemplate.
But it will change you. It will teach you lessons, like how to open your heart to others, how to push past fear, how to have faith in yourself, and how to be true to your goals. It may also push you to your limits physically.
Ultimately, the Camino was one of the most meaningful things Dale and I have ever done. Even when it was miserable, it was also a source of awe—being on the trail everyday gave us a deep gratitude that we often failed to feel in our everyday lives. That was our job, for those five weeks, to walk. And walk we did.