In the fall of 2010, the year she was fifty-five, my friend Ann took six weeks off from work, and went to walk the pilgrim trail, 500 miles, from St. Jean Pied de Port in France, over the Pyrenees and across the northern top of Spain to the town of Santiago de Campostela.
At the time, she was working as a self-employed appraiser. Ann has worked many different jobs, including appraisals, making phone calls to settle accounts, working as a construction site manager.
She had lost her husband four years previously to a terminal illness. She and he had raised two children, who are now in their twenties.
Later, I asked her why she decided to go to Spain and spend six weeks walking five hundred miles across the northern part of Spain. Was it for religious reasons? I knew that she had not been raised a Catholic, but that her late husband was Catholic and the children had been raised in that church, more or less.
“No,” said Ann, “Not really religious, but definitely it was a spiritual experience.”
For the last years of his life, her husband had suffered from his illness.
For most of their married life, they had traveled every summer, with their two kids, even when the kids were babies. They always traveled independently, mostly in Europe, England, and in Ireland (where her late husband’s family lives.) The year after Ann’s husband died, she and her mother and son rode the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to Moscow.
“What made you decide to walk the Camino?” I asked.
“When I travel, one of my favorite questions of fellow travelers is, ‘What is your favorite or best trip?’ Well, some time ago, I met two women who said the camino and then I heard of it again from some backpackers in Yosemite. After that I made plans to go.”
It was in the fall, in September and October, and she carried everything on her back.
“What did you pack?”
“One small one-pound sleeping bag, a change of clothes, convertible zip pants which could be either short or long, a toothbrush, a comb, a small travel towel, and shampoo. My bag weighed about ten pounds.”
Before she left, she had a feeling that something wonderful was going to happen—not something concrete (and nothing concrete did happen)—but she realized that she was terrifically excited.
Ann was not disappointed. She grew a lot during those six weeks, and she told me that she knows that she was challenged physically, mentally, and spiritually…..all at the same time. She feels this with her whole heart, that she really blossomed a great deal, as a person.
In 2010, when she went, there were few Americans on the pilgrim trail, as it had not yet become as known as it is today. Surprisingly, there were actually quite a few Koreans, as there had been some television program in Korea about the trail to Santiago de Campostela. There were a lot of Germans, as well as pilgrims from all over the world, but most of the pilgrims walking the trail were Spanish.
There were a few days when she ended up walking alone all day, following the yellow arrow which is the sign that points pilgrims along the Camino. But usually she ended up walking with other people. It was not the same people all the time. She says that she ended up spending time with everyone whom she wanted to spend time with, and there was no time that she did not feel safe. And when she was alone, she did not feel lonely.
“It was like a community. And any time anyone invited me to have coffee, a meal, beer or whatever, I made a point of accepting.”
“No matter if people start out doing the trek for recreational reasons, it ends up being spiritual,” she said. Nobody tried to talk to her about religion. But she did go to a Mass almost every day that there was one, and she went into every open church that she passed. She had not been a church-going person, but found that she was going into the churches “because it was a peaceful place to be, and I feel closer to my husband”.
“What were the places like where you stayed?”
They were called “albergues”. Some had bunk beds, in some of them you slept on the floor. In the ones where you slept on the floor, there were mats on the floor. Some (of the albergues) were parochial, some were municipal. The parochial ones asked for a donations; the other ones were five euros, and one was ten euros. They had showers every night.
“What did you do for meals?”
“A few places served a dinner,” she said, “Some by donation and sometimes with a specific cost. And a few places had the typical continental breakfast but not many. Some albergues had kitchens we could use and some did not. Sometimes we cooked a meal together. Most often I ate at nearby restaurant for dinner, and had what is commonly called a pilgrim’s menu which is basically a fixed price dinner with choices of a starter, entrée, desert and might include wine. My breakfast was often a roll from the dinner bread basket and coffee.”
“Sleeping in bunkbeds, or on the floor with so many other people around,” I asked, “Did you keep your money under your clothes, even at night?”
“Yes,” she answered, “I use a cloth wallet that I wear under my clothes, around my waist. I slept with it on and I took it to the shower, and hung up within the shower stall. It had my money, passport, debit & credit card.”
Traveling so light, she usually washed clothes daily, hand washing and line drying. Sometimes they had the luxury of a washing machine.
The pilgrims carry little folding books made of stiff gray paper called a “Pilgrim’s Passport”. Each albergue stamps the squares on the “passport” with their own stamp. The stamps are called “credenciales” (credentials). She filled up one and a half of the little books.
I asked Ann about how many miles she covered each day.
“I don’t know, take 500 and divide it by 42,” she said. “One thing I would tell people, is that when you feel like stopping, stop. Don’t go on when you are tired because when there is a problem it is hard to handle it.” One evening she was tired, but she thought she’d push on four more miles to the next town, but there turned out to be no albergue there.
` “Did you get blisters on your feet?”
“Not until four weeks into the trip, not sure what caused it.”
She said that she wore tennis shoes, she got them at REI, and found them fine to walk in.
“Last but not least,” I said, “I know you told me that some people were bothered by bedbugs, but you were not…can you elaborate on the bedbug issue.”
“I did not see much evidence of bedbugs but it was talked about. My second night, the woman in the next bed woke up with bites. And then a few weeks in, I met another woman with bites so bad she had gone to the doctor. The only place I saw what might have been evidence of a bed bug was the one night I slept in a hotel. I did discuss the issue with hospitaleros, who were all doing what they could to prevent bedbugs.”
Ann told me that the last days of the Camino, on the last stretch of the trail before the Cathedral (Sarria marks the 100k on the Camino Frances), the trail became much more crowded. Many pilgrims only walk the last 100 kilometers. This is the minimum distance they need to walk to get the credencial.
Though it has been a few years since Ann walked the Camino, she still keeps in touch with four or five of the other pilgrims who walked it at the same time she did. And she is an active member of the group “American Pilgrims on the Camino” (website URL www.americanpilgrims.com ), which has chapters all over this country.
After hearing all about Ann’s experience, I wanted to know more. She recommended the movie “The Way” to me, while it was still in the theaters, and I went to see it. An excellent, gripping, movie (see film review on this website) which stars father and son actors Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez.
Also, when Ann told our travel club that the independent documentary “The Camino: Six Ways to Santiago” would be shown here in Phoenix, we all went to see it. The two films give different perspectives on the pilgrims who walk the Camino. I recommend both films highly.
Also, the actress Shirley MacClaine, who walked the Camino, has written a book on the Pilgrim Trail.
Walking the pilgrim trail across the north of Spain was a life-changing experience for Ann, and I feel privileged to be able to hear about that famous pilgrim trail from someone who has actually been there and walked it.