I’ve been doing a lot of deep and meaningful posts lately. A lot of raw, real, painful posts.
I wanted to keep it a bit lighter today, because there’s only so much heavy we can read, right? I want to keep this honest and real trend going for sure. Because I want to use this platform the right way. I want to highlight things that enough people don’t talk about. I want to make sure all my beautiful readers know they’re not alone when they’re struggling. And if you’re struggling right now, this is me telling you that you’re not alone, you got this, okay?
For today, I’m gonna have a little fun. I’m going to recount as much of the beginning of my trip as I can. Now, I don’t know how much this will be. The friends I made are burned on my heart, the lessons I learned are tattooed on my brain, the memories are imprinted onto my soul.
Not so much.
Almost every single person on the Camino had a notebook they’d be scribbling furiously into with a glass of vino beside them after a long day of walking. People stayed up late (I’m meaning past ten, because when you get up at five in the morning, you get your tired and aching ass into bed early) with a flashlight, desperate to recount the lessons learned, the people met, catalogue the new blisters.
I lost count of the people who declared they wanted to be an author, saying the Camino was the start of their writing journey. I want to say, I fucking loved that. All the people who were yearning to tell a story. To find a story. To become one.
But me, the writer, I wasn’t doing much writing. I had the vino, of course. The food. The conversations. The experiences. But I was greedy, I soaked them up with my soul so there was nothing left to bleed onto a page.
It’s what I needed, after three and a half years of the constant tapping of my fingers against a keyboard. The guilt I felt when I missed a day of writing.
This trip was me giving myself permission to let go of my stress, my pain, my guilt. I fucking love writing, the fact I get to do it for a living is amazing, don’t get me wrong. But love is painful, ugly and intense as fuck.
Sometimes we need a break.
So I took one.
I don’t regret that one bit, but for the purposes of sharing my story, I’m sure there will be some holes in my memory.
But that’s okay. I’ll remember what’s important. Maybe not right now when I’m telling you this story, but later, one day when I need it.
Let’s get started. I know for a fact I’m going to have to dedicate more than one post to this, maybe I’ll make it a series or something. I’ll see what you babes think and go from there.
The beginning of my journey is a complicated thing, depending on your opinion. Some people say your Camino starts the second you set foot out the door, others say life is a Camino (I don’t disagree). I don’t have time to recount the last twenty-five years and honestly, the five weeks I spent on the Camino was a lifetime in itself.
I’ll start at Biarritz airport in France.
I had my backpack on, full of excitement, nerves and fear. I had only booked this trip two weeks prior, when my soul demanded it, when I knew there was no other choice. I needed to find some answers, to ask myself important questions.
It was there at the airport that I met my first Camino sister.
A man stopped me and asked if I wanted to share a cab to Saint-Jean-Pied-De-Port—where the Camino Frances starts. I’d been planning on taking a train, but the train wasn’t for two hours, and I didn’t want to wait that long.
I said yes. Now, I’m sure my mum is shaking her head at me agreeing to share a one-hour cab ride with a strange man who approached me at the airport. She watched Taken like three times before I went backpacking around Europe in my early twenties (and decided I needed a locator chip implanted in my body, I’m not lying).
But as we can see, I’m here, he had pure intentions and was the one to introduce me to one of my sisters who I ended up walking eight hundred kilometres with.
Here’s the thing about the Camino…you expect solitude. You expect long stretches of an empty trail—think Cheryl Strayed in Wild—with nothing but your thoughts rattling around in your skull.
That is not the case.
The Camino has become increasingly popular over the years, with more people getting overwhelmed with the demands of modern life and being spiritually drained by society’s impossible standards.
People are looking for something. I don’t know what. They can’t even tell you what. I don’t really know what I was looking for.
But it was something I thought I’d find in silence, solitude.
From the second I shared that cab ride in the airport, I got very little silence.
I got laughter. I got fierce friendships. I got conversations about the meaning of life, about the state of our world, about the state of our mental health.
I have never met so many remarkable people in such a short amount of time.
But more about that later.
Saint-Jean-Pied-De-Port was bursting with pilgrims when we arrived, and it happened to be pissing down with rain. As someone who used to refuse to go to university when it rained, you would’ve thought this would’ve pissed me off.
It did not.
I smiled upward at the stormy and moody skies, letting it totally fucking ruin the makeup I’d applied liberally with the knowledge it’d be the last time I wore it for at least a month.
I smiled in the face of rain, absolutely certain that I had made the right decision.
After getting my pilgrim passport using some seriously dodgy high school French, I found my way to my BNB, the last of the luxuries I was going to have for a while. That luxury being my own room, a bed that didn’t have plastic sheets and a person sleeping atop or below me.
Saint-Jean-Pied-De-Port is an absolutely beautiful town in itself. After saying goodbye to my new friends, promising to see them on the trail the next day, I wandered out of the rain into beautiful views of the French countryside. I climbed up to an old citadel, smiling the entire way and watched the sunset. I can’t explain the feeling of calm that covered me watching that sunset.
That was the solitude I needed. Standing on top of a structure older than I can comprehend, watching the sun disappear beyond the French countryside. After months of being unable to breathe without pain, without fear, anxiety, I inhaled and exhaled easily.
I didn’t know what awaited me the next day. Didn’t know where I was going to sleep, that night or the ones after that. I was a world away from friends, family, in a country where I didn’t know a soul. I should’ve felt lonely. But there is a difference between loneliness and solitude. Loneliness is to be avoided, solitude is to be sought. And though the rest of the trip offered little of the latter (and none of the former), that moment watching the sunset gave me what I needed. What I still carry around with me now.
The next day, I woke up at 5:45 a.m. after tossing and turning all night with dread and excitement. My brain cursed me for getting up so early when I wasn’t planning on leaving until after 7, I knew I needed as much sleep as I could get. This day was a 27 km hike through the Pyrenees. It was gonna be tough.
But I got up anyway.
I was itching to get walking. Despite the fact my BNB host searched the weather and informed me of the rain and wind that awaited me in the peaks of the Pyrenees. Who cared if it was raining. I was hiking from France to Spain through fucking mountains.
He walked me to the door, me still awkwardly adjusting my pack, into the dark morning, the sun kissing the horizon.
“Buen Camino,” he called softly to my back, the words that would follow me for the next 35 days. The phrase literally means ‘good way’ and it’s something almost every pilgrim utters to you when you walk past. It became somewhat of a running joke between me and my Camino family. At the start, everyone would chirp the phrase happily. But once the walk started to take its toll, and the reality of walking 800 km set in, people would utter it in misery, smiles long gone, grimaces firmly in place.
On the first day, though, the words were damn near screamed at me in excitement. And I’ll admit, I damn near screamed right back.
Until the mountain started, of course.
And then the rain started.
Fog poured in with every step up a never-ending incline. It blanketed the road with such thickness I could barely see two feet in front of me, let alone the majestic views promised by my guide book. I’d glimpse shadowed silhouettes with grotesque looking humpbacks, looking like a characters in a horror movie. I’m sure I looked like that to the pilgrims behind me too.
The guide book later to become my bible cautioned pilgrims to take their time on the first day. Your body isn’t accustomed to walking 27 km up a mountain, after all. Especially when your body is required to walk another 773 km after that. People were doing that, taking slow and measured steps. The almost completely vertical incline forced people to do that. Not me. Because I’m always in a rush, and competitive to a fault. So I’d power past people, regardless of my screaming calves and burning muscles.
I paid for that the next day.
I eventually learned to slow my pace. To slow my mind. Not to rush. The walking was the whole point of it, after all.
All the excitement worn by fellow pilgrims and myself started to wash away with the ever-present rain. As the mountain wore on, the hours wore on. I became convinced it was never going to end. Every time we reached a plateau, I’d hear someone say “yep, this is it, halfway up, it’ll be downhill soon.” I had bought a a pain au chocolat at the bakery before leaving—the first in the thousands I would consume—and promised myself I would eat it at the halfway point. Coming upon a café nestled in the mountain, bursting with smiling pilgrims, I decided this had to be halfway. So I gobbled my croissant.
It wasn’t even quarter of the way.
As I climbed higher, as people disappeared into the mist, the world took on a fantastical quality. I was walking into the sky, outside of reality, and because of the fog, I felt completely alone. Spotted pigs emerged out of the mist expectantly. They roamed the road, free of gates. The way the fog moved, it made them look like they were suspended in the air. Yep, the day pigs flew, I hiked the Pyrenees in the rain, with all my possessions strapped to my back.
I had been a little arrogant about my level of fitness prior to starting. I ran four times a week, I did Pilates. Yoga. I was in good shape. But only a handful of hours into my first day, I was ready to cry. My calves burned, my ankles protested, and I worried for the state of my achilles (little did I know this was fucking CAKE compared to what awaited me).
Rogue endorphins would hit intermittently and I’d be grinning like a madwoman when I’d been moments from tears before that.
Nearing the top, I ran across my Camino sister once more. And though I’d only met her the day before, we greeted each other like lifelong friends (which is what we are now). We fell into stride. Easy conversation. We collected people along the way until we commenced the blessed decline. That’s the thing about the Camino. Your interactions with people are different. Strangers aren’t quite as distant. You aren’t required to politely lie when people ask you how you are. You can be brutally honest with people you’ve known a handful of minutes, more honest than you are with people you’ve known for years. More honest than you are with yourself.
Everyone is doing this for a reason, to take care of themselves, to learn things about themselves. And what I found out was, people trying to take care of themselves tend to take care of others in order to do that. If you had a blister, there was someone willing to give you their last plaster. If your calves screamed louder than Ozzy Osbourne at a Black Sabbath concert, there was someone willing to part with a precious painkiller. People trying to learn things from themselves usually found the most valuable lessons in others. I know I did.
But I’ll talk about that later.
As conversation flowed, the rain stopped. We reached the bottom of the hill and saw a collection of ancient buildings that would serve as our accommodations for the night—a converted monastery run completely by volunteers.
By the time we dragged our aching, tired and exhilarated selves inside, the line was out the door. This was the only place in town, if they ran out of beds before we got to the front of the line, we were fucked. I had already walked eight hours. Climbed a mountain. I was freaking out about walking another hour to the next town. But the Camino was looking out for me. We got some of the last beds.
I got a hot shower. Something that was not guaranteed on the rest of the Camino. And let me tell you, that was one of the best showers of my life.
My bunkmates consisted of a Italian woman named Franca who did not speak a word of English, nevertheless she didn’t stop speaking, didn’t stop smiling. I her encountered every few days from then on and would always greet me with a hug and a smile and a compliment of how beautiful I looked that day. She was lying, but she was kind.
There was a man who didn’t speak English either, yet he shared his food with us and explained how he’d done the Camino six times before. This was translated by Aine, my Camino sister who spoke a lot more Spanish than me. Though I speak a lot more now, the only thing I can fluently do is order a beer, ask for more wine or get a coffee. You know, just the essentials.
It should have been strange, uncomfortable, sharing such cramped quarters with strangers who didn’t speak my language. But I felt happy. Comfortable. Safe.
This would not happen every night on the Camino, but for this magical night, it did.
The night ended with me doing a yoga class in front of one of the oldest churches in Spain. With me eating dinner with a table full of strangers but not having a moment of silence.
Prior to that day, I couldn’t remember an hour, a freaking second when I wasn’t conscious of anxiety, of a bone deep sadness in me I couldn’t explain.
But that day, where I walked in the rain, alone, in a country I didn’t speak the language, pushing my body to its limits—I didn’t experience a moment of sadness. Anxiety.
And it would continue that way.
I’m not gonna say it was some magical fix. Because happiness requires constant effort, not just a really long walk. Anxiety and depression are mental illnesses that need to be battled every second.
But this helped.
Okay, I realise I’ve rambled on for a long time and I’ve only recounted one day. There’s still a whole lot to talk about, but I’ll condense it. I just felt my first day required more attention because it was a pivotal point for me. I know I haven’t shut up about how this trip changed my life, but that’s only because it’s the truth. I’m truly a little scared to think about what would’ve happened if I hadn’t realised that something had to be done. I’m pretty tough, if I do say so myself. I would’ve got through. But it would’ve taken longer. I might’ve learned these lessons different ways, harder ways. I would definitely be on a different path. I am a firm believer everything happens for a reason. I truly think I needed to hit that bottom in order to do the Camino. So this day was important because it marked something. Me deciding to take action. Me deciding to save myself. Because I may be a queen (if I do say so myself), but I’m also a mother fucking knight, and I can slay dragons. Even my own.