One man’s journey on the El Camino
Before taking one million steps on the historic El Camino de Santiago in Spain, I didn’t give much time or thought to walking. I drove to and from work and the gym. For business trips and vacations, I flew. After retiring early, I pursued adventure travel, often on a bicycle.
Then in the fall of 2012, I stepped off airplanes, trains, cars, and bicycles, and walked for 28 days and nearly 500 miles, from St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France to Santiago, Spain. At an average 17 miles per day, I still walked faster than most Camino pilgrims. But even with that push-ahead mentality, the Camino managed to teach me some lessons.
Walking forced me to slow down from my usual wheeled pace and to revel in the beauty around me. Crossing the Pyrenees Mountains, I listened to thousands of sheep on the surrounding slopes, their bells clanging on air currents. Across the flat Meseta, I passed acres of sunflowers lit by the sun, their faces bobbing up to glimpse at me in the wind. In the villages, storks stood sentinel on bell towers. In Santiago, priests chanted and sent a giant incense burner swinging like a pendulum across the famous cathedral.
Camino veterans say that the first third of the trip is for the body. Most Camino walkers suffer blisters along with other aches and pains on the trip. My fitness regime and careful choice of shoes and other gear spared me most of that, for the first week anyway.
On day eight, I had already walked more than 150 miles with no more than sore muscles. I felt like Superman—until one small blister taught me to get over myself in a big way. I was shocked when it appeared. And it hurt! The physical pain was irritating, but the mental anguish was ridiculously devastating. For 90 minutes, I tortured myself with worries about disability before finally looking closely at the spot. It was a small blister—just a soft bump on my right heel.
I bandaged the blister and continued walking for several more days before fully understanding that my reaction was not about a sore on my heel. It was about Superman coming back to earth and discovering he is just like everyone else. I realized that I can’t stop the blisters that life will deliver even to me, 6’5” physically fit Kurt. My best health habits won’t stop every disease or injury. I’m going to have other physical and mental challenges in the years ahead. Thanks to my Camino blister, I now feel better prepared for them.
The uncertainties of weather and accommodations on a walking trip forced me to let go of other expectations and disappointments. I carried a change of clothing and sleeping bag in a backpack and slept most nights in pilgrim hostels. Some had room for just 20 travelers. Others sheltered hundreds in bunks or beds packed closely together. During any given night, a chorus of snoring rocked the house. If I had tried to control these environments, I would have been a very unhappy traveler. Instead, I appreciated the hostel volunteers and inserted earplugs before bedtime. Heaven became a hot shower and a bunk with room for my size 13 feet to hang over the end.
The middle section of the Camino crosses the Meseta, where the wind blows incessantly and the miles stretch on for monotonous days of flat farmland and villages. This part of the trip, they say, is for the mind.
The Meseta helped me stop worrying about my past or my future. I had 6-8 hours every day to think about my regrets, including my long-unconscious years of alcoholism. That reflection pushed me to develop a new approach to the past. I tried to go in, learn, and get the hell out! I don’t want to be anchored by some event or trauma from my past. The same goes with the future. While hopes and dreams for a bright forecast are always present, I also refuse to walk with eyes solely focused on the horizon.
When my mind got stuck—worrying about my relationship with my girlfriend, for example—I used what I call my “Refresh” move. I created this “move” to re-set the moment. I would plant my walking stick in the ground with my right arm fully extended and then proceed to walk in a complete circle around it. Maybe it was the change of scenery or the distraction from discomfort and frustration. Maybe it was a sense of accomplishment from being able to see where I came from that day. Maybe it was a trick to break the walking routine. Whatever it was, this simple and effective move always resulted in a refreshed and positive attitude.
The last third of the trip stepped into the lush forests and mountains of Galicia. This section of the trail, they say, is for the soul. For me that meant I learned to deepen relationships and celebrate the joys of life.
From the beginning, I treasured my fellow pilgrims. Ages 2-82, they came from all over the world, with their own perspectives and gifts. Massimo and his Mom from Italy reminded me how much I enjoy spending time with my mother. Martin from Germany, who traveled as a mendicant (without money), helped me count my financial blessings. Mikkel, 19, inspired me with the postcards he sent daily to his young handicapped students in Denmark.
On one memorable night at a parish hostel in Grañon, I discovered music as the language of the soul. I took turns singing for dinner with pilgrims from around the world. From that point forward, I sang regularly, unselfconsciously, with my music player while walking the trail. Sometimes my walking stick morphed into an air guitar to accompany my blossoming vocals.
My refresh move alternated as a celebration move. When I felt ecstatic, I planted my walking stick at the heart of the trail and danced around it.
Pilgrims often liken the Camino trip to a life journey. We started out helpless, not knowing where to go, sleep, or find a meal. Within a week or so, we were like teenagers, thinking that we had it all figured out. Another week, and our inward journey had us questioning everything. And by the time we finished, we were joyfully content to walk more slowly, enjoy the scenery, and share the final days with our companions.
Back home now in Boise, Idaho, I’m pleased to report that my Camino lessons have mostly stuck with me. I’m worrying a lot less and appreciating small pleasures every day. My relationships are richer.
Questions from friends and family led me to write a book about my Camino trek. Although many readers are interested in making the trip themselves, just as many will never take such a journey. I offer the same suggestions to all: let go of regret and worry, appreciate small moments of beauty, enjoy the people around you, and . . . go for a walk.