The walk that changed my life: A pilgrim's path
I knew the weather could be bad, but I hadn’t expected snow. It came in icy blasts that whistled in my frozen ears and obscured the forest path before me. I pushed forward, hugging my thin raincoat tighter around me.
Ahead, the mountain road forked. With watering eyes, I scanned the whiteness for the one sign that I knew would guide me.
Carved in a stone obelisk, a shape smaller than the palm of my hand, confidently pointed me towards safety: a small, yellow arrow.
It was my second day on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I was just one of the quarter million pilgrims that make their way each year on foot or bicycle to Santiago in north-west Spain.
Pagan travellers may have walked the path as far back as 1000 BC; the first Christian pilgrims did so in the ninth century to pay homage to St James, Spain’s patron saint, who, legend says, is buried beneath Santiago’s cathedral. Many who walk “The Way” today do so for a range of non-pious motives.
I was one of them. For my entire adult life, I’d felt the need to fill every waking moment with work, travel, hobbies and socialising. My racing mind never stopped, a whirlwind that gave rise to all kinds of anxieties. I needed to slow down, and I needed to do it alone.
There are several well-established routes. I had settled on the most popular, El Camino Francés, or “French Way”. The full journey involves starting in Roncesvalles, southern France, and arriving in Santiago nearly 500 miles later, but many do only a portion. I only had eight days, so I decided to start in Villafranca del Bierzo, a tiny village 125 miles from Santiago.
It was a grey morning in April when the bus dropped me off on the outskirts of Villafranca. On my feet were hiking boots I had never worn and on my back a small pack containing toiletries, socks and underwear, a jumper, a water bottle and little else. In my money belt was my prized possession: an empty pilgrim’s passport, ready to be filled with the stamps given out along the way. I ducked into a bus station bar and found a small old man quietly folding napkins.
“Excuse me,” I said in Spanish, feeling silly to be asking such a basic question. “Where is The Way?”
He smiled and led me outside. “See that red cross across the road?” he asked. “Past that, to the left, and off you go, all the way to Santiago!”
It was drizzling as I set off, climbing a small road that was devoid of vehicles. The land was on the cusp of spring. Rich moss and pale pink succulents blanketed the low walls that bordered the road.
The sun broke through the clouds just as the road reached a peak. Looking around, I realised I was completely alone in the landscape. I let out a long sigh as an unexpected sense of calm washed over me.
I walked until I entered the tiny stone town of Pereje. The streets felt deserted, but I spotted a woman leaning against the wall of her tavern. I went in and ordered a large café con leche. In coming days the thought of that sweet, milky caffeine would put a spring in my step on dull stretches of road.
As I sipped this first one, a middle-aged man came barrelling awkwardly through the door. He plunked himself down beside me at the bar.
I turned and offered a big smile. “Where are you from?” I asked.
“Germany!” he replied, with a smile that rivalled my own.
I began to ask questions but he stopped me mid-sentence. “Little English, very little,” he said. I nodded. There was no malice in silencing me.
As I gathered my things to leave, I felt him tap my shoulder. “Buen Camino!” he offered.
“Buen Camino!” I replied.
I’d soon learn that these were the two Spanish words every pilgrim knew. They were a happy recognition of a shared mission.
I’d set off that morning with the goal of walking approximately 18 miles to the hilltop town of O’Cebreiro. My plan was to follow the official stages of the Camino Francés: the entire path is divided into sections of between 11 and 23 miles. Most start and end in larger towns and the actual terrain varies greatly, from muddy mountain paths to sections that follow the local highway.
As afternoon turned to early evening, I realised I’d been walking for six hours and was still a good three miles out of O’Cebreiro. The trail had emptied of pilgrims. I crested a steep hill and rolled into the tiny farming town of Faba in search of a place to sleep.
In the past, pilgrims slept outdoors or were offered shelter in barns, churches or homes. Today there’s an albergue—a basic hostel—nearly every three miles, usually staffed by local volunteers.
The first place I came across was the Albergue German Confraternity de Faba, where a blonde retiree named Ellen Zierott welcomed me, collecting the five-euro fee and explaining the rules: boots off in the hall, lights out at 10pm and everyone out by 8am sharp.
I poked my head into the expansive dorm room lined with dozens of bunk beds, about half occupied by pilgrims in various stages of repose.
The early bedtime was rapidly approaching, so I ran down the road to one of the town’s two cafés to wolf down a plate of pasta, then returned to slip under the thin fleece blanket and say goodnight to an older Japanese woman tucking herself in nearby. The lights went out and within seconds, a cacophony of snoring erupted. I cursed myself for not bringing earplugs and then, exhausted, promptly fell asleep.
"Good morning!" said a perky voice. It took me a moment to realise it was Ellen.
“Good morning!” responded a chorus of groggy but cheerful voices.
It was 7am. Time to start walking.
I stepped out into the dark, icy morning. The pilgrims in the café the evening before had spoken of snow but I’d laughed them off. After all, it was April in Spain.
The wind was gentle at first, but soon the trees bordering the path were whipping to and fro. A town emerged atop the hill: O’Cebreiro. I turned into the first open door.
Inside the tavern, coals glowed in the enormous fireplace. I pulled up a stool next to a grandfatherly man with blue eyes and a white beard.
“One caldo Gallego,” said the man to the barmaid. He turned to me. “It’s
very good here.”
I too ordered what turned out to be a typical Galician dish—delicious steaming pork broth with greens, white beans and hearty bread. We began to chat. He was Geunter, from Germany, and this was his third time on the Camino.
There were certainly a lot of Germans on the path. I would later learn this was largely due to a 2014 book about the Camino written by a German TV celebrity.
“People have problems,” said Geunter in his rough English. “They come on the Camino and the problems go away.”
Just then the door burst open, letting in a gust of cold and some large snowflakes. In walked another German called Geunter. This one was younger and bundled in high-tech gear. He called for his own caldo.
“I’m an inventor,” he said when I asked why he was on the Camino. “Have you ever seen an inflatable movie screen? That was me.”
Geunter’s business had been going great until his partners swindled him out of his share. “I was devastated. I lay on the couch for a year,” he said.
One day he picked up one of his wife’s books. It was The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho, a personal account that had almost single-handedly reinvigorated public interest in the Camino in the 1980s. “Ten days later I was on the Camino,” said Guenter. This was his sixth pilgrimage.
It was the trail that finally broke Guenter’s depression. He also credited it with helping him to conceive a child after years of trying without success. I was struck by the intensity of his story.
We finished our soup and headed out into the snow. The Guenters led the way through the gathering whiteness. I soon found myself trudging the mountain path alone.
In the afternoon I met Hans-Peter, from Switzerland, while taking a break to sip a welcome café con leche.
“Cold out there?” he offered. I responded dutifully in the affirmative. My cheeks were turning scarlet as they thawed.
“Have some!” said Hans, and held out a tiny tub of Vaseline. I rubbed it all over my face.
“We walk together?” Hans asked with a smile.
My new Swiss friend seemed to bounce along. “Look, here,” he said, pointing to a large patch of smooth stone in the path. “This stone was worn down by the millions who walked here before us. Kings, priests, popes.” He paused. “Can you imagine a king being carried down this path?”
Indeed I could. With Hans as my guide, we neared our next stop, the sleepy hamlet of Triacastela.
I’d failed to break in my hiking boots before setting off and the next day I was finding it difficult to walk. My surroundings were breathtaking—green fields bathed in sunshine—but I could only think of the searing pain in my tendons.
I stopped for lunch at a roadside cafe and unlaced the torture devices. Fellow pilgrims were sympathetic as I described the agony wrought by my boots. There was only one thing to do—keep walking. Pushing through physical pain was almost a welcome experience here. I imagined that for religious pilgrims, pain was a sign of devotion. For me, it provided a sense of accomplishment. I winced onward.
The Camino soon became my home, and I fell into habits that doubled as survival tactics. I’d start each day by waiting until everyone had departed. Then I’d slowly prepare for the day in peace. My mind found a rare stillness. Life was simple: wake, walk, eat, sleep.
I stuck to a two-mile-per-hour walking pace. In the mornings I was usually in the mood to be alone. By the afternoon I’d pair up with someone whose life story I thought I’d like to hear.
Those stories were many. There was the Finnish girl who dreamed of being a sailor, the Romanian who’d fallen hopelessly in love on the Camino, the elderly Chinese couple who lived in Manhattan. To my delight, the hodgepodge cast of characters popped up wherever I went: on the trail, in a cafe, in the bunk above me at an albergue.
Never had I felt so alone and yet so among friends. I carried this wonderfully odd feeling with me as I walked the final 12 miles to Santiago.
At last, the city came into sight, and then the epic Romanesque cathedral, nearly 1,000 years old. Pilgrims were streaming in, embracing, crying, laughing, and praying.
It was over. I’d done it. Yet as I received my compostela—the official certificate of completion—my elation was mixed with a profound sadness. My treasured simple routine—wake, walk, eat, sleep—was ending. I would return to a whirlwind life of endless tasks and distractions.
But then something occurred to me—something a fellow pilgrim had told me that very morning. “It’s not about the Camino,” he said. “It’s about following those little yellow
arrows in your everyday life.”
I realised I could carry the Camino with me: its simplicity, inherent kindness and openness to strangers. Those “yellow arrows” were my own instincts, my own heart. They would tell me where to go.
I made myself a promise that I would be back the following year to walk from start to finish.
Only next time, I’ll bring a better pair of boots.
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