Category Archives: Camino Stories

Real stories from Camino de Santiago peregrinos. Camino Stories from people around the world sharing their pilgrim experiences on the Way of St. James.

Steve Cooper, USA

“A 2000-mile walk from the heel of Italy’s boot up through Italy, across the south of France, and the north of Spain was the inspiration for my book, ‘SIX MONTHS WALKING THE WILDS (of Western Europe); the Long Way to Santiago.‘ Walking from one corner of the earth to another – Finibus Terre in Italy to Fisterra on the Northwest coast of Spain – offers a lot of time to think, to wonder, and to listen. While I walked alone for several stretches of this trip, I was able to observe some truly interesting patterns and rhythms during my time in Spain, walking what is known by most as the Camino de Santiago.

There’s a rhythm to the walk, a rhythm that goes beyond the crunch of boots on gravel. A rhythm that is more than the swinging of arms or the steamy puffs of visible breath on the coldest mornings or the pulsing stride of thousands of pilgrims along the road. It’s a rhythm that begins early every morning, with the shuffling of sleepy bodies rising from forty bunks in the bare-bones albergue. It’s the quiet waking-to-walk of a small army of gentle soldiers, all fighting only themselves, their temptation to quit and go home, their exhaustion from unfulfilling work, their spiritual lethargy.

The rhythm is a quiet packing of gear, or clinking and clicking of a quick cup of coffee before the first steps on the trail, or of skipping that cup and just walking on into the darkness, hoping to put an early dozen kilometersof the trail behind you before breakfast. It’s the rhythm of that first, sweet stop of the day. It’s walking into the third Spanish village of the morning and finally catching the bar owner making her own rhythm with the broom that announces she’s cleaning her door step and firing up the oven. It’s the huffing of her machine pumping heat through the coffee and into your veins. It’s the irregular beat of pilgrims arriving at that bar and sighing into chairs to enjoy a crust of tostada and their own cup of café con leche.

It’s the reluctant rhythm of pushing back up out of the chair to walk on, but this time with a bit more of a café-warmed smile, perhaps with a new friend to share your trail, or with ‘old’ ones you’ve missed for a few days. The rhythm of this leg of the morning is a loose one, eased by a full belly and a bit of rest, and partly from the miraculously simple pleasure of having no job to do that day other than to walk beneath a Castellano sun and a generous sky, over trails whose guards and ghosts entertain you with visions and imaginings as you find your way along the yellow arrows leading toward the fabled city of Santiago de Compostela. It’s the rhythm of stopping in the heart of each village to breathe for a moment, to give thanks for the unfailing fountain of cool water waiting there for thirsty pereginos, to lean on your pack in the shade of the church or of the lone tree by the water, to greet the other arrivals, to search faces for memories or smiles, and then to stand and walk on, walk on.

The rhythm slows and broadens when arriving at the albergue in the next town, for now you get to drop the pack for the final time of the day, to sleep for a bit, to realize what a luxury a warm shower can be, to rinse clothes and find a sunny stretch of line to hang them on so they’ll be ready for tomorrow. It’s the limping, sweet rhythm of wandering on tired feet down the ancient street to the local bar restaurant for food and drink with other pilgrims, for wine and wondering at the miracles of synchronicity that brought all of you to this perfect moment in this perfect place.

It’s the softening rhythm of aches and pains that finally lead you back to that bare mattress, to spread your blanket and stretch out for a few hours of badly-needed sleep. And then, it’s the rumbling rhythm of those lucky few who can drop off to sleep first, the restless turning of those who can’t, and the giggles of the rest who are held awake by the farce of snores that fill the room. It’s the faint pre-dawn peepings that all too soon begin to drift from watches and clocks under the covers, waking the odd collection of one-night roommates to their task. Then, groggy and sluggish, reluctant at first, the pilgrims rise, slowly, unsteadily finding the rhythm again for the new day, rising to walk on, walk on, walk on, searching for the next miracle that lies along the trail called El Camino de Santiago.

This short story that I call ‘The Rhythm of the Walk’ is just one of many from my book, which I hope you’ll pick up on Amazon. I also hope you’ll also have a look at my website.

-Steve Cooper, USA

Camino de Santiago

Adam Wells, UK

“In May 2010, I found myself people-watching as I sat at a terraced cafe in the northern Spanish city of Burgos. I was in the city simply because I had been asked to plan, organise and deliver a week long tour of northern Spain by a couple of friends who had not seen each other for 20 years. I drove the car and showed them the sights whilst they reconnected and enjoyed the ambience, history and culture of Spain. These friends were exploring Burgos’ magnificent 800 year old Gothic cathedral, while I sat outside. For centuries, the cathedral has been a beacon of encouragement for those walking the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela, a further 315 miles to the west. I had known of the Camino de Santiago for at least 15 years and had managed to build, over this period, a mini library of Camino books. I always knew I would walk the Camino one day. I just didn’t know when.

Well, the people I watched were the pilgrims walking by.  I had never seen a pilgrim before. Beginning in the French Pyrenees, the 176 mile (284km) journey to Burgos would have taken most of them, at least, 12 days to cover. Some pilgrims were hobbling into town, with gritted teeth, as their blister-covered feet fulfilled their daily duty.  The pilgrims displayed an immense sense of camaraderie and an amazing spirit of joy and happiness, despite any travails.  I could only think this came from going on such an adventure and being away from the daily routine for 5 weeks. I received my “Call to the Camino” that day.  As I sat drinking my coffee, looking at the different shapes, sizes, ages, fitness levels of the pilgrims, I knew I too could do this. I decided to resign from my uninspiring corporate world job.  I committed myself to walking the whole length of the Camino in 2011. That’s my story of how I came to the Camino.

In April 2011, I took my first walking step in the French Pyrenean village of St. Jean Pied-de-Port. The Pyrenees mountains and 496 miles (798km) lay ahead. My transformation journey had begun. Well, in fact, it began 3 weeks previously when my back gave way and I collapsed onto the floor in a hotel room.  My last corporate world business trip to Buenos Aires certainly was memorable. As I lay stuck on the floor, I wondered “was my Camino over before it had even begun?” Gazing up at the ceiling, I realised that this was my first Camino lesson and it began with a question: “What will I have to do differently if I am going to walk over the Pyrenees in 3 weeks time?”

After about an hour, I finally got myself crookedly standing up.  For the following week, I walked around Buenos Aires at a snail’s pace and at the same angle as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Whenever I contemplated the thought of the Pyrenees challenge that lay ahead, my inner wisdom always responded – “walk extra, extra, extra slowly over the Pyrenees”. The day arrived to take my first step. For once, I listened to myself (I had no other option as it was still very painful to walk) and the second footstep was an extra slow step. I discovered very quickly that going slowly and walking at my pace offered huge benefits. Firstly, I got the chance to meet everyone overtaking me.  Secondly, I saw that despite us all being the same (we were all humans, walking, carrying rucksacks and going to the same destination) our attitudes were all completely different. My thoughts led me to predicting who was going to suffer because of their speedy pace and the amount of the load on their back. Over the days ahead, my guesses proved to be remarkably accurate.

One of my walking companions explained to me, in religious terms, the three transformational stages of the Camino. The first stage covers the experience of walking over the Pyrenees and the first week of walking.  It represents “purgatory”. The body is suddenly facing new daily challenges; the need to let go of items that are too heavy to carry and the acceptance that new routines, beliefs and attitudes must be adopted if Santiago is going to be reached. Until these lessons are learned, the Camino may remain a very painful experience.

Once the first stage is completed, then the silence of the flat, barren, desert like table top central plateau of Spain called the “Meseta” must be crossed. This is the second stage or “death”.  It is a 10-day journey where the “aloneness” of the landscape can force you to go within to acknowledge and face the things which perhaps, through the rapid pace of life, you never get the chance to consider.   Crossing the “Meseta” can be a time of feeling lost, abandoned and insecure as you step through the vast, open, landscape. In personal transformation terms the second stage is the period of no longer being who you once were and you are not yet who you want to become.

Finally you enter the fertile, green and rich landscape of Galicia region, the capital of which is Santiago de Compostela. This is the third stage or “resurrection”. Here, near journey’s end, new purpose, new ideas and new creativity emerge. You acknowledge your re-discovered strengths and your increased self-belief received from confronting and overcoming the challenges.  With this, plus the positive connection with others and the act of just trusting to the future, far-flung dreams feel they can become real possibilities.

My Camino reminded me of who I really am. I have always loved walking and trekking and the lure of the Spanish culture, language and history has fascinated me ever since I was a kid.  I also enjoyed inspiring people to step out of their comfort zone, to have an adventure and to create the life they want. But this was not the life I was living.

It is said the real Camino begins the moment you finish your Camino journey in Santiago de Compostela. I committed to myself in Santiago to begin my own transformation journey to create and live a life of fulfillment.

I returned from the Camino passionately believing everybody should know about and experience what the Camino has to offer in one form or another. I embarked on study in a life coaching programme (CoachU), a 6 month inspirational speaking programme (public speaking has always been my greatest fear – the fear went on the day I stood up and spoke at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park and coincidentally, it was exactly one year to the day that I had walked into Santiago to finish my Camino) and attended courses run by the University of Santiago de Compostela on the Camino.

Now, as a guide and transformation coach, I combine my knowledge and love of Spain with my first hand understanding of the challenges faced by people who want to take the transformation journey to reinvent themselves or take a completely new path with their life. I show people the steps necessary to leave their comfort zone, to design the future life they wish to live and to change their beliefs, attitudes and behaviours in order to survive and navigate across what may feel, in the beginning, to be a dangerous, frightening and alien environment. Everyone deserves the chance to experience such a wonderful transformation, and I want to help.”

-Adam Wells, UK

Santiago

“Chef” John Diminic, Australia

“I hiked the Camino Francés in both 2006 and 2008. However, in 2008, I decided to go ‘all-in’, and take on, in one shot, in excess of 1,600 kilometres from Le Puy to Santiago. I found the sections in France and Spain to be wildly different, in terms of landscape, weather, company, peacefulness, and crowdedness, and my own willingness to be, as they say, ‘hard-core.’

After leaving the magnificent Le Puy, my first day’s 24-kilometre walk rather felt like thirty. Ever the genius, I packed a 12-kilogram backpack – not recommended. As the days wore on, I wound up walking quite a few 30+ and 40+ kilometre days, always carrying that anvil of a backpack. And, then, there was the rain! My photos from nearly each day I walked in France featured cloudy skies. On some mornings, there was no sign of rain, at least after a brief morning shower. Unfortunate phrase. I would have my morning shower, breakfast, and go off, on my way. And, the heavens would open – more showers. You’d think that that was it for the day, but, then, I also had a shower in the evenings — heck! This is confusing; hang in there. Most of the time, it rained enough to create rivulets out of the trails; puddles coalesced into mini lakes; rivers became swollen. But, spring was gathering strength: naked trees became clothed in opulent, leafy mid-thigh gowns, and bare earth draped in sylvan themes. And, eventually, yes – sometimes the skies managed to lose the clouds and become cerulean blue, replete with birds tweeting (those darn smart phones). However, the rain kept coming, and that nascent spring was just one big tease.

Then, at some point, my heels and feet were feeling the burn. I had given up counting kilometres by then. Anti-inflammatories became the order of the day: not great for the tummy. Luckily, in rural France, there was all this food: all you can eat, and not put weight on because you’re walking all day long. When I say eat – there are solid foods, and there are liquid foods. Let’s see… I was amused when I passed a town named ‘Condom’ – just an ordinary town: snigger, snigger. The French word is préservatif (had to look it up!), so it was a lot more amusing to us Anglophones. It turns out the town’s name was from the Gaulish: ‘market at the confluence (of rivers).’

I did have some good walking friends, during my time in France, whom I called my “three musketeers.” After some time walking, and getting to enjoy each other’s company, we split up. Luckily, at the refuge in Navarrenx, I caught up with them, and we joined in a celebratory dinner in a nearby restaurant. Happy days are here again! I felt almost nostalgic, knowing the scenery in Spain would be dramatically different, and that made me snap-happy: a green field. Snap. A horny cow in a paddock. Snap. A playful cloud … Snap, snap, snap. I’d have to remember that place!

The night before I arrived in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, at a guest house and pub in Ostabat, run by Daniel, I reveled in being alive. Sadness would hit in St Jean, however, as the musketeers would have to go their separate ways. We had another celebratory dinner, and toasted our friendship. I realized, halfway through my journey, that this is what the Camino engenders – lasting appreciation of fellow humans. We are all passengers on this mother-ship Earth. We should look after our ship, and our shipmates; we should be joyful. Life is too short for sadness.

The very next day, I also realized my journey was going to change drastically. Around 150 pilgrims – some in groups accompanied by guides – left St-Jean for Roncesvalles. This did not bode well for the lodgings further along the Camino. The Spanish refuges or hostels (albergues) are very reasonably priced. They vary, in both cost and quality. More often, they are austere dormitories. Why do pilgrims mob them? Possibly the economy, camaraderie, but also they are sometimes the only accommodation for miles. What bugged me is that in the race to get cheap lodging, the camino becomes a quasi-competition for some. A too-frequent phenomenon I noticed was pilgrims leaving at or before dawn to arrive and reserve space at the next cheap albergue. For example, at Larrasoaña, the 6€ albergue opened at 3 o’clock, and I arrived just after midday. Good timing, right? Nope – there was already a goodly group of pilgrims, who had raced there before me, patiently waiting for the doors to open. Many later arrivals missed out. It was a pattern for much of the trip. Not at all like my Camino in 2006. Eventually, I became wary of the multitudes, and sought to stagger my daily stages, staying at less popular places.

Wherever you find yourself, it is important to smell the proverbial roses. I cooked up quite the meal for my group in Pamplona: the menu was pasta Bolognese with mushrooms, green salad with Italian dressing, black grapes, and red wine. Intended for a group of four, but well in excess. We noticed an elderly French pilgrim eating a large watermelon. That was going to be his dinner. I offered the Frenchman a plate of pasta, and a plate of salad. In return he shared his watermelon. I could not find a corkscrew for the wine; he had one. We shared the bottle: long live the United Nations of pilgrims! He thanked me profusely, and I thanked him. Respect, and the desire to share, makes the world go round. Those were the sort of personal experiences that I cherished.

However, not all pilgrims are created equal. Let me tell you of what I called the ‘Swilgrims.’

I was in Puente la Reina, at the same hostel where I enjoyed a stay in 2006. They still served a half-litre glass of wine for dinner. Delightful practice, even if the wine was not so delightful. I was called to interpret for a ten-strong group of anxious, Swedish elderly female pilgrims. I did so, splendidly. Nevertheless, they were barely thankful. And, none of them even bothered to reply to my polite ‘good morning’ the next day. I continued to have nice experiences with other pilgrims, but, every now and then, I would run into those Swilgrims, to my growing displeasure. In Los Arcos, we ended up in the same hostel again. The Swedish oldies got up far too early, and annoyed us with their loud chatter, and grumbling, and excessively LONG showers. They used up all the hot water. Memo to those Swedes: stay in a hotel next time, tourist-pilgrims! Similar uncourteous, selfish, and rude behaviour followed in their wake for the next several days, and I’m sure few on the Camino appreciated them.

Through the race for beds, intermittent pilgrim rudeness, and the shooting pains in my heels and feet, I always tried to find things to appreciate, like music. At one hostel, no pills I’ve taken could prevent me from occupying the front seat of an incredible performance: the snorer section of the Pilgrimous Orchestra was winding up their nocturne, such sonorous efforts not deflated by the mighty wind section. As it was all building to a crescendo finale, unable to sleep, I escaped that place at first daylight.

I had a rest day in Grañon, the same hostel where I stayed two years beforehand, which allowed me to escape the Swilgrims. My big mouth let slip to the hospitaleros, Lilly and Andreas, that my wife and I had cooked, two days running, for the multitudes in 2006. Given my request to have a rest day there, I was immediately roped into cooking, again, two days in a row. Both days, the main meal consisted of vegetable soup, with chorizo sausages added to bulk it up, bread and wine, green salad with vinaigrette dressing, and yoghurt for dessert. The soup was cooked in monstrously big cauldrons. One feeble burner suffered from lack of gas, so I had to switch the ‘pots’ mid-cooking. Not enough room in the kitchen for helpers, so I acquired a dodgy back for a week from all that lifting! The next morning, some pilgrimettes asked whether my profession was a chef, or a cook. Having learnt that I happened to be a specialist dentist in Australia, their ‘interest’ was piqued. I rescued myself using the magic incantation: ‘Ladies, I am happily married.’ End of interest. The soup, however, received enduring interest: I was asked for the recipe. None of the 65 pilgrims the first night, and the 54 on the second, died, or were ill from the food cooked by yours truly. I count that as a success.

By the time I reached Burgos, the pain in my feet caused me to realize that ‘pain’ dominates Spain (four-fifths, the one fifth being just the ‘S’). To bus, or to abandon the trek, that became the question (sorry, Old Will – please, don’t roll in your grave again). I bussed, around 200km in a day – a feat worthy of a super-Swilgrim. Ashamed, as I ever will remain, but it was the only way. For just over 4€, I sold my sole to the Swilgrim Badass. Ten minutes into my bus journey, I knew why the fare was so low. The bus had a mechanical breakdown, right behind the municipal albergue. Several hours after I had left that same albergue, via the transit centre, I arrived to a stop just a kebab’s throw from it. Oh, how we laughed. Not. It took an hour before a replacement vehicle was rustled up, and we were on our way, once again. The Meseta, resembling a vast paella dish, appeared as an uncharacteristic, vivacious green expanse, having been soaked for days. The low clouds, and intermittent downpours, only allowed glimpses of the distant rim of mountains.

Arriving in León, my mission was to find the inner soles that would allow my feet to finish this Camino. At the orthopaedic shop, some four hundred metres away from the YMCA I stayed in, for 25€, I held two softest silicone shapes in my trembling hands: salvation from sore feet was mine. ‘I will finish the Camino!’ I exclaimed. ‘I will sip cider in Santiago!’ I shouted. ‘I will no longer succumb to swilgrimage!’ I cried. Promises, promises. Thus expiated, becalmed I became, but no less determined.

The closer to Santiago I came, the more crowded the trail, and the lodgings became. On one occasion, my deep sleep was interrupted at 5:30am. The early-bird pilgrims started to shuffle the ubiquitous plastic bags. Waterproof plastic is the currency of waterlogged Galicia, and pilgrims in general. Plastic bags not only keep things dry, but also compartmentalised. We were at the gates of Galicia (just days from the climb of O Cebreiro), but the precipitous rain blessed the walkers, everywhere. The more plastic, the better. Maybe not for my ears, or sleep. But you stay dry, pilgrims, you stay dry. This is not to say I didn’t have delightful encounters with many of those people – I had a great time meeting dozens of them. But the interesting and congenial pilgrim at midday could very well be your worst enemy at 5:30 in the morning.

As I waited to enter an albergue in Ponferrada, I was touched by the accommodation plight of an Italian girl, who had started her pilgrimage from Lourdes. Almost immediately, as she started on her way, a stray dog trailed her. After a couple of days, she made enquiries about her new companion, found there was no registered owner, and proceeded to care for the pooch. The animal was in a crisis. A visit to the vet, and adoption papers later, Frieda, the Camino pup, and her new owner, became inseparable. Despite this, she couldn’t stay there. I found it a shame that many albergues admit boisterous and, at times, obnoxious pilgrims – swilgrims even! – yet, a gentle animal like Frieda had to miss out. Them is the rules, the old Scottish hospitalero insisted. In case you thought him hard-hearted, when he signed me in, he got up to shake my hand, having seen that I started my pilgrimage all the way back in Le Puy. The moment was lost on the bickering plebs behind me, who shoved me out of the way as they fought to obtain their precious 5€ beds. Nights in packed quarters like that, sleeping with fifty, sixty, or even more pilgrims, did not go altogether well. Those large dormitories often had their windows shut, doors closed, and smells trapped.

Ultimately, I made my way to Santiago. I must say the journey, the daily sights, smells, sounds, celebrity chef-ing, the daily adventures, did more for me than the destination. I went onward to Finisterre, but rather than revelling in the rained-out pagan rituals at ‘the end of the world’, I returned to spend my time in contemplation, in the dry atmosphere of the Santiago Cathedral. Despite the hordes of tourists, a few devoted locals, and an army of pilgrims, that church provides many a quiet nook for prayer. Everyone in that chapel has implicit trust in the Divine Being; far less trust was placed in the blokes that installed the chandelier – no one wanted to sit right underneath it (see photo).

And that, my friends, is a wrap on my 2008 Camino. I have so many remarkable memories from that two-month journey that I had to commit it to ‘electronic’ paper. I wanted to write volumes about my trip, but, so far, managed only a hundred pages. It seems that everyone is doing the same, these days. Nevertheless, I look forward to publishing it someday … However, for now, these musings will do nicely, methinks.”

-“Chef” John Diminic, Australia

Desi Phillips, Australia

“I decided to do the Camino with my husband Larry in May 2014 after he finally sold me on what seemed to be a crazy idea. I mean, it truly is crazy to think about walking 700+ kilometers in a relatively short time frame. To be honest with you, I went on the Camino because my husband wanted to. I went into the journey not expecting to enjoy it. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it either, and I was a little concerned about what I would do if a day came when I just had to stop and couldn’t walk any further. But I thought I could always take a cab or bus to the next place and wait for Larry to catch up on foot.

But over time, I discovered that it’s all a matter of the mind. If you say you can do the Camino, then you will do it! Take it one step at a time. Day by day. The Camino did get easier for me. I walked at my own pace, maybe not always with Larry, but it was still exhilarating to walk over these mountains and such long distances. At the top of each summit or at the end of the day, I was just sitting there thinking ‘Look at me! How good am I? Look at that mountain!’ I will say I did learn why humans have a ribcage. I’m pretty sure that my heart was beating so hard and fast so many times on the Camino that it would’ve fallen out if it wasn’t for those ribs!

It’s crazy to think about all these wonderful people you meet on the Camino. You don’t know them since they’re not a part of your life like your friends, schoolmates or family – you don’t always understand what drives them. But they become very, very important. Occasionally, you’ll walk with people who don’t speak a common language and yet somehow, you’re able to have a conversation for 3-4 hours with them. At the end of this conversation, even if it’s a short 15 minute chat, they’ve changed you. You get a different view of different nationalities and opinions. At the end of the days, you’re sitting in the albergue enjoying wonderful food and their company preparing for the next day. You’ve been through the same thing. Maybe all these different people aren’t so different after all. Maybe we shouldn’t always be focused on how we’re different. Still, ‘preparing for the next day’ sometimes becomes difficult with all the snoring in the albergues! One night, I thought the noise was in my head, but luckily I wasn’t going crazy – it was just the snoring. I remember one small albergue we got to with 12-15 beds. This one man walked in that a few of the people the room knew from before. They were excited to see him and he was just as happy to see all these people he had met over the past few days. But, one girl in there looked at him and said, ‘Oh no, not you!’ and I understood exactly why. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, but needless to say, that was a long night.

While the scenery and people were great, I really enjoyed walking from town to town and just being in the moment. I often found myself taking pictures of the doors and wondering, ‘What’s behind these doors? What’s the history of this building?’ The history on the Camino is just incredible! And I found the spiritual aspect important. Before the Camino, I heard that many people hike the Camino to try and become closer to God. I’m Christian and religious, but I’ll admit I don’t always go to church. So, I was walking around Spain and trying to connect spiritually along the way. I had this realization. I get it. I get why Jesus gave up his life for the children of the world. I really do. I’m not trying to compare the Camino to Jesus’ trials but I was hurting both physically and mentally – blisters, tendinitis, fighting with myself – and I was just beat. But, as much as I hated it, if you were to ask me to do the Camino again for my children, I would do it again in a heartbeat! You wouldn’t have to ask me twice. It makes sense why people do such hard and difficult things for the ones they love.

The Camino is truly a wonderful experience. It’s life changing. The people you meet can become great friends. When I talk to them, it brings up these feelings. I guess you could say it’s the sense of accomplishing something together. But, it’s much more than that. You just can’t explain it. The Camino brings an incredible and inexplicable feeling. Before the Camino, I don’t think I would’ve ever considered doing it ONCE, let alone twice, but the Camino is drawing me back. My husband and I are looking forward to our next Camino adventure in May 2016. We can’t wait to see what’s in store!”

– Desi Phillips, Australia

Camino

Larry Phillips, Australia

“I am a firm believer in the Camino being different for each person and each time you do it. ‘It’s your Camino, do it how you want to’ is what I tell people. The start of my Camino was after I completed the Oxfam Trailwalker, where my team and I had to walk 100 km in 28 hours. In the words of Martin Sheen, ‘it was a bloody long walk.’ But, I managed it and wanted more. I wanted to see what this old body could actually do, so I was considering walking the Camino. I had been telling my friends this for a while and everyone thought I was crazy, including my wife Desi. Funny enough, when I got home from the Oxfam Trailwalker, I decided to flip on the TV and lo and behold, ‘The Way’ was on and I took that as my sign to go on the Camino.

I was lucky enough to convince my wife to walk with me. She was reluctant at first, but eventually we were on our way in May 2014. Primarily, we wanted to find out what it was and to see if we could survive the journey. Neither of us felt we were mentally, spiritually, or physically strong so we had many challenges, from just organising ourselves and getting over the fear of what we were doing, to learning to understand and have belief in ourselves.

Our Camino got off to a rough start. I have had issues with cramps for a long time and the Camino wasn’t any exception. I got sick and had cramps the very first day. We had sent a bunch of gear – including our medicine – forward to Roncesvalles since, like so many, we had packed too much. It got so bad that we considered cancelling the trip. Some time after Orrison, when the trail was still going uphill and seemed endless, like a desert mirage, there was a van with cheap hot chocolate, food, and bananas. These people always seemed to come out of nowhere, but always seemed to come at the right time, some of them selling at perfectly good prices, and others just giving food away for any donation you care to offer. One time during the trip I asked one of these perfectly-placed gentleman where this generosity came from and he said, ‘the universe.’ Something like that really makes you wonder about life.

Eventually I managed the aches and pains, not just with medicine, but thanks to some of the amazing things I was experiencing. I remember sitting in a church ruin and wondering how many pilgrims have walked past here before me. On the Camino, you’re in the essence of the old town just for a moment, but there’s so much history behind it. The people who live there, they don’t see the peregrinos as a hindrance or a curse, but more as a blessing. And then there’s the people.

People on the Camino are willing to share everything, whether that’s food, drink or simply knowledge. I had blisters from the get-go and didn’t know how to treat them. But, someone was kind enough to teach me how to treat them and share some supplies to do so. Beyond these acts of kindness, what really helped me get through it all was the interesting people you meet along the way. We’re walking with people with the same goal, and the idea is ‘if they can do it, so can I.’ So many of us were going through the exact same problems, which in a way helped to bring everyone closer. But you never know just who you might meet. One night in Albergue Vedre in Hospital de Órbigo, we attended a medieval festival and then came back to a communal gathering and singalong where all of us strangers acted like a family and shared a wonderful night. We jokingly asked one singing lady if she was published, as she was incredible. When we got back home to Australia, we looked her up and it turned out that she is in fact published and has two platinum records! As much as you think you know these people, you don’t always know them beyond the Camino.

In the end, one thing I found really remarkable about the Camino was how both I and my wife were just so doubtful about being able to finish the entire trip, and in the end, coping through all those challenges to complete it. Because of that, I have spent two years encouraging others to do the Camino. It’s something that sounds crazy at first, but when you’re done, it doesn’t seem that bad. I tell people to enjoy their own journey – a journey that does not end when the walk finishes. There are various reasons for walking the Camino, but these reasons often change as you walk. You start to rethink why. It was life-changing for us. When we got back, we changed our lifestyle to a simpler lifestyle. We still keep in touch with people from the Camino and have had quite a few come visit us.

If anyone tries to tell you what the Camino is, it’s got to be difficult to capture. It’s a personal experience that is bound to be different every time, based on the challenges you rise to, and the people you meet – even if the road is the same. For that reason, we are going back to walk the Camino in May 2016, almost the exact same schedule. We’re doing the same route, the Camino Frances, and starting around the same time. We want to see what the differences are this time and couldn’t be more excited for it!”

– Larry Phillips, Australia

Joshua Collinsworth, USA

“Many people have amazing stories and incredible memories from their Camino. I don’t want to minimize anyone’s experience because they are all truly special… but my experience was a step beyond.

My 2014 started chaotic and stressful after discovering my fiance had been cheating on me. It was revealed a month before our fully planned, March destination wedding to Cinque Terre, Italy. After finding out, the relationship was finished in my mind. However, if you have ever experienced a break-up of this kind you know that there is a long process of moving on. Going in and out of depression, I decided to walk the Camino to help clear my head and jump start recovery. My fiance and I had said about a year earlier after watching The Way, that the Camino was something we would like to do someday. Of course at the time her nor I were all that serious about it, but fighting depression, I decided that now rather than later was the time. I left for Santiago from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on May 21st, 2014.

Like most, I started waaay too fast and then had to deal with the consequence of incredibly sore feet. My body wasn’t happy and simply couldn’t recover each night. Luckily, through some real-time conditioning combined with a daily dose of ibuprofen, I was able to maintain a 35km per day average (yes that is fast, but I have one speed). Three weeks later I was in Santiago. I had a wonderful time meeting new people and learning more about myself along the way. My mission to clear my head was successful. I felt rejuvenated and ready to go back home. But I didn’t know my story was only about to begin.

The day before I walked into Santiago I woke up ill. Like many along the way, I had fought-off a couple of head colds already, so although feeling terrible, I dealt with it and made my “victory stroll” into Santiago with only slightly less optimism. Naturally, I treated myself to a hotel room and rested for a couple of days. Once I started feeling better (although still a little weak) I decided to walk the three days to Finisterre and meet up with some friends. We enjoyed an unusual warm and sunny set of days on the beaches in Galicia. Calm before the storm was an appropriate description in hindsight. After three days of laying around in the sun, Marjorie (a friend I had met around Ponferrada, an Emmy nominated actress and producer, Puerto Rican queen and all around kick-ass person) and I boarded a bus heading back to Santiago. After that bus ride was when everything changed.

Arriving in Santiago I felt like death. I could barely walk… each step was a chore and I was continuously out of breath. My heart was pounding. Not knowing exactly where we arrived in the city, Marjorie and I opted for a cab to take us into the city center. Once there I tried to break back towards the hotel I had stayed in earlier. Marjorie objected, insisting I join her and some other pilgrims for a traditional pilgrim lunch. After a harsh but short argument, I caved and decided to join her and the others.

It was there where I met a Polish doctor (who’s name I was never given), and with him noticing my extremely pale face and deathly demeanor, decided to diagnose my symptoms. Just about the time he said that I was very ill and needed to get to the hospital ASAP, I fainted. I came back into consciousness with the help of a feisty Flemish woman literally slapping me in the face each time I began to fade away. It worked, and I was able to get back on my feet for when the ambulance arrived.

It was at the hospital where I learned that the combination of walking 35km a day, chorizo, vino, cerveza and heavy doses of ibuprofen didn’t make for a good daily cocktail. Almost as soon as I entered the hospital they were giving me a blood transfusion. They didn’t know what was wrong, but they new I needed LOTS of blood, so they placed me in a room for staging an exploratory endoscopy the next morning.

Later that day, the last thing I remembered was the room full of nurses calling for the doctor. I passed-out again. When I finally awoke around noon the next day, I was in the intensive care unit. The nurses noticed my eyes open and they rushed over. They wouldn’t tell me then, but a week and a half later when I checked-out of the hospital, I learned that everyone was bracing themselves for my death that night. I learned that the ibuprofen ate away my stomach lining, and when combined with stress on the body from the walk, I developed three ulcers. Two were bleeding profusely. They were trying to staple them shut. After the second attempt they were successful. I recovered very quickly once the bleeding stopped. I am lucky and I am forever grateful.

About a year after this ordeal, I randomly met a gastro surgeon on a plane. Telling him about my condition, he was listening with astonishment. After pausing for a bit, he said most people wouldn’t have recovered… that the amount of blood loss and the risks of the procedure would have been too much for the body to handle. He told me my age and physical health were in my favor, as well as what sounded like a quality procedure. However, there was probably something else that saw you through.”

-Joshua Collinsworth, USA

Camino

Pete “Pedro” Mahon, Australia

“I walked the Camino because I was 18 and in search of adventure. I really just wanted to do something big, something that would make my parents think I was crazy. Also, I liked being outside, and the Camino would let me hang out under the sun all day. After I finished high school, I spent some time traveling all throughout Europe, and I thought the idea of walking from France to Spain sounded great.

One of the first and greatest things about my Camino were my friends that walked the entire journey with me. I loved my travel year but I was only in some places for a short time, so I was more or less traveling alone. Anyway, after a short trip to Ireland I flew to a town in France called La Rochelle. I was excited to get to St. Jean to start the Camino, but all the buses out of town were booked for the next 2 days. So I had a really nice time there and eventually got onto a bus to Bayonne. When I got off, I saw a guy who had all the gear on and totally looked like he was ready to go hiking. I looked at him and said ‘Camino?’ and this guy – with a completely shaved head, from Poland, and whose name was Pavlo – said, ‘yes Camino!’ I thought I should have a name like Pavlo’s, so he started calling me ‘Pedro,’ and the legend of Pavlo and Pedro was born. So we got on a train to St. Jean together, and almost immediately started walking on the uphill out of town. In a little while, we came across an Austrian guy who offered us some bananas, which we gladly accepted, and then began walking together with him. His name was Johannes, but I just called him “Austria” for the rest of the trip! We eventually got up to Orisson, and met two German girls, Kadda and Janey, after they advised us about the best sandwiches to get that day. We bonded that night in Roncesvalles – we stayed up so late, talking like schoolchildren, and definitely got a stern talking-to from the hospitalero running our albergue. I found it so liberating talking to these people after traveling alone for a while. We five were a team for the next 33 days. Of course we walked alone some days and we all had some alone time, but these people were my core group. There were a few days on the Camino where I would feel exhausted, or upset for any given reason and I remember just sitting on a stairwell with my friends drinking cheap sangria and all of my frustrations would seem to disappear. I will treasure the memories I shared with them forever.

Another thing I had with me for almost the entire trip was a walking stick. Halfway through the Camino, like day 15, I bought one that I liked from a lady who was selling them along the path. I came to really like the feeling of walking with it every day. I realized it was getting a tiny bit shorter every day, but eventually I got a rubber stopper to place at the tip, which I had sharpened. One night I borrowed a knife and started carving patterns all over the stick, just endlessly until I’d carved over the entire stick. I loved the finished product. Also, I noticed that over time the oils from my hand seemed to naturally varnish the stick, and I liked the way that looked. I wanted to varnish the rest of my stick, to preserve all those carvings. In one village I remember seeing a man painting a sign on top of his shop, and I saw a can of varnish next to him. after he finished, was nice enough to let me use his leftover varnish for my stick. I finished the job and tried to dry the stick overnight, but I guess it was humid in my albergue because the stick was very, very sticky. For nearly 3 days grass and dirt was sticking to the bottom, while my hand was sticking to the top! But eventually, the stick dried up and I just loved the way it looked. It was my companion for the rest of the Camino, and even afterwards when I continued onto Portugal. We were inseparable. But when I got to the airport in Lisbon to fly out, airport security told me i couldn’t bring the stick on board because it was too long. I almost panicked, but I looked at my watch and realized I had a bit of time. I went back through security, and to a cafe. I told the story to the Englishman running the cafe, who let me borrow one of his knives so that I could cut the stick into 3 pieces short enough to bring on board the plane. After some truly horrible carpentry on my end, I was able to get the job done, and get on the plane! Soon, I’ll re-assemble it and mount it on my wall – it’s one of my most prized possessions, and it represents so many daily struggles and memories from the Camino

Another thing that kept me grounded through the entire trip was my diary. I had resolved in 2014 to make a diary entry every single day. Some were very brief. One day when I was still back home on Australia, I was on the coast and only managed to write ‘today was hot.’ On other days I wrote quite a lot. But, my diary entries did a lot for me on my Camino and the larger year-long trip because in high school, everything was very scheduled. Almost every day. But during this time, I wasn’t in school or university, and I had to manage my own days. Focusing on the diary kept me grounded on all these unscheduled days and I never felt like I ‘lost’ a day. It was so satisfying to get home after my yearlong trip, and place my diary on my desk safely. By the end, it meant so much to me – I’d almost rather have given up my passport than the diary! I remember calling my dad the day before walking into Santiago. I was in a cafe and the wifi was horrible so we had a bad connection, but I remember telling my dad that I would finish the hike the next day and he just paused. Then he told me that he was incredibly proud of me. He told me that what I had done was something big. I think we both sort of understood that I was there, walking the camino, as some sort of weird ‘shaping process,’ and it was incredible that he could be a part of that. It was a really special phone call. It’s moments like this that make me so glad I was careful about my diary. Otherwise I might forget in the years to come. I keep a blog site and added my Camino diary to it, but the physical diary is easily most treasured book on my shelf.

I learned a lot during my travel year, and the Camino definitely helped change me. I found a way to solve little problems, to do things differently, and to not do the easiest thing in front of me. I changed, and maybe I can’t explain exactly how. But I didn’t show up thinking about how I needed or wanted to change. That’s why for anyone thinking about the Camino, I’d say you don’t need to be a devout Christian, or have tragedy, or have been fired from work, or just gone through a breakup. You can do this as a source of adventure. You can find meaning while you’re there. Amazing discoveries can come out of just taking a leap into the unknown.”

-Pete “Pedro” Mahon, Australia

 

“The Pug and Cat Pilgrims,” UK/Norway

“Hi, we’re the Pug and Cat Pilgrims! We had been living in Barcelona for some time and realized we really needed a change – of activity, of scenery, of everything. Everything… except our little family, which includes a dog – a pug – named Bandito, and a Scottish Fold cat named Luigi. We were not letting go of those little guys! So when we decided to go on a Camino to jump-start this change in our lives, we also insisted that we become the first pilgrims ever on the Camino de Santiago to bring a pug and cat along for the journey! We got a DoggyRide trolley and pushed ourselves and them from Pamplona to Santiago over 6 weeks. And wow, it was a cool idea but we had a lot of challenges to deal with.

We didn’t have the same experience as most pilgrims. Different people come for all kinds of reasons, but in the end they meet each other while walking together and staying in albergues. And during these times, they talk about their reasons and their experiences, they learn about each other, and in a way they learn about themselves. Our trip wasn’t like that. It was more of an adventure and a logistical challenge. We couldn’t stay in the albergues like everyone else because most of them don’t accept pets, so we camped every single night. Having to camp meant that in addition to the trolley, we were carrying a lot more equipment, so that slowed us down. And also, it’s a little heard to ‘learn about yourself’ when you’re busy finding the next 8kg package of cat litter. Our cat is very particular. No litter, no bathroom. And you can’t buy a small package, because what if you run out? So obviously the shops we had to go to were way different from anything that other pilgrims went to! Luigi turned 6 months old right around the time we got to Burgos, so we had to find a veterinarian to have him neutered too. The weather was also an issue. We started in September, when we thought it would be nice and cool outside, but there were days when it was boiling hot. It was sunny and hot most of the time, but we definitely had our share of days with absolutely pouring rain. And when we reached some of the higher points on the trail, we encountered snow! We had to stay under the church near the Cruz de Ferro in case we got snowed in. It’s like we hit every season of the year on our 6-week journey.

It was a lot to deal with, but, Bandito and Luigi totally loved the experience. Every minute of it! You could see how excited and interested they were with all the beautiful places we visited. Once we set up our campsites, Luigi always wanted to look around and have a look at things, and he never once ran off. Almost every evening, he would go out for a look or a prowl or a hunt. Sometimes he’d just want to have a seat outside for the fresh air. Of course there were some places where we learned that there were wild dogs that may attack cats, so on those evenings Luigi was always kept in sight. Bandito had a blast as well, often meeting some of the other pilgrims and enjoying all the attention he got along the way.

The only thing we didn’t like about all the attention Bandito and Luigi got was that some pilgrims – really more tourist than pilgrim – just tried to take so many photos of them. There was one American woman who asked if she could put her camera in the trolley to take a photo, and we told her no, as we didn’t want her startling our boys. But, as if she thought we were joking, she rudely put her camera right in their faces and took the photo anyway. This is the one thing we don’t love about the Camino today. One of us, Sebastian, did the Camino eight years ago and since then, it has definitely become more popular. People have always gone on the Camino with some mission. Maybe a religious purpose, to get away from things like we wanted to, or to learn about themselves. Now there are a lot of people who are focusing more on where to position their selfie sticks, and getting their daily best photo for their social media. It’s like they forgot the reason the Camino existed. That’s one reason we stayed more antisocial. We did speak to others, but we didn’t walk together with anyone for more than 20 minutes. We hope that with all the changes and improvements, the Camino doesn’t change for the worse. Back then Sebastian got lost a few times, but now it’s so popular that there are signs and arrows everywhere. You can’t get physically lost. If you’re on the Camino, it’s okay to take pictures, it’s okay to enjoy yourself, it’s okay to write blogs or books about your experience, and it’s okay to socialize – but there’s more to this than just your daily photo on Facebook. We just hope that the people on the Camino don’t get spiritually lost.”

-Sebastian Smetham and Finn Paus, the Pug and Cat Pilgrims, UK/Norway

Shanti Burton, New Zealand

“Eighteen months on from the Camino, I still think about the Camino on an almost daily basis. To be completely honest, at the time I didn’t think the camino taught me anything drastically new. During my trek, I spent a month waiting for a flash of insight, an intense realisation, or one of those important moments of self discovery that everyone else seemed to be experiencing.

Don’t get me wrong – reaching the Cruz de Ferro and spotting the Cathedral de Santiago for the first time were numinous, reflective moments that felt bloody amazing. But for me, the Camino was rather slow burn of comprehension that if I can walk across a country on my own two feet carrying everything I needed, I can do anything I want.

There’s something beautiful about the simplistic complexity of the Camino. Waking up each day with the single aim of walking is in so many ways difficult yet at the same time uncomplicated.”

-Shanti Burton, New Zealand | Travel and hiking blogger at “A Wanderphile.”

Camino

Brien Crothers, USA

“On a day hotter than the already almost ridiculously hot days of July, I met one of my Camino guides. Since I was walking the Camino unguided with no support or sag wagon, I mean to say my spiritual Camino guide. The day was bloody hot and I was finishing an incredibly long, drearily hot stretch between villages. By now, late in the day, I was tired and could think of nothing more than wanting to sit my lanky, haggard frame somewhere, anywhere, even just for a minute. Not far on there was a water source indicated on my map—an indicator of which one really never knew what to expect—and I was watching closely, not wanting to miss this supposed fountain.

During my time on the Camino, up to this point anyway, water sources shown in the guidebook in my hands proved to be of almost any variety: A pipe dribbling from a hillside spring; an old style hand pump by the road; ornate fountains with multiple spigots at village centers; and, now a cistern with a rather unique water delivery system.

Approaching the village of Boadilla, a somewhat Wild West feel to this berg on the meseta (the high plateau of northern Spain), the pathway was suddenly shaded by large trees lining the roadway into town and irrigation canals adjacent. Still quite weary, I almost literally stumbled upon this newfound water source. The fountain indicated on the map was actually a Roman built cistern with a very large hand wheel that needed cranking to earn your water. I gave this giant wheel, a steel made creation resembling a ship’s rudder control, a short spin. No water appeared. I was so knackered, tired from the day’s long walk and oppressive heat, that I decided to sit a minute, catch my breath and try again in a minute or two.

This is when my guide appeared: I heard a voice from a nearby hostel saying, ‘More energy.’ I turned to see a youngish, lean Spaniard in cargo shorts and flip-flops, no shirt, his shorts hanging low over his hips, underwear in view. He repeated, ‘more energy.’ I gave the wheel a hefty spin with what little ‘more energy’ I had. Still no water. I sat down and thought to myself, ‘whatever.’ The young man made the short walk over to my location near the cistern and said, ‘What is the second thing the pilgrim needs?’ I sat silently, having no idea, so he said, ‘Patience. You must have patience.’ Then he spun the wheel a bit more and voila, water appeared, flowing from a pipe near the large wheel.

I only needed patience. He quickly told me, with great pleasure, about the fountain being two thousand years old, and then returned to his doorway where he sat on the threshold of the old, dusty and worn building with a beer in one hand, a stogie in the other.

After resting a bit, sitting on a bench beside the cistern and refilling my water bottles, I thanked my newfound Camino guide and hit the trail. He had said no more; needed say nothing more. By the time I had made it to the other end of this dirty little town, I was wondering if I had dreamt it all.

Patience, that’s what I need. Says my guide of the Camino.”

This was an excerpt from my book, “Su Camino,” which you can find on Amazon. I hope you’ll also look at my blog, “Grandpa’s Gone Again?” with travel notes from all over.

-Brien Crothers, USA