Karen’s website is www.caminocalling.com
‘Camino’ is Spanish for ‘way’ or ‘path’ and ‘Santiago’ translates from the Spanish as ‘Saint’ (Sant) ‘James’ (Iago). There are many Caminos de Santiago – pilgrimage routes that begin in France, Italy, Belgium, England and beyond. Some are still clearly marked and walked by modern pilgrims, although most are not as busy as they were in medieval times. However, the Camino Frances, across Northern Spain has just about surpassed its medieval popularity.
I don’t remember where I first heard of the Camino de Santiago – it was probably a radio or television documentary or a newspaper article – but I do remember my reaction. Although I knew next-to-nothing about the Camino, I knew straight away that it was something I wanted to do. I filed it into the back of my mind with an ‘I’m going to do that one day’ label. Over the years I would hear about it every now and again and experience that same familiar feeling. It was as if the Camino was tugging at my sleeve and asking ‘When are you going to get here?’
I’d done a lot of long-distance cycle touring in my 20’s, but by the time I’d reached my late 40’s I was wondering if I’d ever experience that sense of exploration again. In 2003, when I was 46, probably 20 years after I first heard of the Camino, my partner Angela and I started to dream about embarking on an adventure. We talked about lots of different walking and cycling possibilities in different parts of the world. The Camino was amongst them.
The moment of decision came when Angela suggested we each write down our top three contenders. I can clearly remember the moment when we compared lists. At the top of each one was the Camino de Santiago. It was like a game of Snap. A match had been struck and we were as excited as kids.
We talked about the challenge of walking further than we’d ever imagined and of experiencing the landscape, history and culture of northern Spain. We were also motivated by the need to spend some reflective time – we ended up calling it ‘emptying the hard-drive’ – after a few very hectic years of work and personal pressures.
From that moment, walking the Camino changed from a dream full of ‘maybes’ to a reality that would need planning, preparation and commitment from us both.
As with many first-time Camino pilgrims, Angela and I thought that this was the only Camino in existence and when we headed to Europe to walk it for the first time, we really didn’t have a clue about what to expect.
What we did have was a map of Spain. With the Camino de Santiago highlighted in red, it was stuck to our lounge room wall for months leading up to our departure. Again and again I’d stop and look at that wriggly red line across the north of Spain and every time, my life would re-prioritise itself. I was going to walk the Camino!
Preparation for the Camino became the focus of almost every day. It meant walking to work instead of catching the tram. Actually it meant walking just about everywhere. In the last couple of months before we left we were walking across suburbs to visit friends or to go to the movies. On weekends, we’d plan longer and longer hikes with backpacks and walking poles. Ordinary life started to feel like an exciting expedition.
We were also doing pretty extensive reading and researching. We were finding websites with information and pilgrim discussion forums. They were really useful, if a little fear-inducing. The first time we walked the Camino in 2004, it was a ‘Holy Year’, when the feast of St James falls on a Sunday. Many Christian pilgrims see walking the Camino in a Holy Year as doubly significant.
The pilgrim forums on the web were humming with dire predictions of thousands of pilgrims and way fewer beds. I imagined a slow conga line of tired walkers snaking its way from the Pyrenees to Santiago. Finding accommodation would be like a game of musical chairs, with everyone hovering around refuges and hostels and then pouncing on a bed the minute the music stopped. What if we couldn’t find a bed?
We thought we’d better bring our own accommodation. So into our packs went a tent, sleeping bags and mats. We drew the line at a camping stove but we really did take just about everything but the kitchen sink.
Looking back now, in so many ways we weren’t prepared to walk that first Camino. What a difference a bit of hindsight makes! We had no idea that the Camino would have long-lasting effects on both our lives, or that we would end up walking it again two years later.
The lessons we learned on that first Camino made the second journey, in some ways, easier. Being better prepared, both physically and mentally, meant we were less stressed about practicalities and more able to walk with a ‘take it as it comes’ mentality. That meant we could immerse ourselves a little more in the inner journey of the Camino.
For the last five years, Angela and I have been giving workshops on the practicalities of walking a Camino. I have also been teaching about the history of the Camino de Santiago as well as running workshops of walking meditation.
In late 2010, my book ‘A Slow Walk Across Spain’ was published. It is “… the book we wish we’d had when we were planning to walk our first Camino,” and is divided into three sections:
1. CAMINO CALLING: the inner journey of the Camino, motivations for walking, the psychological benefits and challenges of embarking on a long trek.
2. WALKING THE CAMINO: preparing, walking, food, accommodation, weather, terrain, fitness and all things practical.
3. THE HISTORY OF THE CAMINO: the extraordinary story of the origins of the Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James), including its medieval heyday and modern resurgence.
Angela and I are interested in cycling one of the Caminos through France. That will set us off on our favourite kind of activity – researching, planning and organising a long, slow journey, this time on wheels!