Walking the Camino de Santiago solo
What drives someone to walk 500 miles, alone? One writer reflects on their solo trek on the Camino de Santiago
Hovering in the tiny town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees, I wonder how I might gather up the courage to talk to other pilgrims. Luckily, a keen German decides I'm good enough company for dinner. Michael is ex-army, determined to walk to Santiago in three weeks. He hardly speaks at the table, but as we stand up to leave, he raises his voice. He tells us that there are three laws on the Camino de Santiago: be honest, give or take something up, and cry once – it has to be real. The next day as we set off, Michael mutters something as he walks on. It is not until I lose sight of him that I gather what he has said: walk alone.
It's hard to process that you're about to walk 500 miles in a month. Put an amateur hiker into the equation with a 10kg backpack and questionable physique, and it's likely she'll not make it past the first week. Add perseverance and some humour, and it's likely she will. It's quite simple really – all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other.
It's not the Camino that's a test; the challenge is focussing on the journey instead of the life you left behind. It's worrying about the husband and wondering if he'll be able to work the oven, or how the office will cope without you for 33 days. The challenge is having the ability to let go of daily routine, and invest in the now. Letting go means becoming vulnerable again. You're left with nothing but your raw self to show. Whether you're a CEO or an 18-year-old student, the hierarchy crumbles and re-shifts itself. What matters now are your social skills, your capacity to wake up at 6.30am with snow outside, your patience to put up with a snoring orchestra at night. It's not the fittest who will survive; it's the most determined.
The weather has taken its toll on the few crazy pilgrims who have chosen to walk while the Beast from the East is shaking Europe. There's one particularly bad day, where it rains obstinately for hours on end and the trail is an ocean of mud. I push on, this time accompanied by a painfully shy German boy who hasn't said a word all day. We walk for six hours in silence together, and I don't even know his name. With no town in sight, and with the evening fast approaching, the boy finally speaks.
‘How much further?' he pleads. I look back at him, having almost forgotten he was there, and realise he is defeated. I have no map, and neither of us have seen the trail's iconic yellow arrow in hours. As I tell him this, his exhaustion reduces him to tears. I fumble for my phone and pretend to study the dead screen.
‘Hang on,' I say. 'It's only 20 more minutes.'
He perks up. Not only that, but he develops the nerve to ask me if I have any water. I give him a whole bottle, and after that, his manner changes considerably. For the next while, he finally talks. His name is Julius, and he is 20 years old. He's from a remote part of Germany where he’s been home-schooled. He’s working up the courage to go to university. He started this walk with his father, but the father has injured his foot and flew back home. I realise the father has probably left on purpose, to encourage his son to do precisely this – talk to people.
We often think we're the protagonist of a situation – it's about you overcoming obstacles and testing yourself. But perhaps we're also there as a platform for other people to achieve their dreams. On that long afternoon, it's not me who has conquered a fear, but Julius.
I continue my solo journey through medieval towns, the history of pilgrims ploughing through to Santiago becoming more apparent by the day. As we draw closer to the end, the pilgrim population increases drastically. With people meters away from me both in front and behind, I start to feel nostalgia for those solitary days. Consequently, I also have to adjust to the new, humming albergues or hostels. A lower bunk is now a luxury, and the quiet nights with only one or two others in the room become a memory of the past. An older man, in particular, gets to me. I call him the snoring man.
He's in his 70s, a heavy, shuffling gait, constantly stopping and panting. For three days I've had the bad luck of sharing a room with him – a drill would be more peaceful than his snores. Yet every morning he wakes up fresh and rested. I moan and grumble, wondering if I should push on to the next village tonight to avoid him. I do, and just my luck, he's done the same. With the increasing hustle and bustle, I decide to escape to mass that night. It's only a few of us in the tiny chapel, and one of them is my snoring man. Only this time he stands, fidgeting with a prayer in his hands. The priest asks us to share our reasons for walking the Camino. When it's the snoring man's turn, I realise he's fidgeted so much with his prayer, it's torn down the middle. He finally manages to find his voice. He's doing this for his only daughter. She took her own life. He doesn't understand why.
That night dinner is served, and I see my snoring man sitting alone as he fumbles through his pasta. My fellow pilgrims giggle as I tell them I'm going to join him. I've told them all about the snoring man, but not about tonight. My snoring man lets me join him, and we share a glass of wine. We don't talk much, but he does introduce himself. From now on, I call him Pepe. That night I let him snore as loud as he needs and, somehow, I sleep well.
There's a monumental feeling that stirs your whole being when you first set eyes on the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral's spire looming in the distance. Grins from ear to ear, pilgrims from yesterday greeting those of today, families that have flown in to greet their missing member, and most noticeably, the lone pilgrim who gazes up at the spire in deep, silent satisfaction. You realise that the point is not the end, but the whole journey that's now passed. It's about the people you met, and the moments you shared, and that time you dragged yourself to the top of the hill because even when your body wasn't on your side, your mind was.
I spent 33 days walking 500 miles solo. I don't know what it was that got me through the relentless rain or the loneliness, but the truth is, I never really felt alone. I had God. We hadn't been on close terms for a while, and the Camino brought me back to Him. I think about the people I met on the way, their reasons for walking, the part of them that they chose to share with others. I wonder if the snoring man’s steps got any lighter as he thought about his daughter; I wonder if Julius made a friend, and if Michael, the first pilgrim I met who gave me the three laws, ever really existed.
I don't think that the Camino is about finding yourself or becoming someone. I think it's about stripping back all pretences and ego-driven fluff and letting your true self be who it was always meant to be. Go back to your five-year-old spirit who cartwheeled on the beach, cycled with no handlebars and waltzed on the streets. Don't overthink who you are or what you want to do. It's quite simple really. All you have to do is put one foot in front of the other.