ONE HUNDRED MILES into my two-hundred mile journey, I was seriously considering calling it quits.
I was tired and sore, and I had blisters on every single one of my toes. Even the thought of putting my pack on again in the morning filled me with dread.
What would be so bad, I thought, about hopping on a bus at the next town? Putting myself out of this misery?
I was hiking a portion of the Camino de Santiago, a path across the north of Spain from the French border to Santiago de Compostela, where St. James the Apostle is supposedly buried.
Although I am not religious, I have always loved the idea of a pilgrimage: the singularity of purpose, the inevitable hardship and triumph over adversity, the camaraderie with other pilgrims.
And the fact that you get to call yourself a pilgrim.
Over the past millennium, thousands of people, from all over Europe and all over the world, have made the pilgrimage to Santiago. Halfway through my journey, I wasn’t sure I would be able to count myself among them.
What follows are a few lessons I learned about travel and life during my journey to Santiago.
1. Be Kind To Your Feet
The number one piece of advice I can give about taking any kind of backpacking trip is to buy good shoes.
I walked in a pair of too-small boots that I hadn’t used since high school, and although I lived to tell about it, there were times when I thought I might come back missing a toe or two.
I spent an entire day of my trip thinking only about how to describe the terrible pain – and finally came up with this: With each step, I felt like my little toes were being passed through a meat grinder.
I’m no gear head, but I will never again mess around with inadequate footwear.
It also doesn’t hurt to be prepared with a basic first aid kit just in case. On any backpacking trip, I carry medical tape to cover any spots that are rubbing (some people prefer duct tape, believe it or not), mole skin for padding, and baby powder to keep my feet dry, which also helps to stop rubbing.
As for other types of gear, there isn’t a lot that is necessary. Which brings me to my second point.
2. Travel Light
I started out with what I thought was a pretty light load, but the longer I hiked, the more I realized what I didn’t need, and how every ounce makes a difference when you’re schlepping it on your back.
Halfway through my walk, I ended up sending myself a 5 pound package general delivery to Santiago for pick-up at the end of the trip. I ended up with the following in my backpack:
- One outfit for the daytime
- one outfit for the night
- one extra pair of underwear
- basic toiletries and first aid supplies
- sunscreen, soap for washing my self and my clothes, foot care items
- water bottles
- a sleeping bag
- and a journal
While I was hiking, I met a man who was carrying absolutely nothing. He had one outfit that he wore day and night, and it included a large piece of fabric that he used as both a garment and a sheet. One of the most amazing things about backpacking is realizing how little it takes be happy and content.
3. Be Open To The Journey And To Other Travelers
Whether or not you set out with a religious or spiritual intention, traveling by foot can be a deeply spiritual act.
Unfortunately, it is all too common for travelers to get caught up in competition for spaces in the nicest guest houses, to obsess over how far they are able to travel in a day, to put too much emphasis on the destination without taking the time to appreciate the journey, one of the best parts of which is meeting other people.
Especially during difficult times, I found how nice it was to have other people to rely on for comfort. I also found that if I were open to it and willing to listen, people said exactly what I needed to hear when I needed to hear it.
4. Go Easy On Yourself
Part of what makes travel meaningful is dealing with difficulty. Of course, it’s easy to get discouraged, to get frustrated, and to blame ourselves for everything we have failed to do right.
Ultimately, though, what would a pilgrimage be without trials?
What’s really important is to deal with what comes up as it arises. Even the most prepared pilgrim can’t plan for everything.
One Foot In Front Of The Other
Of course, I didn’t have the benefit of this advice before I started my pilgrimage, and nursing my blisters halfway through, I really did think about quitting.
After a hot meal and half a bottle of wine (that’s how they do it in Spain, you know), I was feeling a bit more optimistic. At least, I thought, I can make it through one more day.
I continued until one morning, miraculously, my feet didn’t hurt any more. My blisters had hardened into thick calluses. By the time I made it to Santiago, I was even a little disappointed not to be able to look forward to walking again the next day.
Although I wouldn’t trade my experience on the Camino for anything, I am certain that the next time I take a pilgrimage (or even go on a weekend trip), I will be better prepared.