Life lessons learnt from walking the 800km Camino de Santiago

Would you walk the 800km Camino de Santiago?

A long walk provides many benefits. Walking is simple and safe, can be done anytime, anywhere and is suitable for most people. During periods of high stress, long walks through natural landscapes can be therapeutic in loosening tension’s grip and freshening perspectives so as to navigate life’s challenges with greater insight and wisdom.

One long walk is the famous Camino de Santiago, the road to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, home to the alleged remains of St James the Apostle. This 800km-long trek across the top of Spain follows in the footsteps of centuries of pilgrims.

In addition to sightseeing, the journey provides an opportunity to expand your mind, strengthen your body, connect your soul to its individual journey, as well as inspire a deeper connection to Earth.

The Camino meanders through medieval villages and the cities of bygone kings and queens, over hills and plateaus, through forests of plantation timbers and broadacre fields. As one of the world’s great Christian pilgrimages, walking the Camino is said to be insurance to access heaven. In days of old, wealthy noblemen would send their slaves to walk it on their behalf. Others have referred to the Camino as a “white man’s dreaming track”.

Some have suggested the Camino was originally a pagan quest to understand where the sun goes each evening. The pre-Christian human may have walked towards the setting sun until finally reaching the western peninsular coastline. Two coastal towns, Finisterre and Muxía, were considered powerful ritualistic places by druids who had migrated from England. Their temple was long ago replaced by a Christian church.

Despite the Christian tradition, the majority of pilgrims do not identify as religious. Around 250,000 people walk the Camino each year for myriad reasons, from resolving grief to finding purpose or even as a weight-loss adventure. In addition to sightseeing, the journey provides an opportunity to expand your mind, strengthen your body and connect your soul to its individual journey, as well as inspire a deeper connection to Earth.

There are many roads that lead to Santiago and the most popular is the Camino Frances. This can be divided into three parts: the first segment is the most physically challenging, the second the most mentally gruelling and the final segment emphasises more spiritual aspects. There are many lessons to learn along the way.

Phase one: St Jean Pied de Port to Burgos

On the Camino you weather all seasons, so preparation is essential. Exposure to the elements includes snow, sleet, rain, floods, mud, wind and scorching sun. The traditional perigrino, the Spanish word for a pilgrim walking the Camino, is depicted with a broad-brimmed hat and overcoat, carrying a walking staff and gourd full of water. The modern version of a perigrino wears a waterproof, breathable coat and carries a lightweight backpack, Nordic walking poles and a hydration bladder. The wide-brimmed hat is often still a feature.

You will need to lighten your load. The physical challenge of carrying excess weight in your pack over the mountainous terrain quickly makes itself known as pain in your knees. Less than 10 per cent body weight is what’s recommended.

“Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far.” — Thomas Jefferson

It’s wise to gradually increase your daily distances. Begin with regular stops and limit your distances to 10 or 15km a day. The body will adjust and get used to the exercise. Be guided by your body’s signals. Blister management is a common conversation topic on the road. You can avoid experiencing them by heeding the small burn of a forming blister immediately. Covering it up will save you from pain down the track. There are many ways to prevent blisters including coating feet with a film of pawpaw ointment or wearing two pairs of socks.

Your unique walking pace will come to the fore. You will find your pace to travel … Sinking into your own rhythm is a type of therapy. Accepting and appreciating how fast or far you go as your specific tempo is a wonderful, stress-relieving gift.

Your unique walking pace will come to the fore; you will find your pace to travel. You may walk unhurriedly and take lots of time off to rest and soak up the ambience — this could extend the journey to six or seven weeks — or you might walk rapidly and complete the journey within three weeks. One woman I met loved walking in excess of 40km per day, in all temperatures. She was a fast person. Sinking into your own rhythm is a type of therapy. Accepting and appreciating how fast or how far you go as your specific tempo is a wonderful, stress-relieving gift.

Pounding your feet day after day, whether on cobblestoned streets, ancient Roman roads or natural paths, has an impact, so it is helpful to know what types of anti-inflammatories work for you. Pharmacies along the way are well supplied with pharmaceuticals and natural remedies to prevent or treat inflamed Achilles and knee tendons or hip flexors — as well as antiseptic cream for bedbug bites. Any self-care practices that appreciate your body, such as giving yourself foot massages, will reap dividends.

Each evening on the Camino town piazzas, it’s easy to spot a perigrino. Most look like they are walking on egg shells as if they’re 80 years old, often emitting a groan with each move. Everyone who walks the path empathises.

Supporting your body to meet the excessive demand of hours of walking is important. This is particularly true for your hips and knees. Correct use of Nordic walking poles reduces strain on your legs and hips, helps to tone up arms and propels you along the path. Towards the end of a long day, your poles really help with those final kilometres before your resting place. There is ample evidence to support the suitability of Nordic walking for people at different exercise capacities, to improve cardiovascular vital signs including oxygen use, heart rate and blood pressure, plus increase exercise capacity and quality of life.

Nourishing your body throughout this slow marathon is an individual matter; however, for everyone, water is a crucial nutrient. When you are sufficiently hydrated, you will not tire as quickly nor be as likely to develop injuries. More water than normal is required per day because of the exercise and the outdoor exposure. Plenty of water fountains dot the first third of the way.

Your will need more energy. You burn approximately 1000 calories walking 20km. When added to your daily energy needs, this means consuming the average of 1800 calories a day falls short. The Camino can be a time for weight loss and muscle mass increase, even if you’re partial to croissants, bread, cheese and wine (all of which are recommended as part of the experience).

The quality of nutrition throughout the Camino varies. We found it worthwhile shaking up a wholefood protein multivitamin and mineral supplement drink each morning to ensure all our nutritional bases were covered. It also fuelled our sunrise walks, which started prior to cafe opening times. Vegans and even vegetarians might also benefit from this approach, as Spain’s meat-centric cuisine often provides limited options.

Phase two: Redecilla del Camino to León

During the first 10 days, your physical resilience builds up and tolerances develop — then it’s the mind’s turn to be challenged. The middle segment crosses a plateau, called the Meseta, which consists of long stretches of cleared flat agricultural land. Your environment influences your mind’s environment, so walking through sparse open spaces invites a sense of having no end in sight and provides time to reflect on your life process and observe your patterns of thinking.

This space is a time to weed out unhelpful and self-destructive patterns of thinking and acting, forgiving what needs to be forgiven, letting go of what needs to be released. The Camino has a tradition whereby you pick up a stone, carrying it for a while as you contemplate an issue, then mindfully place it down along the route and walk on, symbolically leaving it behind you.

Being outside in the open expanse every day means your vision is not confined by walls and human-made constructs. You live with a view in every direction. This can be greatly emancipating for the mind.

One day I met a man who was a Vietnam veteran. He and his wife were so delighted with the Camino’s impact as he was experiencing mental stillness for the first time since his traumas in the war.

“If you seek creative ideas go walking. Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk.” – Raymond I Myers

Simply walking fills each day, which allows the mind to daydream and imagine. The spaciousness impacts your mental sphere and allows for touching fresh ideas, engaging in new conversations with fellow walkers and even stretching your paradigm through educational podcasts.

“An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day” – Henry David Thoreau

Starting early isn’t for everyone; however, on the Camino, morning walks mean witnessing the sunrise and often the moon setting. It also means walking with the sun on your back for most of the day. In the summer this is essential, particularly on the Meseta with its lack of shade and high temperatures.

Phase three: Trobajo del Camino to Muxía (via Santiago de Compostela)

The final third of the Camino becomes more varied in terrain and altitude as well as more crowded as the other pilgrimage routes join the road to Santiago. These alternative tracks include the Camino North, Camino Primativo and the Portuguese Camino, all heading towards the Cathedral of Santiago, or beyond, to Finisterre and Muxía on the coast.

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the colour purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” – Alice Walker

It’s not difficult to get lost in your thinking and miss the remarkable spaces you walk through. After a few weeks walking, the mind starts to settle, and you can walk with more presence. There are many presence-inducing practices to adopt. One example uses a mantra woven in one word per step, such as “I-am-here-now”, or “aum mane padme aum”. These practices help to bring you into greater awareness of your experience in the here and now.

Being outside in the open expanse every day means that your vision is not confined by walls and human-made constructs. You live with a view in every direction. This can be greatly emancipating for the mind.

The community of pilgrims you develop over the walk is a testimony to the power of humanity. If you are in need of something, the kindness of virtual strangers can be truly heart-warming. Despite spending only one night in an unfamiliar town, it’s common to bump into someone you met earlier up the track, whom you greet like a long lost friend. It makes you feel like a local.

The real locals are generally warmly welcoming, too. Unfazed by the hundreds of thousands of perigrinos traipsing through their towns every year, locals often greet you with “buen camino”, a “good way”.

Centuries ago, the tradition was for the perigrinos to be entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers. The donitivo, by donation tradition, was a service offered by the locals and the church of the way. Perigrinos would stay at refuges set up to provide simple fare and shelter. Many refuges were often hospitals because so many pilgrims would fall ill along the way, particularly before antibiotics were available. There are still traces of the donitivo tradition: cosy church-side dormitories run by volunteers and pay-as-you-will “cafes” and pit stops dotted along the path as a service supporting those who take the pilgrimage.

The sacred spaces along the way are many and perhaps become more apparent the longer you’re on the road. The churches are special locations for spiritual connection, both for Christians and non-Christians. Architecture and art reflect beautiful craftsmanship, care and dedication to the ineffable.

The healing power of nature is evident throughout the journey. The roadside herbs, the snow-capped mountains, the fresh air and natural beauty of each region enhance connection, which one becomes more aware of and in tune with as the weeks roll on.

Sometimes it’s delicious to listen to music you find inspiring, expansive and soothing. Music can take you to new feeling scapes, so that you can walk through these. The soundtrack of the movie The Way is now set in my neurochemistry to automatically take me back to the fields, forests and hamlets of northern Spain.

The direction of the Camino is west, toward the sunset. As one of the amusing graffiti along the track reminded me, “Life is a Camino.” We are all walking towards our own sunset, after all.

The remarkable awareness of your own personal pilgrimage may benefit from long walks. Of course, you don’t need to go all the way to Spain — there are many wonderful walks in your local area that can be the path for you to tread.

“I walk slowly into myself, through a forest of empty suits of armour.” – Tomas Transtromer

Sally Mathrick

Sally Mathrick

Health educator, writer and naturopath Sally Mathrick provides the perspective of personal wellness to contribute to planetary health to cleansing, via Sparkle Well School online programs, writings and public presentations. She practices as a naturopath (on sabbatical until July 1st 2021), lectures at Torrens University, holds 3 university degrees and is a committed life long learner.

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