Despite travelling solo for the last 6 years I have to admit that I was still a little bit apprehensive about walking the Camino de Santiago.
Several friends had asked if they could tag along but this was one journey that I had to take alone.
In true pilgrim style (a pilgrimage is a long journey, especially one undertaken as a quest) I wanted to step out and be totally open to whatever the Camino presented to me. I wanted complete freedom to choose my route and my timetable. I hoped to discover more about my capabilities, and I wanted to make these choices independently of others.
My main reason for walking the Camino was similar to that of many people in that I wanted to ‘reset’ my life. I’d arrived at a crossroads and before continuing I wanted some clarity. I also wanted the physical and emotional challenge of walking 800kms (500 miles).
Mine was not a religious pilgrimage but I knew that it would be a spiritual journey. I expected it to be emotional and I thought that some of the upsetting things from my past would take up head space as I walked each day, imagining that I might be quite tearful and emotional a lot of the time – this was another reason for walking the Camino de Santiago alone.
I wasn’t at all worried about sleeping in dormitories in the albergues – after all, I tend to live and work in hostels while I travel – but I was curious to see how I would cope with the other aspects of the Camino. I was especially nervous about my first day when I wanted to trek up and across the Pyrenees.
I intended to take the original route know as the Napoleon Way which is notoriously difficult and subject to extreme and changeable weather conditions. I was anxious about my physical capabilities despite being a member of a walking group in Spain and being used to hiking in mountains, but this was a part of my personal challenge. I had to do it although my plan was to find another person to join with for at least this first day.
Arriving in St Jean Pied de Port
I had to be in Pamplona by 16:30 in time for the last bus or I would face a long and expensive taxi ride or an overnight stay. A series of buses and trains across Spain got me to the final bus from Pamplona to St Jean Pied de Port with a couple of hours to spare and time to sample some tapas in a small bar.
It was a strange feeling on the bus because the route passed through some of the villages that I knew I would be walking through. It would take me 3 days to walk back to Pamplona after a bus journey of just a couple of hours!
I was alone at this stage although there were obviously many other pilgrims on the bus, identifiable by their backpacks, walking poles and with an excited yet apprehensive look.
After arriving and settling into my hostel I headed off into the narrow cobbled streets of the quaint town to find the headquarters and the Pilgrim Office. I registered for my Camino and received my Pilgrim Passport (credencial), my scallop shell to hang on my bag, information sheets about the albergues and a map for crossing the Pyrenees.
The lady at the desk in the Pilgrim Office couldn’t stress strongly enough that I had to avoid the ‘extremely dangerous’ forest path leading down off the Pyrenees and she suggested that I head off on the Thursday (this was Tuesday afternoon) because of a more favourable weather window, but she assured me that I would see plenty of other people along the route.
I spent the following day (Wednesday) exploring the cute French town and relaxing. I got chatting to another pilgrim that I met on the town walls who having already walked the path once before and who gave me loads of advice and lots more confidence.
My original plan was to leave my albergue at 8:30am but the owner took great pains to impress upon me that I MUST set off at 6am if I were to be sure of a bed at the monastery at Roncesvalles. Thankfully he omitted to explain to me why there was almost double the normal amount of pilgrims heading out the following day or I would have been REALLY worried and perhaps even changed to the on-road route, so in blissful ignorance I set my alarm for 5am and I did my best to get some sleep.
First steps on The Way
Those first steps were scary. I apprehensively set off in the pitch black with a cold morning drizzle tip-tapping on my rain poncho. As I passed under the traditional archway that marks the departure point from the town at 6am towards the Route de Napoleon I was shaking; with excitement but also with nerves. I was sure that I would get lost in the dark and I wasn’t at all sure how my right knee would hold up with the daunting climb. I was already wondering about my decision to walk alone.
Fuelled by adrenaline I powered through the first 8kms determined to set as much distance behind me as possible before I tired. Pacing myself wasn’t an option as the limited number of beds available at Roncesvalles was always at the back of my mind and the painted numbers that counted off the kilometres on the road only spurred me on even faster.
I hardly saw a soul for those first 3 hours, just small figures in the distance far below me. As the sun came up the wind also strengthened, picking up to a howling gale so that at times I could hardly walk and I was very afraid of being blown off the path and tumbling over the edge to my death.
After about 12 kms I turned a corner around a rock and stumbled across a caravan serving hot drinks and snacks. I have never been so relieved to see other people and I sank gratefully down onto a big log and ordered a tea and introduced myself to the others.
Interestingly we were all women who were travelling solo and each of us were nervous and apprehensive about the worsening weather but excited to be getting our journey under way at last. The owner of the tea van stamped my credencial with a stamp just as three of the friendliest ladies stood and prepared to leave. I quickly tipped my tea from my mug out onto the grass and jumped up and asked if I could walk with them as I was so nervous about crossing the high pass on my own.
It turned out that Ingrid, Kis and Diana had only met up the previous evening in their hostel at Orisson and welcomed me with open arms. I shall never forget those three ladies and the feeling that I had as I was ushered into their warm fold and the relief because I was worried about facing the worsening weather alone.
Steadily climbing, the weather deteriorated and we certainly struggled but there was comfort in numbers. It was fascinating how the simple act of other women in the same boat boosted our mood and gave us confidence. We helped each other with our rain ponchos and constantly checked that we were all ok – ladies from Canada, Denmark, the US and Wales with one common goal – to walk the Camino in whatever way we could.
Gale force winds, snow and a hailstorm battered us but we kept laughing and spurring each other on, bending low and clinging on to each other when we couldn’t move against the sudden gusts of wind.
We later learnt that the high pass through the mountains had been closed off behind us just half an hour after we had got through, being deemed too dangerous for hikers. The same thing had happened the previous day when firefighters and the mountain rescue team had to take down some walkers with hypothermia and exhaustion and airlift a man out of a ravine where he was blown by a sudden gust of wind.
The scenery changed with the weather from brilliant sunshine with jaw-dropping panoramic views, to beech forests in snow and pine forests in a hailstorm and then eventually we could see the imposing grey roof of the famous monastery.
We stumbled through the courtyard and were met by an organised team of hospitaleros (volunteers who have usually walked the Camino themselves) and a long queue of animated pilgrims waiting for the office to open. I had done it! I had walked 25.1kms (32kms if one takes into account the altitude and the climb) in 8 hours. I was elated, bouncing off the ceilings and in time to get a bed BUT there was one problem.
I didn’t want to leave my new friends that I had bonded with during the day and here was my dilemma. Dianna had a reservation at the monastery, Ingrid at another albergue 6.7kms away and Kis, like me, had no plans that were set in stone. A hasty meeting and a phone call to Ingrid’s hostel at Espinal confirmed that they had space for an extra three and we were back out on the road.
We must have been mad to set off again and I for one had underestimated how hard those final kilometers would seem to be after a long day’s walk but we were together and that was what was important to me.
Walking the Camino de Santiago alone
You are never really alone when you walk the Camino – or at least along the Frances route which has some sections which are positively crowded. However, even on the very busy sections I learnt that peace and solitude is within us and we have a choice about whether we are affected by outside influences or not.
Occasionally I would find myself beginning to be exasperated or annoyed by the attitudes and actions of a minority of other people but as I have always done my best to never judge others I did my best to be accepting and found an ease within myself.
Pilgrims come from all over the world and from different backgrounds. Rich or poor, some with no language except for their own and with many setting out solo, I had to remember that people were often scared, confused or worried and I always did my best to smile and to wish them a Buen Camino in passing.
I made some new friends along the way and I learnt some important lessons about myself and others. Some days I chose to set off alone, other times with somebody else. Stopping at bars or cafes I would search inside myself and decide if I wanted to share a table with others and therefore chat or if I wanted to be alone and focus on my breakfast.
One of the best things about the Camino is that there was never any pressure to conform. Everybody has a story and respects the fact that everyone else has one too. No offence was taken if someone sat apart from others or after chatting and walking together for a bit, waved the other on and asked them to go ahead and to walk at their own pace.
You can be more independent than maybe in any other situation in your life whilst you are walking along the Camino. Any choices that you make will impact directly upon you and usually pretty quickly and with time to think, most problems dissipate or resolve themselves. All things are put into perspective; partly due to the simplicity of the day to day routine of life but also thanks to the enormous scale of the task involved.
When you stand on the crest of a hill and no villages are in sight and you know that you’ve got little option but to continue walking until you reach somewhere to sleep, viewpoints tend to change. I felt an incredible sense of self-awareness, in tune with my physical body and the capabilities of my brain. I felt strong and invincible, full of pride and determination as I went striding with confidence down the path, and then like a scene from a satellite when it pulls away from what it’s focusing on, I simultaneously felt like a tiny speck in the grand scheme of things.
Is anything more important or fulfilling than helping and supporting others along their journey of life? I am very happy and content with my own company but I thrive and have so much more zest and joy when I see happiness on the faces of others.