Follow the Sun

How to begin to even describe the Camino de Santiago? The facts are clear. More than 800 kilometers, 34 days, over one million steps. But what does that really tell you? It says we walked a lot. What it doesn’t tell you is what one experiences.

I've spent the better part of the last week trying to put into words what my Camino was. I've written, edited and rewritten more than 6000 words in an effort to put it all into context. It's a futile endeavor, but here goes nothing …

You know that feeling when you imagine something for so long and then when it finally happens it exceeds all expectations? Yeah, that’s what the Camino felt like for me.

My actual journey blew my imagination out of the water … tenfold. Never in my wildest dreams could I have come up with a journey so rich and meaningful. So full of everything that makes life so magical.

The Camino is a bubble inside your life. A small bubble packed tightly with challenges, triumphs, friendships and emotions. The bubble makes it both easier and harder. Sometimes you can see the edges of the bubble, and sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you feel like the bubble envelopes the entire world and sometimes you feel like it’s only 10 meters in front of you. Everything makes sense inside the bubble, everything is simplified. Wake up and walk.

The ups and downs, the struggles, the triumphs, the laughs, the tears, the friends, the family, the doubts and fears, the realizations and personal growth. All running into each other inside this tiny bubble, creating an intensity rarely found in our lives. It all coalesced into one of the most monumental times of my life.

I started this adventure still hurting from the loss of my hero, but completed it knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is, and will always be, with me. It couldn’t have been more clear than on the first morning. With 800km in front of us, as Mom and I took our first steps, a rainbow appeared. We knew, in that moment, that he was there and that he would always be with us.

A typical day

So where to begin? Let’s start with the basics. On the surface, it seems a simple task. Wake up each day and simply walk. How hard could that be? Holistically, I’d say not too hard. When you break down the numbers we averaged just shy of 27km per day. Still seem daunting? Well, we walked at a clip of about 4-5km per hour, which is about 6-7 hours per day. That’s it, just 6 hours of walking each day.

A typical day went like this. Up at 6-6:30am, walking by 7. We usually stopped for a cafe con leche and pan au chocolat in the first town we found, which was always about 4-6km away. Fueled up, the real day would begin. After another 10km, we would stop for a snack. Typically a bocadillo, a sandwich of bread and jamon (cheese if you’re lucky, but no mayo, no mustard). If we were feeling spicy, we’d switch it up with a Spanish tortilla. This set us up for the final 10km of the day, arriving at the day’s destination at 1-2pm, about the time the albergues opened for the day.

Accommodations are spartan … Large rooms filled with bunk beds. For a modest 10-15€, you receive a bed, a pillow and paper sheets. If we were lucky there were blankets. Toilets and showers were typically mixed gender and almost usually had hot water.

We celebrated the completion of the day’s efforts with an ice-cold cerveza grande con limon (large beer with lemonade) or three.

Showered, rested and perhaps a bit tipsy, mealtime was also a spartan affair. Most places offer a “pilgrim’s menu” for a fixed price of 8-15€, consisting of a starter, main, dessert, bread AND wine. A typical meal was a veggie soup or salad, a main of chicken/fish and fries, and a dessert of flan or yogurt. The included wine was usually a half bottle per person and from a locality near the town we were in.

Post-dinner was a chilled affair. We missed sunset most nights, calling time well before the sun began its daily descent below the horizon. And before you think it would be difficult to sleep in a room with 20 other people, our exhaustion levels had us out like a light pretty quickly.

Crossing a country

From the French border, we crossed the north of Spain to Santiago de Compostela, traversing the autonomous communities of Navarre, La Rioja, Castilla & León, and Galicia.

Across the 800km, we were treated to scores of different views showcasing this planet’s amazing diversity and infinite beauty. It felt like each day the landscape changed, presenting us with new scenery to marvel at.

So fortunate were we to be on trail during the poppy season, where millions of red poppies shot skyward through the spring green of wheat and barley. We glimpsed the lush green hillsides that surrounded us as we walked through the clouds high in the Pyrenees. Sun-soaked vineyards in La Rioja and endless fields of wheat across the Meseta kept our eyes and hearts busy.

Accompanying these sights was a dizzying array of sounds and aromas. In giving up the sunsets, we had gained the sunrises which always feel more intimate. I adored the crisp morning air and the symphony of birdsongs set to the beat of my footsteps crunching on gravel.

With so much in spring bloom, we delighted in the fresh fragrances of jasmine, lavender, broom and a host of other herbs and flowers. To keep things balanced, we also had days of intoxicating aromas more bovid in nature.

It’s the people

The people ... oh, the people! We met people from all around the globe, from all walks of life, walking the Camino for every reason. From small chats to forever friends, and everything between, the people we met made the experience extraordinarily special.

Natalie, Emile, Sarah, Paula, Blaine, Michal, Pablo, Françoise, Victoria, Emily, Ronnie, Nina, Anya, Michael, Craig & Teresa, Conrad, Lydia, Dennis, Katie, Matthew, Rudy, Tom, Craig, Wi, Di, Kan, Sam, Charlotte, Benson, Aidan, Luke, Samuel, Halima, Younas, Pepe, Suzanne, Dori, Jacqueline, Pepe, Michael, Jessie, Han, Edo, Jacopo, Paolo, Anna, Amy and hundreds more whose names I didn’t get. All forever in my memory, all an important part of my Camino experience.

I expected to meet lots of diverse and interesting people. I figured we’d have some good trail chats, share some details about ourselves and move on, maybe running into each other again here and there.

What I did not expect was to find an actual community, but that’s what happened. I feel so incredibly lucky to have become part of a family. A group of once strangers that was, and is, so deeply connected and so incredibly invested in each other.

It starts by being open to possibility, with a willingness to receive what the universe presents to you. But you also get back what you put out into the world. I’m trying to live in a way that I consistently radiate positivity, with “an ease, a glow, a sparkle.”

And what the universe presented to me was the opportunity to create some of the deepest, most beautiful friendships of my life. It sounds a bit crazy to say that, given we’ve known each other for such a short time, but it’s not quantity, it’s quality. Any of my most kindred friends from Phish tour will know this.

Life has a wonderful way of bonding people together through shared experience. That context shapes the way we open ourselves to human connection. I appreciate the way in which the universe brought us together. It wasn’t like we met on day one and were besties immediately (although some in our family did have it that way). However, for my Camino, it had to happen the way it did, and because of that, my bond with these people is so much stronger.

On our first day of good weather, as we traversed the beautiful foothills of Navarre, I put on my headphones for the first time. The sun was shining, the breeze was blowing, and the scenery was spectacular. Suffice it to say, I was feeling myself. And as I am wont to do, I was trail dancing. Head bobbing, arms flailing, hips whirling and feet tapping. I’m sure I was quite a situation.

Other than keeping my Mom in eyesight, I was oblivious to any goings on around me. I was outside both time and space, deep in my own world.

After a bit, a few pilgrims passed and asked what I was listening to that had me dancing. I replied that it was the hilariously apropos “I Want to Dance with Somebody” by Whitney Houston, to which they all enthusiastically said they would be listening to it later. We chatted for a bit more using the “Peregrino starter pack” of questions … where are you from, where did you start your Camino, why are you doing it, etc, etc. Eventually, I realized I couldn’t see my mother any longer and said that I would stop to wait for her. We exchanged some Buen Caminos and they walked on. I figured that was that.

When we reached Los Arcos, our destination for the day, Mom and I had a very late lunch that became an early dinner. She decided to rest her feet, but I was a bit restless and went out to wander. At some point, I happened upon the same peregrinos from earlier and was invited to join for beers and chats. When the night came to a close, we said more Buen Caminos, and again, I figured that was that.

This happened again the next day as I was wandering the streets of Logroño. They saw me and shouted over to join them. Eventually, Mom met up with us and we had a wonderful night full of pintxos, beer and lots of laughs. The end of the night felt different this time, since Mom and I were taking a rest day the next day and everyone else was continuing on. It was a bit of a bummer, but that’s how it goes.

We messaged back and forth over the next couple of days, and received excellent trail intel from them, helping us avoid having to sleep on a gym floor for a night. By this point, it seemed like that was the way it would be. But the universe wasn’t done writing our story. They had decided to take a rest day in the city of Burgos a few days ahead and there was a chance we could hang out.

From Burgos, across the Meseta to León, we became a family. The days were beautifully long, flat stretches of nothingness. We sang songs, trail danced, shared dinners and formed deep connections. Our daily destinations were empty towns where nothing ever happens and where we made our own fun each night. The stretch of the Camino that many people skip contains many of my favorite days of this adventure.

enjoying the local scene

Once again, the universe wasn’t done and tossed me a curveball when my Achilles became inflamed. By the time we reached León, it was clear I needed to rest. So again, we separated from the group and this time it really felt like goodbye. I was absolutely gutted. Mom and I had started this journey alone, but now I couldn’t imagine it without these people.

The next couple of days were emotionally draining and mentally difficult. It felt like I was starting at zero again, struggling to reconcile the loss while finding the joy of the Camino again. But the Camino has a way of providing what you need, when you need it, and as time went on things felt better. At about the time I had finally made peace with the situation, the family came back to us.

They had collectively decided to take one last rest day just so that Mom and I could catch up. They missed us as much as we missed them, and wanted to wait so that we could all walk into Santiago together. If we weren’t bonded together for life before, we certainly were now!

Those last few days were filled with overwhelming amounts of love and gratitude. And the walk through Santiago de Compostela on the final day is a definitive highlight of my life. Upon reaching the cathedral, we sat right down in the plaza for the next several hours. We cried, hugged, told trail stories, drank wine and sang “I’m Gonna Be”, our Camino anthem, at the top of our lungs.

Just as there aren’t words to aptly describe the Camino, there are no words to accurately convey what these beautiful souls mean to me. The love, respect and admiration I have for them is as endless as our connection to each other is strong.

We all began this journey alone, with our own doubts and insecurities. We finished together, all stronger, better versions of ourselves. We all experienced tremendous self-growth, cheered on and championed by one another.

To my Camino family … Jean Machine, Pan, Stinky Roger, Cerveza Grande, Daddy Step, Solo, Armin Shuffle, Hey Bitch, Cleaning Bear and OGBeez … you’ve made my life infinitely better and the I am so grateful to call you Caminbros. Forever in my heart, Canadian Baby.

Struggle and strife

They say the first day is the hardest day of the Camino Francés. You start the day in France, proceed to climb 25km straight up and over the Pyrenees and finish the day in Spain. Maybe that's true. Don’t get me wrong it was a long, grueling slog and a hell of a way to start the journey. We had rain for most of the day. The feeling of tremendous accomplishment was utterly wiped out by sheer exhaustion. It quickly became a running joke that anything was possible after crossing the Pyrenees on day one.

Day two had us going down the other side of the Pyrenees and it was an equally difficult day. Our bodies hurt in new and different ways by the end of the day.

This trend continued for the duration of the Camino. Every day I would wake up, get out of bed and think, “Oh, this is what part of my body hurts today.” You begin to make deals with yourself, trying to trade one pain for another, until finally you just accept the pain and move on.

This works until it doesn’t. On the 16th day of the journey, I woke up and had that familiar thought … “Oh it’s my ankle that hurts today.” Fine, no problem, on we go.

By the end of the day, it was the size of an orange. Tender but not painful, I push it aside. By morning it was the size of a grapefruit. Whether it was stubborn pride or the fear of losing the Camino doesn’t matter, but I decided to push on that day.

Bad choice, as the first part of the day was a 17km stretch without a single town or any services. Every other step sent sharp pain shooting from my ankle down to my toes and up my calf.

It’s no easy road, this struggle and strife We find ourselves in the show of life
Phish, Show of Life

Joining the immense physical pain was the mental and emotional conflict raging inside me. As a child, I was always the runt with an intense Napoleon complex until I got hurt and then it was always a dramatic exit from whatever had inflicted the trauma. Part of my desire to walk the Camino was to find my limits and push myself beyond them, to prove to myself I could be stronger.

I spent those 17km hobbling in utter pain. Physical, mental and emotional pain. I never once lifted my head to see the landscape around me or chat with my fellow pilgrims. I was defeated and embarrassed. My only friends that day were the multitude of flies that I couldn't be bothered to swat away, resting on my face and head, as if I was a bovine in the field.

I mentally struggled with the very real chance that my Camino could be completely over. Given that we were exactly halfway, I found that absolutely soul-crushing. The reality was that I needed to rest, and that meant saying goodbye to our trail family. That stark truth, more than anything, absolutely deflated me.

But you already know how this story ends … in the most beautiful and blessed way imaginable. This journey would not have been as rewarding without this very real struggle. The highest highs can only follow the lowest lows.

Having to overcome the physical pain was one thing, but having to put myself back together emotionally after such a devastating concession was something far more difficult. It took all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, but I finally put myself back together again.

I had to scrape and claw out of a dark, dank hole deep inside myself. Reaching a place of internal peace and tranquility was possibly the most gratifying part of the entire adventure. This reclaimed sense of self is what catapulted the reunion with the Camino family to unprecedented heights of happiness and joy.

Be Here Now

The grandeur of this adventure makes it nearly impossible to convey what transpired over the course of 34 transcendent days.

Never once did I find it tedious, never once was I bored. Every second from wake up to lights out was a moment to savor and cherish. The appreciation came so effortlessly, and I felt so eternally grateful for the opportunity to walk this path. Time had found nirvana, a state in which it simultaneously flew by and stood still, never a wasted moment. That’s how I knew I was truly living in the moment.

Even during times of profound pain and anguish, I could still feel the bigness of it all. I could still appreciate the moment for what it was. Like all moments in our lives, it was a chance to grow, an opportunity to be my best self. I had thought that this would be a journey of self-recovery, but it turned out to be a journey of self-rediscovery.

It strikes me how singularly different the Camino is from a vacation. How it forced me to stew in life rather than escape it. To become raw and open and changed in ways I couldn’t predict. How difficult it was to explain this difference upon my return. When my photos and souvenirs felt less important than the blisters that were already fading. How anecdotes didn’t serve me. Language didn’t serve me. I feel for you as you return to a daily life that doesn’t have words for what you have just gone through. I wish you strength, as you find your footing now in the impossible task of trying to apply your Camino revelations to the world in front of you, and the world within.
Nick Mitra Lloyd, via text message

Trying to write a recap of this journey while still mourning the loss of it is extremely difficult. Post-trail blues are a real and palpable thing and something I’ve been feeling very profoundly.

What I miss most is the simplicity of it all. Each day there is only one thing to worry about … make it to the next town. You get up and walk, that’s it. Perhaps that’s where I am struggling the most right now, the loss of a singular focus. I find my days post-trail filled with anxiety about what I should be doing. On trail you already know … walk.

I can also feel it in the loss of my community. While everyone will go through this to some extent, I am feeling the loss a bit more sharply. Most people coming off trail are going back to a life filled with friends and family. Living on the road full-time means spending most of my days alone. I recognize and appreciate this is particularly unique to my situation, and may come across as tone-deaf, but it is a reality of the life I’ve chosen.

The intensity with which life happens inside the bubble leaves an equally intense vacuum when that bubble inevitably bursts, and I’m feeling that rather acutely at present.

It’s your Camino

I spent a lot of time on trail thinking about what my Camino should be, as if it had to have some larger meaning or overarching theme.

Turns out it just was.

There wasn’t any one theme or epiphany. It was a billion little thoughts and feelings woven together to create this magnificent tapestry that is my Camino.

I don’t think my mind has ever been more free to flow than on the trail. And flow it did, hither and yon. It felt both chaotic and structured at the same time. When you have a simple, singular goal to reach each day, it provides plenty of time for everything else.

As I reflect on my Camino, two words consistently come to mind … grateful and humbled.

Grateful for so many things.

For the chance to walk the Camino, and the opportunity to walk it with my mother. We both had our own paths to walk as individuals, but I will forever cherish being together every step of the way. We saw one another in a way that parents and children rarely get to experience. She has always been a kindred of mine, long before I knew it, but I've never felt more abundantly aware of it than on the Camino.

For all the majestic views and vistas the landscape provided. For the people I met and the conversations we had. Grateful for the struggles and triumphs, the tears shed in low tides and when flying high. For the forever friends I made and the deep bonds we created.

And humbled. Humbled by the vastness of our planet and everything within it. I’ve never felt so small and insignificant as I did walking across the Meseta as it stretched farther than my eye could see in all directions, not another soul in sight.

I am beyond lucky to do what I do yet I find that my mind wanders back to a place somewhere between Burgos and Hontanas. A place where it was just one foot after the other and where the clouds and wheat went on forever.
Bryce Flory
somewhere between burgos and hontanas

Humbled by my body, when it told me it could no longer go forward and by its ability to heal quickly, allowing me to complete the journey. Humbled by the many challenges and struggles placed before me, my resiliency to overcome them and the lessons I learned through them. I exited this journey a better person than the one that entered. Humbled every day as I walked the path.

Humbled by the people I met and their incredible stories. By their kindness to share their time and energy with me. It will forever bring tears to my eyes when I think back to our Camino family taking a rest day in the middle of nowhere just so we could catch up and all be together for the last few days. That gesture touched my heart in a way I never thought possible, and the feeling I had when we reunited was one of the most blissful of my life.

In the beginning, you don’t know what to expect, everything is possible. You have ideas and notions of what you’ll experience ... none of them are accurate. You look at the map and the numbers and think, 800km, across an entire country, I’m not sure I can do this.

Then one day you’re sitting in Praza do Obradoiro staring at the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela wondering where the time and distance went. And in the blink of an eye, it’s all over.

I never thought I could do it, then never wanted it to end. Now that it’s over, all I want is to go back and do it again.

Buen Camino