How the Camino de Santiago Changed My Life

“Today was a doozy. It was a long, tough day and we got lost-as in we did an extra two kilometers. Today I felt strong and capable; my calves are sunburned to a crisp, but I’m hanging on. I’m starting to really enjoy the Camino, instead of just worrying about the pain. Its flexibility and unpredictability always challenge me to grow and adapt.”

This is just one of the many thoughts I recorded in my travel journal while completing the Northern route of the Camino de Santiago in summer 2017. Being cooped up inside due to COVID has made me nostalgic about past adventures, so I decided to give the journal I kept from this trip a re-read. I was twenty-two when I embarked on that adventure, and reading the journal three years later reminded me the significance that this journey has had in my life.

Everyone has their own reasons for completing the Camino, a series of hiking routes through Spain based on medieval pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela, the site of St. James’s remains. At the time, I told myself that I wanted to do this because I loved Spanish history and the outdoors. Only later did I realize that these reasons, while valid, did not capture the true emotional and mental motivations behind this trip.

If there is one common refrain in my travel journal, it is just how physically demanding the trip was. We walked along the lesser known Norte route, through the mountain range the Picos de Europa. This meant lots of difficult ascents and sharp descents, aka begging for a knee injury. Walking 600 kilometers in twenty-five days inevitably takes a toll on the body. Some of my favorite quotes from my journal include reference to what I called my “cauliflower toe:” I ended up developing five blisters on my right pinky toe, which made it not only look like the cruciferous vegetable, but also rendered it almost non-functional. At one point, I got so sunburned my hands swelled up to twice their normal size; somehow, I also ended up with a pool of blood in my boot when a nail punctured it and the bottom of my foot. I reference these battle scars not to complain or boast, but to demonstrate just how taxing and harsh this adventure was to my body.

Although I did not know it at the start of the trip, this physical challenge is exactly why I wanted to undertake such a monumental task. After my first year of graduate school, I was completely mentally burnt out; the transition to a PhD program directly after finishing undergrad was incredibly difficult. Not only was I not mature enough to handle the constant critcism, anxiety, and work-life balance struggles that come with graduate school, but also my writing and reading skills were not at the level my new professors expected them to be. Everyday, my mental faculties and work ethic were pushed to their limits; I was attempting to read six books in a week, without any idea of the best methods for doing so. The Camino was a glorious change from this cerebral, internal, mentally taxing kind of work. Instead of living in the library pouring over research, I was free on the trail.

With the Camino, my only task each day was to get from point A to point B, the next town with a hostel where I could sleep for the night. Books, seminars, funding, conference papers, and research had dominated every waking minute of my life for a year; on the Camino, I finally was able to give myself permission to let go of my academic life. Instead of worrying about if I would ever be able to finish a PhD, not to mention to the haunting prospect of if I would ever get an academic job, I had one singular thought in mind: make it to the end point for today. I did not feel guilty for taking a break from school, as I usually did. I had committed to this amazing, special adventure and thus, I allowed myself to ignore grad school entirely. I was not a Ph.D. candidate; I was a pilgrim.

My intelligence was no longer the determinant factor in my life by which I was judged; my success instead rested on my body and my mental fortitude. I always had a complex, upsetting relationship with my body, struggling with body image and eating disorder issues since my mid-teens. Rather than be concerned whether I had gained or lost weight, as I normally did, I worried if my body would be able to make it another twenty kilometers. Over the course of the Camino, the importance I conceived my body of possessing shifted; it was no longer about its appearance, but about its functionality and endurance.

“The feet and blisters were back with a vengeance today. They stung and ached most of the day, but my body felt strong…Everyday brings new tests. I keep thinking to myself: you’re getting yourself up that damn hill! ”

Looking back at my journal, I spoke of my body in some of the most positive ways I ever did before and ever have since. I celebrated it for its resiliency and toughness; I acknowledged its suffering and pain without criticizing it. There were several days along the journey where I was so tired, that I was in a mental fog; for the first time since entering college, I had hours, uninterrupted, just to be with myself, turn the analytical part of my brain off, and feel myself move in my body. I became truly in tune with my physical self in a way I never had before.

As an anxious person who constantly over-thinks almost everything, the simplicity of daily life in this journey freed up the mental space for me to be self-reflective without self-criticism. I had the time and the bandwidth to think about my priorities for the next year outside of school; I realized that I had neglected personal relationships for years in pursuit of academic success. I was acting as if I was a person with only one dimension: school, and that rather than helping me, personal connections would only hinder me. Walking those long, long days with all of the time in the world to think helped put me on a different path: one of prioritizing the people most important to me and focusing on making enduring bonds, both platonic and romantic.

This turn away from isolation and towards human connection was just one way that the Camino helped me become a full person again, with many facets, passions, and abilities. I am still amazed at my fortitude in not giving up along the Camino. Near the end of the walk, I got a nasty case of bed bugs; at the time, I wrote, “This absolutely crushed my mood. It was just utterly disgusting and disheartening.” I did not let the mental and physical discomfort that this problem caused break me. I also distinctly remember the thirty-four kilometer day from Vilaba to Miraz; there were only four days left, but this day almost killed me. I called any day I struggled a “white knuckle day,” and this was the most white knucle day of them all. My body was so fatigued and worn down, and my will was faltering. Yet, I somehow reached inside myself and dug out some interior reserve of determination. I had always been my biggest critic and source of doubt, but my ability to persist and endure finally provided me with enough evidence to ignore this self-doubt. How could my mind negate the real-life, physical feat it had just witnessed? The Camino brought out an inner-strength that had lied dormant for so long. I had only ever defined the value of my mind through grades and academic achievement; the Camino highlighted that I possessed tremendous emotional and mental strength that was just as commendable as my GPA.

Throughout my scholastic career, I always tiptoed around my professors and advisors. Any time they told me to take a certain class or pursue their idea of a good research topic, I almost always fell in line, even if I believed that there was a better, different course of action. I was afraid that I would disturb this unbalanced power dynamic if I spoke up for myself and what I wanted. Doing the Camino itself, however, was an act of self-assertion; my parents thought it was dangerous and my professors wondered why I didn’t do something more academically productive with my summer. Following through on this trip, which I desperately wanted, helped me start reversing this trend of passivity. After the Camino, I began to assert my interests and needs when it came to my PhD, pursuing the fields that I was passionate about. While of course I still listened to my professors, I was no longer afraid to advocate for myself and engage in honest discussions with these mentors.

My mantra became: if I can walk 600 kilometers, I can do this. I can disagree politely with my advisors; I can take the risk of starting a new relationship; I can survive the rest of graduate school. The Camino was more than just a long, beautiful walk through the Spanish countryside: it was a celebration and testament of my strength. It showed me that my body was capable of great feats of endurance, and my mind was incredibly resilient and tough. I was also able to take stock of my life and realize that my current behavior, isolating myself and working continually, was not sustainable. Since the Camino, I have reconnected with family members in a deeper way and formed new important relationships in my life. I’ve also achieved a better work-life better balance, allowing myself to enjoy my days off. Did the Camino provide me with fun travel stories and unforgettable experiences with nature? Absolutely, and I expected it to, but I never anticipated that the Camino would help me see myself in a revolutionarily positive way. This trip provided me with an entire arsenal of affirmation; when faced with a challenge, I only need to look back to my efforts on the Camino, and I find faith in myself yet again. And for that I can only say gracias.

Historian, writer, and enthusiastic home-cook