What I Learned about Friendship from the Camino de Santiago

“I’m so grateful to have someone like Erica on this journey with me. She has helped encourage me every step of the way.”

The Camino de Santiago has given me many things, even years later: perspective, mental strength, an appreciation for my body, and better work-life balance. The most important, enduring thing, however, it gave me was Erica.

As a nerdy, socially anxious, and introverted person, making friends, even in college, was a challenge. I found it easier to bury my head in studying and live in the library than to go to a party or hang out with a large group of people. It was difficult to befriend and trust someone- to put myself in that position of vulnerability. However, once I did, I was all in: if we clicked and liked each other, I became the supportive, 100% got your back, stick with it kind of friend. Of the few friends I made in college, Rebecca was the Thelma to my Louise. We lived together for three years and we got along so well it was effortless. I felt like I could tell Rebecca anything and she would keep it in confidence. We spent holidays together, traveled together, and talked everyday. Before graduating, I imagined that we would be bridesmaids at each other’s weddings- we would be friends for life.

This illusion shattered when I graduated and Rebecca had one year left at school. As soon as I moved out to start graduate school in another state, the once ever constant communication slowed to a trickle. Suddenly, my texts or snapchats received no answers, and my requests to talk on the phone were shouts into the void. I began to wonder if I had done something; had I made Rebecca mad or hurt her feelings? Why was my closest friend pretending like I didn’t exist?

I continued these efforts to maintain a relationship with Rebecca for a few months. I was visiting my parents for Thanksgiving, who happened to live not far from Rebecca’s home town. I asked her if she wanted to hang out, and she responded that she was out of town visiting her grandparents. It was unfortunate that we wouldn’t be able to make the best use out of our potential close proximity, but I understood. I was sympathetic, that is, until I saw photos all over Facebook and Instagram in which she was hanging out with her high school friends in her hometown over the holiday break. I was crushed; this person who I considered one of the people closest to me not only ignored and rejected me, but she also lied to me.

I sent one final message to Rebecca, asking her if she still wanted to be friends. I told her that I was willing to put in the work to continue our long-distance friendship. When I received no reply, I came to accept that I had been on the receiving end of the friendship version of ghosting. I considered myself to be a failure of a friend and took it deeply personally; this was one more person who didn’t want to know me.

This “friendship break-up” made it even harder to make new friends; I took on a very defeatist mindset. Why bother to try to make friends, given that they will probably all turn out to be like Rebecca? I was living in a new city as a young adult, desperately needing human connection and friendship, but carrying too much emotional baggage, with too little emotional maturity, to acquire these things.

I met Erica my last semester of college; we were both in a small seminar on Spanish history. The moment we met, we clicked: we were both history majors who loved the outdoors, travel, animals, and languages. The course involved a week-long Spring Break trip to Pamplona, Spain to work in the archives. On that trip, our growing friendship became concrete. In our free time, we both went out and explored the city, its museum, and its many delicious bakeries. Talking with Erica felt like the way talking to a friend should be: free, easy, fun, and supportive.

After we both graduated, Erica and I talked occasionally and tried to stay in touch. Whenever we chatted, we always spent part of the conversation idealizing our next great adventure together: the Camino de Santiago. As two history and travel lovers, this ancient pilgrimage path through some of the most beautiful parts of Spain was captivating. Eventually, all the talking started to turn into reality; we both had free summers the following year and decided to take a leap of faith. We had only known each other for a few months, but we committed to walking for more than three hundred miles together over the course of a month.

A View from the Camino

Looking back on my travel journal of the time, it comes as no surprise that after blisters and foot pain, Erica receives the most frequent number of mentions. I firmly believe I could not have done the journey without her; when I was weak, she was strong. When she needed help, I was there to carry some of the load. The synergy between us was remarkable: we were able to respect when the other person needed space, and know when to distract each other from the pain and exhaustion with funny stories. During the many hours of walking and talking, we got to know each other in a deep, profound way; it was like a friendship set at 2x fast-forward speed. We saw each other in moments of triumph, like getting up a steep hill, and moments of weakness, like getting lost or becoming sick.

The trip also allowed me time to think about the end of my friendship with Rebecca. I had shoved all of that history and those negative thoughts to the back of my mind for months, and now finally had the time and energy to unpack them. I had blamed myself for its end for months. On the Camino, I realized that it was valid to be sad over the end of this friendship, one of the most significant in my life. I finally gave myself the space to grieve over a friendship the way that people grieve over a breakup. By embracing and sitting in that sadness, I finally accepted that it was not my fault that it ended; I cannot be blamed for someone else’s actions. I came to recognize that what was a deep, personal connection for me was a mere friendship of convenience for her. To her, we were friends because we didn’t mind each other and happened to live in the same space. These three years of friendship were valid and not a waste of time, but that relationship had run its due course.

By helping me understand and come to terms with the end of my friendship with Rebecca, the Camino freed me up to make an emotional connection with Erica. I was not a bad friend, and not every person would act like Rebecca. About halfway through the trip I wrote, “I think going with Erica has made me work on my social and interpersonal skills. I’ve had to be more patient, understanding, and compassionate, than had I done this alone. I think this will deepen and strengthen the foundation of our friendship, which is wonderful.” Day in an day out, for a month, all Erica and I had was each other; in the fires and challenges of the Camino, from blisters, to bum knees, to exhaustion, a friendship of iron was forged. Each day, Emma and I put ourselves in the other person’s care; how could I not trust Emma after she showed herself to be a kind, generous person, day after day?

On the last day of the Camino, when Erica and I were within a few hundred feet of the Diocesan Square of Santiago de Compostela, the ending point of the Camino, we looked at each other, smiled, and took the other’s hand. We walked into that town square, with traditional Spanish bagpipes blaring nearby, hugged each other, and instantly started sobbing. We had overcome substantial obstacles, both physical and mental, to reach the conclusion of this monumental journey together. I have never had such an expression of catharsis, relief, and joy all combined, and I am grateful that I shared such a significant moment with another person.

Erica and I are still friends, and although we live several states apart, we regularly talk with each other. We even did another long walk in Italy, the Way of St. Francis, the following summer. The Camino helped me come to grips with my past experiences. I learned that sometimes friendships only last for certain stages of our lives; people do not always belong in every chapter of our stories. I also came to accept that we are allowed to be emotionally hurt and damaged by the end of friendships, and we must allow ourselves times to heal from those wounds. The conclusion of romantic relationships are not the only “break-ups” that are acceptable to mourn. This Camino not only gave me a beloved, close friend, but also helped me learn the importance of putting myself out there. As an adult, friends do not magically appear in your life: it takes emotional availability, communication, and effort. I have carried these lessons into my everyday life; when I sense a connection with a possible new friend, I put down my walls, offer a smile, and start a conversation. I am always ready to look and make friends for the next chapters in my life. I feel confident that thanks to the Camino, I have a friend who will be in all of my story.

Historian, writer, and enthusiastic home-cook