Day in the Life of a Pilgrim

Taking a break on the beach at San Sebastian
Taking a break on the beach at San Sebastian

In July I set off for Spain to walk about 800 km of the Camino de Santiago, starting in Irun on the route known as the camino del norte, branching off later onto the camino primitivo. The destination for pilgrims walking the camino, since ___, is Santiago de Compostela, a city with a fantastic cathedral built atop the remains of Saint James (Santiago). For me the journey was equal parts religious, self-exploration, and quite literally running away from my life.

It seems like a big thing, this walk to Santiago. And it is, a huge thing. But as I learned step by step on the camino, it can only be taken one day at a time. So in this first stage, or etapa, of my journey in relaying this story to you, I start with a typical day in the life of a pilgrim.

Sunrise in Guemes
Sunrise in Guemes

Preparing for the journey requires little more than the stuffing of a backpack, getting some good shoes, and making your way to one of the starting points in either Spain or France. (Although I did meet others who’d started from Holland, Italy, Portugal, and Germany). In fact, with all my backpacking experience I found it was those who showed up for the journey without much preparation or training that often did much better physically. Since they didn’t really know what to expect, they didn’t balk when their packs grew heavy, their feet got sore, or their bodies tired. On the other hand, my pack and I got into daily battles on the trail, as this was the aspect of walking I’d dreaded the most. It’s all mental is what I’m saying. Thankfully I didn’t have to deal with any physical issues, this left God a lot of room to work with me on my emotional/spiritual self and my struggles and challenges and epiphanies came through in lots of different ways.

My day mainly consisted of figuring out how I would satisfy my morning coffee needs, what I would eat for breakfast, following the yellow arrows, trying to find a place to pee, figuring out what to eat for lunch, finding a place to stay for the night, showering, figuring out dinner, then going to bed. And at the same time, so much would happen each day that now that I’m home, it feels like I’ve been gone for years.

A typical day usually started with an overflowing sense of gratitude in my heart, right after the morning coffee which on good days was fulfilled by a bar or café that gratefully opened early (most places don’t open until 9 or 10am in Spain and I usually started walking around 7 or 8am). On mediocre days I could have a cup of instant in the hostel (here on out known as an albergue) microwave, as I’d learned to carry with me in a ziplock back after my stash of Starbucks Via was used up. These moments turned out to be some of my favorites, as I’d get up before the sun to enjoy quiet time in the kitchen or garden before most of the other pilgrims woke up. On bad days I shook up a cup of instant in a water bottle and drank it cold until I could walk to the next bar. Let’s not talk about that.

Sunset in Santiago de Compostela
Sunset in Santiago de Compostela

Especially on the days I walked alone, I was often brought to tears by the sun rising over endless rolling emerald hills, mist rising out of cornfields, or churches damp from the morning dew, whittled away by hundreds of years of moss growing on bell towers. Most of my tears sprang from a disbelief that this could be me, walking the streets of Spain, fulfilling this dream. Could this really be my life?

From there I faced my daily task, and biggest fear, getting lost. Most parts of the camino are very well marked with either large, yellow arrows painted in obvious places or plaques with shells on them. Occasionally, the arrows were covered by plants, or a parked car or were just in a place you didn’t expect them to be so it was easy to make a wrong turn. Thankfully I only got lost a couple times and never when I was alone. We got very turned around leaving Bilbao, which was an industrial section of the camino. After asking some people and realizing we were quite far away from where we should be it dawned on us that, hey we have cell phones. So we sat at a café, got on the wifi, and google mapped our way out of there, which ended up being a short cut. That was my first lesson in, hey let’s be real, this is not a wilderness trek and getting actually lost is extremely unlikely.

For the whole day I just walked. Sometimes picking wild mint or garden lavender for tea in the evening. Sometimes stopping to put my swollen feet in a cold creek. Sometimes running into new friends and getting into conversations you never would have back home with a near stranger. Sometimes snapping photos of old doors or ocean views or horses.

And then there was eating, which don’t get upset about my lack of detail here, I will write about more later. The first week or so I was pretty good about sticking to a Whole30ish diet of sardines and whatever veggies I could find, usually a carrot, some nuts, great fruit like apples and peaches. But I quickly realized that I needed some carbs if I was gonna survive this thing. Thankfully, bread can be found everywhere, fresh and cheap and so my meals quickly became a baguette the size of your arm, some meat or cheese or sardines and a piece of fruit. My body is currently approximately 51% gluten. Dang that bread was worth it though.

Daily messages from a higher power, usually in the form of coincidence for me, happened frequently on the camino. For example, one morning a dog started following me after I’d left the albergue early one morning for over an hour. He had a collar on and I was so worried that he wouldn’t find his was home. So I stopped and waited for the next pilgrims to catch up so they could help me with what to do. I ended up walking almost the entire rest of the camino with the guys that caught up with me.

For the most part, finding a place to stay each night was easy. There are municipal albergues all along the way which are mostly run on a donation basis. They are dorm style and sometimes had a kitchen. The closer I got to Santiago these places tended to fill up quicker and there were times when I had to take a room in a pension or find a private hostel. I ended up sleeping in a gym one night, on a piece of cardboard, surrounded by basketball hoops and on a cliff side, overlooking the ocean in a cow pasture. It was all completely safe and I never worried much about finding a place to sleep, despite the “race for the bed” competition that sometimes happened among pilgrims.

In the evening after showering and washing clothes I’d make dinner if there was a kitchen, or go out if not. Sometimes had a glass of wine with friends, sometimes jumped in the ocean at sunset, sometimes just relaxed and rested my feet. Curfew was usually 10pm so the evenings went by fast.

And then I’d wake up and do it again. Stay tuned for part II, Eating on the Camino.

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