People who walk the entire French Route of the Camino de Santiago are used to jokes about the 1993 Proclaimers’ hit “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).” For me, these jokes usually come when I’m trying to explain why I took off the entire month of May (all my vacation time for the year) to walk from Southern France to Western Spain.
“How many miles is that?” people ask.
Cue Proclaimers joke.
I don’t mind. I had a cassette single of the song when I was thirteen. It’s a great song! But it’s easy to say you would walk 800 kilometers and a lot harder to do it. How do you actually go about walking the length of an entire country?
First you pack your bag. It needs to be light—most people suggest 10 percent of your body weight. You get two changes of clothes (one to wear while the other is being washed), rain and cool weather gear, a few toiletries, a sleeping bag or sleep sheet, and your hiking shoes.
The routine of the Camino is this: you start early in the morning (I usually began between six and seven a.m.) and walk for six to eight hours. You follow a trail marked with yellow arrows and seashells (the symbol of St James whose bones are said to be held in the Cathedral of Santiago) and pass through Spanish towns and villages where you can stop at cafes, bars, and grocery stores for food and drink and rest. I liked to walk in approximately two-hour segments—walk for two hours, stop for breakfast. Walk for two hours, stop for a snack. Walk for two hours, stop for lunch. Walk for two hours, stop for the day.
When you are tired of walking, you check into an albergue, kind of like a youth hostel for pilgrims. You get a bed in a bunk-bed dorm room for anywhere from four to forty people who are all ages, nationalities, religious backgrounds, and levels of physical fitness. You spend the afternoon showering, washing your sweaty, grimy clothes, and doing some stretching/napping/snacking/reading/journalling. In the evening, you eat dinner, either in the albergue with your fellow pilgrims or at a local restaurant that offers a pilgrim menu—a three-course dinner plus unlimited drink (wine) for ten Euro. In bed by nine or ten, and then up again the next morning to start the whole routine over.
And it’s hard. The first day out of St. Jean Pied de Port in Southern France, you hike over the Pyrenees mountains into Spain. It’s a grueling uphill climb with a steep downhill descent—a 28 km day. Along the Way, you walk in scorching sun and pouring rain. Sometimes the trail is a smooth path. Sometimes it’s full of sharp stones that threaten to twist your ankle or gouge the sole of your shoe. Many people get shin splints or tendinitis from the constant pounding of walking so relentlessly every day. Most people get blisters. Everyone gets discouraged.
It’s also beautiful. Joyful. Even transcendent. The Spanish countryside is exquisitely picturesque. You cross altos (heights) with stunning views. You walk through the endless vineyards of wine country. You cross the flat and fertile meseta. And everywhere, around every corner, you meet fellow pilgrims.
There are many places in the world where you can take long hikes. But there are few places where part of the experience—in fact, I think many would say, the main purpose of the experience—is the people you meet. The culture of the Camino is one that emphasizes generosity and kindness. You can’t stop to tie your shoe without someone asking you if you need help or a Compeed (a blister treatment popular on the Camino) or water. You walk miles with strangers talking about home and family and the purpose of doing the Camino. You make friends.
While all this is happening, you watch the signs tick down the kilometers to Santiago. 790 km to Santiago. 465 km to Santiago. 232 km to Santiago. And before you know it, you’ve walked five hundred miles.
In the Proclaimers song, they declare, “I would walk five hundred miles, and I would walk five hundred more.” As I was walking the Way, I couldn’t imagine doing one step past Santiago. Half the time, I didn’t think I was even going to make it, my feet hurt so much (SO much!). But from the moment I reached Santiago (okay, not the exact moment, but after a day’s rest), I knew I would keep walking if I could.
Walking the Camino is both the hardest and the best thing I’ve ever done. The sensation is difficult to put into words. All I can do is recommend that you grab your pack and your boots (and I also suggest a pair of hiking poles), and start walking.
Kate Jacobs has hiked the Narrows in Zion National Park, the Inca Trail in Peru, and the Camino Frances in Spain. Next year: Reunion Island in Africa. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.