The school year is ending and summer is approaching and that means I’ve been asked, a lot, about my summer plans. I find myself explaining to a whole crop of new people that I’m going to walk the Camino. “What’s the Camino?” they ask.
It’s always the first question.
And the second question, once I’ve explained that it’s a long walk across Spain, is invariably this: “Who are you going with?”
But I had a strange experience the other day: I was talking to a principal at one of the schools I work at, he was telling me that he and his wife and kids are doing a big cross-country road trip this summer. He asked me what my plans were, and I started like I normally do. “Well, I’m going to Europe, to do a thing called the Camino de Santiago.”
His eyes lit up. “The Way? Seriously?”
Turns out he knew all about it, and we got into a long conversation about the outdoors and hiking and the beauty of moving yourself across a great distance.
But it wasn’t until I was driving home from work that I figured out what really struck me about the conversation, more than the fact that he actually knew what the Camino was. He didn’t ask one question about who I was going with, if I was doing it alone. It hadn’t even seemed to matter.
And I really loved that. I get why people want to know if I’m going alone or not, but sometimes I get a little tired of all the explaining I have to do. Like, “It’s actually really safe, you meet loads of other people, there’s always someone walking nearby.” Even with these explanations, people still sometimes give me a look. They’re confused, they feel sorry for me, they look at me as if I’m a bit strange for wanting to do something like this alone.
But after two 500-mile treks across Spain over these last couple of summers, I have to say, I’m beginning to think it would be difficult to walk with someone.
There are lots of benefits, certainly, to have a walking partner, or a small group to go with. Even I have to admit that sometimes, I’m a little envious of the friends that come to the Camino together. I’ll pass them, sitting tight around a table at lunchtime, bottles of wine and beer and baskets of bread and they’re laughing and joking. They get to share this great experience with someone who knows them really well. I think that would be a cool thing to do. And sometimes- even in a crowd (most especially in a crowd, perhaps)- the Camino can feel lonely. There were a few nights on my Norte last summer when I envied the pilgrims who never, ever had to worry about eating dinner alone, who always had a companion with them.
And there’s the safety issue, too. To be honest, I very, very rarely felt unsafe on either of my treks across Spain. Nervous, sometimes, when a dog barked loudly. Anxious when I hadn’t seen a yellow arrow for a long time. But never unsafe. That’s not to say that bad things can’t happen on the Camino, and as always (and especially as a woman), I needed to keep my wits about me, to be observant and aware, to do my best to not put myself in a compromising situation. And I continue to do that, any time I travel.
But these points aside, I really love my solo-Camino time. In some ways, it feels like one of the most special things I can give to myself at this time in my life, and I know how lucky I am that I can spend a month being totally and completely selfish. I walk when I want to walk, I stop when I want to stop, I can walk a 50+ kilometer day and I don’t have to try to convince anyone to do the same.
A solo-Camino might not be for everyone, but I think it’s a wonderful experience to have. Two summers ago, when I started walking away from St Jean Pied de Port, I was so scared. I’d barely slept the night before, I froze in my bunk because I was too nervous to get up to close the window because I thought I would disturb the person sleeping beneath me, the clothes I’d washed hadn’t dried, I wasn’t even really sure how to get out of the town and onto the path of the Camino. But then I started walking, and that first day still goes down as my absolute favorite Camino walk. It’s hard to describe the sense of achievement, bravery, energy, love, peace, pride, solidity that I felt as I moved myself across a mountain. Others who had come alone were already pairing off, walking in groups, finding their “Camino Families”, braving the Pyrenees together.
I walked alone.
I eventually made friends, and there were times- especially on the Camino Frances- when I felt like I wasn’t as alone as I would have liked. But here was the beauty of coming into this experience myself: at any time, whenever I wanted, I could separate myself. I could walk with others, I could walk alone. I could take a rest day, I could walk a great distance, I could eat french fries for twelve days in a row and no one had any idea.
And it wasn’t just being alone whenever I wanted, it was the ability to be with others. I still think that a solo-pilgrim on the Camino attracts others in a way that pilgrims in pairs or groups don’t. Many, many people approached me to say hi, to start a conversation, because I was alone. And I, in turn, approached others when I was feeling a bit alone. You’re going to meet people on the Camino regardless of whether you’re alone or in a group, but the opportunity for new friends increases, I think, when you’re solo.
People help you, too. They look out for you, they take care of you, when they know it’s just you (well, they help you if you’re in a group too- Camino angels help everyone). On the Frances, I had so many mothers and fathers out there. I even had a little sister and a little brother, and someone who reminded me of my own grandfather. People who asked me how I was doing whenever they saw me, asked if I was wearing my sunscreen, made sure I had a place to sleep, that I had enough to eat.
One time, on the Primitivo, a Spanish guy had been walking ahead of me. We’d left a cafe at the same time and he was fast, and soon he disappeared down the path. But a little later I saw him standing off to the side of the trail. He was waiting for me, and he explained that there was a large dog up ahead. “I didn’t want you to be afraid, so I waited for you, to help you pass,” he said. The same thing happened a few days later- a different guy, and this time, a cow.
I wish I could explain about all of this, when anyone seems concerned that I’m going off to Spain alone. I wish I could explain that I’m never really alone out there, that in fact, I think the Camino Frances is probably one of the safest places in the world for a female to travel solo. And I wish I could explain that going alone isn’t so bad, that actually, it’s quite wonderful. That sometimes it’s good to do things by ourselves, to learn what we’re capable of, to remember what we’re capable of.
I’ve got another Camino coming up- soon- and once again I’m going alone. One of these years I’d love to share this experience with someone, and I have no doubt that I will. But for now I’m solo, and I couldn’t be happier.