One blessing available in retirement is the ability to indulge new hobbies or interests. My wife and I wanted to travel, find a way to exercise together, and engage our interest in religious study and practice. A few years back, we ran across the Martin Sheen movie “The Way,” which introduced us to a concept which combined all three: the Camino de Santiago.
For those unfamiliar, the Camino (literally, “Way”) is an ancient pilgrimage route across northern Spain, leading 800 kilometers (~500 miles) from the French border to the town of Santiago de Compostela. This route is also known as the Camino Frances or French Way, and it represents the final leg of many other pilgrim routes that led from all over Europe, all ending in either Rome or Santiago. The reason for a religious pilgrimage to Rome is obvious, but Santiago may seem an unlikely choice. Legend holds that the town was founded after the miraculous discovery of the bones of Saint James the Apostle in farm field under a starry sky (James being Iago in Spanish, with compo for field and stela for stars, hence Santiago de Compostela).
Pilgrimages in Spain started during the 9th century, then spread across Europe in the 11th century. Pilgrims carried only their clothes and bare necessities, and offered prayers and penance along the Way. Villages along the Way provided hospitality (literally hospitals) where pilgrims were given food, water, and shelter for free or a small donation. The number of pilgrims waxes and wanes, but over the last 30 years the numbers have exploded to over a quarter million every year! While the largest number of pilgrims walk the Way for religious reasons, it has become popular for exercise, dealing with a mid-life or personal crisis, or to get back to nature.
Judy & I will be making our pilgrimage next Spring. We’ll walk between 10-15 miles each day, eating local foods, carrying a backpack and staying at a variety of different pilgrim accommodations. While we were in the States recently, we went to REI and got fitted out in all the right gear, and got briefed by our good friends Caryn and Mary, who completed a pilgrimage this year.
Gear is incredibly important: when hiking such long distances “ounces are pounds, and pounds are pain” as the saying goes. Unlike camping, where durability is key, weight is all important on the Camino. The rule of thumb is to carry no more than 10% of your body weight, and that includes your pack, clothes, food, and water. So we bought ultra-lightweight gear. We have personally-fitted packs and hiking shoes one size too large (because your feet swell when you walk day after day after day). Among the secrets we’re learning are the wonders of merino wool socks (not hot, very cushiony), silk sock liners (prevent blisters), wicking clothes (wear one set, carry the other), and how to use hiking poles (very important when going downhill).
We have started training lakeside, where we have the advantage of already being over 5200 ft in elevation, which is higher than almost any spot on the Camino. This should give us an oxygen advantage, much like that you hear broadcasters talk about when sports teams travel to Denver. We’re up to about 9 miles a day with packs, sometimes along a flat route and sometimes with some elevation gain. We will gradually add elevation and back-to-back hiking days.
I’ll provide regular updates as we train, and expect to keep the blog up-to-date during our actual hike across Spain. Buen Camino!