So, What Does It Take? Walking, I Mean

For the past few I don’t know how many months, I have belonged to about a dozen Camino groups on Facebook, followed another dozen or so names on Twitter, and “hearted” many images from Camino folks on Instagram. I’m seeing a running thread.

Am I ready to walk the Camino?

In many ways, this is an existential fear – can I leave the comfortable and predictable in my life in exchange for the unknown? It can also be a practical one – do I have the right gear, do I have the right stuff? Most new pilgrims rely on more experienced pilgrims for guidance, much in the same way I got a Big Sister assigned to me when I started high school. Some just ask the basic things: how do I get to Spain? Where do I start?

To any and everyone, let me offer the three things you really do need if you are going to have a successful pilgrimage – regardless of the route you pick or the number of days you walk. I’ll have to leave the logistics of travel to you and your Rome2Rio app.

Number ONE: You need comfortable shoes.

Whether this comes in the form of old fashioned hippie shoes like well-worn-in Birkenstocks, or brand new Keen sandals, the latest Salomon boots, maybe just some day-in, day-out sneakers, this is the one thing that will allow you to walk day after day. If there is one thing that stops walkers it’s blisters and, occasionally, foot infections. Know that your feet will swell a bit if you walk on them all day and buy a half size up or try a different brand, a different model range. Try high tops or mid range boots, but be comfortable. Wrap your feet in paper tape – my solution to stop blisters from forming – and make sure when you are breaking in the new footwear, that you are also breaking in socks. Wool, cotton, blends, stretch, no stretch – this is a very personal choice. Have enough space so your tootsies can wiggle and love your socks.

Number TWO: You need to leave most of your stuff at home.

Try walking to the nearest grocery store, carrying a briefcase, shoulder bag, or purse. Then walk the same route with just your wallet in your pocket. Different? Oh, yeah. This is at the very essence of pilgrimhood. We leave our lives and our worldly goods behind in order to be able to take in the experience of each new day, each new friendship, each new discovery. The wrong pack, too much stuff, the weight on your upper body will all become a feature of your every day walking. I have seen the effect of carrying more than you need in terms of real exhaustion, extra time spent recovering, and the very real damage it can do to your knees and ankles, let alone your neck, back, and shoulders. Be freed of your things. It’s OK.

Number THREE: You need to want to do this.

Here’s the existential component. You need to need this. You have to carry with you sufficient motivation or you’ll spend the day plotting how quickly you can get to that little place on the Calle Fuencarral in Madrid that you like. You know the one. Walking the pilgrimage roads means you are putting one foot in front of the other in an effort to arrive in Santiago de Compostela. Once that motivation leaves you and you stop caring if you get there or not, please get the bus. This isn’t your time. This isn’t for you – now. I know what it’s like to recognize I just didn’t want to keep walking. I couldn’t talk myself into it. And that’s also OK. You can come back – over and over again like I did – or not. But don’t be miserable.

What’s the big take-away message?

This is a personal journey. You can make all the arrangements yourself or go with a published tour and guide – but please get yourself into some comfortable shoes, leave your stuff at home, and understand that you really need to do this. You aren’t just dragging along with someone else who is more motivated than you.

And get that app, Rome2Rio. It’s a real help.

For more tips, try my book!
Buen Camino! Tips from an American Pilgrim


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