8 Lessons I learned from Walking 500 miles

First, allow me to introduce myself and my journey.  I’m Jenna, a 26 year old, who recently re-entered the ‘real world’ of full time work.  In June 2013 I decided that teaching high school PE was not for me. Gang violence, cultural divides, and battling administration was not how I saw myself starting my ‘dream job’.  So with three days left in the school year, I handed over my letter of resignation and sighed with relief.  I had given up a coveted East Bay teaching position for the great unknown. That summer I moved out of my Walnut Creek apartment, and settled in with my dad and brother at our family home.

The Camino de Santiago had been on my mind for a few years.  Introduced to me by my mom, the 500 mile pilgrimage across Spain sounded like something I needed to do.  One day in June, I came to the decision that I too, would join the thousands of ‘peregrinos’ and walk across Spain.  I pored over blogs, books, and yes watched ‘The Way’, to soak up as much knowledge as I could prior to my journey, and one hot day in August, I boarded a plane to Spain and was off. 500 miles is a long way, alone or in a group, and here is what I learned on my journey.

1.       Travel Light! 

Jenna's Backpack

My 35Liter pack weighed in at 14 pounds (without hydration).  That 14 pound pack was my lifeline for the next 30 days.  Two shirts, two shorts, shower sandals, LIMITED toiletries, socks and a jacket.  That was what was taking me to the finish line.  I met so many people with 25, 30 pound bags, and was secretly proud every time thinking that I was a female packing no makeup, or excessive clothing items.

2.       Small accomplishments contribute to the greater goal.  

Open Road

When you look at a map, it is easy to see the path for the Camino.  East to West, one can make a line and see the cities you pass through.  What one might forget is that that journey can take anywhere from 25-45 days.  Each day, you chunk off 15-25 miles, and when you look at the map, that doesn’t look like much.  I started to retrain the way I thought to recognize my small accomplishments, rather than thinking how much more I had left to do.

3.       The Camino Will Provide.

Stand on the Camino

So many times I found myself hungry, thirsty, or with blistered feet, and without proper supplies.  The kindness and generosity I experienced on the Camino is unlike anything I have ever seen.  Everyone is willing and ready to give, share, or nuture, regardless of language, cultural background, or hiking ability.  If you have a blister, someone almost instantly pops up ready to share their countries best healing technique.  The kindness can be found in the most unthinkable/random/dark/….. places, and helps you when you’re down.

4.       Travel Alone.

Jenna Walking on Her Own

I went off on this trip alone, and faced much criticism from friends at home.  Many thought I was crazy, or traveling alone because I did not have friends.  Hardly.  I was yearning for adventure, and not many people are as eager as I to take an insanely long ‘walking vacation’.  Being alone, I was able to meet some of the greatest people, and speak Spanish more freely than I ever thought possible.  My language abilities, coupled with my freedom of solo travel, instantly availed me to new friends, great conversation, or the coveted peace and quiet.

5.       You are never alone.

Group by the Fountain

Seems like the opposite of number 4, but its true.  Hundreds of thousands of Peregrinos walk the Camino.  Especially in the summer. Sleeping in municipal albergues, full of snoring people on bunk beds, and sharing community bathrooms, solitude was not something I was lacking.  At any given time on The Way,  I could look ahead or behind and see fellow pilgrims.  It was a comfort knowing that I could be walking alone, yet not entirely alone.  It might not make sense, but it did for me.

6.       Put your phone down.

Smiley Sunflower

More and more uncommon these days, but so true.  Traveling alone, I had the obligatory check ins with my family.  I also love talking to my mom, and will call her at any time.  I found myself seeking WiFi any where I went, at times being known as a WiFi person.  Not my proudest title.  It was a fine balance of disconnecting from the Western world, embracing my current town, yet sharing this incredible experience.  No matter what, family comes first, but if you put your phone down, you might see something new.

7.       Take a break.  

Foot Massage

About halfway through my Camino, I got incredibly sick.  Overworking my body, without adequate rest, and the stress of travel was bogging my down.  I immediately texted a fellow solo travel friend, and asked what to do when feeling this way.  She suggested a break.  I pulled up a google map (yes I was on the WiFi!), and looked where I was, and looked immeditly north.  I found Gijon, a northern Spain beach hot spot.  Within the hour, I booked a train, and my own beach front AirBnb apartment.  I was beyond thrilled to take a weekend away, and rest my body.  I spent the weekend alone, Wifi free, in a rainy beach town.  It was one of the most glorious experiences of the entire trip.

8.       Open up. 

New Friends

You never know who you will meet that has done, or will do the Camino.  I was at a garage sale in July before I left, and ended up talking to the woman hosting it.   Turns out, she is doing the Camino in April 2014.  We chatted that hot July afternoon, and still chat to this day as she prepares for her journey.  I am grateful to have met such a wonderful friend, and share the Camino as our common thread.

If you asked me one year ago, if this was what I would have been doing, the answer would be no, but if you ask me today if I am happy with my decision, the answer is abosultely.  The Camino is not for the light of heart, and will challenge every aspect of your being.  It can be the most beautiful thing, and at times, the hardest thing.  To this day, this was the hardest thing I have ever done.  Yet I would say that it is the most rewarding personal accomplishment I have made to this day. Would I do it again?  Quite possibly, and if I did, I might shock you and say that I would go alone.  Buen Camino everyone.

Jenna is currently a comfortable peregrina living in the East Bay with her family.  She works for Junior Achievement, and coaches a Junior Varsity lacrosse team.

16 thoughts on “8 Lessons I learned from Walking 500 miles

    1. A light pack made for very repetitive outfits! But it felt so great to have a light pack, and appreciate how little I needed for survival!

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  1. Sounds like a great experience and definitely a memorable one (besides getting sick) but that’s all part of it right? What a wonderful accomplishment!

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  2. I have been living in Spain for almost a decade, but I still haven’t had time to do the Camino del Santiago…it is really on top of my bucket list, I am really jealous of you!:) It must be a really awesome experience, and for a mountain and hiking lover like me, it is just paradise! Thanks for sharing your memories!

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    1. Gabor- I highly recommend it! There are many different Caminos, each with different degrees of difficulty. Good luck!!

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  3. I love this post! This is something I would love to do one day. I agree completely on doing this alone. What is the point of putting yourself through such a meditative journey if you don’t do it alone?

    I loved reading how you took a break. It is so important to take care of you today so tomorrow will be better.

    Everything about this post just ruled.

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    1. Thanks! It was an invaluable journey, and the break really did transform my perspective! Thanks for the positive comments!

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  4. Hey Ashley, this is awesome! I studied abroad in Spain during college and had a couple friends do the trek, but wish i had done it myself! It’s definitely on the to do list! Great blog by the way. Facebook tells me we have some mutual friends, did you happen to go to UCSB? Or perhaps because we’re both from the bay? Anyway, happy blogging!

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