They say “The Camino finds You.” If you’ve never heard of The Camino de Santiago, it’s essentially a traditional pilgrimage across northern Spain, spanning anything from 100km, to the destination of the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. Walking The Camino Frances (800km) has been an ambition of mine for many years, long before it was made popular in the movie ‘The Way’, I’d been aware of the pilgrimage since my teenage years as a Medieval history student.
Over the last year or so I’d been sought by the Camino, hooked into the idea of doing it, not so much for the historical pilgrimage, the places of interest, the camaraderie and meeting new people (and certainly not for the ‘challenge’ of sleeping in communal albergue dorms), but for the opportunity I thought it offered at decluttering my mind. To spend time in pure solitude, perhaps enduring discomfort, both mental and physical, ultimately to see how I ‘came out at the other side.’ I had struggled on and off with whether or not I was an alcoholic, a problem drinker at the least, and I had planned on walking at least part of The Camino in autumn 2020. I saw it as an opportunity to indulge myself purely in thought, to finally ‘think out’ all the jumble tumble of thoughts whirring around my mind. The plan was to put the internal dialogues out there and literally walk/wear them out. Or at least discover where my opinions stand.
When the Coronavirus pandemic struck in March 2020 I quickly realised that any plans for travel for the remains of the year were pretty unlikely. My Camino plans were trashed for the time being, as were any plans…for anything really, as it turns out that as UK went into lockdown, even a trip to Tesco became something of an expedition. My daily existence was frozen. I couldn’t go out, I was off work and in a kind of limbo as what to do.* I’m incredibly fortunate that my own pub business is in good shape and if any pub was going to survive long term, we were in as good a position as we could be to be one of them. When Boris Johnson announced that pubs wouldn’t be re-opening until at least July 4th I also then knew that I had a rough time frame to work with.
*I would at this point mention that I really wasn’t and am not, moaning about this. There were and are people out there FAR worse off than I, having to go out on the Covid front line every day. I had it easy.
So with a rough date for re-opening and having done all the jobs many of us have used our lock down time doing – painting rooms, renovating furniture, my sock drawer is a work of Japanese contemporary art nowadays FFS – contradictorily, lockdown meant I suddenly was confronted with a strange kind of imposed freedom. I knew I had around five weeks to occupy before I’d have to start on the intricacies of re-opening the pub. Each day I found myself thinking “What would you really LIKE to do today?” and, albeit within the restrictions of lockdown, I kept getting the same answer: “I’d like to walk my Camino. I want to walk. I want to clear out ALL these myriad thoughts in my head and, ultimately, decide where I stand on my drinking”. Oh Ok, that’s easy enough. Off you go.
So that’s what I did.
For five weeks I walked. I walked every day. No music, no audio books, no podcasts. No distractions. Just me, my feet – and my scary head.
Now, please don’t think of this as either:
- I’ve morphed into Forrest Gump.
- I did a strange, Medieval-style pilgrimage, barefoot and living off berries, rain water and the kindness of strangers/monks. That would be a bizarre thing to do around suburban Manchester at the best of times.
- – because I haven’t and it wasn’t.
In fact, especially for those of you that may have actually walked The Camino then you may be wondering how on earth I can compare what I did to that challenge. So I invite you to make your own conclusion:
- In total, over five weeks, I walked a total of 543km. The Camino Frances is 800km, usually walked over 4 weeks, but, bear in mind I am a not-particularly-physically-fit 45 year old, generously-arsed woman.
- The scenery I encountered can only be described as “same-ish” and “suburban” in that walking consisted daily of being dropped off at a location usually around 15-20km from home and I walked back. NOTE: there was the odd exception to this when I would drive out to a local walking trail or beauty spot, these included sections of the Cheshire Sandstone Trail and parts of the Peak District, but as we were under various stages of lockdown, these were only a handful of occasions.
- Even if I had stumbled across something interesting, I wouldn’t have been able to explore anyway as, because I chose to do this walking challenge during lockdown, everything was…locked. Closed. That includes local churches and places of historical interest. NOTE: When I say everything was closed, I mean everything. That included public toilets which meant that my walks were mainly limited to around 15km per session as I quickly learned that was about the limit at which my 45 year old bladder could hold out, walking mainly on pathways, lanes, avenues and alleyways (song anyone?), meant there was no way I could just ‘go behind a bush’ as said bush would invariably be in someone’s garden. I did however, on a number of occasions, walk home, use loo and the ever-compliant Landlord would then drop me off again to continue some daily mileage. In fact, the Landlord was always happy to drop me off at some remote location any time of day, anyone could be mistaken for thinking he preferred me not being at home? Yes, he was very helpful. The only task he was not so keen on, in fact flatly refused to do, was bathe my feet, despite the fact that I repeatedly told him that this was a standard offer for a walk-weary pilgrim. My requests were met with a raised eyebrow at best and “I aint going anywhere near your sweaty trotters” at worst.
- I didn’t speak to anyone when out walking. By comparison, The Camino can be a jostled route, busy with pilgrims comparing rucksack weights and comparing blisters (I imagine, having never actually walked it). I was certainly never asked such questions, I didn’t speak to anyone, aside of tiny chit-chat with the whipper-snappers who worked in local shops when paying for bottles of water. Incidentally, to add insult to mundanity, it was often the same shop.
- The Camino strips life down to it’s basics: you rise, breakfast, walk, eat, sleep. That’s pretty much what I did each day. Whilst I often didn’t walk the requirements to hit 800km in 4 weeks, I was constrained, as mentioned, by the limited capability of my bladder and the fact that we were under lockdown, I walked usually for around 4 hours each day. To add to the experience however, I barely watched any TV, no social media, no contact with friends and family (aside of the very basics and one particular Saturday around one week in when I frantically messaged just about everyone I know), and spent my evenings painting (portraits, pretty pictures) and reading. It was life about as basic as I could make it under the circumstances.
Now, I’m aware that this may all sound very odd. It probably was. At the time however, it felt right. It actually felt pretty hardcore. I spent one whole afternoon selling myself the idea that this was the Vipassana Meditation version of Camino. Vipassana is an ultra-orthodox, stripped down, intensive Buddhist meditation technique. Remove the decorated temples, fancy bells and meditative mantras, Vipassana is the practice of just sitting and purely regarding your mind, witnessing your thoughts and their patterns but allowing nothing to remove you from your seat. I sold myself the idea that I was doing a similar thing, I was walking The Camino without the nice bits, no lovely scenery, no camaraderie, no Spanish sunshine, it was just the walking. Purely putting one foot in front of the other each day and often enduring the physical discomfort of your bones not to mention the mental wrestling with your thoughts. I leave you to make your judgement on that somewhat far fetched comparison.
On the subject of thoughts, that was always the goal of my Camino. To see what came out of the other side. To untangle the intricate web of thoughts and iron it all out. Expose it all. Well, here’s the thing, prepare to be underwhelmed, the conclusion was: I am not nearly as thought-heavy and interesting as I thought I was. The constant jumble of thoughts it turns out, is actually more resonant of a juke box playing the same old tracks over and over. It got to the point where I thought “here we go, I know this one…ooh, yeah, no change in that then, yep, and here goes track two…” as the thoughts came out day after day almost in the same order like a never ending well played album where you find yourself humming the next song whilst the current one is still playing. After a couple of weeks just thinking the same crap every day (and you quickly break down that it is mainly crap), it almost breaks you. You think to yourself “Jeez, is this it? Is this REALLY all you have going around your head?” It’s almost funny if it wasn’t so disappointing.
- Maybe to others who have walked Camino de Santiago, I have audacity in using it as a comparison to what I did. I literally just covered (some of) the mileage and I’m totally missing the point. The Camino is about the whole experience, be that spiritual, historical, physical or other, it is about the relative companionship of others undergoing the same journey to the same destination. Who knows, I haven’t actually done it. BUT, I would stress that the whole point of Camino is to experience it your own way.
- Walking and enforced solitude is a fabulous meditative therapy. NOTE: so long as said solitude is self-enforced, voluntary, I’m not talking false imprisonment or solitary confinement here.
- I’m not nearly as interesting as thought I was. Neither am as broken as I thought.
- In relation to the ever-present “Am I an alcoholic? A problem drinker? Do I need to abstain?” the truth is that I’m none-the-wiser. What I did learn is that comparison is the thief of joy. You can compare yourself to a thousand other recovery stories (and if you are a connoisseur of the sobriety memoir like I am then you may have done this), but it doesn’t mean that that is you. You have to find your own way and be comfortable living with it. It is a highly personal process. Today I am happy not drinking, who knows what will happen tomorrow. We are what we are today only, our lives are a current event, not a tangible object. We will only know if we ‘were truly happy’ on our death bed as that is the only day that we can objectively look back. If you’re comfortable with your decisions today and they do you no harm then go with it.
On that happy thought…Buen Camino 🙂
Last thought…I opened this with “they say that The Camino finds you”. Maybe it did find me. I will definitely walk the actual route. I’ve just remembered something else I heard… “ayahuasca finds you” – as I’m so obviously uninteresting on this plane of consciousness, I’m wondering if it should seek me out…