by Hank Leukart
September 24, 2015
Hiking the 540-mile Camino de Santiago across Spain with an inspiring group of friends.
To the End of the World
In May and June, I spent six weeks walking the 540-mile Camino de Santiago across Spain. Watch the mini-movie about my trip above and then read all about my journey below.P
AMPLONA, Spain — Caroline, a 24-year-old South African, and I have been together on the sidewalk in front of the train station in Bayonne, France, for three hours, waiting for a bus to take us to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, a traditional starting point for the 870-kilometer (540-mile) historic pilgrimage across Spain called the Camino de Santiago. We’re watching as droves of other pilgrims (as Camino walkers are called) from all over the world arrive at the station, hoping to be transformed and inspired by a trek considered by many to be as much of an inward journey as a physical one.
Admittedly, Caroline and I, not having (yet?) reached the Zen state promised by our upcoming Camino, are judging the people who pass by us a little bit. Maybe a lot.
“Is that woman seriously going to hike 500 miles in jeans?” I wonder. “I helped her with her backpack on the train, and it weighed almost half as much as her.”
“Did you see that guy had made his own walking stick?!” Caroline asks.
“Wow,” I respond. “That’s a real man. Mine were made in a factory.”
To be honest, even Caroline looks like she’s likely to die during her first day on the Camino. She’s carrying a big cardboard box filled with who-knows-what, her backpack is overstuffed, and she’s wearing boots better suited for a night out at a posh club in Paris than a 500-mile hike. Many people walk the Camino with a specific goal in mind, hoping to process a recent misfortune or make a big life decision, but, as Caroline and I talk, it becomes clear that the two of us haven’t given much advance thought to why we want to walk the Camino.
“I’ve done hikes all over the world, and I’ve wanted to do this one for a long time,” I tell her. “I managed by some miracle to carve out enough free time, so here I am!”
“I just decided to do this four days ago because I realized I have nothing better do to with my life right now than travel the Camino,” Caroline explains. “I was traveling around Europe with a friend, but she had no interest in doing this.”
While we’re talking, another young woman sits down next to us on the sidewalk. She tells us that she’s a 24-year-old medical student from Denmark named Amalie, and I experience déjà vu. I’m reminded of my first day of college and its rare storm of social perfection: a large group of people coming together with similar aspirations, uniquely open to empathizing with strangers and meeting new friends.
“Did you see that guy over there?” Amalie asks, pointing to homemade-walking-stick guy. “He told me that he just returned after walking the Camino in both directions.”
“1,000 miles?!” I say. “That’s crazy. Why would anyone want to do that?” But I realize that my logic isn’t totally sound, considering that walking the 540-mile Camino twice is only marginally crazier than my plan to walk it once.
After a short bus ride, Caroline, Amalie, and I arrive in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port with about 100 other pilgrims, and we jump into a long line outside an office issuing credenciales, a special passport which allows hikers to use the Camino’s network of hostels (known as albergues). Afterward, we wander around looking for empty beds, but we’ve arrived in town late because our bus was overbooked by 20 people (no, I have no idea how this could happen either) and we had to wait for a second one. Eventually, Caroline and Amalie find beds at hostels down the street, but I’m left stranded for awhile until I eventually discover a single bed remaining at a pleasant albergue in the midst of serving a family-style dinner. The owner seats me next to Amanda, a 45-year-old South African — whom I recognize from earlier in the day as the jeans-wearing woman with the ridiculously heavy backpack — and Katie, a 27-year-old American ex-lawyer from Virginia.
“I hated my job, so I quit,” Katie tells me as we wolf down bean stew together. “I’m going to school later this summer to change careers and move into publishing, so this was a perfect time for me to do the Camino.”
In the morning, with my backpack weight hovering just above 9 kilos (20 pounds) — I’m embarrassed that I didn’t have the discipline to leave my electronics and board games behind — I climb a hill to visit the town’s citadel and then begin the first stage of the Camino called the Napoleon Route, a notoriously-punishing 25-kilometer (15-mile) day with an 1,250-meter (4,100-foot) elevation gain over the Pyrenees mountains. I hike through rugged, tree-covered mountains with lush, green fields dotted with chocolate-colored horses and strangely orderly lines of cream-colored sheep. Near the hike’s high-point, the wind becomes so strong that some smaller, older pilgrims don’t have the strength to push forward against the ferocious winds, and I see a small, overwrought woman screaming at her husband.
“You need to fucking wait for me!” she yells. “You don’t understand how fucking strong the winds are! Stop going ahead of me!”
It’s clear that the the Camino’s alleged transformative powers don’t necessarily kick in on the first day, I think. They’ll never make it 500 miles together. I stop to eat a sandwich that I packed for myself and, then, falling into a post-lunch food coma, I promptly fall asleep in the middle of a grassy field near a flock a sheep. An hour later, I wake up, confused that I’m not in my bed in Los Angeles. Oh, it’s the French Pyrenees, I realize. I guess I need to keep hiking.
When I finally reach Roncesvalles (the next major stop on the Camino), I walk past rows of pilgrims who look like people who thought that had signed up for beginners’ yoga class but were unexpectedly sent instead through Navy SEAL training. My mid-day nap in the Pyrenees put me hours behind most of the other pilgrims, and all of the albergue beds have been taken, but the hospitalero gives me space on a bunk bed in a bathroom-sized modular trailer with seven women. After a communication-challenge dinner with a Japanese guy who speaks neither English nor Spanish fluently, I wander through the common area of the albergue and find Katie, who now looks more like someone who accidentally fell asleep in a tanning bed for a week than someone who spent a single day hiking through the Pyrenees.
“Uh, maybe try sunscreen next time?” I say to her. She smiles and introduces me to Grant and Ashley — a young married couple from Australia’s Norfolk Island — and Ashley’s mother, Mosta.
“You can remember it because it’s like ‘monster’,” Grant says. Hiking 500 miles with your wife and mother-in law sounds like a dangerous project, I think. Katie tells me that the three Australians are deeply religious and that they’re hoping to move closer to God on the Camino.
The next morning, feeling unclear about why I ever thought a 500-mile hike across Spain would be a good idea and why anyone would think that God would endorse the torture of daily 15-mile walks that start before sunrise, I begin walking at 6:00 AM to coincide with Katie’s group’s schedule. The four of us walk along forest paths lined with oak trees and through quiet Spanish towns. As we walk, Katie tells me that she spent time working for an NGO in Tanzania, and we find ourselves discussing some of the best books we’ve read about Africa, including King Leopold’s Ghost, a harrowing depiction of Belgium’s colonization of the Congo. I realized that I’m already absorbed by the diversity and depth of the people on the Camino.
Around noon, we arrive in the small town of Zubiri. I’m relaxing at a cafe, eating a huge meal, when Amalie (from the Bayonne train station) appears with a Hungarian girl named Kate in tow.
“We’re heading to the next town, but I thought we should stop to have some sangria with you first,” Amalie announces as the two sit down at my table. The sangria flows fast, and we quickly fall again into a discussion of why we’re doing the Camino.
“I need to figure out what God wants me to do with my life,” Kate explains.
“After my radiology internship ended, I had a lot extra time for watching Netflix, and I saw [the film starring Martin Sheen about the Camino de Santiago] ‘The Way,’” Amalie says.
“So, basically, you’re doing the Camino because of Netflix,” I quip.
“I supposed you could say that, though I also need some time away to decide on my medical specialty,” she says.
The next morning, Katie, Grant, Ashley, Mosta, and I hike toward Pamplona, and we spend much of the time ranking our favorite animated Disney movies. I argue for The Little Mermaid and Wall-E, Katie likes Lilo and Stitch and Mulan, and Grant thinks the whole conversation is ridiculous. In the small hamlet of Zuriáin, an 18-year-old German kid named Kai catches my eye because he’s carrying two heavy backpacks, one clipped to the other on his back, pulling hard on his shoulders.
“You’ve got to get rid of one those, man,” I tell him. “Your shoulders are going to fall off.” He tells me that he’s doing the Camino as part of a gap year before starting a technical college. We walk together toward Pamplona, as rolling wheat fields turn into small towns which turn into suburbs which turn into the sidewalks, sewer grates, and lampposts of a major city. I’m hypnotized by the unique experience of this walk — an urban hike where travelers can watch countryside turn slowly into a city before their eyes. Kai and I catch up to Katie, Grant, Ashley, and Mosta in a city park, where we feast on baguettes and serrano ham that Grant has been carrying in his backpack. Afterward, the six of us check into Jesús y María, a huge municipal Pamplona albergue, built in an old church with 60-foot-high ceilings and over 100 bunk beds. Wandering among the sea of beds, I find Amelie again, who has befriended a 17-year-old British kid named Harry (not Potter) and a 64-year-old Canadian eccentric, with an affinity for making balloon animals, named Brock.
With her help, I round up nearly everyone I’ve met on the Camino so far: American, sunburned Katie; Danish, Netflix-obsessed Amelie; German, two-backpack-wearing Kai; Australian newlyweds Grant & Ashley with mother-in-law Mosta; British Harry (not Potter); and Canadian balloon-animaler Brock. We walk to Pamplona’s large city square and collapse into chairs at a table at Cafe Iruña. We’ve hiked nearly 70 kilometers (43 miles) so far. Our bodies aren’t used to walking so much, our social batteries are drained because we’ve met so many new people, and we can’t manage to stuff enough food in us to fuel the madness. But, pitchers of Pamplona’s deep-red, sweet, citrusy sangria never seem to stop coming. We laugh and learn and share, and it feels like it’s the first day at the world’s most eclectic college.
I look around at everyone, and I feel a strong ache of regret. At this moment, I can’t think of a single good reason why it took me so long to end up here. There’s nothing that could have been more important than undertaking an epic walk across Spain with this motley crew of beautiful, compassionate strangers.
Read the next essay in this series about my 540-mile hike on the Camino de Santiago across Spain, during which horrific blisters on my feet cause the whole trip to fall apart.
Pilgrims wait in line in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France to obtain their pilgrim’s passport before beginning their trip on the Camino de Santiago.
Pilgrims eat breakfast at an albergue in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France before beginning their walk on the Camino de Santiago.
A sign warns Camino de Santiago pilgrims of the dangers of attempting the difficult Napoleon Route leading through the French Pyrenees.
Camino de Santiago walkers make their way through the French Pyrenees on the infamous Napoleon Route.
How to Hike the Camino de Santiago Francés
- OVERVIEW: The Camino de Santiago Francés is a 880-kilometer (540-mile) walking trip across Spain, connecting Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela and Finisterre in Spain.
- ROUTE: View my route and download the Without Baggage Camino de Santiago Francés GPS track in GPX or KML format.