by Hank Leukart
May 28, 2015

To the End of the World

Hiking the 540-mile Camino de Santiago across Spain with an inspiring group of friends.

To the End of the World

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.

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 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.

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.

A sign warns Camino de Santiago pilgrims of the dangers of attempting the difficult Napoleon Route leading through the French Pyrenees.

Sheep watch as pilgrims hike the Camino de Santiago through the French Pyrenees.

Sheep watch as pilgrims hike the Camino de Santiago through the French Pyrenees.

Camino de Santiago walkers make their way through the French Pyrenees on the infamous Napoleon Route.

Camino de Santiago walkers make their way through the French Pyrenees on the infamous Napoleon Route.

Stop sign graffiti in Spain encourages pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago.

Stop sign graffiti in Spain encourages pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago.

People fill the streets of Pamplona, Spain on a Saturday evening.

People fill the streets of Pamplona, Spain on a Saturday evening.

Bunk beds fill the Jesús y María albergue in Pamplona, Spain.

Bunk beds fill the Jesús y María albergue in Pamplona, Spain.

Pitchers of sangria sit on a table at Cafe Iruña in Pamplona, Spain.

Pitchers of sangria sit on a table at Cafe Iruña in Pamplona, Spain.

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.

Camino de Santiago Francés GPS track (download GPX or KML)

Comments

  • May 28, 2015, 6:16 AM

    Ruth Andrews

    I am loving your descriptive writing. I need more. Where are you?

  • September 25, 2015, 4:31 AM

    paul kouwenberg

    Nice, nice, nice, great, great, great. I linked your video to my weblog on Pilgrimage and Camino. The Pilgrim's Gaze ;-) All the best on your way forward!

  • September 25, 2015, 12:55 PM

    Holly

    Oh my goodness! I'm so excited!! Now I get to read this entire series with all the juicy details from your movie. It's like Christmas morning finding this! You are an excellent writer. Thank you for feeding my Camino addiction as I dream of the day I will finally walk the Way of St. James...

  • September 26, 2015, 4:31 PM

    Taren

    I did the Camino in August 2015. This post and your video were amazing to watch, it brought back so many memories. I'm just super curious, did you and Amelia ever end up together, are you going to? The suspense is killing me.

  • September 29, 2015, 9:31 PM

    Hank Leukart

    Ruth, Paul, Holly, and Taren: Thank you so much for your thoughtful compliments! I'm really glad you enjoyed the story of my Camino.Holly, I can't wait to hear about your Camino!

  • October 4, 2015, 12:39 AM

    Albert

    I just stumbled upon your camino film... Well done! I walked the camino last year . I had lost my wife the prior year and i just felt like going for a hike..... A long hike. It brought back such incredible memories for me. I too met the most wonderful, beautiful, incredible woman and I fell in love with her . It was difficult to say goodbye and even though we live in different countries we have visited each other and I lhope to walk it again with her!!!!! Thank you, al

  • October 4, 2015, 10:14 AM

    Karen

    Have you written more about your Camino? If so, where would I find it? I loved watching your video.

  • October 5, 2015, 10:20 AM

    Hank Leukart

    Albert: Thanks so much for your kind words. It's great to hear your story -- I'm happy you had a great Camino also! Karen: At the end of each Camino post I wrote (I wrote 5) is a link to the next part of the story. Hope that helps!

  • October 12, 2015, 4:10 AM

    Ineke

    Thank you for making this movie. I like real stuff, so I was very happy with your documentary. It is way better than the movie The Way for me (more pilgrims to come on the Camino Francés due to you ?!)

  • October 14, 2015, 3:39 AM

    roland greco

    Great video, curious where you flew into Europe to get to Bayonne? Does it makes sense to fly into Madrid? thanks

  • October 15, 2015, 12:29 PM

    Hank Leukart

    Hi Roland! I flew into Paris (CDG), took a train to Bayonne, and then a bus to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. At the end of my trip, I flew from Santiago de Compostela to Madrid to fly out of Spain. I kind of liked the idea of taking a train across France and literally walking across the border into Spain myself for my first entrance in Spain, which is part of the reason I did it this way. Also, there's something nice about taking a train through France.

  • October 21, 2015, 10:28 AM

    E.J. Garner

    I'm six days off from completing the Camino (10/14) also ending by foot to Finesterre; then drove to Muxia to complete the journey (note: it took us 55 days, which includes 8 rest days). Thank you for your story and video. I tried to take pictures but was not able to capture the beauty of the landscape and charm of the Camino. Buen Camino

  • October 24, 2015, 11:35 AM

    Heather

    Hi Hank, Thank you for the video. I've only recently been drawn to the Camino and a believer in Synchronicity I found your blog and video. I plan to start slowly training for the hike after being inspired by learning people of all ages do the trail. It will be a spiritual journey for me and I hope to be as successful as you were with your journey. Regards, Heather , Canada

  • October 24, 2015, 2:51 PM

    hank eekelschot

    from hank to hank.that was sensational.i have just walked the kokoda track in papua new guinnea.i now want to walk the camino.dont give up making films.you are a gifted special person and thankyou for letting me share your experience.cheers hank

  • November 14, 2015, 5:05 AM

    Stephen Haig

    Hank, Thanks for a wonderful film. I walked the CF in 2013 and the VdlP this year and will do it again in march 2016. Fabulous film, honest and well edited. But... how are things with Amalia? Inquiring minds want to know. Thanks Steve

  • February 7, 2016, 12:19 AM

    Rob

    What happened to the lovely Danish girl you shared the walk with??

  • February 16, 2016, 2:23 PM

    dirk sinay

    Hello Hank, thanks for the nice video it brings me back the memories . I did The French Way in June 2012 and then from Santiago to Muxia and at last to Finistera. This year I will do the Camino Primitivo . June 01, 2016 I'll start from Bilbao and try to go further from Santiago to Porto ( Portugal ).

  • May 8, 2016, 9:40 AM

    Sean

    What shoes did you end up buying on the camino that made all the difference, I am scared my goretex ankle support boots I normally use are not the right choice for a journey such as this

  • October 6, 2016, 12:31 PM

    Lauramay

    "How people should be when they are together." That Nun said it perfectly. Buen Camino on the rest of your journeys. I hiked the Camino last July and as we followed our last shell into the square, my boyfriend at the time, got down on one knee and asked me to marry him. Thank you for sharing your adventure.