How many steps does it take to complete a pilgrimage?
On the Camino de Santiago it takes 2,640,000 feet (500 miles) or simply put…
One step at a time.
And for Sheryl Collmer, those steps were the happiest of her life.
Sheryl shares her insider experience and personal journey walking the Camino de Santiago in this exclusive interview…
Interview: Sheryl’s Pilgrimage Walking the Camino de Santiago
What is The Camino de Santiago?
The Camino de Santiago is a system of trails from points all over Europe, converging on Santiago de Compostela in western Spain.
In the 9th century, the remains of St. James (Santiago in Spanish) were discovered there. James was especially close to Jesus and one of the three friends present with him in the inner garden of Gethsemane. Later, James sailed to Spain to spread the gospel and he was eventually buried there. Over the centuries, the location of the grave was forgotten.
In the 8th century, Moors invaded and occupied Spain. They seemed unstoppable and the Spanish Christians were a subjected people. Then the relics of St. James were discovered and the Christians were heartened to begin to reclaim their homeland. At the news of this turn of events, Christians poured into Spain from all over Europe to pay homage to St. James and ask for spiritual favors.
Since that time, millions of people have trekked across Spain to visit the resting place of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. During the heaviest pilgrimage years in the 11th and 12 centuries, over a million people per year traveled the Camino de Santiago.
Presently, about a quarter-million pilgrims a year make the trek. Most references to the Camino now are specifically to the Camino Frances, one particular route from St. Jean Pied-de-Port in southern France, over the Pyrenees mountains and across Spain to Santiago. This is one of several dozen routes, but the most heavily-traveled and the most thoroughly networked with hostels, cafes and churches. It is the route followed by Martin Sheen’s character in the movie “The Way.”
How did you first hear about The Camino de Santiago and when did you decide to walk it?
I first learned of the Camino in a college medieval history class. In centuries when the entire population of Europe was only 50 million, one million of those souls per year were walking the Camino, and it took 6-12 months. This massive movement of humanity across Europe carried styles of art, ideas, architecture, music and literature from one end of the continent to the other, in a time when there was no other such means of communication.
I was fascinated by the spiritual impetus that drove hundreds of millions of people to undertake a journey from which only about half returned home. That sort of spiritual energy no longer shows itself in western civilization. I longed for it. However, I assumed that the Camino was a lost medieval activity, not something that someone could go out and do today.
Then in 2010, on a trip to Spain, I encountered a dirt trail with a sign that said “Camino de Santiago.” Suddenly the Camino was real. At that moment, the seed was planted.
Can you fill in the details of The Camino de Santiago?
START DESTINATION: There are as many starts are there are towns in Europe. In the middle ages, people just walked out their front doors and began heading west. There is no such thing as an “official” start of the Camino because it is vast and personal, but most people hike the Camino Frances and begin in St. Jean Pied-de-Port or Roncesvalles. St. Jean is an especially traditional place to begin because it is at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains. Pilgrims from all over Europe converged there in order to make the passage through the mountains in groups. From St. Jean, it is 800 kilometers to Santiago (500 miles.)
Many European pilgrims complete the Camino in stages. They complete a section each year, starting the succeeding year at whatever point they left off the year before.
I met pilgrims who had begun their walk in Denmark, northern France and Germany. I met several who were walking home again, having reached Santiago and turned around, which is, of course, how it was done in the middle ages.
One common misconception about the Camino is that there is a pre-determined way to do it. Not the case. Pilgrims start and leave the Camino at will. Some get tired, some get sick, some get bored. Some only have one week of vacation time, or two. Some have not done any homework or training, and discover it’s not what they thought it would be. Everyone is doing their own Camino, however they see fit. There is not a board or authority in charge of the Camino. You’re on your own, which is one of the things I liked best about it. It’s not centralized, patrolled or idiot-proofed. You have to use your head, listen to your body, reach out to other people, respect the distance and accept the consequences for your decisions.
END DESTINATION: the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
LOWEST POINT : 800 feet.
HIGHEST POINT: 5,000 feet. The cumulative ascent over the entire Camino Frances is 33,500 feet.
AVERAGE DISTANCE PER DAY: Everyone walks at their own pace. Distance is often determined by injuries, particularly tendinitis, blisters shin splints and falls. Pilgrims may hole up at a hotel for several days while they heal. I met several pilgrims who were forced to do “hospital time” for infections from blisters and bedbug reactions. Anyone who had to stop for a significant amount of time might take a bus from one town to another in order to arrive in Santiago in time to make their flights and buses back home.
To complete the walk in a month requires an average of about 15 miles per day. The Brierly guidebook employs an itinerary of 33 days.
The John Brierly guidebook on the Camino provides that sort of data, and more. Since there are many options for stopovers along the route, everyone makes their own choice depending on health, fitness, rest. Every pilgrim would have a different itinerary.
How did you research and plan The Camino de Santiago?
There is a wealth of information about the Camino on the internet. If you Google “Camino de Santiago” you would be reading the results for months. Some of my favorites:
You can join the Camino Facebook page, which has 11,000 members. Most of them are Camino veterans, authors of books and websites and seasoned hikers. You can ask questions and get great varieties of responses from people who know what they’re talking about.
Also search YouTube for “Camino de Santiago”. Pictures are worth a thousand words. Some recommended short videos:
Here are a few book of people who walked the Camino. I found these to be very helpful because they were personal narratives rather than just facts and figures:
What gear did you buy and pack for the journey?
Everything I read strongly recommended traveling as lightly as possible. The rule of thumb I read was to limit total belongings, including the backpack itself, to 10 percent of your bodyweight.
I am a small person, which gave me 12 pounds to work with, and my empty pack was already 3.5 pounds. I put things in and took them back out again obsessively in the weeks leading up to my departure.
Finally I started out with an 18 pound pack, knowing it was too much. In St. Jean, the night before I began walking, I left behind an inexpensive sleeping bag (I still had a silk sleep sack), a book and a writing tablet.
Most pilgrims pack only two sets of clothes (shorts and shirts) because you can wash out one set of clothes each night and put on the other set. Rotating your clothes minimizes the weight in your pack. In addition, I had a skirt to wear to Mass and a jacket for cool days. I took running shorts, the kind with built-in liners. Having your underwear and shorts in the same garment meant one less thing to launder at night, and also avoided the modesty issue when hanging your clothes to dry. Men and women all hang their clothes out on lines together, and I did not care to have my undies flapping in the breeze. I also took running shimmels, which are tank tops with a built-in shelf bra. Again, one less garment, and again, no intimates flying visibly on the clotheslines.
I had a long internal debate about bringing my iPhone, and eventually did. It was an older model, not enabled for international phone service, but I used it for its camera, notepad, flashlight. compass and to read books on Kindle. I was ultimately very glad to have it with me, though I would recommend against having phone capability.
Even if you have international calling enabled on your phone, you are in remote areas 90 percent of the time and couldn’t get reception anyway. As long as you are tethered to home by your phone, you miss the experience of being a sailor on an unknown sea. It’s scary to cut that anchor, but it’s one of the Camino’s greatest gifts. Some would say to sever the internet ties, as well, but my loved ones were very grateful that I posted periodically on Facebook, so they knew I was still alive and well.
In the summertime, a full sleeping bag is not necessary. Many travel with just a bag liner. Bedbugs are a concern on the Camino and some say that a silk repels them. Others say that is an old wives’ tale, but I put my money on the old wives and bought a silk sleep sack. Couldn’t hurt any and they’re light as air to carry. The only surefire defense against bedbugs is to inspect a mattress thoroughly before setting your belongings on it. Luckily, bedbugs are visible.
Basic packing list: clothes, toiletries, camera, journal, basic first aid and survival goods (safety pins, needle and thread, matches), rain pancho, towel and sleep sack. There are many packing lists on the Internet, but it is ultimately up to you.
We are all tempted to bring too much “just in case” but you can buy what you need in Spain if you find you’re left out something important. Most pilgrims, by the end of the first week, are leaving things behind on the trail because they’re just not worth the extra weight. The concept of “just in case” is not necessary.
Did you get rid of anything or pick up any additional gear along the route?
No pilgrim in their right mind would pick up anything additional, except medical supplies and food! You might see something in a shop window that looked attractive, but your brain automatically gauges its weight and multiplies it by 500 miles and suddenly it’s not attractive anymore. I discovered topical ibuprofen, which you apply directly to the painful area, and that was worth its weight.
What advice can you give women about what to pack?
The less you carry, the happier you will be. One of the most magical and valuable gifts of the Camino is the experience of getting along with almost nothing. In truth, human beings need very little to live happily, but we have wandered far from that knowledge. Being on Camino is a chance to regain it, and I would not have missed that experience for all the riches in the world.
You left for the journey by yourself. Did you meet people along the way and walk with them or continue on your own?
It is inevitable that you meet people on the Camino. Everyone is in the same boat… away from family, phone, work and distractions. Another gift of the Camino is the way pilgrims are stripped of pretensions and worldly status. Almost everyone encounters some hardship on the trail and the people you share your days and nights with become close beyond explanation.
There is a certain ethic on the Camino regarding other people. Pilgrims attempt to develop an attitude of service and charity towards one another. This is by no means universal, but it is stronger and deeper on the Camino than anywhere else I’ve experienced it outside of a faith community.
The people who became friends on the Camino were ones I shared meals with, or whom I encountered time after time on the trail. The relationships that grew were particularly wonderful because people were so much “themselves”, not concerned with many of the worldly issues that can divide us, like power or status.
At the beginning of my journey, I walked with others for a time, but I quickly discovered that I preferred walking alone. My main motive on the Camino was to spend time with God and rejoice in beauty. When I walked with others, conversation took precedence over both prayer and observation. One day, I walked all morning with a fascinating companion but when we stopped for lunch, I realized that I had no idea what kind of terrain we had covered, and I hadn’t conversed with God at all.
At that point, I adopted a certain “strategy”: when someone joined me on the trail, I slowed my pace. That allowed for a short chat before the other person would get antsy with my pace and move on ahead. That allowed me to meet and talk to people without giving up big chunks of time. I would see many of those people again in the evenings and more involved conversations could happen, but I learned to guard my walking time.
I never regretted that decision. Long stretches of communion between God and the soul are rare in this life.
What was the trail like on The Camino de Santiago?
The terrain is varied, both mountainous and flat, rocky and smooth, some is paved, some is slickrock, there are vineyards, quarries, meadows, towns, cities, forests, parks, roads, single-track, double-track, canal towpaths and farm roads. You’re walking across an entire country!
So there are easy, moderate and difficult stretches, the same as if you were crossing the United States. You can read ahead in your guidebook and get specifics for each day, so that you have a good idea what is ahead. The most commonly-used English guidebook is the John Brierly. He gives an elevation profile, highest altitude, proportion of the trail on dirt or rock or road for each leg of the trek.
My favorite section of the trail was in Navarre, where the landscape looked like the hobbits’ Shire of Middle Earth.
What advice or tips can you give women and solo walkers who might be considering walking The Camino de Santiago?
Three main things:
- Pack light. The rate of injury on the Camino is high (I estimated 80 percent of the people I met sustained injury at some point on the journey, from blisters to broken bones) and the best way to avoid it is to pack light.
- Train at home. Most pilgrims start out with no prior conditioning for the walk, so injury is inevitable. An average day on the Camino is 15 miles. Many people in reasonable shape could walk for 15 miles. The trick is walking 15 miles EVERY DAY for a month. Every bit of training you can do at home to build your endurance makes the Camino that much more enjoyable. By week 2 or 3, I met people who were having zero fun because they were in so much pain and discomfort.
- Learn the language. It is simply NOT TRUE that English is the universal language! Don’t let anyone fool you about that. In major international cities like Paris or Rome, most service people may speak English, but in rural Spain, among normal Europeans who are not in the service industries, you will not get much farther than “hello.” If you want to make friends and have interesting conversations, you need to know the language. Spanish will get you the farthest; French and German can help, too.
Did you face any challenges being a woman and/or solo walker?
None whatsoever. On the Camino, I think it is actually an advantage to walk solo. It makes you very approachable and causes you to turn outward and open yourself more to others. The majority of people I encountered were hiking solo. Groups and couples hiking together tended to stick together and met vastly fewer people outside their own group.
I felt entirely safe on the Camino. Pilgrims have a certain protected status in Spain. Townspeople are generally helpful because these Camino towns have been hosting pilgrims for centuries. Their ancestors going back as far as they can trace were hosting pilgrims, too. As a pilgrim, you are part of a long ribbon of history and no one wants to see anything bad happen to a pilgrim.
Did people along the route (other walkers and hosts) speak English or did you face any language barriers?
I speak a modicum of Spanish, but wished fervently for more. Some of my favorite Camino friends were Spanish and Italian, and our conversations had to remain very simplistic to accommodate the language differences.
One night, I had a rollicking dinner with some Italians. Since they cooked, I offered to wash dishes and tidy the floor. Raucous laughter greeted my proposal; it turns out that the verb for sweeping the floor, in Italian, is roughly the same as the verb for a certain sexual predilection that wouldn’t be polite to mention.
So language barriers provide a certain amount of entertainment value, as well.
Where did you sleep and what where the accommodations like?
Accommodations vary. In smaller towns, there might be only one option, the pilgrim albergue, usually run by the municipality or the local parish. In larger towns, there might be privately-owned hostels and hotels which would cost a bit more.
I stayed most often in the municipal albergues, which charged 5 to 10 Euros per night and ranged from brand-new, super-clean to historical albergues hundreds of years old that couldn’t be thoroughly cleaned by anything short of a wrecking ball. In one albergue, 100 people all slept in the same room. Another featured terrifying 3-level bunkbeds. Most have double bunks in a large central room and generally hold 10 to 40 people. Men and women are not usually separated, though sometimes the community bathrooms are segregated by gender.
You can’t stay more than one night in the same place, so pilgrims are shooed out by 8 am every morning in order for the owners to clean up the building for the next day’s batch of pilgrims. Because of the high traffic, an albergue is never perfectly clean, and some are downright nasty. I learned to avert my eyes from certain things, like the shower drains. You’re just happier that way.
What were your three favorite traditional meals along the route?
Spain prides itself on its cuisine, and there are distinctive foods in each region.
Pulpo is the most remarkable traditional food in the province of Galicia. It is octopus sautéed in olive oil with Spanish paprika. There are restaurants that specialize in pulpo, called “pulperías” and some feature tanks of live octopus that are prepared to order. Anything that famous, I had to try! And it actually was quite good, in limited quantity. I found it to be a great source of pure protein, which my body craved with all the exercise.
In Burgos, the pride of place goes to morcilla (pronounced “mor-thee-ah”) or blood sausage. Despite the name, it’s very tasty, a spicy, dark sausage which goes excellently with beer and some hearty bread. It actually is made with blood… one more thing that the pilgrim is happier just ignoring.
And no review of Spanish foods would be complete without mentioning tapas. Since dinner in Spain is not eaten until very late, people needed something to carry them over between lunch and dinner. So tapas were born! They are basically any little finger food, and there are a million variations. Shrimp and cabbage stuffed In a fried shell, sausage wrapped in bacon on a baguette slice, egg-potato pie wedges. It is an absolute necessity to drink wine or beer with your tapas!
It is a definite advantage to be a carnivore in Spain. Most of the traditional foods are meat.
How did you get safe water to drink?
Water is available from fountains all along the Camino. Since people have been walking this trail for over 1,000 years, amenities like drinking water have been in place for centuries. Some fountains are labeled as uncertain for drinking (“sin garantia”), but most are fine. You can buy bottled water in markets and the water in the hostels was always safe for refilling bottles.
The Camino was originally a pilgrimage. Did you walk it as a pilgrimage or for other reasons? If so, what were they?
I very definitely approached it as a pilgrimage. Its historical tradition was very important to me, especially in light of the fact that our modern world has lost the medieval sense of the spiritual life. That sense is something I wanted to reclaim. I am a Catholic, and the Camino is a journey into our faith.
Modern pilgrims are not religiously motivated, for the most part, but the Camino itself is essentially a Catholic spiritual exercise. Only Catholics would have walked across an entire continent to visit the remains of a long-dead holy man!
And that is what the Camino is, a long walk to the burial place of St. James. As pilgrims moved over the Camino, churches sprang up to accommodate them, so that you can walk from church to cathedral to chapel to hermitage, all the way across Spain to the Atlantic Ocean.
I stopped in as many churches as I could, as time allowed. Some I just briefly entered, said a quick prayer and continued on. Some I stayed for Mass or adoration. In all of them, I had the strong sense of being carried along the river of deep, ancient faith and tradition, walking the same steps as millions of faithful people before me.
I should clarify that most of the pilgrims I met were not religious. The Camino is by no means exclusive to people of faith. All sorts of people walk the Camino, and passionately love their experience, even if they never enter a single church along the way or utter a single prayer, or if they even believe in God. I met people who were scornful of the spiritual aspect of pilgrimage when they began the trek, but were profoundly moved and changed by the end.
That is the “magic” of the Camino. You can completely ignore the history and spirituality of the Camino, just as you can ignore God in general, but eventually the human soul responds to the love and beauty that has been lavished upon us. That experience is universal on the Camino.
What did you do when you weren’t walking?
Days on the Camino acquire a rhythm. You walk from early morning into the afternoon. Upon arriving in whatever town you choose to stay the night, you must check into the albergue (beds can be in short supply in the summertime and you want to secure your bunk before the hostel is full.) Once you’ve claimed a bed, most people head straight to the shower, then do their laundry. It’s necessary to take care of such business at once so that your clothes have a chance to dry before nightfall (because you’re going to pack those clothes the next morning!) After that, many people nap on their bunks.
I could not bear to sleep when there was a Spanish town out there waiting to be explored but I quickly learned that Spanish towns shut down in the afternoon. From about 2 to 6 each day, shops are closed, shutters are drawn, even the churches are often closed. Usually I could find one rogue bar that stayed open during siesta, so I used the afternoons to have a beer and catch up on writing. When the stores re-opened around 5:30, I would go marketing for trail food for the next day, explore the sites of the town and find the evening Mass in the local church. Dinner in Spain is typically late, but pilgrim towns serve around 7 since pilgrims are not late-nighters and the hostels lock their doors at 10.
The towns along the Camino have history going back centuries, and nearly every town had fascinating things to reveal… local castles, kings or queens entombed in the cathedral, museums and archives. The larger towns and cities had plazas with shops, bars, nightlife. There was never any shortage of interesting things to do, only of energy to do them!
You’ve said, walking The Camino “was the happiest month of my life.” Can you explain why?
Walking itself is a happy experience; I think the rhythm of walking agrees with the human body in general. Then the landscape of northern Spain is spectacular beyond words. Most of it is markedly UN-modern, so that the Camino becomes an entry to a quieter, slower, more peaceful, close-to-the-earth way of living.
I didn’t notice the difference until I returned to the US and felt culture shock, but during my month on the Camino, I saw no references to violence, no images of mayhem, I heard no cursing or anger or hostility, there was no pornography visible of the type that has become commonplace to us, actually no public sexual referencing of any sort. It sounds unreal, but everyone I met seemed to have good manners and a benevolent attitude towards life. The Camino felt like a return to innocence.
During my walking hours, I was able to spend most of the time in peaceful prayer. That continuous easy conversation with God was something I’d never experienced before at such length. The joy of it will inform the rest of my life. I will always crave it and seek it, even in the midst of a busy life.
How did walking The Camino de Santiago change you?
That is hard to answer, since the change is ongoing. I think it clarified life for me, allowed me to see life in its simplicity. Things I knew in my head, descended to my heart. I think that is what happens to many on the Camino… they grow more deeply into their truest selves.
Do you have plans to walk the Camino again or any other trails like the Appalachian Trail (AT) or Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)?
I do plan to hike the Camino again, by a different route. The Camino has over 1,000 years of history and the feel of being in a river of human aspiration. I love long walks of any kind, but the spiritual aspect is equally important to me, so I prefer the Camino to the AT or PCT.
The Camino is also more “user-friendly.” You are staying indoors with running water, there are cafes and bars that dot the trail and the elevation changes are not as rugged.
Any other thoughts or advice for our women readers considering hiking The Camino de Santiago?
There are “tour groups” that go on the Camino, and I recommend against them. Some of them bus you to your morning starting point, send you off with a light day pack, meet you with lunch, then pick you up and drive you to your nighttime destination. When the plans are made for you, you lose the magic of listening to your own interior rhythm, and that is part of the magic of going on Camino.
Those with physical limitations can still experience the Camino without resorting to a tour group. You can walk shorter days, hire a Spaniard to drive your pack to the next town, take rest days in hotels.
I was very nervous when I set out on the Camino. It was a great unknown, and I had no idea what I might encounter. So my advice would be: feel the fear and set out anyway!
Sheryl Collmer is a hiker and runner from San Luis Obispo.
She works for Weight Watchers and Get Off the Couch Potato, the directors of the SLO Marathon.
She subscribes to the notion that human beings are happiest when they are moving, and found in the Camino proof positive of that theory.
The month on the Camino was the happiest of her life.