How Walking Across Spain Brought Me Home
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This is my story of walking across Spain. This post was first published in The Columbian, my hometown newspaper.
My fiancé was diagnosed with cancer on Valentine’s Day of 2018. I still think of the day as “Diagnosis Day.” A day when everything about our lives changed. A day that foreshadowed the darkest day that I would ever know when – just four months later – Jeff took his last breath at the age of 40.
In the days following Jeff’s death, I wandered about our Chicago apartment with its shelves lined with his books and its balcony overlooking the park where we once shared bottles of wine and plates of cheese during outdoor concerts.
Walking across Spain
I couldn’t stay there. And, as it turned out, I couldn’t stay much of anywhere for long. I quit my job, packed a suitcase, and traveled the world for 18 months, through 22 countries, traversing 70,496 miles by way of 39 flights, 39 trains, nine buses, six cars, five ferries
— and one very long walk.
It was that very long walk that finally brought me home.
They say the Camino de Santiago calls you
The Camino de Santiago is a 500-mile Christian pilgrimage that involves walking over an actual mountain range from France all the way to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.
If that sounds crazy to you, it’s because it is crazy.
At least that’s what I thought when I first heard about the Camino. At that time, I wasn’t religious, I didn’t even own a backpack, and I hadn’t camped or hiked in double-digit years. Besides that, the idea of staying in bunk beds at the pilgrim hostels – called albergues – that line the route sounded horrifying.
It’s safe to say that walking the Camino de Santiago was not at the top of my bucket list.
What was on my list? Reading all of the 407 books that Jeff left on those bookshelves lining our apartment back in Chicago. I was in Indonesia when I picked up one of those books, a work by Paulo Coelho called “The Pilgrimage”.
As I thumbed through its pages about finding inner peace while walking the Camino de Santiago, I felt called.
Before I knew it, I was strapping on a borrowed backpack and setting out for Santiago on a hike that led me through four regions of Spain over 35 days of walking 12 to 22 miles. And, yes, I slept in bunk beds.
Life is simplified while walking across Spain
The first 10 days were excruciating. I had to leave my right boot untied to relieve the pressure on my aching Achilles heel, and I developed multiple blisters between and beneath my toes. I spent more money at the pharmacy than I did on my lodging.
But then the pain faded into background noise, replaced by the muted, meditative sound of walking sticks against paths cushioned by fallen leaves and carved over the centuries by the footsteps of the pilgrims who walked before me. As I turned inland, away from jaw-dropping coastline views and toward mountainous, windswept ascents dotted with wild horses, my mind adjusted to the scenery and even the extreme beauty become a backdrop.
I didn’t have to think about directions, since the Camino de Santiago is waymarked with yellow arrows painted by local volunteers onto fences, trees, and buildings all along the way. And with everything I needed for 35 days strapped to my back, life was simplified.
Suddenly, answers to the complicated questions I had been mulling about life and love, and whether I deserved either, seemed clear. Questions about where I belonged seemed obvious.
Somewhere between the autonomous regions of Asturias and Galicia, I decided that it was time to go home. Not home to Chicago where I had lived for the better part of the 20 years that passed since leaving Vancouver, Wash., but home to where I grew up and to where my family still lives.
I decided to start my own business rather than return to the nine-to-five thing. And I decided that, once my business was launched, I would travel full-time and work remotely.
The grief fog lifted and I was able to see all that I had gained in life from my short time with Jeff rather than focusing on all that I had lost when I lost him. I saw that life is too short to be apart from our loved ones for long. And I felt from somewhere within me that I would love again and that I could accept the risk of losing my partner because every bit of the pain is worth the love in the end.
I also made another very difficult decision on the Camino about whether to allow the hospital to keep or destroy Jeff’s sperm.
These realizations were as momentous for me as the moment when I finally walked into the end destination and sat speechless in the courtyard of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
I don’t know when I will fall in love again, but I do know that walking the Camino de Santiago gave me the courage to come home and to take the first steps down a new path.
If walking across Spain isn’t your thing, what about campervanning? My friend Kat at WanderingBird.com can help! She wrote a comprehensive post that will help you tour Spain by way of a motorhome or campervan!
About the Author
Hi! I’m Jen!
I’m a freelance writer and travel blogger who quit my nine-to-five after my fiancé, Jeff, died of cancer at the age of 40. When he died, I realized that life is just too short to delay our dreams. Since my dream was to travel and write, I now travel and write full-time. Today I wear hiking boots instead of heels and collect experiences instead of things.
Thanks for sharing your story.
I, too, find myself lost at the moment and am thinking that perhaps the Camino will bring me some clarity.
The Camino has a way of doing that. Wishing you peace and clarity as you walk.
I’m very sorry for your tragic loss, Jen. Jeff looks and sounds like an amazing person, kind and fun. How painful to let go of someone so special and beloved.
I am feeling called by the Camino. It has come up randomly several times the last 2 months or so. I feel like I should do it without too much delay. Is it something you can do more or less spontaneously? I’m interested in the northern route — I think it would be cooler in the summer than the other routes and the views look awesome. Is the camino itself safe to walk for a solo woman peregrina? I feel worried there will be long stretches with no one around, or that doing it alone will be too much / too lonely. I have traveled alone before and I met a lot of people that way.
Hi, Travel Girl!
I felt very safe on the Camino. There were some days when I walked alone and it was beautiful. Since you’ve traveled alone before, I’m even more confident in your journey. You’ll have that perfect amount of alone time matched with communal dinners at the albergues. Also, some days, you will probably meet up with new friends/fellow pilgrims and walk with them for a while. It’s an empowering solo journey. I think you will love it.
Buen Camino! Please send me pictures when you walk!
I really enjoyed reading your Camino story and I am so sorry for your loss. I lost my parents young and backpacked Europe shortly thereafter. I can relate to grappling with grief that was sometimes overwhelming, sometimes just beyond my reach while traveling through foreign lands.
I too feel beckoned by Camino at some point in the future, though I am not sure my husband does, LOL. I have had two rounds of pulmonary embolisms and am looking for a big challenge to motivate me getting back in shape after the pandemic, but one that includes natural beauty, friendship, culture, wine and learning would be even better!
I am so sorry for your loss. I shed tears as I read your post, even if I don’t know you, we are complete strangers. “El camino” indeed has a calling, I myself walked it, too, and it was also a life changing experience for me. I hope you find solace in life, peregrina.
I am so, so sorry for your loss. I cannot imagine what you must have gone through but what bravery and strength you showed packing up and getting away in order to reflect and grow strong. I too have had friends who have walked the El Camino to reflect and found it a life changing experience. I am glad you found the clarity to go home. All the best x
Thank you for reading. As a fellow solo traveler, I’m sure you understand the need to escape a little when things get tough. It’s good to be home, though!
I just did the Camino Frances trek last July. It was such an incredible experience. I agree that the Camino calls you because it definitely came to me at a very spiritual moment. 🙂
Buen Camino, my fellow pilgrim! I’m working on a video full of reflecting on the experiences over at my YouTube channel if that interests you! YouTube/TheLensOfJen. In the meantime, thanks for reading and happy trekking!
Your story truly touches me. I cannot imagine the pain you must have felt of losing your partner at such a young age. I’m glad you finally found your way home!! I heard many great stories about the Camino de Santiago and I hope to walk it too some day when I feel ready. Thanks for sharing your story 🙂
If you ever do walk the Camino, please let me know. I would love to help if I can. Mostly I would love to follow your journey. It’s a special experience. Challenging and freeing. Thanks for reading my story and sharing your thoughts!
I love that country
Your story is so well written and it truly touched my heart. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you for reading!
Wow! I really enjoyed reading this and admire your strength! Thank you for sharing such a personal time in your life. I look forward to reading more about your journey!
Thanks for reading! There is something about walking the Camino that opened me up to these personal stories. I needed that walk!
I loved reading this post! I live on the Camino (in La Rioja), so this brought back a lot of special memories! Thank you.
I would love to live on the Camino! My walking partner and I are talking about opening up an albergue on the Northern Route. Thanks for reading!
Wow sooo inspiring! Thank you for sharing!
Thanks for reading!