For my 30th birthday I ran 30 miles. For my 32nd birthday I ran 32 miles. For my 35th birthday I walked 500+ miles across Spain. I’m worried about turning 40…
When I returned home from hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2012 I watched the movie The Way and added the Camino de Santiago to my bucket list. Fast forward 6 years, I’m a homeless freelance marketer working from anywhere in the world and my client asked if I could attend their biggest trade show in Munich, Germany. Oh, and the day after the trade show ended Oktoberfest opened, and I could stay in Europe for a few months after work. Yup, I was in.
After detoxing from Oktoberfest, and a quick stop in Venice, and then Paris, I finally found myself in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and the start of the French Way, or the Camino Francés. The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, has been a major Christian pilgrimage since the Middle Ages, with the first documented walk made in 9th century. Pilgrims traditionally walked from home to Santiago de Compostela to earn a plenary indulgence. I walked across Spain to see the country, unplug from daily life, get back to living in nature, and see how fast I could do it.
I checked into the Pilgrims office, got my Camino passport, shipped my unnecessary gear to Santiago, and found my first albergue, or inexpensive pilgrim hostel. I was up before dawn the next morning, but a conga line of people were already on the trail. I spent the morning climbing the Napoleon Route, 4,000 feet up and over the Pyrenees, and crossed from France into Spain. I reached Roncesvalles by noon, too early to stop, so I settled for an egg sandwich and a beer and continued on.
Several hours later I ended up in Zubiri, covering 29 miles for my first day. In an attempt to be frugal I paid for a bunk in the municipal albergue, which was a few euros less than a private albergue. Unfortunately, municipal albergues typically don’t offer blankets, and I shivered all night in my thin silk sleeping bag liner.
I woke for my second day wearing everything I owned in the cold albergue and left long before sunrise to get moving and warm up. Starting early, I made great time and passed through Pamplona by noon, picked up a SIM card for my phone, and made a slight detour to gorge myself at Burger King. By late afternoon I reached Puenta la Reina, a 27 mile day, and found a warm private albergue with blankets and a rooftop patio with a great view. The best part was the vending machine on the patio full of $0.50 beer, the perfect way to celebrate my 35th birthday!
Day 3 started early as I left town before dawn. I spent the morning connecting villages until I reached a large city and grabbed a lunch sandwich from a gas station. That afternoon I passed Bodegas Irache, a winery on the Camino that offers a free wine tap to all Pilgrims. I stopped and filled my water bottle with the dark red vino and spent the afternoon traversing fields while sipping wine. At first I thought it was great and contemplated picking up a bottle each afternoon, but as the sun beat down and the afternoon dragged on I lost momentum and decided to avoid afternoon wine for the rest of my hike. I eventually made it, 31 miles later, to Sansol and a small albergue with a restaurant playing 90’s country music which was just fine with me!
Day 4 on the Camino started cold, and stayed cold. I passed through Logroño in the morning and watched the lead runners in the annual marathon. I detoured a few blocks to replenish calories with a meal at McDonald’s and attempted to stop early in the next town but several of the albergues were closed for the season. Rather than double back to find a bunk I continued on a few extra hours through sprawling vineyards and sauntered into Nájera around 6:30 PM, procured a 10 euro bunk, and celebrated a 31 mile day with a burger at the local pub.
On my 5th day on the Camino I got the chance to test out my knockoff GORE-TEX rain jacket that I bought in Vietnam. I ripped out a few more strands of the seam tape that have been peeling since I bought it and spent the first few hours walking through cold rain. By noon I hiked into a town, bought lunch from a grocery store, and carried on under billowing clouds along a busy highway. I ended the day a little early at 27 miles and found a local pub with WiFi to catch up on work and give my feet a rest. The pub turned out to be the local joint where all the ladies in town go to drink wine, play cards, and gossip, which made for an interesting evening. Oh, and if you’re still wondering, my jacket from Vietnam definitely was NOT waterproof!
A stray cat joined me as I hiked out of town before sunrise for my 6th day on the Camino. I walked along remote dirt forest roads, a nice change of pace from the tracks along the highway. I came to a barbed wire fence and a sign for a military base and followed the trail along the perimeter. It wasn’t a problem until they detonated an explosive that shook the ground and scared me half to death! I dropped into a wide valley and navigated the suburbs of Burgos, eventually finding a hostel downtown and completing another 31 mile day.
I left Burgos before sunrise for day 7 on the Camino, and hiking out that early meant I had some of the popular tourist attractions all to myself. I spent the day hiking across vast plateaus separated by steep valleys. I stopped for a late afternoon cerveza in a town situated just below a large castle on a hill, checked my map, and hiked a few more hours to another albergue, 31 miles from Burgos. And just like that, my first week on the Camino was complete. I’d hiked just under 210 miles in 7 days.
Day 8 kicked off my second week on the Camino de Santiago with rain, lots of rain. On the Appalachian Trail we’d say “No pain, no rain, no Maine”, but “No pain, no rain, no Santiago de Compostela” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. On a positive note, my body was in pretty bad shape from days 3 through 7, probably from the high miles I was pushing, but on day 8 everything felt solid with no pain. I think I finally had my trail legs!
I stopped by a cafe in the afternoon for a late lunch and a beer and struck out on the last stretch, a boringly straight 10 mile Roman road with no services. Nothing. No village, no water, nada. I got soaked by one last passing rain cloud and walked into town, another 31 miles done. I celebrated with a beer and a family style dinner with hikers from around the world and fell asleep happy to be dry and warm, excited to be halfway done, 240 miles from the start, and 240 miles from the finish!
Day 1 – 29 Miles
Day 2 – 27 Miles
Day 3 – 31 Miles
Day 4 – 31 Miles
Day 5 – 27 Miles
Day 6 – 31 Miles
Day 7 – 31 Miles
Day 8 – 31 Miles