A Single Woman’s Perspective: The Camino de Santiago de Compostela

We were a few miles into our five-mile ascent up the steep slopes of the Pyrenees. I was half expecting to see Maria, spinning in song, or a dirndl clad Heidi running down the grassy, sheep dotted slopes. Wrong mountains.

This was the beginning of the Camino Frances, the most challenging part of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. It was not quite as difficult as I had expected. It reminded me of the steady incline up Fryman Canyon in Los Angeles, but for five miles. And then another ten or so miles of rocky ups and slippery downs. The week before we began, a man had fallen to his death due to fog having obscured visibility. We were fortunate to only have been pelted by winds so strong that if not for our walking poles to ground us, we’d have been blown into the cows and sheep grazing alongside the road.

We were a part of the Hermandad, the brotherhood of peregrinos or pilgrims that walk a portion, portions or the entire 500-mile trek starting in St Jean Pied du Port, France, and finishing in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The night before we began, my friend Teresa and I slept in an inn or Albergue with six others. When one person stops snoring, another two start. Sharing space that includes strangers heavily breathing in it, is a big letting go for this diva. The next night we slept in a room with 9 others. A total of 18 people total shared 2 toilets and sinks and five-minute showers. More snoring, more letting go of order, just-so-ness and quiet. Not the Four Seasons, not even Motel Six, but clean. The Camino dorm experience is Adult Camp.

Minimal language barriers exist in Camp Camino. We Tower-of-Babble-it, muddling whatever French we can recall from High School with Spanish, respond with “Ya” and “Ach” to the Germans, and hand gestures and squeezing knees together communicate, “I really have to pee. Now.”

We bond with our fellow pilgrims after having shared intimacies such as seeing them half naked in underwear or still dripping from a shower and wrapped in a towel, brushing teeth together, sharing bathroom, bunks, meals and experiences at the beginning of the journey. We know who farts or talks in their sleep.

Stopping for a cold drink or café con leche along the Camino is a richer experience when these familiar faces have arrived ahead and greet us as we wearily seek a seat. We chat about how hard the climb was, how scary the descent. Did you see the ponies, the Cheval de Castillon with the bells? Which road did you take? Where are you staying tonight? We say “Buen Camino” when another pilgrim passes by, or when one gets up to gather walking poles and backpack to resume their journey. We meet time and time again along the road, at cafes, restaurants, or at the next Albergue. We speak the language of the Camino with much laughter and innate understanding when words fall short to convey a thought.

Peregrinos make this journeyfor a litany of reasons; to discover the “What’s next?” (or What Now? LOL) in life, to enjoy a social experience, solitude in nature, to release grief, shed pain and loss, to forgive, accept. To have a spiritual, emotional,  or physically challenging experience. Some just simply heard about it and want to “Do It”. They have heard it is “Life changing”. We were told that some French judges offer the Camino experience as an option to a prison sentence. Therapists walk the Camino with those in recovery from substance abuse. A man from Japan who spoke little English managed to find the words to share that he finds “the best of humanity” on the Camino.

On the second part of the ascent, I started to focus on what I wanted to leave behind on that mountain- what pieces of me, what thoughts, I wanted to release to the howling and cold wind. I pick up a random rock and direct focus to my breath. I follow it in and out to clear my head. There are no rules, no “how to” manual regarding any of this. It is so personal. I put thoughts where my feet are. This moment, this moment and this moment.

I remember a quote I’ve recently heard “Genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger”. I want to replace old thoughts caused by childhood trauma that still irritate my well-being, with new and far more empowering ones. I say to the sheep, the cows, ponies, hawks, clouds and sky, “I am not my thoughts”. This becomes my Camino Mantra.

A South African woman, one of the “Three Red Lipstick Queens” as they call themselves, saw me crying during this moment and said “That’s what we do on the Camino. Let it out. Let it go. If you can walk the Camino one step at a time, you can do anything”.

I told her “thank you”, and in the distance saw a rainbow over the road ahead, between the mountain pass. A wink of color and energy and connection to God, spirit and to myself. I dropped my rock on a pile by a cross.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top