Healing and Discovery on the Camino de Santiago

Walking the Camino del Norte on the Cantabrian Sea near Castro Urdiales, Spain, September 2015.

Walking the Camino del Norte on the Cantabrian Sea near Castro Urdiales, Spain, September 2015.

by NICK MEADOR

I remember a moment while trudging through muddy livestock paths in northwestern Spain, about four weeks along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, when I finally started to realize how strong I am.

I had only a dim sense before departing in September 2015 that this journey could change my life by overwriting the limiting beliefs I had about my own potential.

All in all I walked 410 miles on the Camino del Norte, an alternate coastal route of the famed pilgrimage across Spain to the city and cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Many people enthusiastically followed my updates online, but I'm sure the mile count amazed me more than anyone else. That's because I had been struggling with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) on and off for four years, in heavy debilitation for the first half of 2015.

By the second day of walking, I could see that the trip wasn’t just about improving my health or seeing the world. In a broader sense, it was time to stop hiding from life, to do some scary shit and to let myself be shaped by the gears of destiny.

But during my training, I found more concrete stories of full recovery. And what started as a gamble of a trip booking soon became a realistic vision.

Suddenly I was carrying about 20 lbs, following little yellow seashell symbols and arrows, trekking about 9-16 miles per day, stopping for meals or a free water fountain refill, practicing my Spanish, falling in love with northern Spain and reveling in the situation I had co-created for myself.

By the second day of walking, I could see that the trip wasn't just about improving my health or seeing the world. In a broader sense, it was time to stop hiding from life, to do some scary shit and to let myself be shaped by the gears of destiny.

I had chosen an alternate route to spend time alone—in fact, to confront my fear of (and fascination with) traveling the world by myself. I viewed it as a very long walking meditation.

I hoped many other pilgrims would be carrying a similar sense of purpose. Instead most seemed to arrive with a kind of tourist-athlete mentality. A sense of competition even pervaded evening discussions, as pilgrims counted their recent distance tallies before settling into bunks at an albergue (ahl-BEAR-gay, Spanish for “hostel”).

Yet I made some meaningful connections, and I quickly noticed my tendency to try to control outcomes and put things into boxes. A few times I shared a couple hours of afternoon walking on the Camino, only to feel a deep sadness if the person vanished before we could exchange contact info. I was so used to the static, permanent world I came from.

Part one surprised me with northern Spain’s hidden treasures: tropical-looking beaches on the Cantabrian Sea, and their very inviting waters pockmarked with surfers. It added to the surreality of it all—being so far out in the world after feeling trapped with heavy illness for years.

I began to deconstruct my expectations and illusions. On day 10 I wrote in my journal, “Walking across a country doesn’t feel like walking across a country. It just feels like going for a long hike everyday.”

I considered that the beautiful photos and inspired reflections I shared on social media made it look like a vacation in paradise. So I strove to see, accept and convey the full reality. It wasn't all pleasant fun—the smell of cow dung, barking guard dogs, asphalt wearing on the feet and knees, etc. It became a practice in catching the tendency to complain, taking deep breaths, staying in the present moment, doing some yoga or going for a swim.

I had to remember the affirmation practice that got me through two months of training. On days or stretches when I felt like I couldn't go further, mired by sore muscles or self-doubt, I repeated out loud, “I am a strong and powerful person. I am unstoppable!” I could feel the effect throughout my body. I was learning how to be okay in incredibly diverse conditions.

I appreciated the Norte even more when hearing tales about the main route, the Camino Francés. One woman switched to ours due to the huge crowds (500 instead of 50 people in each phase), the mad rush for beds, bed bug infestations and the bleak monotony of the Meseta (the dry flatlands spanning central Spain). We walked along more motorways, but often had the E-9 coastal alternative with ocean views and rugged landscapes.

The first part, Bilbao to Avilés, was still marked by the excitement of late summer and had enough social and natural highlights to flatter my ego. But after a two-week break to attend a seminar, I returned in mid-October and found the crowds, weather and general atmosphere had all changed. This autumn part, Avilés to Santiago, was much more about learning to be okay by myself and in my own skin—about discovering what I’m really made of.

As rainy season set in and I plodded through mud, fog and higher elevations, I began to tire of following the waymarks. Occasionally an inexplicable urge in my core pulled me in another direction. Through this disparity, I realized just how far off I had been from living in a way that felt truly right to me during my first decade of adulthood. And only I was to blame.

Passing a Catholic church in every single town offered a chance to confront my resistance to organized religion. While I did feel peace and awe in some of the beautiful structures, the whole experience solidified my preference for a more Gnostic approach to spirituality: intensely personal, based on direct experience, founded in the body and in connection to the Earth.

Despite nightly soreness and exhaustion, throughout the four months of training and pilgrimage I experienced CFS-like symptoms on only about four or five days. This led me to theorize about what was working so well for my health. It seemed to stem from being outside in fresh air and sunshine; taking long walks while carrying some weight; hardly ever using a computer or riding in a car; enjoying much time alone but also having some casual social time most mornings and evenings in albergues; doing gentle yoga and having small amounts of raw cacao.

Yet I felt so confused upon arrival in Santiago—a romantic city, but one not commensurate to the purpose behind my journey. After following all those waymarks for 42 days (including rest days), I wondered if my ability to make concrete decisions had actually decreased. But also, the Camino was like an alternate reality—in ways incredibly complex, but in other ways delightfully simple—and now it was over.

So too was the craze stirred up by my social media posts from Spain. I understood my own calling, but I wondered why so many people view the Camino through a mythical lens. I think it stems from an unfulfilled desire for deep, meaningful experience. But can that be accessed more effectively away from such a popular trail?

After returning home in early November I stayed active and positive, but I sunk right back into a state of illness. Perhaps something was telling me to keep moving, to stay migratory a while longer, to get more practice in following my gut intuition, like it’ll be the optimal path of developing towards my full potential.

So I booked a one-way ticket to Guatemala with the aim of spending four to five months backpacking Central America. Whereas on the Camino every day was planned out, this time everything would be wide open. Now I am, and always will be, a pilgrim.