A Dabbler of Caminos

In the US, when we talk about the Camino de Santiago, we are often referring to the Camino Francés, the most popular pilgrimage route.  However, Caminos extend throughout Europe, in a network of paths connecting notable relgious sites to one another.  The Camino Frances is tremendously popular, but many other Caminos offer more opportunities for solitude and tranquility.  Some Caminos are more developed than others and have better waymarks, guidebooks, and pilgrim services; others might regularly necessitate map reading and asking directions from locals.

While lying in bed last winter, distracting myself from Lyme by dreaming of the Camino, I planned a Camino dabbler for the summer (having no clue whether I would get the chance to even attempt to walk it).  I knew that walking a continuous footpath across Spain was important to me — chalk it up to my white-blazing sensibilities! — but I knew that I didn’t feel called to walk the most traditional route.  Instead, I wanted to explore as much of Spain as 43 days of walking would allow.  And thus, my “squiggly arrow Camino,” as an Irish pilgrim called it, was born.

My Camino would begin in Lescar, France, in part for the sake of convenience.  I had heard wonderful things about crossing the Pyrenees at the Col du Somport, so I knew that I wanted to follow the Chemin d’Arles/Via Tolosana from some point in France.  Given the higher bunkroom fees in France and my lack of understanding of the language, I thought that spending less than a week in the country would be ideal.  The city of Pau, of which Lescar is a suburb, was easy to get to by bus from any French airport.

From there, my plan was to cross the Pyrenees to join the Camino Aragonés, walk north to the Camino Frances, experience the history of the Camino’s thoroughfare for a bit before taking a right in León, enjoy the mountain scenery of the Camino de San Salvador, and then follow the Camino Primitivo to Santiago.  From there, I knew I wanted to keep walking to see Finisterre, the End of the Earth.

After a new treatment protocol helped me get Lyme solidly in remission on March 20, I decided to fly to Europe and try to walk to Santiago.  I spent two weeks visiting my sister in Wales, and then I flew to France on June 14 to begin my journey.

A Reluctant Pilgrim

When I selected the Camino as my 2016 hike, it was by process of elimination.  Hiking while I’m healthy is very important to me, but most of the long-distance hikes on my bucket list were off-limits after what had been a rather Lymey spring:  I didn’t have the strength for long resupplies, high altitude trails would tax my bartonella-infected bone marrow, and I wasn’t in a hurry to hike a remote trail and find myself reenacting Escape from the High Sierra (Part I or II).

And so, I chose the Camino, where I knew I was likely to carry a light backpack, stay at low elevations, and be near other walkers.  I was thrilled about the excuse to travel overseas, but I wasn’t tremendously excited about walking the Camino.  I realized that doing so was a privilege — but I also thought of it as a confidence booster after the bad combination that was the PCT and Lyme, rather than an adventure in its own right.

While preparing for the trip, I read Camino trip reports and guidebooks, none of which made me especially enthused and some of which, like this scathing review, made me wonder whether I’d made a mistake in planning to walk the historic pilgrimage route.

Rereading that review now is actually trying because of how much it seems to me that the author missed the point.  My Camino — a squiggly yellow arrow of six different routes forming a continuous footpath from Lescar, France, to the Spanish coast, and then back to Santiago — was absolutely awe-inspiring.  It was different, special, magical, humbling, and absolutely transformative, in the way no other hike since my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail has been for me.

I’m looking forward to sharing my impressions and favorite memories of the pilgrimage here.