Traveling Alone is Good for the Soul
Why I hiked 800 KMs in 34 days
I hiked 800 kilometers in 34 days.
I walked the Camino de Santiago.
A road that has existed for thousands of years and has been crossed by millions of people, it's a trek that takes you from the very south-west of France to the (almost) western coast of northern Spain, to the city of Santiago de Compostela.
The trek has historically been a religious one, but nowadays there are many different reasons as to why people embark on this trek - myself included. Some travellers simply needed to get away from their current life and embark on a journey different from any type of vacation or trip they had done before. Others simply loved to hike and therefore have the Camino on their bucket list. Then there are those who want to adventure by themselves and to see what thoughts, feelings, and people this will put on their life path.
For me, it was the latter. I wasn't a passionate hiker per sé, nor did I feel like I was running away from something in my life. Rather, I felt as if I needed a new experience, something to challenge me not just physically but also mentally. Here I was in the midst of my university studies and I felt like I didn't really know who I was or what I was passionate about. I hoped walking the Camino de Santiago would bring me some clarity.
Early morning, May 16, 2018, my 19-year-old self and my overpacked and oversized backpack (I borrowed my older brother's) headed to Gare de Montparnasse, in Paris. My mom and sister accompanying me, walking with me to my train carriage.
I climbed into the train, waving to my family before grabbing my seat. I took a big breath, with a slow exhale. Holy shit... I was really doing this. The train pulled out of the station; there was no going back now.
Once in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, I enjoyed a slow and quiet afternoon, before eating dinner by myself and heading to bed early. My alarm was set for 7 AM. I wanted to start my trek early, making sure I would have the time to enjoy my trek and take it as slow as I needed.
My early apparently wasn't early enough. By 5:30am I was wide awake. My two roommates were already up and moving, ready to leave by the time it was 6 AM. My roomies weren't first-timers, and soon I learned that Camino life is wake up early, walk, eat (and drink, a lot), sleep, repeat. I curled out of the warmth of my sleeping bag and made my way to the little kitchen of the hostel. There was no way I was going to start my Camino without a cup of tea.
About 30 minutes after starting my trek and until the minute of arriving in Santiago, I was surrounded by absolutely wonderful and life-changing people. I even had a small friend group, which felt more like family, with whom I spend most of my 800 kilometers.
It wasn't just the walking aspect of the Camino that changed my life. It was the people I met, the moments alone, the hours spent in nature and journaling about my thoughts, feelings, and ideas. I hadn't gone in with any expectations, I knew that would only set me up for disappointment.
I think even if I would've had expectations, they would have been exceeded. By like a million. I can try to describe the feelings and emotions the camino brought me, but any article would do it injustice. I've tried to sum it up in a book, but there are days when I feel it needs a follow up, a deeper dive into the emotional and spiritual impact such a journey has on your life - no matter how you choose to define "spiritual".
The Camino changed my whole life. Going on a solo-adventure often has that affect, even when you don't expect it to. You meet strangers, who, in no-time, feel like family. You spend excess amount of time with your own thoughts and feelings, giving you the opportunity to really work through personal things. Through walking the Camino, I ended up feeling more sure of myself and my capabilities. But most of all, I ended up feeling a new passion for life and how I wanted to create my life. I felt more myself.
It wasn't just me who felt this way. There were fellow travellers who were finding, or rather creating, bits and pieces of themselves along the way. And what was beautiful was that everyone seemed eager to assist one another on their own journey. People felt inspired by each other, turned to each other for advise and opinions. People whom they met only a few days ago and were now trusted companions.
Alongside the self-discover, the camino was also extremely challenging. Walking around 25 KMs, sometimes more, each day, which usually equalled about six hours of walking up and down hill, was not just a physical challenge, but also a mental and spiritual challenge.
Physically I ached the first few days. My semi-walked-in boots gave me horrible blisters (I'll spare you the grossness of the photos I send my mom). My shoulders and my hips felt raw from my backpack rubbing my skin, and my legs were exhausted from carrying myself and my pack up and down hill. Often the peregrino (pilgrim) meals, the red wine and the great conversations at the end of each day helped me forget my physical pain. By the end of the first week, my body had mostly gotten used to the extra weight and my blisters were healed. But what I found was that now my mind and my emotions were starting to shown aching signs.
Walking six hours a day, you have plenty of alone time. Yes, you pass by people, you sometimes walk with others, take breaks and chat, but most of the time, even if you're walking and talking, you are in your head. You think back of the people at home, your life, the things you love and don't love. Thinking and feeling about all that is not there, it can be a lot. It can feel very emotionally heavy. There were days when I felt like crying because I missed people. There were days when I wanted to call people up to tell them I loved them. Other days I talked with myself. I argued with myself, felt angry and upset. Sometimes I complimented myself, smiled at who I was creating as a person. Some days I struggled to roll out of my sleeping-bag and get my boots on, yet always feeling proud once I was back on the road again. As chaotic as it may sound, it gave me peace of mind.
Nearing the end of the Camino, with only a few days left, I simultaneously felt excited and sad. Excited because I was so close to my goal, to my final destination; arriving in Santiago would mean that I had really done it - I would've walked 800 kilometres. Yet I also felt sad because reaching Santiago would mean that I'd have to return to my regular day-to-day. No more waking up and walking 25 KMs.
Before I knew it, it was day number 34 of my Camino. Although sad to be at the end of this specific journey, I still had the goofiest smile on my face. Together with my Camino family, I walked hand-in-hand into the main square of Santiago, with it's famous cathedral to my left, surrounded by the most wonderful people. My eyes were scanning the crowd for a familiar face. My mom was there to witness my grand arrival and "pick me up". Spotting her straight ahead, with champagne and flowers, I felt overjoyed. I had just experienced five of the most life-changing weeks, and it felt so symbolic to have my biggest support system there, waiting for me. With tears streaming down my cheeks I hugged my my mom and my Camino family.
We did it. We somehow managed to hike 800 kilometers across a country with nothing but the necessities on our backs. With strangers who turned to friends who became family. Through blisters and bruises, with too much coffee and wine, with never ending laughter and great conversations. We did it.
Leaving Santiago felt strange. Sitting in a plane, being "home" again in a mere two hours of flying, covering about 2.000KM, felt odd. And the first few weeks of being back, I struggled to grasp how impactful the whole experience had truly been. I couldn't place my finger on its importance, although there was absolutely no doubt that it had been important.
Now, three years later (2021), I've started to grasp what the Camino has meant to me and how it has impacted my life. I managed to write a whole book about the experience - something I hadn't planned on doing, but felt like the only logical next step when attempting to share the impact of my experience. The Camino has helped me grow more confident in who I am, it has helped shape who I want to be and what I want to create in my life. Yet most of all, the Camino has shown me the love and the light that is ever present in the world. That no matter where you go, there are people who will vibe with you, who will help you when you need it, who will laugh with you, talk with you, grow with you. The Camino showed me that the world is a beautiful place filled with wonderful people.
There are still days where I struggle to articulate the impact of the Camino. What I do know is that hiking these 800 kilometers was good for my soul. It was good for my whole being. To embark on a journey that was all about me, chosen by me, for me. It opened doors I didn't know where there in my relationship with myself.
While I understand that hiking isn't for everyone, I think a solo adventure is. Take some time to get to know yourself. You might like you more than you know.
If you enjoyed this article or enjoy reading about solo travel adventures, check out my book, On My Way: 800 Kilometres to Destination Self.
About the Creator
Leona Françoise Caanen
2x published author. World-traveller. 24 year-old, living in Amsterdam. Love connecting with new people & sharing stories about life.
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