Joy in every step

SLO athlete hikes the 500-mile Camino de Santiago through Spain

I may be the first person in history to take a 500-mile hike to heal aching feet. I’d been sidelined from running for nearly a year with tendinitis, but I could walk.  I imagined the Camino as a ”consolation prize” for all the races and adventure runs I was missing.  

The Camino turned out to be the grand prize. Quite simply, it was the happiest month of my life.

The Camino de Santiago is a 500-mile trail from the French side of the Pyrenees Mountains to the Cathedral of Santiago in western Spain. Since the remains of St. James the Apostle were discovered there in the 9th century, hundreds of millions of people have made the trek, primarily for religious reasons.  

Although most modern pilgrims lack the religious piety of prior centuries, there is an undeniable spiritual tone on the Camino. The millions of seekers walking the trail over the last 1100 years have worn a channel into the landscape where pilgrims still find peace.

Until the recent film “The Way” starring Martin Sheen this treasure was largely unknown in America. Like Martin Sheen’s character, I started my Camino at St. Jean Pied de Port, a French town at the foot of the Pyrenees.  Since tendinitis is made worse by uphill walking, I knew the first day over the mountains could end my trek before I could say, “Buen Camino”. 

Pacing yourself

As a result the best strategy would be to go slow. People passing me at my slow pace wondered if I needed help, a humbling experience for an inveterate competitor. Every night I’d soak my feet in ice or cold beer. My pink Zensah recovery socks amused the locals. Each morning, I’d wake to find my feet ready to cover another day’s walk.

Speed doesn’t matter on the Camino. In fact, the more leisurely the pace, the more chance to enjoy the incomparable mountains, valleys, vineyards, churches, and fellow hikers from all over the world.

I’d estimate 80 percent of the pilgrims I met sustained injuries at some point on the journey. Those least likely to be hobbled were walking slowly and had the lightest packs.  Camino veterans advise that your pack should be no more than 10% of your body weight.

Pilgrims are guided over the 500 miles by yellow arrows painted on every available surface: streets, trees, churches, ancient city walls, and flower fields. Trail markings are so abundant that you could conceivably hike the whole Camino without a map. 

A good guidebook is indispensable, however, giving you an idea of distance to the next town, accommodations, elevation, and historical sites.  Most English-speaking pilgrims use the John Brierley guidebook, which follows a 33-day itinerary to Santiago. 

Where to stay

Accommodations on the Camino are basic ranging from 5-10 Euros per night in the municipal albergues (hostels).  For that bargain rate you get a mattress, pillow, and a community bathroom.  Dormitories vary with 4 to 100 beds in a room. Albergues may be brand-new or hundreds of years old, some with communal kitchens and even WiFi.

Some particularly unique hostels were well worth their inconvenience, such as the ruins of the 15th century church of San Anton.   The towering Gothic stone arches are open to the sky and hold ten bunk beds.  There is no hot water, electric lighting, or nearby market, just a vending machine with beer and a congenial host who cooks pasta at night for his guests. 

Life on the trail

One of the greatest delights of a Camino day is to be harnessed and on the trail just as the first birds begin noising off and the sky begins to lighten around 5:30. It is a richly satisfying experience to come to life in synchronization with the earth’s waking.

An average day’s walk on the Camino might be 12-25 miles, depending on health, fitness, terrain, and the quality of sleep the night before. Often the day’s walk decided itself. Blisters, tendinitis and sleep deprivation, the three cripplers, always had the last word.

At the end of the hiking day, a pilgrim must find a place to sleep, shower, and launder clothes, after which one might nap, sightsee, journal, or chat with other pilgrims over dinner.  Bars and cafes typically offer a “menu peregrino”, a fixed-price, usually 3-course dinner, for 8-10 Euros. The quality varied greatly. Happy pilgrims learn to appreciate whatever they’re served, acceptance being part of the Camino ethic.

Upon arrival at Santiago de Compostela, medieval pilgrims received a scallop shell as a badge of completion and wore them for the rest of their lives, and were even buried with them. Modern pilgrims feel the same devotion, often describing their lives as “before Camino” and “after Camino.” 

What made this hike so different from the races and adventure runs I’d been missing?  The Camino de Santiago is one of the oldest continuous pilgrimages in mankind’s history, with centuries of historical and spiritual culture. During my journey I felt very near to the heart of the world.  The millions of pilgrims who walked before me left a legacy. Following them was like rafting down a river of grace. The grand prize at the end of the Camino is a joy to be carried for life, and buried with me alongside the scallop shell.

Sheryl Collmer - lives and writes in San Luis Obispo, peacefully biding her time until she can get back to Spain.  She is happy to talk about the Camino with anyone interested and can be reached at