I woke at three am. Maybe it was the spectacular snoring of the three Israeli men in our tiny dorm room or maybe the damn church bell beside the hostel. The air was hot and still, my nylon sleeping bag twisted around me. My husband, in the bunk above, turned over with a soft groan and the ancient metal bed frame creaked in reply. We would be up and moving in a few hours. Why was I doing this? Why was I here?
It had seemed like a good idea. After Covid restrictions were lifted in March 2022, we wanted to leave our house and the numbing routines of the last two years. A trip together we decided, a bit of an adventure with a physical challenge thrown in. We settled on walking the Camino Frances, that ancient pilgrim route that crosses northern Spain and ends in Santiago de Compostela in the far west corner of the country. It is said that St James the Apostle is buried there and pilgrims have been walking this route since the 9th century. My husband had walked it several times and I wanted to see if I could beat the numbers: 64 years old, 800 km, 35 days, a 20-pound pack.
My husband insisted that we have a Plan B, that if the walk proved too much, we would do something else. “Of course, of course, we need to be sensible;” I agreed, thinking that if one of us were to pull the plug, it would be him; seven years older with two knee replacements and an arthritic toe.
It’s not like I didn’t know what I was getting into. I’ve done a lot of hiking trips and walked a portion of the Camino Frances and also the shorter Portuguese Camino in years past. But I always forget that there is the memory of a trip and the reality of a trip. I had forgotten the uncomfortable hostels, the exhausting days, the disappointing meals. I had forgotten the sweet relief at the end of my first Camino trip, hopping on a bus to Burgos after seven days of walking, speeding by the long line of pilgrims trudging the path under the hot sun, beside the highway. Glad I was no longer one of them.
I ignored some pre-trip warning signs. My husband and I trained for almost six weeks, working our way gradually to 20 km with a 20-pound pack. But after a training day like this, easing my sweat-soaked pack into the trunk of the car, collapsing into my seat, I had little energy for anything else like making a meal, taking a shower, staying awake. And of course, we didn’t get up and do the same thing the next day, and the next and the next, which the Camino requires.
Then there was the unsettling sight on our taxi ride over the Pyrenees to Saint Jean Pied de Port, the starting point of our walk. As we curved down the steep narrow mountain road, an older couple were plodding up, on the narrow verge, carrying their packs and looking like death. “They’ve taken a wrong turn. They shouldn’t be on this road,” my husband said.
The grey-haired woman was bent over, her face twisted in fatigue. There was no place for us to stop and offer help. It was already three in the afternoon and they had miles of steep climbing ahead of them and no rest stops. “But she looks a lot older than me,” I thought; “I won’t look like that.” But I couldn’t get her face out of my mind.
And there was my pack, or rather the weight of my pack. “It’s too heavy,” my husband insisted as we trained. But it was only when we arrived in Saint Jean I could see he was right. I could see other women my size and their packs looked smaller, lighter, sane.
We woke early the first morning to the sound of pilgrims already on their way, the click of their hiking poles on the ancient cobblestone street, their soft voices in the dark, making their way to the arched stone entrance of the village and the bridge to the path over the Pyrenees.
The day was cool and sunny, and my pack felt comfortable but heavy. We were only walking eight km that first day but almost all of it uphill. Our destination was a wonderful albergue, Orrisson, which overlooks a beautiful valley and has sweeping views of the Pyrenees. Everyone there is on their first day of the Camino. Orission is where you meet your particular Camino tribe, the people you will see almost every day on the path, in the cafes, at the next hostel. But it is the communal dinner that is the real draw.
Served in a cozy dining room at three long wooden tables, it is tradition that each person stands, introduces themselves, the country they come from, and their reason for walking the Camino. As people stood and spoke, I felt a twinge. Everyone else’s reasons seemed so much better than mine; more thoughtful, meaningful, kind. They weren’t walking to beat any numbers. A young Brazilian woman had to decide if she should remain in France with her boyfriend or return to Brazil to be with her family.
An older man from Hong Kong stood up slowly and with great dignity, told us that he had Parkinson’s and was walking to show others what a Parkinson’s patient could do. He was there with a group from his church, and each one stood and spoke about how they had all made the journey to support him. There was the older couple from Belgium, the husband standing with one hand on his wife’s shoulder and saying he was walking to spend more time with his dear wife. And then there was the thin, young man from Montana, wearing a baseball cap and a checked button-down shirt, the sleeves slightly too short. He spoke in a soft voice but looked directly at the crowd, “I don’t know why I’m here. I’m hoping I can find out on the walk.”
My husband and I were given a tiny, private, rustic cabin on a small rise behind the main dormitory building. No heat or electricity, just two solar lamps charging by the cabin door as we came up the path, ducking the laundry lines.
That night was cold and I wore a toque and a fleece jacket to bed, pulling the thick wool blanket the hostel provided over my thin sleeping bag. We woke to a luminous orange and pink sunrise, all the shades of a ripe sweet peach, breaking over the mountains. Standing outside, sipping our coffee, my husband said quietly, “I never thought I would make it back here.”
Those first two days crossing the Pyrenees were stunning, a series of dramatic mountain vistas opening before us at every turn in the path. The steep hillsides were dotted with white goats and brown horses with long golden manes. And all around us, under that blue blue sky was the low musical tone of the bells they wore on thick black leather collars.
But I was struggling. My pack seemed so heavy, the climb at times tortuous, I had to stop frequently and didn’t feel like talking to other pilgrims, needing all my energy and breath to focus. A patch of skin under one pack strap was rubbed raw and I kept hooking my thumb under the strap to relieve the pressure, awkwardly clutching my hiking pole at the same time. The effort of stopping, looking for a band aid and putting it on seemed overwhelming. I was grateful to reach the last mountain pass and know it was all downhill to the next hostel.
It was only a few days later that we decided to start using a pack transfer service, where they pick up your pack in the morning and deliver it to your next hostel. I felt a frisson of disappointment when we made the decision and jolt of relief when I slung on my small, and very light day pack that morning.
Finding a decent breakfast became a daily challenge. Another reality I had forgotten. Most mornings we started walking in the dark with no open cafes to be found. I tried to have a banana, a day-old croissant or a granola bar in my pack to see me through the first hour or two of walking. It was hard to find fresh vegetables, the restaurant salads mostly iceberg lettuce with a few tomatoes and chopped onion. We once came across a fellow pilgrim in Pamplona wandering the streets, wolfing down a sandwich and asking if we knew any restaurants that served some roughage.
A sameness descended on the days. The villages we passed through running together in my mind with their stone bridges, cobbled streets, the small plazas with the restaurant tables. The same offerings at the pilgrim meals, a bottle of wine, pasta and sauce, a salad, bread, always bread, maybe some fish or a tough piece of beef, and ice cream for dessert.
It dawned on me that I wasn’t enjoying this trip as much as I thought I would. And maybe I wasn’t the person I thought I was, that fit, older backpacker who was always cheerful in the face of physical hardship and discomfort, in it for the long haul, not a quitter. Maybe I used to be that person, but I wasn’t anymore. I was bored and sore and cranky. I was now that person.
It was at the end of our eighth day on the Camino that I pulled the plug. I even remember the refrain running through my head, “I am done, I am so done with this.” We arrived in Estella, another picturesque town with cobbled narrow streets, a beautiful curved stone bridge over a river and a church at the center of it all. I had booked a private room in an old monastery that also served dinner. But my app couldn’t seem to find it, taking us on a circuitous route over one bridge then back over another, up several very steep flights of stone steps and finally to an auto scrap yard on a dead-end road. I could feel tears of frustration and exhaustion rising, the worn skin under my pack strap tender and painful, a headache threatening to erupt, my back aching.
A kind stranger finally pointed the way. At dinner that night, I looked at my husband and said, “I think I’m done, Hon. I’m so tired.” The next morning, we got on a bus and headed north leaving the Camino behind.
My final, humbling numbers, 64 years old, 8-pound pack, 8 days walking, 120 km.
Linda Jones lives and writes in Quebec. Her work was shortlisted for the International Amy MacRae Award for Memoir in 2021 and has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Runners World, Borealis Magazine and the Ottawa Citizen. She enjoys early mornings, quiet spaces and almost any hiking trail.