Women walked the Camino de Santiago, which tested their bodies, minds, and spirit
By Jim Palmer
About 6 or 7 years ago, Carla Anderson of Rochester watched The Way, a movie starring Martin Sheen and Emilo Estevez. The movie was set around the Camino de Santiago or “the Way of St. James,” a network of routes that all lead to a shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, located in northwestern Spain.
“After watching the movie, it just kinda poked at me (to walk the Camino), and then I started getting some nudges from other directions,” said Carla. “It felt like something that needed to happen, but I wasn’t in the right time of my life to do it. My youngest son was still home at the time, and I was also moving my mom into an assisted living and working to sell her home. That wasn’t the time, but I knew there would be a time. The idea was tucked into my heart and ready to unfold.”
The Camino de Santiago started centuries ago. Legend has it that when St. James died in 44 AD, his remains were carried to the cathedral. When relics were found in the 9th century revealing that St. James was likely buried in Santiago de Compostela, people started making the pilgrimage to the cathedral. And they haven’t stopped since. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people from across the world “walk the Camino.” And now it was Carla’s turn, she thought.
When considering a walking partner, Carla thought of Debra Quarles, a friend from Alexandria. Carla was a regular visitor to the Alexandria area over the years, and she had developed a strong friendship with Debra. In 2019, the two traveled to Spain together. They agreed during that trip to walk the Camino together in 2020. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic happened.
“But we still did the Camino,” said Carla. “We did the entire 480 miles of the Camino virtually during COVID.”
“You have a 360 view of the Camino as you were doing it,” said Debra.
The virtual walk was kinda fun, they said, but it wasn’t a replacement for the real Camino. So the trip was back on the table. And as plans were moving forward, a third traveler entered the picture.
“Deb and I were on a walk,” said Carol Wenner of Alexandria. “I was navigating my life at the time and Deb mentioned that she was doing the virtual Camino. I love to travel and knew Debra well. I had also met Carla in some Zoom meetings during COVID. They both inspired me and I knew the Camino was something that I wanted to do.”
Carol was invited and committed to the pilgrimage almost immediately.
“I’m kinda a suit up, show up, and ‘yes, I will do it’ kind of person... and I signed up for the Camino without knowing much about it,” she smiled.
“Carla and I had watched The Way a couple times, we had watched other videos, and we did all this research and Carol rolls in right at the end and says, ‘I’m going to go!’” Debra laughed.
Carol then rented the movie and told her husband, Bruce, of her plans. “He said, “Wait, where are you going? What are you doing? How long are you going to be gone?’”
During her abbreviated research, Carol learned more about what the Camino was all about.
“The Camino is known as a spiritual pilgrimage, and people go for spiritual reasons, religious reasons, and some do it for the physical challenge of it,” said Carol. “It can be life changing. Some call it walking medication. It is an opportunity to disconnect from the daily route, challenge fears and accept whatever comes. It can challenge your body, challenge your mind and challenge your spirit.”
In the fall of 2022, the three women flew to France, and started their pilgrimage at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, located on the French side of the Pyrenees.
Each of the known caminos (or ways) has a starting point; however, for many Europeans, the starting point is their own home.
“Many in Europe will go out their front doors, in whatever country they live in, and just start walking,” said Debra.
Each of the women came into the Camino with a different mindset and for different reasons, and each experienced something unique and different along the way.
“On our first day out, I was climbing mountains in pitch black,” said Karla. “We had little headlamps on. We could see that the sunrise is about to happen and we are marveling at dawn’s early light. We were taking all these photographs. I was taking photos of the sunrise and I came upon a ranch and there is a house number right in front of me. I didn’t notice it right away because I was taking photos of the sunrise and mountain. And when I looked at the house number, I realized it was the same as my parents house number, 3933. The same house of my parents that I just cleaned out before I came on this journey. That is how my Camino began. I realized right then that this was going to be different than what I expected but probably what I needed. It cracked me wide open.”
Since the Caminos have walked for centuries, the locals are used to both the pilgrims and the tourists. And there is a difference between the two.
“When you are walking with the Camino, you are a pilgrim,” said Carol. “Tourists plan and expect. Pilgrims discover and accept.”
Pilgrims walk on both public and private land. Along the way there are arrows, markers, and frequent images of scallop shells (a symbol of direction).
“They (association of Camino) have got this down,” said Debra. “The people who live along the way know how to handle pilgrims. If we got a little off track, they always had someone to stop you and redirect you. You are walking alone at different times, but you know that you are never alone when you are walking the Camino. You are always with others.”
And the women were impressed with the cleanliness in the albergues and the level of safety provided along the Camino.
There were generally 2-5 miles between each community, so pilgrims didn’t have to go very far to find food, water, or shelter.
“Every place had a church, a pilgrim statue, shells, yellow arrows, and a bar (small restaurant) with a little umbrella,” said Debra. “Meals were affordable and available throughout.”
Like other pilgrims, the three women mostly stayed at albergues, which are essentially hostels for the pilgrims located all along the Camino. Each albergue had between five and 100 beds and includes a shower and sometimes a commons area.
“When you stay in the albergues, you have a great opportunity to be with the other pilgrims and eat what the other pilgrims ate. Sure, we wanted to take a break and stay in a hotel with a room with three beds...” said Carol.
“Or a bathtub,” said Debra.
“But that would take away from the pilgrim communal experience.” said Carol. “If there was a commons area downstairs in the albergues, you would hear the French and the Irish and the Spaniards all having a conversation late into the night. To me, it was like the rhythm of life. I loved it.”
The women were impressed with the cleanliness of the albergues, and the level of safety provided along the Camino.
Besides staying in regular alburgues, they sometimes found a private room in an alburgue. And sometimes, in larger cities, they stayed in a hotel.
“The albergues were strict about only staying a single night, so if we wanted to explore, we stayed in a hotel or even an Airbnb, which we found in Leon,” said Debra.
Each morning, the three women would decide how far they wanted to walk, then they made a reservation at an albergue in that community. Often, the distance was based on how their bodies were holding up.
“We probably averaged about 10-12 miles a day,” said Carla.
The women knew to pack light. Each carried about 12-16 pounds of clothing and supplies with them each day, and some of those supplies were ditched to lighten the load along the way.
Everyone on the trail had a different pace. They learned early on that Carol’s pace was a little faster than the pace of Carla and Debra.
“We tended to start the day together, so we have a lot of sunrise selfies together. Then after about 20-30 minutes, Carol would leave us in the dust,” said Carla.
“When we caught up to her later in the day we were so happy to see her,” said Debra. “We would come into a town and find a bar (cafe’s are called bars). We would sit down, take our socks off, and have something to drink.”
And then Carla and Debra would start visiting with the other pilgrims.
“To give you an idea of how social Carol was on the trip, because she walked ahead and was the first person from our group to a new area, she knew everyone and where they were from by the time we got there,” said Carla. “When we would catch up and someone would ask us where we were from, we would say ‘Minnesota,’ and they would say, ‘Oh, do you know Carol?’ It happened every time!”
Along the way, the three women met hundreds of people. “There were all age groups, men and women, alone and in groups, in every religion,” said Debra. “Everyone was out there.”
“There were a lot of people from South Korea,” said Carla. “They had a movie on the Camino come out the year before, so a lot of people from that area were there.”
“And there were actually a lot of people from Minnesota there, too,” said Carol.
With people from throughout the world all represented, there were many languages being spoken. But they said the language differences never resulted in a big language barrier.
“There is something about the Camino that creates connection. I had lots of conversations with pilgrims,” said Debra. “One of the interesting ones I remember is when another pilgrim said to me, ‘You carry a small pack.’ I said, ‘Yes I do.’ She said ‘What did you leave behind?’ I said, ‘I didn’t leave anything behind?’ I said, ‘You have a small pack too.’ She said, ‘I didn’t leave anything behind either.’ We walked together for probably 30 minutes. I didn’t get her name. I didn’t know if she was married. I didn’t know if she had kids. I didn’t know what she did for work. That was not the kind of information you talked about. One lady, I was walking for days and I have no idea about her personal life at all, because that isn’t what you discussed.”
The conversations, said Debra, typically went much deeper than that.
“I really enjoyed having the time and space to have a conversation without the rush,” she said. “Nobody had anywhere else to go.”
And because of these rich and deep conversations, the three women were able to meet many interesting people along the way.
“I met a man named Geronimo, who came from the south of Spain,” said Carla. “He was a big bear hug of a man and we had different and great experiences with him. It was interesting to piece together what he was saying in his language from what he would understand in English. It was tricky conversation, and yet he was a great person to meet up right at that moment.”
One day, the women met an 80-year-old man who was walking alone and very slowly. The man left at 4-5 a.m. each morning so he could stay on track to his next stop. Another man, a journalist, walked 25 miles a day at a rapid pace. He told the women that he had a wife and kids at home and didn’t want to be gone long.
“We stopped to celebrate Debra’s birthday at a bar our first night in St. Jean, and ran into a Chinese man named Mu Mu,” said Carla. “He brought out his phone and played a recording of himself playing an ancient Chinese instrument playing Happy Birthday.”
“When we got to Spain, I really loved the rhythm of the Spaniards,” said Carol. “They ate late, and many of the neighborhood that we stayed in the families would come out and the children would gather. It would be about 9 o‘clock at night... and you would hear the rhythm of life.”
Some pilgrims gave the women a new perspective on the Camino... and on life.
“We met a couple from the Netherlands,” said Carla. “The woman’s name was Linda and she broke her arm five days into the Camino. She needed medical care. I was dealing with knee pain and hoping to be able to do more. She had some pointed conversations with me. I thought if she could continue with one arm, with her husband feeding her at each stop, I could do this. There were new perspectives and lessons for us around every corner. We thought we were struggling with something, and then we see someone who was struggling so much more.”
“Everything changed with their journey, but they kept going,” said Debra. “They were inspiring.”
While some interactions were brief, the three women were able to build close relationships with others they were walking with. If they were walking at the same pace, they often had breakfast, lunch, and dinner with them for days.
Despite the arrows and other markers, it was possible for pilgrims to wander outside the Camino.
“When we got to Pamplona, I got lost with a friend I met from Duluth. We ended up in the business district,” said Carol. “We ran into a young mother coming out of an office. She knew we were lost so she put us in the back of her van, between car seats, and drove us over to her daycare. She picked up her babies, put them in the car with us, and took us over to the historic part of the city, where our lodging was. She was what we called a trail angel.”
“There were lots of trail angels out there,” said Carla.
The trail angels seemed to appear the instant help was needed.
“There was a lady who collapsed close to the end of the mountain,” said Debra. “Four men from the village ran over and picked her up to bring her to the top so she could get to a taxi.”
And sometimes the trail angels would help with missing items. Common lost items were money, hats, and passports. Pilgrims and locals would work together to move the missing items up the trail to catch the rightful owners.
“It was always about finding that person and getting it back to them,” said Debra. “You come with so little, so losing anything was a lot.”
“There were little miracles around every corner,” said Carla. “Your legs can’t go one more steps. You stop in an albergue and they have a swimming pool. It isn’t heated, but it was exactly what you needed... ice therapy.”
“As they say, ‘The Camino provides.’”
One night, the three women went to Vespers, led by monks in a small old church in a small town along the trail. Because of the diversity of the pilgrims in attendance, the mass included songs in different languages, and at one point in the service they call on someone from each country to stand up and do a reading in their language.
One memorable experience for Deb and Carol involved voting. The three women left before the United States federal election ballets were printed. After they left, they learned that they could print ballots abroad and send them in. That was a challenge, but they were determined to make it happen.
Carol saw a building that looked like a governmental building. She approached a man in the building and started talking to him. The man immediately walked away from her.
“I thought I was in trouble,” said Carol.
Moments later, the man came back with someone who spoke English.
“When it is a ballot, you can’t send it to another computer, so we had to log on to someone else’s computer and print it out from our account. So at this place they had to trust that this lady was OK to download something into their computer. Every time we tried to do this their reaction was ‘No.’ It was the safe response,” said Debra. “As soon as we said were trying to vote in the American election, it was like all the doors opened up. Then they were very helpful.”
“He took me into his office and helped me print out the ballot, and we were able to vote in the midterms,” said Carol.
The trip was educational, learning about the traditions and cultures of the other pilgrims, as well as the communities they visited. One tidbit of knowledge they learned along the way pertained to corn cribs that were found by homes in Spain and Portugal. The corn cribs, called horreos - were once known as a sign of prosperity. Homeowners who had horreos were required to protect and preserve them.
While the original plan was to all walk together each day and stay in the same place each night, a change was made midway through.
“I ran into a young man who encouraged me to spend some time on the Camino on my own journey,” said Carol. “If I wanted to walk further than the reservation was made, I couldn’t do that.”
Carla and Debra saw that Carol wanted to go a faster pace, so they told her that it was OK if she wanted to go further and they would meet up later in the journey. So she did.
“I didn’t have a lot of confidence doing it, but the young man encouraged me and said, ‘Walk until you are done for the day and stop at an albergue, and ask for a bed.”
Since she just needed one bed, she didn’t have a problem finding one open bed.
“I did that for a while. I experienced it and it was an amazing experience to not know where my head would lay that night. And I couldn’t have done it without my trusted and amazing travel buddies, who always encouraged me.”
For Carol, walking on her own was therapeutic.
“My mother-in-law was ill, and was in and out of the hospital during the last third of the journey. I found a lot of comfort and was able to start the grieving process during the pilgrimage. I also did a lot of walking meditation as well. I ran into this woman from France. She talked about my pace and my gait. She said, ‘You know, you take a lot of steps, and they are short steps. Have you thought of walking meditation?’ She explained to me that anytime we change our gait, we have to be physically and mentally mindful of every one of our steps. She encouraged me to take bigger steps, and I really had to be mindful of my steps. And she also suggested that if I am quite social, that maybe I should consider being not so social. And when I meet someone on the Camino, instead of greeting them, maybe I just hold my hand up and give them a pleasant wave. When we do that, it is out of our regular routine and rhythm. That really helped me, too.”
After 40 days and 40 nights, the three women reached their final destination, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
“At the church, in the square, there is a circle where all the routes meet from all over Spain. The time that we were coming in, there were about 790-800 pilgrims coming in per day,” said Debra. “It is significantly more in the summer times.”
The pilgrims each received a booklet at the start of their journey. Along the way, they got their booklet stamped at albergues, bars, gift shops, churches and more. The stamps served as proof of their journey. And when we reached Camino de Santiago, they showed their stamps and received a Compostela, an accreditation of the pilgrimage.
“When we got there, it was such a mixed bag of emotions. It was a relief, but also sadness because it was over,” said Carla.
“There was joy that we were going to meet up and eat meals together with people who we had been walking with (ahead of and behind),” said Debra. “But there was sadness. For me, it was almost like I got my rhythm and then it was over.”
“We didn’t really know what date we would finish, and we came in on the day of the 11th anniversary of the day that my dad had passed,” said Carla. “I felt my dad the whole way. He had quite a relationship with St. Jude, the Saint of Helpless Causes. And when we arrived, it was the Feast of St. Jude. This was a 40-day journey and it was all about your trials and your triumphs.”
Each took something different away from the journey.
“I really learned patience,” said Carla. “It slowed me down so I literally stopped and smelled a lot of the roses. I just listened. I found peace in that. It was a wonderful experience. The Camino provides. It provides the experience that you were meant to have. Not necessarily the one you expected, but the one that you were meant to have.
“I gained a sense of appreciation,” said Debra. “I came back and my eyes are different -- what I see and what I perceive are different. I no longer just ask people what they do. I’m still in a different space. I notice things that I took for granted before.”
“I really learned to stay in the moment and enjoy the beauty of what was around me, and acceptance of what is around me,” said Carol. “And the joy in conversation. And taking the time and space to take conversations to the next level. This was a real change for me. This was an opportunity for me to reset.”
“I found such a comfortable safe space to process the things that I needed to process. I left so much emotion behind, I cried across that country. There was stuff I had packed down for years. For me, it was definitely a spiritual journey,” said Carla.
“Someone asked me, ‘why don’t you walk in the United States? Why don’t you do the Appalachian or the Pacific Crest trail or something like that?’” said Debra. “Because these come with expectations. Being in America, you have expectations. When we were in Spain, there was no expectations. Where we ended up, we ate whatever was there. We had no idea. We would go into a town and we would just try to find food, and find a bed. We didn’t know what that bed or food would look like, or how many people would be sleeping by us. There were no expectations. You don’t plan anything. You wake up, find food, start walking, find food, and then you walk more and find food and a place to stay for the night. And hopefully you can get some laundry done. And then you get up and do it all again.”
After the Camino, Carla’s husband flew over and the couple stayed in the Madrid area to do a language volunteer program, along with sightseeing. Debra and Carol stayed and went sightseeing in and around Lisbon, Portugal.
Debra and Carol are planning to return to the Camino in 2024, this time taking the Portugal route. While Carla loved the entire experience, she will be sitting this one out.
Advice to those thinking about walking the Camino? The three women recommended packing light, wearing good footwear and socks, not going in with preconceived expectations, learning a few basic Spanish words, bringing your sense of adventure, and choosing your walking partners carefully.