Walking the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain isn't just for college kids

Former Tribune reporter Julia Hickey hikes near the start of the Camino Francés in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France. The seashell on her backpack is the traditional pilgrim’s symbol.
Former Tribune reporter Julia Hickey hikes near the start of the Camino Francés in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France. The seashell on her backpack is the traditional pilgrim’s symbol.

Just a few days into the Camino de Santiago, I was already being kicked in the butt by my own boots, no less.

A heavy rain had fallen the previous day, and I had tied my still-soggy boots to my backpack. It turned out to be a trade-off: Thick socks and sandals kept my feet warm and dry, but every so often I got a not-so-gentle thwack from the boots awkwardly swinging at hip level. On top of that, the insole of my left boot—which I’d removed to speed up the drying process—decided to go missing.

That was the first of several items that would disappear during the nearly two weeks I spent on the Camino.

Through my own ineptitude, I also managed to lose a credit card; a tin of Altoids; an undetermined number of euros; a tube of sunscreen; a sock; and a stick of deodorant. (Luckily for my companions, the deodorant didn’t disappear until my final day.)

Yet like most — if not all — pilgrims, I discovered that what I gained on the Camino far outweighed those puny losses.

I first learned about the Camino de Santiago — the Way of St. James — from former Tribune reporter Julia Hickey, who had walked it with her brother in 2007.

“You should do it,” Julia told me on multiple occasions. “It soundsnice,” I said, though a shallow little voice inside me whispered, “Seriously? With your hair? How could you survive for weeks and weeks without a flat iron?”

Beyond that, a backpacking trip was something for college kids, right? I was at the stage of life where a vacation meant a semi-luxurious hotel room— preferably on a beach.

Time was a factor as well. I didn’t have five or six weeks to spare. Wouldn’t it be cheating if I only did a portion of the pilgrimage?

But then I watched “The Way” — the Martin Sheen movie about the Camino — and got hooked by the gorgeous scenery and the camaraderie of the trail. (And, hey, the Sheen character was old!)

Several months later, when Julia began planning another Camino trip with her mother (who is also named Julia Hickey), I was on board for the adventure, the challenge, the pleasure of spending time with good friends in one of the most beautiful regions in the world.

I took off 17 days— when subtracting air travel time and some sightseeing in Madrid, that left me 12 days for the Camino.

By mid-July (the absolute worst time to do the Camino, according to the guidebooks) I was on the trail, toting a backpack weighing 16 pounds, give or take; walking 10 to 15 miles per day—with two blisters the size and consistency of cherry tomatoes as proof; and sleeping in a roomful of bunk beds filled with snoring strangers, my head resting on a pillow with a disposable case to ward off bedbugs.

And here’s the kicker: I was (mostly) loving it.

Walking the Camino is a great opportunity to see sights — pretty and not-so- pretty — that the grand tours of Europe never quite get around to, from the villages with their kitchen gardens and stone churches to the bleak industrial zones pockmarked with quarries and punctuated with graffiti.

It’s a chance, too, to get in touch with your inner pilgrim and leave behind the Big Worries of life — about kids and jobs and war and climate change and injustice and all that other stuff that keeps us up at night.

It is by turns humbling (falling from the top rung of the bunk bed ladder); frustrating (feeding 6 euros into a clothes dryer before discovering it was actually a clothes spinner); but, most of all, empowering (we don’t need no stinkin’ car to walk 15 miles!)

And let’s not forget social.

On the Camino, there are opportunities to meet pilgrims from all over the world and to practice just about any language known to man (and woman).

If you prefer to spend the day in silent reflection, that’s fine, too. A smile, a nod and a “Buen Camino” can go a long way — especially to a pilgrim who’s just had her butt kicked.

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