Why I’m afraid of walking the Camino backwards

Let’s face it: the prospect of a 500-mile pilgrimage is not a field day for a control freak.

You’d think walking the Camino once already would teach me I could handle whatever the Way threw my way. Instead, I’ve only discovered new things to worry about as I prepare for my second pilgrimage.

Before my first journey two years ago, growing anxiety compelled me to write down my myriad fears. Surprisingly, only a few of them came to pass on my actual pilgrimage (peeing in the open air, loneliness, and dealing with bedbugs). In hindsight, none were that terrible. I survived.

Last weekend, I got together with a pilgrim friend and enjoyed reminiscing, swapping funny stories, and recalling its transcendent moments. Our conversations reminded me of how amazing it is to walk this sacred path. Although I’ve already found new deterimation to go, our talks started to get more excited to be back in Spain.

Today, though, it feels terrifying again. Here’s what I know for certain: I need to go. I feel called to go. I’m just plain scared of the unknowns. I can’t help that. But! Since I found listing my fears helpful the first time around, I’m going for it again in this updated version. Fears, take two!

Fear #1: Confusion

Although I know without a doubt I can transport myself to Finisterre by plane, train, and/or bus, I get profoundly overwhelmed thinking about starting the Camino eastward. I might have a map to use, for sure. If memory serves, I vaguely recall the path going along Playa Langosteira. But finding the actual route? Beyond me. Where do I go?

I just plain hate feeling confused and disoriented, and worse — looking stupid. Being certain and having the answers is my comfort zone, so I expect I’ll receive lots of lessons about getting comfortable with confusion as I bump headlong into it. Ugh.

Fear #2: Getting lost

Once, when I was a teenager playing hooky from science class, I nearly drove off the Connecticut map and across the border into New York state. In some unfamiliar and tranquil neighborhood, I pulled over to find out where I was (remember the days when you cross referenced the nearest street name with coordinates on a map?). At A5, I was on the very edge of the page, frighteningly close to — what? Not existing? Being obliterated? I flipped out, turned around, and high-tailed it back to school. In other words, I would rather fail a chemistry exam than be lost.

One of the things that makes the westward Camino Francès easier are the arrows on every post, tree, and wall. If in doubt about direction, just look for an arrow or — lacking that — pilgrims ahead of you. O just ask those you’re walking with. “This sign is confusing. Do we bear right here or just up ahead?” After a little convo, everyone walks together. If the consensus is wrong, at least we’re lost together.

Despite being afraid of getting lost, it only happened once on my first Camino. Meg and I took a wrong turn in the hills of Galicia en route to Finisterre. It was spooky not to know where we were, exactly, and walk for miles and miles with no one around. When we arrived in a town, it was siesta-time and not even the wind stirred. Creepy. Imagining that scene completely solo and alone positively gives me hives.

Walking east means there are no arrows for guidance. Some friend have jokingly offered to send me a bike mirror to see the arrows behind me. Others have suggested I ask people who are walking toward me for guidance. The fact is, I’m going to have to find my way without the ease I enjoyed on the westward journey and the risks of getting lost are higher. Bring on the chemistry exam!

Fear #3: Loneliness

Despite my brave declaration in 2013 to walk alone, I spent most of my Camino walking with other pilgrims I met on the way. Walking together passed the time and made hard, tiring, soggy, and long days much easier and enjoyable. Though I sometimes struggled to meet my desire for solitude, I loved the people I met and learned much from them. Some are still friends to this day.

While there are no official statistics on the number of pilgrims walking the eastward return trip, I encountered exactly three on my own springtime Camino. In other words, it’s very likely I’ll have no companions during the day. At albergues, I’ll be surrounded by people I’ve never met before. I fear feeling like an outsider.

I honestly don’t know what it will be like to hit an emotional low out there all alone. It will certainly be illuminating if it happens, but as you can imagine, I’d rather not find out.

Fear # 4: Emotional pain

Have you ever made a good decision, but later wondered where the road not taken might have led? Long-time readers know that I fell hard for Meg, a fellow pilgrim, while we walked from Santiago to Finisterre together. This happened though I was (and still am) married. As you can imagine, this experience brought up a lot of emotional conflict. Even as I inwardly agonized over what to do about my feelings, I loved every step of the way with Meg and remained faithful to my beloved partner.

Though I survived, I was a mess when my Camino ended — and remained so for a good year after. I wonder if part of returning to Spain is about transforming this partially-resolved, emotional jumble into something whole and even healed. I honestly don’t know what I’m looking for over there, but I trust the call I feel.

As I set foot in the very scene of that difficult, jubilant experience, I anticipate deep feelings will arise. Oh, how I dread this! And oh, how I need it! Something powerful awoke in me on my final days on the path. I feel pulled to return to that holy ground to discover what it was.

Fear #5: Funds

Finally and truthfully, I am not in a position to afford European travel at the moment. I saved for two years for my last Camino. This time I have about nine months. As someone who likes a good hotel splurge to restore the spirit, I already dread staying in only public albergues, eating bread every meal, and foregoing cafés con leche. I’m exaggerating, of course. I’m sure it won’t be that bad.

While I don’t subscribe to the God-is-an-ATM philosophy so popular in positive-thinking circles these days, I do believe in faith. I do believe that when someone is called to something significant, support arrives. Not in cash, necessarily, but in connection, encouragement, a gift of an apple, or a fountain for filling one’s water bottle.

Abundance is everywhere if we’re open.

I’m not naive, though. I do believe in planning. Because of this, I’m writing a budget for my Camino so that I have a savings goal.

I also believe in trusting. What if I’m meant to do a bare-bones Camino? What if I do ask for lodging in exchange for cleaning toilets? What could I learn from desperately *wanting* a hotel room, but choosing the most basic accommodation instead?

The possibilities are, of course, humbling and scary, but the part of me that is eager for inner change. The personal challenge of it is — dare I say it? — a little exciting.

To be clear

We live in a culture that does not handle emotion well — especially messy, unresolved ones. Reading about my fears may evoke concern or discomfort in you. In turn, you may need to feel the need to reassure me or offer suggestions for managing mine. No need.

Instead, I’d love to hear about what scares you or what you were afraid of before your own Camino. Learning to walk with our fears, rather than overcome them, is a path to wholeness.


Want to know why I’m doing the Camino in reverse — and how you can help? Read on!

A daunting diagnosis: Can I walk the Camino?

“Well, the first thing you’ll want to do is thank you parents for passing this on to you,” my doctor smiled ironically. “Osteoarthritis is usually inherited.”

“I’ll be sure to show them some gratitude,” I grinned back.

“Now, I don’t mean to sound negative,” she continued. “I know you like hiking, but I think you’re going to need to find a new hobby. Your knee just can’t take it.”

*   *   *

A few months ago, I lay in the reverberating MRI chamber wondering what the heck was wrong with my knee. A squishy feeling persisted any time I walked or hiked. Sometimes it ached a bit, so I finally got it checked out. The results came today: arthritis. At forty-two.

This wouldn’t normally be a big deal for this world-class couch potato. I could merely have used the diagnosis as an excuse to take my laziness to the next level.

But, given my recent announcement, these times are anything but “normal.” I’m planning to walk the Camino de Santiago again in nine months! That fact alone would be concerning, but the truth is hiking has become a lot more to me than what my doc called a hobby. Being out in nature is what got my life back on track after falling apart post-Camino. Hiking is what saved me from the most paralyzing depression of my life. Later, when I was whole again, it’s what saved my relationship with Mary. Simply put, hiking is what I do to encounter the Divine and restore my soul.

For this reason and many others, I can’t stop walking. I simply won’t.

“As you know, I walked across Spain two years ago,” I reminded my doc. “I’m planning to go back again next spring and do at least part of it again.”

“Well…” she started slowly, a cautious look crossing her face. “In that case, we need to focus on strengthening the weaker muscles in your quads and loosening your hamstrings. I also have some supplements I want you to start on that can help reduce swelling and support the cartilage.”

Her thought is if these interventions don’t help with my pain and swelling by December, we’ll explore a more aggressive strategy to help the knees become healthier so I can still walk in spring.

I never imagined this — of all things. To be told that I’m physically incapable of walking — or that doing so would be unwise. The craziest part about today’s revelation is that, up until now, I’ve been feeling scared, resistant, and mildly apathetic about the call to walk the Camino again. I haven’t exactly been jumping for joy about going. But now there’s this hurdle. There’s someone looking over my lab reports evaluating whether I should go. I want to spit nails. Find another hobby, my ass!

This new information is changing my formerly-reluctant assent into a defiant just-try-and-stop-me! Something deep within is rising to the challenge.

*   *   *

My mindset is pumped, but the reality of what I’ll have to do to prepare is daunting. I’m one of those excitable types who starts out all gung-ho about a project and then rapidly loses steam — twenty-four hours is a generous window. I have to do exercises every day: Wii balance board games, leg extensions, rolling on a foam thing to stretch my hamstrings (painful!), and a little move I call the stork leg. Daily. Twice daily for extra credit. How on earth will I find the resolve to do this for nine months?

Taking the supplements diligently will be easy enough with breakfast, but it’s the final challenge that fills me with undeniable dread: I have to lose weight. If I’m honest, I need to lose at least forty pounds (and keep it off) to take the strain off my knee. Losing weight takes diligence I do not inherently possess. Oh, that my arms and legs and torso were like Legos, and I could just pull off the bits I don’t need, piece by piece.

Oh, that I didn’t medicate every shift in my mood with sugar, fats, and carbs. Losing weight might be easy if it were just about my meals, but what keeps me overweight is what I eat in secret, in between meals, when no one is watching. Me and food are thick as thieves.

The arthritis was coming, one way or the other. What I didn’t know was saying yes to this Camino meant facing the inherited, intertwined issues of food and feelings. I can curse my fate or deny it, but there that wound is still there, waiting for me to heal it. Further proof, as if I needed any, that the Camino gives you what you need.

So, dear reader, here I am. As you know, I’m embarking on a physical journey in Spain nine months from now. To prepare for that walk, I begin another journey now toward healing and getting healthy in unexpected, potentially-transformational ways. I am equal parts daunted and eager, but one thing is for certain: I’m keeping my hobby.

Want to know why I’m doing the Camino in reverse — and how you can help? Read on!