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!

14 thoughts on “Why I’m afraid of walking the Camino backwards

  1. Jen If I am not mistaken there are arrows going the other way. They are blue and you may not have seen them because they were behind you. Can promise that but almost sure. Your angels will guide,guard and protect you. So exciting…

    1. Hi Cheryl! Interesting! I’ve heard about blue arrows that go to Fatima in Portugal (and yellow to Santiago) because these two routes travel the same path. If it’s true for the Frances as well, that would be most welcome!

      Thank you so much for the encouragement. It means so much to me. Sending love to you and Jim! ❤

  2. I get your fears! I would be afraid of the same things. I also understand your last paragraph. When I write about the messy stuff I’m not looking to be fixed. I share in the hopes others understand they’re not alone in their messiness. Oh the humanity!
    I have no doubt you will overcome – your fears, and the backwards Camino!
    much love

    1. I’m laughing at calling it a “backwards Camino”! You may be more right than you imagine! 🙂 Thank you for the empathy and understanding. We only *think* we’re alone on this journey called life. Hugs!

  3. Jen,
    It’s good to acknowledge your fears and reservations, while also recognizing that this is a classic “Oh the places you’ll go!” moment from Dr. Suess. Maybe that book can be your recommended reading for the 9 months ahead to give you encouragement and sustenance 🙂
    Whatever happens, the calling that you speak of is bigger than all of your fears combined so when *you* don’t know what to do, lean into that greater force for strength.
    And as always, Buen Camino!

    1. Isn’t that the truth, Ger? I think my whole life (maybe ALL of our lives) is a journey toward trusting the call without reservation. I’m leaning in! One little bit at a time! ❤

  4. What a lovely, honest, heartfelt entry. I love how open and truthful you are, about both your fears and your desires. What a great experience you had with Meg, a splitting open of your heart and a connection with her, soul to soul, and a physical longing as well. Who is to say what lies in our futures? Embracing all the goodness in the present moment is a gift that few accept.

    God bless you as you go forth on your backward Camino. I had good luck with a GoFundMe request. It felt weird at first but the fact that it is a spiritual journey and not just a vacation prodded me on. I was so humbled and grateful for the love and affection shown to me through monetary contributions. I managed to pay about $600 for round trip tickets to Spain – that alone may save you much money. And of course the Camino is so inexpensive. I think I spent less than $2000 on everything for 6 weeks of travel.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences, Xina! Your blessing and empathy mean. a lot to me. It’s so easy to think I’m going alone, but look at the love pouring in! 🙂 You GoFundMe is an intriguing idea. I will give that consideration! The fact that the euro is weaker against the dollar than it was two years ago is also a tremendous help.

  5. You asked what scared or challenged me? …my self. The conflicting thoughts. The wanderer within. The monkey on my shoulder that constantly tells me that I can’t do it, no one likes me, etc…. I ignore him. I admire your courage. I am going back in two years, but I plan on purposely NOT reaching for a destination….this time. 🙂 We’ve got to follow our hearts…be safe.

    1. Yes! Isn’t this the truth!? When we live in our hearts, the world is safe. When I live in my mind, I freak out because I see clearly that I can’t control everything. I love knowing how you noticed your behavior and decided to brush it off. How freeing! Keep following that heart of yours, peregrina!

  6. Hi Jennifer, a comment on the lighter sight. On my last day on this year’s Camino (Camino del Norte) I stayed with a hospitalero who had done a couple of caminos backwards already. He said: “You don’t need arrows. If you can’t see toilet paper for about 10 minutes along the trail, you know you’re wrong.”

    I think walking the camino backwards is very brave and I can understand the fear of getting lost and more so of getting lonely and in the albergues of “being the new kid in class”. But at the same time, it sounds so fascinating. Imagine what’s gonna happen inside of you….how much you will learn about yourself.

    1. Anika! I’m laughing hysterically! What a funny thing! Thank you for sharing it with me. I may be among the few pilgrims who actually appreciate those “white roses”.

      I completely agree about the changes and learning that will come from this. It’s starting to feel kind of exciting! Thanks so much for the comment!

  7. After walking my first Camino in 2011, which was organised through a agency, I decided to return solo from Astorga to Sarria. I had major doubts if I could walk this stress. I doubted myself and I thought it was going to be a lonely trip as I was travelling solo. It couldn’t be more further from the truth however.

    1. Hi, David! Isn’t it amazing how our fears and reality so infrequently match up? Thanks for the reminder, amigo peregrino. ❤

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