What will it be like walking backwards to Saint Jean Pied de Port?

For all the certainty I feel about my call to walk the Camino in reverse, it feels strange not to be walking toward something. Saint Jean Pied de Port is a lovely Basque town, but it lacks Santiago’s saint and the epic coastline of Fistera and Muxia.

If I were European doing this trip, I might literally be walking home. Though few modern pilgrims do, ancient peregrinos left a cozy bed—and voila!—their pilgrimage began. All they did was step out the front door and go to their closest cathedral, where pilgrims united with guards in tow. Once the whole band walked to Santiago, they turned around and walked home again. The closest I can come to simulating that experience is to return to the beginning of my original journey (SJPP) and hope to get a bed at the albergue where I spent my first night.

In reality, my walk is not a return to a location, but to a place within. To walk the Camino backwards and arrive in the Pyreneen foothills is to revisit who I was on April 18, 2013. It is an practice in noticing how the Camino has changed me and how I’ve used the experience to grow in the time since.

Oh, I was so adorably naive!

That day, I was so tired and jetlagged when I arrived—and so clueless. Where do I go? Why is the pilgrim office so far from the train station? Did they really have to put everything at the top of a hill? Why do the welcome center volunteers seem so gruff?

That newly-arrived pilgrim was so eager to have other people like her. So willing to put her own needs in second place to get along. There was no way this journey wouldn’t change her, make her more resilient, but it would have to break her first. It would have to challenge her so profoundly, that her old ways of being would break under the weight of their ineffectiveness.

Pretending nothing was wrong would stop working when her feet hurt so badly, she could barely walk. And later when she got a fever and an ear infection. Denial stopped working. Her body’s needs forced her to wake up and take action.

The pattern of trying to get other people’s approval would break when she repeatedly ignored her own needs to keep her Camino family together. Then, when they were all gone, she would face loneliness head on and discover what it would teach her.

Pushing down her emotions would stop working when she experienced a profound and magnetic attraction to another pilgrim. The feelings couldn’t be banished. This unfamiliar situation would push her to the edge.

At the beginning, I had no idea how the Camino would test me. Maybe it’s better I didn’t, but I’m glad angels showed up.

Camino angels

On that first day in Saint Jean Pied de Port, I met a man who told us how he left his wife and four children for a Camino romance. Even now, I marvel at how irrationally angry I felt about his story. (Chicken shit, I believe, were my inner words of choice. Not a very nice thing to call an angel.)

As I sat in judgment of him, I was blissfully unaware. I couldn’t have known I would meet someone who’d take my breath away 500 miles from that very place. I would face the very same dilemma.

Now, having lived that dilemma, I understand how human it is to want the more exciting path over the harder one. I’d been emotionally absent in my own marriage long before I left for the Camino. When I returned home, I faced a decision: to be as open with my wife as I’d been with Meg—or leave. There were really no other alternatives.

Would I have chosen the same if that Camino angel hadn’t crossed my path and given me fair warning? Had I not been so furious at his choice, would I have been as informed about making my own? In the end, I opted for integrating the Camino’s lessons. I chose to transform myself and re-choose my marriage with an undivided heart. That’s not the right choice for everyone, but for me, it was a path toward wholeness, of living an undivided life.

The power of intention

As I arrived in Saint Jean Pied de Port, I didn’t know any of this awaited me. My stated hope had been “to be changed” by the Camino, and I was. Or, more accurately, the Camino shaped me. And then I used the experience to change my life.

Looking ahead, retracing my steps will give me time to consider the soul-ground I’ve trod the three years since, and invite completion.

At least, that’s my intention for this return trip. Who knows what else it has in store for me?

And for you too…

If you’ve already walked the Camino, reflecting on the journey, its angels, and lessons invites profound spiritual and personal insights. You don’t even have to walk it backwards for this to happen! It’s enough journal, share, reminisce, and connect with others who’ve walked similar paths. What’s important is to make the conscious choice to apply these insights to your life and live them.

The rewards are worth the trip. ❤

Doing a Slow Camino

A slow down sign

Back in 1980s Italy, the land of homemade pastas, sauces, and delicious wines, where food is an art and a way of expressing love, Rome’s citizens protested plans for a McDonalds restaurant. Can you blame them? What an affront to la dolce vita, a proud way of life!

From that protest sprang a celebration of preparing food intentionally using locally-sourced ingredients. The movement was dubbed Slow Food (in contrast to fast food) and has since grown a following around the world. Some of Slow Food’s offspring are Slow Cities, Slow Talk, and Slow Travel—with the common theme being consciously stopping the hurry and choosing to be present with what you are doing. It’s called the Slow Movement.

A crash course in slow

When I was on Molokai for three weeks this summer, I got a front-row seat to slow living. I’m one wound-up chica most of the time and don’t even realize it. The daily, relentless slowness of the island made me downshift and truly relax. It made a difference for the whole experience. Had I whisked in to Teri’s bookstore like a selfish haole (literally without breath), I would never have been invited to sit with locals talking story or learn of the island’s sacred places.

The idea of intentional slowness on my next Camino has been coming up a lot.

What does a slow Camino look like?

I can only give you my version. Perhaps my reflections will give you a chance to think about what a Slow Camino is to you.

Deeply appreciating my environment

My journal from 2013 has numerous sketches of the birds and wildflowers I saw. A walking pace makes it easy to take note of the rocks underfoot, observe geological formations, and the changing terrain. Noticing my environment often leaves me in a state of wonder about my smallness in creation and gratitude for being alive. As I move through towns and open spaces, I want to be present enough to look gently and appreciatively into the faces of the people I pass.

Eating what the locals eat

No matter how desperately I may long for peanut butter or oatmeal, allowing myself to hunger for these familiar foods is a powerful spiritual practice. Sitting with longing can invite gratitude or show me how to be satisfied with what I have. Eating how the locals do invites delight in tasting foods grown nearby and prepared by hand, even if unfamiliar.

Being open to spontaneous connection

Some of the most profound moments of my first Camino came from a smile that led to a conversation and unexpected generosity. Locals gave me gifts, wine, invitations to dinner, good directions, tips on places to eat, a laugh, encouragement on a hard day, and so much more. But I had to be willing to connect, to look up and make eye contact. This takes vulnerability!

Often, the timing of these unexpected meeting was just what I needed—a tremendous gift for this self-reliant introvert. Connections reminded me that humans are communal creatures. We need each other.

Relying on signs, maps, and the kindness of strangers

I could carry a device with accurate maps, but I want to learn what I’m made of. Some might say this makes the journey unnecessarily harder. If I get off track, what does this allow me to discover? Can I ask for and receive help? Getting lost on the Camino can contain may prepare me for times when I get lost in life, where neither GPS or Google street view are an option. This takes courage, but the insights are worth it.

Space and time for reflection

Have you ever been in the middle of a short walk or a long shower and had a new insight about a long-standing problem? To me, this is what slow travel provides. Removing myself from the everyday habits and triggers of my life allows space for new thoughts and ideas to arise. On the Way, each unhurried day unfolds at walking pace, leaving ample time for reflection.

On my last Camino, writing each night was a priority, and I cherish the memories that arise when I read my journal. For me, journaling daily is a way to synthesize the many experiences that take place and mine them for meaning. Both walking and writing have an inherent slowness to them that allows the mind to relax its grip and the heart to unfold.

Little to no technology

This topic deserves its own post, but I’ll say that by its very nature, technology is fast. Technology today is also tiny. A sponge-sized computer allows us to make reservations, take photos, store endless songs and books, make connections via video, bank online, and perform countless other functions. It’s a miracle, really. There’s no denying the plentiful and myriad advantages of carrying a cell phone.

But. (You knew that was coming.) As a highly distractable person with a technology addiction, every second of screen time takes me away from my surroundings. It’s just that simple. For every dollar I’ve raised or saved to get myself back to Spain, I simply can’t bring myself to waste a single minute on Facebook or behind a lens. Will I get lonely and want to connect online? Absolutely. Will I wish I could take a photo of someone or something while I walk? Yes. Will I wish I could make a reservation somewhere? Possibly. The bottom line is I will be able to survive without these tools in the same way that an alcoholic can survive without wine and beer (and even thrive).

To me, the absence of technology is a choice that makes room for a different, less-controlled experience in spite of its myriad advantages. It’s this lack of control and decreased speed I’m longing for on my return to Spain.

Enjoyment

With fewer distractions and a slow pace, the pilgrim can be fully present to notice herself think, hear Divine whispers, and witness the truths of other travelers. She can delight in discovering the world around her and connect meaningfully with fellow humans across generations and cultures.

Although pilgrims stay in a new place almost every night, it’s possible to know rural Spain and its provinces in a deeper way that even the Spanish themselves. I came away from my first Camino with an enduring love for its cultures and people.

For this reason, I’m not preoccupied with achieving a specific number of miles per day and am open to taking public transportation if needed. Some say you haven’t “done” the Camino if you haven’t walked every mile, but I’m not among them. I’ve met too many people who got injured on the Way and were still committed to getting to Santiago. If you enjoy the journey and learn something valuable from it, I say it counts as a pilgrimage without exception.

Slow is a state of mind

Years ago, I discovered a book by Carl Honoré called In Praise of Slow and read it cover to cover—twice. In it, he explores the many ways we can bring intention to our everyday lives. I highly recommend it.

As convenient as our speedy culture is, the calling so many hear to walk the Camino may be connected to our collective disillusionment with the pace of our lives. We’re longing for something deeper than fast. And to get it, slowing down enough to walk across a country is one incredible solution. How slow do you want to go?

I’d love to know your thoughts! What does a Slow Camino look like to you?