Once I decided to do the Camino de Santiago I had to figure out how I was actually going to do it. How do I get to the starting point? What do I need to bring with me? What do I need to do ahead of time to get ready? It can seem a little overwhelming, so I’m glad I had help along the way.
Before Leaving the US
The Charlotte Camino Pilgrims continued to be a helpful resource once I made the decision to walk the Camino. There are lots of people who had already done it, some of them more than once, and it was great to be able to learn from their wealth of experience.
They were able to help me figure out the routine of a typical day, how to find a place to sleep, and what to bring with me. One of the meetings before I left involved a couple of the members bringing their backpacks and all their gear, which was really enlightening.
TIP: There’s an organization called American Pilgrims on the Camino, which connects current and former pilgrims in the US. There are chapters around the country. I recommend finding one close to you for guidance.
After the meeting about the Camino gear I went to REI to start loading up. Luckily, most of what I bought could be used for the rest of The Big Trip: packing cubes, quick dry clothes, travel towel, etc.
A couple of weeks before I left I decided to watch The Way. It’s an Emilio Estevez/Martin Sheen movie about the Camino de Santiago. For some people it is the movie about the Camino, and many cite it as their inspiration for deciding to do it. I decided that if I’m going to do it I should get some kind of idea of what I’m getting myself into.
Many people in the Charlotte Camino Pilgrims talked about their training hikes, gradually increasing in distance as they went along, and I intended to follow the same plan. However, in the midst of resigning from my job, getting my gear, moving out of my apartment, and moving myself and my dog back to Florida that never happened. I guess I was a little busy.
As I got closer to starting the Camino I wondered if I was being really stupid. You’re about to spend two straight weeks of walking hours at a time and you’re not going to train?
I decided to look online to see if this would be really detrimental. Maybe I would need to scrap the whole thing. As I read various Camino forums I found two schools of thought.
One group said it’s important to train to avoid injury. They recommended doing training hikes of varying distances with a backpack to get used to the conditions. I really didn’t know how I would find the time to do that anyway.
The other school of thought said it’s not absolutely necessary to train in advance. Some said you don’t need to walk the Camino twice, so don’t wear yourself out before you get there. Others said you walk every day, so you’ve actually been training your whole life. I decided to go with these people.
One of the first things I was told to do after making to the decision to walk the Camino was to buy the John Brierley Camino guidebook. This is considered by many, at least in America, to be the gold standard. It was funny along the Camino that people could tell where you were from based on which guidebook you were using. The Brierley books were the choice for Americans, Canadians, and Brits.
I wanted to get through reading all about the length of the Camino I would be walking before I started. I finished just a couple of days before I began the Camino. I took a rest day in Madrid to finish reading and wash my hair.
One thing I discovered while finishing up the book in Madrid is that I would be going through mountains in the cold. Oops. I hadn’t thought about that. I had a rain jacket, but I didn’t think it would be sufficient for really cold weather.
I decided that I needed to purchase a suitable jacket. I Googled sporting goods/outdoors stores in Madrid and found one that wasn’t too far from my hostel. I got the walking directions and head out.
As I got closer to the store I realized I had hit the mother lode. There’s a street in Madrid called Calle de la Ribera de Curtidores, and it’s lined with outdoors stores.
I wound up at a different store called Cima Sport, and the staff was incredibly attentive, knowledgeable, and friendly. They helped me pick out the right jacket for me, a Columbia fleece, and it’s one of the best purchase decisions I’ve ever made.
I took the train from Madrid to León, and it was really cool to see people on the train and at the station who were also doing the Camino. Pilgrims are identified by the shells on their backpacks. As I walked further into town I saw more pilgrims, and I couldn’t believe I was going to be joining them.
I gave myself two nights in León so that I could give myself time to get settled and situated before embarking on this huge journey.
I stayed at the Hostel Covent Garden, which was okay but it felt a bit deserted while I was there. My last night I was the only person in the whole place, and that felt really weird. It had a good central location though.
Aside from being a popular place to start the Camino León is just a beautiful city, so I spent time walking around.
I started seeing shells and arrows, the Camino waymarkers, and I couldn’t believe this was happening in real life.
I heard about the Friends of the Camino in León, Asociación de Amigos del Camino de Santiago de León, so I went to their office to get my credencial and my shell, but I walked away with so much more than that.
Angel and Conchi equipped me with all the information I needed. They gave me a diagram with all of the elevation changes along the way. They told me which stretches would be most difficult, especially going downhill. They gave me a list of every town between León and Santiago and what services/accommodations were available in each.
Angel even walked me to a store where I could find walking sticks. If your Camino will take you through León PLEASE go see them.
When I arrived in León I had everything I would need with me for the entire Big Trip, but I wouldn’t need all of that for the Camino, nor would it be practical to carry it. Luckily, Spain has set up an infrastructure to support the Camino and pilgrims.
The postal service in Spain, Correos, has a service where you can mail things ahead to the post office in Santiago. You pay for the shipping and then they’ll hold your package at the main post office in Santiago for free for 15 days. After that it’s €1 per day. I found the post office in León and mailed a large box to Santiago.
I had heard about masses that were held for pilgrims, and although I’m not Catholic I wanted to attend one before starting the Camino. I found it at the Basílica de San Isidoro, and I felt comforted.
So this was really it; I was really going to go through with this.
When I arrived in León I was still feeling scared and way in over my head. How was I ever going to do this? I felt nuts for even trying. Then I saw the Catedral de León. I looked up and realized I wan’t going to be alone in my walk. I felt a sudden calm and light wash over me. I was ready to do it.