The Joy of Walking Alone

IMG_0791Ever since I first heard about the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain, I knew I wanted to walk it alone. Back then, I was part of a weekly mountaineering club and I was fit as a fiddle. The long distance didn’t scare me – it excited me. I wasn’t looking for a pilgrimage or an outlet for a mid-life crisis. I just wanted “a good, long walk”. The camino seemed to offer that and I knew instinctively that wanted to experience it alone.

If I had walked it then in the early Noughties, I would have experienced a more rustic camino for sure. Friends tell me there was never any hot water for showers and there was a lot less accommodation on offer (not just in terms of variety but also in terms of quantity). They also tell me that speaking Spanish (or even better, Catalan, Basque, Galician, etc.) was a must. Speaking English and expecting any level of understanding or service was….well, misguided.

I’ll never know what it would have been like to walk camino then. Perhaps it was a more pure experience, but I know that when I did walk it was the right time for me.

I think timing is important, as is being in the right head space/heart space.

Magic happens, things “flow”, and good surprises come into our lives. Plus, I like hot showers and I liked the option of staying in hostels that were well spaced along the route. Call me a wuss but sometimes transformation comes from simple kindness rather than hardship. 🙂

So, I’m happy I walked at the “right time” for me because I was ready for a big shift. I’m also happy that I walked it alone because it allowed me to have a truly transformative experience – one that gives me strength every day since.

People asked whether I was scared of walking alone. The honest answer was a partial Yes. In my core, I knew I was “good for it”. I’ve hiked and camped in the wild for years, without trails, and without official campsites and all their amenities. I knew I could go rustic and survive just fine. I’ve learned to rely on my gut and it is the first, and most important thing I take with me when travelling. When my gut is content then I know I can manage everything else. And my gut was 100% in on the camino plan.

But still, I was nervous about the distance. I was nervous about how remote I might be, especially in a foreign country. As a woman travelling alone, I had to think about my personal safety in a way I might not have considered if I were part of a couple or a group. I couldn’t pretend to feel entirely at ease – after all, I didn’t really know what lay ahead of me. There might have been thieves, rapists, or knife-wielding junkies…and what would I do then? Not knowing the path ahead was the first part of my fear: not knowing how I would cope with, or respond to that path was the second part. Together, the two parts had me quietly terrified.

But I did know that I wanted to experience camino on my own terms. I didn’t want the pressure of keeping pace with anyone, making plans with anyone, or maintaining conversation with anyone in particular. Considering how structured my life had become (both personally and professionally), my desire to go solo was a radical change of pace. Spontaneity and “going with the flow” had all but entirely disappeared from my world. So, I purposefully didn’t have hard and fast plans for camino: I wanted to keep all my plans loose.

Walking alone allowed me to do that.

Somehow, in this increasingly busy, very Western world of mine, choosing to be alone was something that made others nervous. They misread my choice as some sort of breakdown or irresponsible escape. This is not how newly married young women should behave! And yet, I knew in my belly that this was the most sane decision I had made in years. I think it’s one of the few times in my life where I very selfishly got in touch with what I wanted, and took it. No compromises and no apologies.

Aside from being concerned about my safety, why should such a decision have made others afraid? Have we forgotten what it is to switch off? Have we lost what it means to be unstructured, unplugged, and idle for a while?

I think we have.

I was never idle on camino but walking alone gave me an opportunity to be unplugged and without a set schedule. I relished it.

After just one day of walking, all the fear lifted from my heart and evaporated along with the early morning mist on the Pyrenees. My body remembered what it felt like to move. My mind remembered what it felt like to slow down. And both body and mind remembered what it felt like to work in tandem.

Along the way, people asked if I was afraid walking by myself. The answer then was a hearty No. Of course I wanted to make friends along the way, and I did. Of course, I wanted to share conversation and meals with other people. I wanted laughter and connection, I wanted to experience some sense of community. Happily, I got all of these things. But I also wanted to be alone and quiet for a while. I needed some time to myself.

I won’t lie: there were times that being alone was really hard. There were days when I was physically spent, and the thoughts of finding somewhere to sleep, or eat, or tackling my laundry were utterly exhausting. In those moments, it would have been nice to share some of the load with another person. And I spent a couple of evenings eating my dinner in a dodgy back-street restaurant or on a park bench in the village square, instead of having a hearty “pilgrim’s meal” with my peers. Sometimes, breaking into a new gang was just too much work and it was easier (though rarely more fun) to eat by myself.

Walking alone demands a certain endurance: I had to figure things out and keep going, no matter what. Walking alone also demanded a certain confidence: I often invited someone to sit at my table for coffee or asked whether I could join someone else’s table.

Walking alone demands a certain self-sufficiency.

But it allowed me to be myself in a liberating and lovely way. It allowed me to make plans to suit myself, and then cancel them or change them if I felt like it. Walking alone gave me full permission to be social and anti-social, committed and flakey. Walking alone allowed me to enjoy my own company and stop caring about what others expected, needed, or demanded from me. For the first time in a very long time, it allowed me to be really honest about what I think, feel, and want in the world.

It brought me tremendous contentment. It even brought me joy.

It still does.

Occasionally I’ll share a walk with someone but most of the time, getting out alone is my way of clearing my head. It keeps me grounded. It keeps me sane. It keeps me feeling like me.

Camino reminded me that it’s okay to take time and space in the world. It remined me that it’s okay to be myself – even if that is a hermit-like introvert sometimes. 🙂