Unknown Found: Finding My Way on Spain's Camino de Santiago

Unknown Found: Finding My Way on Spain's Camino de Santiago

Written by Shannon O’Donnell on

Shannon O'Donnell is a long-term traveler who has been on the road since 2008 and has lived everywhere from Southeast Asia to Barcelona, where she now calls home. She travels slowly and supports responsible tourism along the way, winning numerous awards for her work advocating for the communities impacted by travel and tourism.

Unknown Found: Finding My Way on Spain's Camino de Santiago

When my nieces and nephews reach middle school, they know it’s time to start planning an adventure—I promised them each that I would take them somewhere in the world they find intriguing. My oldest niece backpacked across Southeast Asia with me in 2008, and my nephews and I took a month-long road trip of the Yucatan Peninsula in 2014. It surprised me when the last one announced that she wanted to hike the Camino with me—the Camino de Santiago Frances is a 500 mile (800 kilometer) pilgrimage in Spain. She wasn’t an avid hiker, but with face of high school just around the corner, the Camino promised us both the opportunity to go on a technology detox and take a close look at our lives.

Undertaking this long walk meant not only time for self-reflection, but five weeks of daily mileage counts that topped 15 miles (25 kilometers) a day on the regular. Neither of us knew quite what to expect from the Camino de Santiago Frances—the route we chose among the handful of popular paths snaking across southern Europe. Our route would start in the south of France, cross the Pyrenees mountains, and steadily make its way to Santiago de Compostela, the town in northwestern Spain where all pilgrims finish.

Finding Our Way

A core tenant of the Camino is that you should “walk your own Camino.” The word camino means way or path in Spanish, and hikers mean it literally and figuratively. There is no “right way” to do it, and walking the Camino with a kid meant we were already on a different path that others. That took adjustment from us both. Neither of us are hikers, and forums online claimed anyone can walk the Camino, given enough time and motivation. We took that to heart, and found that, while true, it also put a shine on the very real physical and mental blocks it takes to stare at 33 days of long-distance hiking with a backpack strapped to your person.

I’d love to say that I was the paragon of strength for my niece—that the Camino never broke me and it was all roses and sunshine, that I got her there as the fearless adult leading her forward. The truth is, we both traded our moments of reckoning—our moments of feeling defeated, sad, and confused. One morning as we strapped on our gear at the crack of dawn, she laid down the law with me: she would carry my daypack and hers and she wouldn’t take no for an answer. I had twinged my hip the day before and tried to push through like a martyr, but she realized before I did that we had to rely on each other if we hoped to reach the end.

Over the neverending march of days, we traded and shared joys, too. If you want true insight into the mind of a teenager in your life, turn off data on their cell phone and listen to their stream fears, dreams, and hope. We learned how to cope with what seemed like impossible mountains looming ahead—it’s easy to say we did it one step at a time (which we did), but we manifested our own joy as we chugged up those Spanish mountains. The song I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) by the Proclaimers became our theme song while we photographed an endless parade of historic churches, and while we laughed with new friends as we walked ever onward toward Santiago.

Weeks later, with dust and crime baked into every crevice of our hiking shoes, we arrived at the final seashell—the symbol leading pilgrims along the way—and stood in the towering shade of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. When we both took our first step all those weeks before, we had no idea what would await on the other side of 500 miles. Arriving together, exhausted, overwhelmed, and feeling accomplished, we looked back to realize no amount of online advice or preparation could have prepared us for what it would be like to find our unknowns on the path to Santiago.

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