I clawed up the steep mountainside near León, Spain, digging my fingernails into clay to steady my body, pitched forward under my pack.
Step, claw. Step, claw. Step. Heavy clouds threatened to downpour. Wind whipped tendrils of hair across my face. My rain jacket whispered softly. Sweat stung my eyes. My quads burned. My lungs gasped. Focus, almost there.
It was July, 2018 and I was 330 miles into the French Way of El Camino de Santiago, a 560-mile blend of mountainous singletrack, pavement, farm road, and vineyard paths across Northern Spain. The Camino is actually a network of routes through Europe leading to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain and originates from a 9th-century Catholic pilgrimage to pray at St. James’s bones, allegedly buried in the cathedral there. In a normal year, some 300,000 people make the trek.
I didn’t embark on a pilgrimage, as millions do, for religious reasons. I was raised in a liberal Catholic household, and though I had an inherent understanding of the Camino’s Christian context, I went for a life reset. As I approached 30, I was tired. Tired of noise and disconnection. Of forgetting what I ate for breakfast; rapid-fire emails; bowing to bosses; scrolling through people’s curated lives on social media. So, I quit my job in publishing to hike The Camino solo and contemplate life’s two fundamental questions: Who am I and why am I here? I knew, having hiked the final 60-mile stretch from Santiago de Compostela to Finisterre twice before, that it wasn’t a vacation. It was a soul-seeking journey. No one else could carry my pack, or walk the miles for me.
Like 186,198 other pilgrims walking the French Way that year, I carried a pilgrim’s passport. It became my most sacred possession, wrapped safely in plastic, tucked deep in my pack. A 70-something Frenchman had presented it to me when I registered my hike in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France. Colorful ink stamps from the Camino’s historic sites sprinkled the card-stock—testament to hundreds of miles on foot. To the Santiago Pilgrims Office, it would be proof enough to record my name on a Latin certificate saying I completed the trail. To me, it held memories, and was my ticket to low-budget beds at pilgrim-reserved hostels.