A Pilgrimage, or El Camino for Women Traveling Alone
by Stephanie Dale
The current resurgence of interest in pilgrimage has brought with it two surprises: firstly, most people walking El Camino outside the peak summer months are over 50 - and most of those are women.
And it is always always women who approach me to ask about walking El Camino - the ancient pilgrim route across Spain. There are many pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela; the most popular is the trail from St Jean Pied du Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain's north western corner.
First, some facts: this pilgrim route is 900kms and takes most people 30-35 days. It is well marked by painted yellow arrows and scallop shells to lead you all the way. The trail takes you through farms and forests, villages, towns and cities. Within a day's walk, there is always an albergue, or refugio, pilgrim refuges that offer dormitory accommodation for a small fee on a first in first served basis. For me, by far the best time of year to do this walk is late summer - this way you avoid the big crowds and you walk the turning season, summer to autumn (and because autumn is such a visible season, it is a visually spectacular time of year to walk).
Women at a turning point in their lives often look to El Camino for inspiration, almost as a rite of passage into the next stage of life . . . they are longing to do it - but are often concerned about doing it alone.
Here's some comfort: just do it - there are so many pilgrims on this particular road these days, you will never be alone if you don't want to be. Pilgrims tend to walk in little bands, stretched out along the roads. There is always good company to be kept and it's easy enough to walk a little ahead or behind if you'd like some time alone.
At the end of each night, the refugios are filled with laughing chatting newfound friends and companions, some cooking meals at the refuge, others heading out to small restaurants. Always they are keeping the company of strangers, people walking alone who have found companionship among others sharing an almost out of this world experience.
Best of all, you don't need to be superfit for this particular route - just competent on your feet.
Because even though pilgrimage is a physical act, and it is the physical body that must bear the load, it is also a transformative spiritual experience. Pilgrimage has taught me discipline, presence, perseverance, motivation and acceptance. The lessons of the road changed my life forever.
Lesson #1 of the road: Keep going.
Pilgrimage teaches you to keep going - forward. It teaches that your only obligation is to this moment, right here beneath your feet; there is no 'there'. Santiago de Compostela might be your destination, but it is irrelevant if you do not take the next step.
Lesson #2 of the road: This too will pass.
Everything, no matter how agonizing it appears to be, will pass. The weather is too hot? Keep going, it will pass. The weather is too cold? Keep going, it will pass. The weight on your shoulders is killing you? Keep going, it will pass. Your feet are tortured? Keep going, it will pass. Your spirits are miserable? Keep going, it will pass. You get the idea.
Pilgrimage teaches you to meet life, as it is, as you are.
"Pilgrimage is the art of ancient travel, a subpoena from the heart that defies all common sense. The pilgrim is not unlike a comet, burning off all that is futile and unnecessary until all that is left is the essential, unmalleable core. The pilgrim walks the Earth, walks the wheel, walks the turning seasons, surrendering all of who she is and all she thinks she knows and all she thinks she wants to the road and the weather."
Ed Note: Stephanie Dale is an award-winning Australian journalist and author of the newly released travel memoir, My Pilgrim's Heart. Read the excellent reviews on Amazon.com