Lessons Learned from
El Camino de Santiago
By Jen Jacobson
Years ago, Rochester native Laura Weiss first heard about el Camino de Santiago (“The Way of St. James”)—a hiking pilgrimage snaking across Spain that ends in the city of Santiago de Compostela. But it wasn’t until 2018, knowing she was ready to leave her job and take on a new adventure, that she decided to use the trip to transition from one life stage to another.
ON THE TRAIL
Weiss began her journey on January 24, 2019, in the French city of Bayonne, near the France-Spain border. While many routes of the Camino are possible, she chose the Camino Frances (the “French Way”)—the most popular route, and a roughly 562-mile journey.
Weiss walked for 36 days. She would depart a city or village in the morning and generally arrive in a new location between 1 and 5 p.m. There she would do chores—laundry, shop at the grocery store—and catch up on messages from family and friends, then go out to dinner with other pilgrims. At these villages, a “pilgrim’s meal” of bread, wine and multiple courses was often offered at a discounted rate. She spent her nights eating, laughing and sharing stories.
A SHARED EXPERIENCE
The pilgrims were diverse, from people in lower 20s all the way to 60s and 70s. They were women and men, many solo, but some in groups, from vastly different backgrounds. “One thing that surprised me was how close I got to the people I walked with,” says Weiss. “The Camino nourishes conversation. I found myself opening up, and the people were vulnerable and respectful. We knew that we were all on our individual journeys.”
Even with a language barrier, relationships developed. “Two people I walked with most of the way—one from France and one from Italy— spoke neither Spanish or English. By the end I felt very close to them because we had that shared experience. I didn’t need to know why they were walking the Camino, but I was a part of their story and they were a part of mine.”
SPACE AND GRATITUDE
Walking full days through diverse terrain was challenging. Although it took 10 days for her feet to stop aching, Weiss persisted, eventually arriving at the traditional ending in Santiago de Compostela. In fact, she felt so good that she continued a few more days to the northwestern Spanish coast, which she says felt like her journey’s true ending.
The trip proved to be the mental nourishment that Weiss sought. “I had just come from a very busy and challenging time in my life, and I just needed some space. The Camino was that space for me,” she says. “Sometimes I thought I should be thinking about what I should do with the next stage of my life or processing what I last went through, but then I realized what I should do is stop thinking and just focus on my surroundings and conversations with people around me. ”
Weiss says, “I felt extremely grateful to be able to have the physical health and the time in my life to do it, and I realize that not everyone is gifted to have that. I was so grateful for the things I was seeing, the way my body was supporting me, and the people I met.”
GO FOR IT
While some people were surprised that Weiss was going on such a trip alone, she embraced the chance at traveling solo. “I think you have to be confident that you can do it, even if you’re anxious,” she says. “What helped me was research beforehand. I spent hours on online forums and Facebook groups connecting with people who’d done the trip.” She was careful to not get into any situation that made her nervous. “If I was walking through an area that seemed sketchy, I’d ask another pilgrim to join me.”
“Go for it!” says Weiss with a smile. “Be safe, but don’t be afraid. And pack good shoes.”
Jen Jacobson is a local writer and editor.