Some 20-odd years’ ago, Shirley MacLaine’s The Camino introduced me to the pilgrimage, and what stood out most was that it was a lone journey, an inner quest. As a woman traveling solo to process the first 49 years of my life and, in fact, turn 50 on El Camino de Santiago, I was prepared for reflection. As a non-Catholic, I anticipated sitting quietly and listening during religious conversations over dinners in albergues. These expectations were flipped upside down when I became a “Snail Sister” and developed an international family on the French Way.
After stepping off an international flight at Charles De Gaulle airport, I hurried to a restroom to freshen up before boarding my first train ride toward St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port. While I was standing at a sink, a woman rushed in, blurted, “Are you walking the Camino? This’ll be my fourth time. Will you watch this?”, plopped her pack down beside me, and headed for a stall, red and pink braids bouncing behind her.
By the time I reached my destination that evening, she had guided me through automated train ticket retrieval, we’d talked twice on platforms between trains and drank a beer in Bayonne with soon-to-be pilgrims from Ireland, and she’d literally dropped me off at my albergue.
Pamela (from Canada) and I, as it turned out, were close in age and height – I’m 5’3 (what I like to call “on the tall end of short”) – and so we found, as we trekked over the top of the Pyrenees, that we walked at about the same pace. By the time we reached Albergue de Peregrinos de Roncesvalles, we’d made friends with Marianne and Michelle from Denmark, Camila from Brazil, and Marie from France, among others. That evening, we sat at dinner with Marie, who was trying to describe my and Pamela’s hiking style and having difficulty accessing a word in English. “You know,” she said, “those animals that wear their house on their back?
“Snails?” someone responded. Laughter followed.
By evening’s end, we’d become the “Snail Sisters.” (And, it was true that we did have to leave a little earlier than our long-legged counterparts to arrive at the next destination at the same time.)
Before long, Pamela started a WhatsApp thread, and we were collecting phone numbers. Not only did we announce social gatherings, like our (infamous) “Pinchos pub crawl in Pamplona,” but also, pilgrims used it to convey helpful information like, “Avoid X albergue – bed bugs!”
Through such electronic means, seeing one another along the road on any given day, dinners at albergues, and meeting each other out afterward socially some evenings,” a number of us, from across the globe, got to know one another. I learned that reasons relating to premature widowhood and other losses to cancer survival and bad breakups informed El Camino journeys.
This experience, getting to know folks from around the world, would always have been valuable to me, but I walked the first section of the French Way in July 2018, when in my homeland, the USA, political division between the left and the right was escalating and social media, ugly (understatement). It was difficult not to allow that toxic cultural climate to affect me. For us to become what I’d later dub an “international family” was especially precious to me for this reason – to have confirmation of the commonalities shared between us as humans, crossing language and cultural barriers, to smile and laugh with everyone from an elderly Japanese man to a Spanish child – renewed my hope.
I was set to arrive in Los Arcos (“the arches”) on my big birthday. What I didn’t know was that Pamela had excluded me from a Camino text, on which my special day was announced. When it arrived, I experienced hike-by birthday wishes, and that evening when we entered our albergue a French woman I’d never even met rushed up to me and asked, “Are you the birthday girl?” She gave me a hug and a kiss on each cheek. After Pamela and I settled in, it was time for a “Paella Plaza Party” in my honor. Talk about a memorable end to my hike!
While I still had time for introspection, especially while walking during early mornings as the sun rose, the universe knew what I needed better than I and sent it to me wrapped in warmth, support, and laughter.
Janine Harrison is the author of two books, Turning 50 on El Camino de Santiago: A Solo Woman’s Travel Adventure (Memoir/guidebook) and Weight of Silence (Poetry collection about Haiti, all poet and press proceeds donated to Haitian Connection). Visit Janine at her website Janine Harrison or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.
Check out my book, A Wild Woman’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago for practical advice on preparing to walk the Camino de Santiago including snippets from my journey and stories from Camino pilgrims.