It was 2010-11 and I was going through a bit of a mid-life crisis.
I was turning 54 years old and starting to wonder what my life was really all about. Eight years before, I had changed careers for the second time, deciding that I’d had enough of working as a journalist for newspapers and wanting to do something different, so I became a public school teacher in small-town central Texas.
Growing up near the Gulf coast in Houston, I pretty much thought my hometown was the center of the universe. My family never went anywhere when I was a kid, aside from at least one trip to visit some Mexican border towns and a road trip to Colorado when I was 17. My mother knew I was leaving home as soon as I graduated high school, and she wanted the family to be together one last time before I took off.
Other than that, I’d never been anywhere, really, except for a day trip across the border at Niagara Falls when my wife and I went to visit her family in Erie, Pennsylvania. I had friends who had traveled the world and even lived overseas. Other school mates had grown up and become millionaires, Hall of Fame collegiate athletes, NCAA coaches – big-time stuff.
I felt like I had come up short.
Sure, I had a college degree, won some awards for newspaper reporting, had a house, a wife, kids, and was doing well now in education.
But … I’d never done anything BIG.
One day, I was talking to one of those high school friends who had lived much of her adult life overseas in various foreign countries. She mentioned something about this pilgrimage in northern Spain called the Camino de Santiago. She had never been there but had heard good things about it and encouraged me to do some research.
So that’s what I did.
Beginning around January 2011, I started researching the Camino on my trusty laptop. The more I read about it, the more I wanted to go. One thing I was attracted to were the stories about the spirituality of the place, and how it had changed people’s lives. People have told me since then that once the Camino gets a hold of you, it doesn’t let go. When the spirit gets inside you, there’s no turning back – you have to go.
And that’s exactly what happened.
Since I was now teaching school, I had time during summer vacation to take a trip. It sounded doable financially, and so I talked it over with my wife. She knew how miserable I was, and so she encouraged me to go. Research continued and I went to an REI store in Round Rock to buy a backpack, hiking shoes, and some other gear. I bought my plane tickets and made a reservation at the Hotel Europa in Pamplona to spend my first night.
When the big day came that June, I was nervous as hell. My wife drove me to the airport and as we got close, I told myself, “C’mon, man, it’s not like you’re going to jail or something!”
I flew from Killeen to Dallas, then got on a plane to Newark, where I had a couple hours layover, so I walked around the airport a little, had a beer, then headed to the gate for my overnight flight to Spain. As I walked up, I noticed people were boarding and I asked a young man standing there what flight this was, showing him my boarding pass.
“This one,” he said.
I did not take a cellphone with me and had forgotten to reset my watch. Five or ten minutes later and I might have missed my flight.
When I arrived the next morning at Barajas airport in Madrid – an incredibly huge facility where it can take 30 minutes to walk from the check-in counter to the departure gate – I found my bag (a large duffel with my backpack, hiking shoes, and trekking poles inside), and headed to ground transportation to find the bus to Pamplona.
When I stepped outside, it was sensory overload, and probably an onset of jet lag, since I hadn’t slept at all on the plane. There were people everywhere and buses all over the place, going here, going there, going to cities and towns all over the place – everywhere but Pamplona.
I’m using my broken Spanish to ask where my bus is, dragging this 50-pound bag around, and having no luck at all. Now, the anxiety is starting to kick in.
But I finally found the right bus, climbed aboard and made it to the somewhat dingy bus station downtown. I bought a ticket to Pamplona and sat down to wait, and as I sat there, listening to the garbled loudspeaker announcements (in Spanish), I looked around and asked myself, “What the hell have you done?”
A couple hours later, my bus arrived and a few hours after that, I was at the underground Pamplona bus station. Hotel Europa was supposed to be a short distance away but when I climbed a set of stairs and found myself standing on a busy sidewalk, I had no clue which way to go.
A young man was heading my way and I tried to ask him for directions: “Señor?” He shook his head and kept walking. Moments later, a friendly-looking young lady approached and I asked her, “Conoces Hotel Europa?”
She smiled and said (in Spanish), “Yes, I am going there now. Would you like to walk with me?” We chatted as we walked and she even offered to carry my bag at one point. In my book, “Camino: Laughter and Tears Along Spain’s 500-mile Camino de Santiago,” I referred to her as my Spanish angel.
After not one but two sleepless nights (I decided to stay two nights in Pamplona to rest up), I headed out into the countryside without a clue that I was beginning the adventure of a lifetime.
My backpack was way too heavy and I’m sure I was exhausted from the flight followed by two nights of tossing and turning, and I only made it as far as Uterga that first day, something like 8.7 miles, I think it was.
But something important – serendipitous? – happened.
This albergue where I spent the first night was out in the middle of nowhere, it seemed, and so when the hospitalera asked if I wanted dinner that night, I said, yes, and paid the extra $10 or whatever it was, and at that dinner I met a man named Tom, who looked like a Norwegian boat captain, spoke with a British accent, and lived in Spain.
I shared a table with Tom and a married couple from Germany, and they gave me some good advice about lightening my backpack and how to wear it properly (cinch it as tight as you can around your waist, Tom said, and then cinch it tighter), then it was off to bed upstairs.
When I woke up in the morning, everyone else was gone, so I bought some coffee from a machine, ate a piece of leftover French bread from the day before, and took off.
I ran into Tom again a day or two later at another albergue and we talked some more. We agreed to walk together the next day and soon became fast friends. We still are friends to this day, and I have spent the night at his home on the northwest coast a couple of times.
Spending most of my life as a major homebody, never living anywhere but Texas, that first Camino trip was mind-blowing. I started out literally terrified, 5,000 miles from home, all by myself, having no idea what was going to happen or what to expect.
It took four or five days before I started to get comfortable, and after about 10 days, I never wanted to leave. It must have been about day three, as I was walking alone through a giant cornfield or something, that the first wave of Camino spirituality took a hold.
As my feet shuffled through the dirt pathway, I thought about how many millions of feet had shuffled along the exact same way over past centuries. I realized somehow that everything was going to be all right.
Somehow I knew the Camino was going to take care of me – and it did.
I learned so many things, about myself and about the world. Mostly about the people of the world. Here’s something I discovered:
No matter where someone is from; no matter their race, creed, religion, background, social status, etc.; people everywhere are basically the same, deep down inside.
Everyone is looking for essentially the same three things in life: to be loved; to feel safe; to be happy.
I am pretty confident in saying that if it were up to the people – the regular folks – and not up to governments, there would be no war, no prejudice, no racism, no hatred. I truly believe that everyone on the planet would get along just fine.
To read John Clarke’s book, “Camino,” buy on Amazon or visit his website. Check him out on Facebook.
Check out my e-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. Click the link to download your copy.