On Thru-Hiking

I hiked the Camino de Santiago in 2008, fresh out of college. My last semester of classes, in fall of 2007, my favorite professor announced he was going to be leading a class on the Camino the following summer, and I jumped at the chance to go (which may not be an exaggeration–I’m pretty sure after class was over I probably tripped over a desk trying to get to him fast enough to ask if I could still go even though I would have graduated by then).

The Camino has influenced my life, undoubtedly in more ways than I’m even aware of. Even though it’s been over a decade, I think about it all the time. Places, people will come back to me. I’ll hear a song and can tell you exactly what the cafe I heard it played in looked like. I tell stories about it–my husband has probably heard me start more stories with “On the Camino” than he has any other period in my life before him, and I was amusing my five year old the other day with tales about bridge-jumping. I’ve been thinking about it a lot more lately, in part because of my ever-increasing involvement with organizations like Hike It Baby and websites like The Dyrt; in part because of moving to a new state, and being forced to reevaluate just about everything about our lives; and in part because I just finished reading the second book by Lucy and Susan Letcher, aka: The Barefoot Sisters, about their yo-yo hike on the Appalachian Trail.

On the Camino, I met several pilgrims who were Walking the Way for their second, third, or even fifth time. Thru-hikers seek out the “Triple Crown” of long-distance trails in the US, or repeat thru-hikes after their initial completion. We discussed this on the Camino frequently, both as a class, and with pilgrims I met while over there. I even used these repeat thru-hikes as the topic for the paper I wrote as the graded portion of that class.

If you’ve ever done any sort of long-distance hike like this, there is a peace on it that you really can’t find anywhere else. You have one responsibility–to walk–and you understand intimately (and usually painfully), how much your possessions can weigh you down. Thru-hiking is a privilege. There are far too many people in the world who don’t have what they need, much less have the luxury of being able to decide what is actually essential and what isn’t. And the social norms in a long-distance hike allow for a lot of the simplicity that underprivileged people in the “real world” just don’t have. You can get by with wearing the same stinky outfit several days in a row. You can sleep in an open space beside total strangers, knowing that your gear will still be there the next day. You have the freedom to live unencumbered by material possessions, while knowing it is a choice you made, not one made for you.

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First day on the trail. I think my pack weighed around 40lbs. I regularly carry more than that now when I hike with my kids, but on this trip I mailed home some gear I quickly realized I wouldn’t need.

In my early twenties, I came home thinking it seemed to easy to “keep the Camino.” To take that minimalist lifestyle and move it off the trail. Fewer things. Fewer responsibilities. Comfort in the unknown, and in just trusting in the universe, and in the kindness of strangers.

Now, I’m older. I’m married, and have kids, and responsibilities, and debts. I find that more and more, I am scattered. Moving from Virginia was far more complicated than it needed to be, because of how scattered we are. Our new home in Tennessee is a lesson in chaos, with Christmas ornaments, hammers, unpaid bills, and empty picture frames piled on our bookshelves. We are halfway. We were, halfway. And we can attribute it to our move, but it is also just the heaviness of stagnation.

On a long-distance hike, you are always moving. You are forced to become aware of your place in the galaxy; and of your smallness. At home, we dissolve. In the same way we scatter our possessions, our minds scatter. We exist in too many places. In our bedroom. Our kids’ rooms. The kitchen. At work, at the homes of our family and friends. In the errands we have to run. In our digital lives.

I am not alone, when I say this is a large reason why I hike–to get just a small taste of the feeling that we are just a tiny part of a much larger universe.

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Sunrise, a month into our trip. Near the highest point we would reach on the entire pilgrimage.

I sit here now, looking at piles of paperwork for a dozen chapters of my life. Dirty clothes and clean clothes nearly intermixed on the floor. A box of paint supplies from a project my husband completed while the kids and I were visiting family in Virginia.

It isn’t easy to “keep the Camino.” In addition to the lack of showering, the food that would barely be palatable if served in someone’s home, and the blind–and well-placed–trust in strangers, the level of oneness with the world around you found on a thru-hike is almost a break from social schemas in and of itself.

I miss the Camino. I am ready for another thru-hike, for another living reminder of those lessons. I seek the trail in an effort to get back, but haven’t been able to find it. And I need it–not just for myself, but so my children are not growing up tangled in my mess, and can find their own Camino.

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The border between France and Spain, approximately 13km into our first day of walking.

*** These are all unedited pictures from my trip in 2008. I wanted to edit them, but felt it better to keep them as they were. ***

Published by Whimsy & Wilderness Photography

I am a photographer and writer based in Chattanooga, TN, and adventuring around the southeastern United States with my husband and two children.

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