The Hardest Part of the Camino de Santiago: Return to Society

Camino de Santiago mom and daughter pilgrims
Mom and daughter walk the Camino de Santiago together – here at O Cebreiro Pass

The hardest part of walking the Camino de Santiago was not walking all day in the elements, not gasping my way uphill or trying to keep from skidding downhill as my knees screamed at me, not scrounging for excess clothes because Delta lost our gear, not carrying the weight of our fears on our backs, not carrying toilet tissue  with you or begging blister meds from strangers because yours got lost in transit and the last town’s pharmacia was closed when you arrived.  No, the hardest part of the pilgrimage was my re-entry back into society.

Hobbit-worthy forests
Hobbit-worthy forests so green that they hurt the eyes

After being alone with Nature and Deity and Meditation and figuring out so many things in our lives while pushing through the physical difficulties (some of us more than others), we were ready to reach Santiago and visit the Cathedral.   We’d been warned by a pilgrim on her 7th Camino that we might have difficulty as we left Lavacolla, heading into Santiago, passing parking lots and more industrialized areas on our way into the old city. We were also warned about the day-trippers– the young adults bussed in for a few kilometers’ walk to finish the Camino.  It seemed like sacrilege at the time, much I suppose as it seemed to others who knew we didn’t walk the entire 500 miles, which was a matter of time off from work rather than desire.

Level ground at last on the Camino
Level ground at last on the Camino!

Rather than trudge into Santiago at sunset, which was around 10 PM,  we made an early night of it and rose early the last morning to walk through heavy fog toward the city.  When I say fog, I mean fog that is one second away from becoming rain.  Eerie and beautiful and perfect solitude for the last kilometers.  The fog had not yet burned off when bussed-in day-trippers overtook us, with their tiny or non-existent backpacks, loud radios playing, smoking, and….suddenly….complete irreverence for the sacred feeling of the journey coming to an end.  It was jarring.

Straight uphill
Nevermind all the treadmill inclines and months of training. Nothing prepared me for going from sea level to this!

So was Santiago as we found ourselves in streets, cars, concrete, noise for what seemed forever before we reached the wall of the old city.  Yet, once inside the old city, the cathedral area, the museums, and shops full of Celtic music and crafts, we were back in time again, back to Early Medieval life captured in stone.

Camino countryside
Beautiful, serene countryside lends itself to a meditative trot.

But  even so, that wasn’t the society I was used to.  I was still technically “on vacation” or “on pilgrimage” until I set foot in Florida.  The hardest part was returning to the States.  We landed in Orlando, where I’d met my daughter for the pilgrimage, at about 4AM according to my new body clock…not even dark in Florida in late spring.  I couldn’t take my time to get through jet lag and rest up before returning to work because I had a deadline for Personnel for tasks I wasn’t allowed to start before my trip and had to be completed 2 days after my return.  I got the shock of my life the next morning, 3AM Florida time, when I rose, showered, and headed out for my home 7 hours away.

Uphill both ways
Sometimes it seemed I was walking uphill, both ways

I threw my backpack in my car, hugged my daughter goodbye, and got in the car.  It took me a while to fumble with the key and crank the car, then drive it a mile to the nearest gas station.  It was embarrassing how long it took me to turn on my headlights.  There…back in “civilization,” I went into panic mode.

Crossing Stream
My back was hurting badly when I crossed this stream, but I barely remember the pain…only the beauty and feeling of oneness with Nature.

My gas tank was sitting on empty as I pulled up slowwwwwwwwwly to the tank.  I sat there in the car at the near-deserted gas station at 3:30 AM I couldn’t remember  how to turn on the windshield wipers to knock off the pelting rain of incoming Tropical Storm Beryl.  I couldn’t remember how to open the gas tank.  Or how to pump gas.  I couldn’t remember how to use my credit card to pay for it!  I felt I’d been away from all these mundane things for a century.   Credit cards and automobiles felt a lifetime away!

Walking through Fog on the Camino
Walking through drippy fog on the way into Santiago

I was glad, too, for the empty roads because 30mph seemed way too speedy as I crawled onto the freeway.  Several hours later, I’d adjusted enough to maintain a decent speed on I-75, but I might as well have been flying.

Struggling with altitude sickness
Struggling with altitude sickness on the Camino

For that first week, I was really out of it.  I was also in the process of changing job responsibilities, and I found myself relying on analogies to the Camino for important decisions at work, at home, spiritually, and romantically.  Nothing was the same as before.  Old fears had slipped away.  New understandings had replaced them.

View of Santiago from the museum balcony
View of Santiago from the Cathedral museum balcony

For many pilgrims returning from Camino, there’s a tendency to declutter, to give away possessions, to simplify.  For others, their old jobs just don’t hold any purpose anymore and the money isn’t enough.  For me, my re-entry was more about a deeper understanding of my place in the Universe and enjoying life in the moment more, figuring out what’s really important to me, and worrying much, much less than I used to.

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