I wrote this almost two years ago, about a month after returning home from the Camino.
I took one look at my toothbrush the other night and burst into tears.
There was nothing wrong with the toothbrush or anything else in the bathroom. It’s just that I’m still using the toothbrush I used in France and Spain, the toothbrush that accompanied me on a walk of almost twelve weeks along an old pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.
I’ve been back in Canada for over a month now. I don’t think about the Camino de Santiago all the time, but I’m reminded of it a lot. I tell some of the Camino stories that spring to mind to my family and friends, sometimes, but they don’t really understand. It’s one of those you-had-to-have-been-there situations.
Other times, when I’m alone, a Camino memory can leave me in tears, as my toothbrush did the other evening.
I miss it. I miss the walking, and the feeling that for the first time in my life my body was capable of doing whatever I asked of it. I miss the friendships: all the interesting, crazy people. I miss being outside all the time. I miss stopping at bars in the mornings for cafe con leches, and in the evening for cheap red wine. I miss waking up and really knowing that I didn’t know what would happen that day—where I would sleep (though I might have had an idea), whom I would meet, what I would see.
I even miss limping up and down stairs (it made me feel like a “real” pilgrim). I even miss dorm rooms.
Most of all, I miss the feeling that I was exactly where I was meant to be at almost every moment of the trip. I miss the intensity of it, the way the colours seemed brighter, the wind stronger, the heat warmer than ever before.
It’s not that it was a perfect journey. I got sick and had a fever for a few days. I was sometimes grumpy and insecure, sometimes lonely, occasionally angry. Sleeping in a dorm room night after night, often with snorers, was enough to drive anyone crazy.
But it never occurred to me not to walk every step between Le Puy-en-Velay in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I never once considered giving up and taking the bus or going home.
And now that I am home, I’m not quite sure what to do about it.
Part of the problem is the arrows, or rather the lack of arrows. Across France, I followed the red and white waymarks of the GR-65. In Spain, these switched to the occasional scallop shell (traditionally associated with the Santiago pilgrimage) and a lot of yellow arrows. Occasionally the route branched and I had a choice between two or three routes. But for the most part, I didn’t have to think too much about it. As long as I saw the occasional arrow, I knew I was on the right track.
After we’d reached Santiago, a Canadian pilgrim-friend talked about becoming a pop singer after returning home. Her first hit single would be Where Have All the Yellow Arrows Gone? Her pop star aspirations were a joke, but the sentiment wasn’t.
I stayed with my parents for a few weeks on my return, and walked a lot. There was a school near their house, with yellow arrows directing cars around the parking lot. I had a strong urge, every time I walked past, to follow the arrows in circles around the lot. I miss the arrows that much.
On the Camino, I’d been looking forward to having my own bed in a room to myself after almost 12 weeks of staying in a different bed almost every night. But in all those beds I’d never woke up disoriented; I always knew exactly where I was. I had my first experience of waking up and wondering where I was in Santiago. I felt the same way for the first few nights back home. I’d wake up in the dark with a panicky feeling that I wasn’t where I belonged.
All of my Camino friends who I’ve been in touch with seem to have experienced something like what I call my reverse culture shock. There are articles and blog entries on the Internet that refer to the post-Camino blues some of us experience. It makes sense, I guess. It was such a huge experience, even for the pilgrims who just walked for a few weeks, and now it’s over. And, as Nancy L. Frey points out, most of us don’t have much help integrating our Camino experiences into “real life.”
I guess we have to do the best we can. I’ve worn my scallop shell earrings almost every day since I returned. I’ve sorted through my photos and shared them with friends through Facebook, and looked at my friends’ Camino photos. I write about the Camino, sometimes.
And then there are the intangibles. A lot of us seem to walk the Camino during a transition period in our lives, or when we want something to change. I still don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life. I’m not even sure what the next step should be. I haven’t undergone a huge transformation.
But there are little changes, maybe. I do seem to be better at having less privacy, less time alone. Different walking companions have, perhaps, made me a little more patient with people who don’t want to do things on my schedule, with the “right” timing. After living out of a backpack, I appreciate small pleasures like fresh blackberries and washing machines.
I still worry. About jobs. About money. About not being settled. About what to do with my life.
But I’m not quite as afraid as I used to be. My journey, somehow, has made me a little better able to face the uncertainties of life.