When I tell people I walked across Spain, their first question is, “Did you go alone?” It’s never a question about experience or life lessons. It’s an expression of concern that I might have traveled to a foreign country by myself. The only answer I can give is that I went alone but not really.
I heard about El Camino de Santiago de Compostela in high school. My Spanish teacher had struggled along the famed pilgrimage route to the tomb of St. James, and as she was about to give up, an old man offered his walking stick. “Take it,” he insisted, “I have cancer, and I don’t need it anymore.”
She finished the trek with that cane and hung it in her classroom, where it strengthened her in more ways than one. I wanted to find that strength.
I went alone for two reasons: I suddenly had time and money, and everyone I knew lacked one or both of those. So I took off alone, landed alone, lost my backpack alone, and walked 500 miles in the company of extraordinary people.
A friendly taxi driver named Juan checked me in at a hostel in Pamplona while the airport searched for my backpack. Immediately, I received an invitation to dinner by the World Harmony Runners, on their way from Portugal up through Scandinavia and finally to Austria, spreading a message of unity and peace to schoolchildren across Europe. Together, we chopped vegetables, dined, and laughed together as long-time friends before parting in the morning.
Once I actually started walking, I encountered many more amazing people. Four French ladies guided me across the snowy Pyrenees after I lost my way, though they spoke no English and I spoke very basic French. I shared a few kilometers with a Korean globetrotter in search of her faith. I walked a bit with two college buddies from Germany on their last hurrah before work separated them. I shared a meal with a Spanish cook who had vowed to spend the rest of his days on pilgrimage after he had been the lone survivor of a shipwreck. Now, he lived off the kindness of others, and he was encouragingly healthy.
My more regular companions were a poet, two pâtissiers, and a clam shop owner, but they all disappeared about midway, after which I was largely alone and saw amazing things that they had not planned to see. When I met up with them again in Santiago, I found I had also avoided the bed bugs that they encountered.
So while I assure the worriers that I was seldom alone, the truth is, being alone can actually be a positive thing. Who walks with you on life’s journey is a small part of the whole experience, and as Andrea, the Italian hippie, noted as we walked past a farm, “If you spend too much time looking at the cow poop in your path, you’ll miss the baby cows in the field.”