At the beginning of the summer, I walked the Camino de Santiago. If you have never heard of the Camino (which literally means “the way”), it is a pilgrimage that starts somewhere in Europe (there are dozens if not more “ways”) and ends in Santiago, Spain.
The Camino that I chose to walk was the coastal Portuguese Camino. I started walking in the Cathedral in Lisbon, Portugal, and ended my walk in the Cathedral in Santiago, Spain. (643 km or 400 miles total)
It took me over a month to walk the Camino, meaning that in that month, I got up at 5:30 AM, started walking at 6 AM, and walked around 20 km by the afternoon. This daily routine had an accumulating effect on my psyche. It was only after I finished the Camino and returned home that I realized that walking helped me let go of some of the stuff festering in my mind and create new priorities.
I was not walking by myself. People from all around the world walk the Camino. The Pilgrimage office in Santiago counts the number of pilgrims arriving every day. More than two thousand pilgrims arrive in Santiago daily during the spring and summer.
I asked myself why so many people from different cultures are drawn to walk the Camino?
During my walk, I had many conversations with fellow pilgrims. I specifically remember a conversation with a Danish woman named Roxanne. It was mid-afternoon, and we already walked for 20 km or more on that day. I asked her if she planned to stop in the next town? Roxanne said, “no, I did not reach that state of mind yet that brings me peace.”
Thinking back on this conversation and so many similar ones I had with people of all ages. And reading research about the effects of walking, especially long-distance walks, on mental health, I came up with the following insights:
Walking combines the mental health benefits of physical activity with the benefits of spending time outdoors. That is true for walking in nature and, to a lesser degree, for walking in an urban environment.
Traditionally, a pilgrimage was a religious endeavor. Today many secular people use pilgrimage as an opportunity to step out of the treadmill of modern life, resolve existential crises or find a new meaning in life.
Keith Egan writes about the Camino:
“Rather, it (the Camino) is a reinvention of the contemporary phenomenon as a leisure pursuit, moving at a human speed and its deployment as a rejection of a particular form of modernity.”
Walking the Camino offers not just a different pace in life but also simplicity. Each morning you wake up with just one goal, following the arrow. Multitasking, a skill necessary for modern life, is useless when you just need to walk. Reducing your belonging to what can fit in your backpack is hugely freeing.
Many pilgrims I met on the Camino were trying to find meaning in life that had lost its purpose or direction. I met a father with three teens that walked the Camino after losing the teen’s mother and a woman that decided to walk the Camino after losing her husband of 40 years. Others took time off life after a divorce or following a job loss or retirement.
The walk is often painful. Most, if not all, pilgrims around me were engaged in rituals of taking care of their feet at the beginning and end of each day. But when you arrived at the end of the day on painful feet and exhausted, there was a high. So you felt resilient and empowered.
These feelings were transmuted from the physical to the emotional and mental. If I could walk through this hardship, I could face everything that life might throw at me, I told myself.
Long-distance walking is found to be associated with a decrease in stress, an increase in positive emotions, and the promotion of a sense of well-being and personal growth.
Long-distance walking is a relatively cost-effective way to increase well-being in the short term by decreasing blood pressure and stress levels and improving immune and brain function.
Researchers at New Mexico Highlands University (NMHU) found that the foot’s impact during walking sends pressure waves through the arteries and increases the supply of blood to the brain, which in turn increases focus and memory (did I mention that walking is beneficial for preventing dementia)
In the long term, walking reduces weight and depression and increases the good fat HDL.
During my research, I discovered that the Camino Santiago is only one of many trails to explore. From the Appalachian trail on the East Coast of America to the Cross Israel Trail and the St Andrews way in Scotland. Wherever you live, a long walk can allow you to step out of your everyday life, reevaluate, and rejuvenate.
If you are curious to read more about this topic, I recommend the book “The 12 Hours Walk” by Colin O’brady.
But ultimately, it is not about reading about walking from the comfort of your recliner but more about lacing your walking shoes and stepping out the door.