Last August, Caroline and Ben Shepard traded frenetic New York City for a 10-day pilgrimage from Pamplona to Logroño on Spain’s Camino de Santiago trail, a grueling hike. The twist? They brought their two daughters, ages 8 and 11.
On our third day in, we took a wrong turn. Chalk it up to rookie eyes and the intricacies of tiny Spanish villages. We missed the yellow arrows that mark the direct trail and accidentally took the twice-as-long route to our destination that day. By the time we realized our mistake, it was much too late to turn back. We walked for hours past orderly vineyards, fields of sunflowers, and pine tree forests where you’ll still find rock huts that date back to the Middle Ages. It was the most brutally beautiful 16 miles of our lives. Nine hours after setting out, we arrived in the city of Estella, broken and exhausted.
The next morning we started out again, briefly fortified by café con leche and thick hot chocolate. Immediately, however, an intense full-body ache set in. Our packs felt twice as heavy, and our calves whimpered. When no one was looking, I cried. The girls, too, were struggling. For every step Ben and I took, the girls had to take two: This adult/kid differential is why, and for this reason alone you don’t find children walking the Camino. Other hikers knew this and cheered the girls on. “¡Qué valiente!” they would shout and stop to take their picture. But the challenge was more than any of us had expected, and our collective mood soon spiraled downward. About two miles into the walk, Scarlett, our youngest and the family’s eternal optimist, turned to me and said, “Mom, I’ve lived eight good years. I’ve seen some things, but now I want to DIE!” Before I could reassure her, an old man suddenly appeared on the path. “¿Peregrinos?” (pilgrims), he asked, and we nodded, a little stunned. He asked where we were sleeping that night, and when we said Villamayor de Monjardín, he pointed to a tiny black dot of a castle on a mountaintop on the horizon. “That’s where you are heading.” He then pulled out two golden peaches and insisted the girls take them. “¡Buen Camino!” he said and was gone.
People choose to walk the Camino for their own reasons. Ben was grieving the recent loss of his father, I wanted to challenge what it meant to be physically “middle-aged,” and we both wanted to disconnect the girls from their hyper-ambitious, plugged-in lives. We were often lost in our own thoughts on those first few days. But that encounter with the elderly man was our introduction to the real reward of walking the Camino: connecting with other travelers, and with something larger than ourselves. The girls inhaled the juicy peaches and, with our goal in sight, we marched on. They then started an extended conversation about redecorating their rooms back home. We’d make them stop here and there to pick a grape, jump off a haystack, or soak their feet in an ice-cold stream, but the conversation always resumed, a subtle reminder that this whole adventure had an end. As long as they walked, they planned, until finally that distant castle was within our reach. I’ll never forget that sight. It felt damn good.
Midway through this past relentless winter in New York, we made the decision to return to Spain this summer and finish the Camino—we’ll walk 300 miles in four weeks. And though no one can believe it, the girls can’t wait to get back. I’m amazed at how deeply the experience affected them. They are so much more resilient, both emotionally and physically. Despite the complicated social worlds that govern their preteen lives, they seem unfazed by the minutiae of who’s in and who’s out, or how many “likes” they get on Instagram. They know there are other worlds out there. And that if they ever feel alone or lost in life, they can always return to the Camino, where they will find a community of people who will greet them and give them a bed, a meal, and an arrow to follow.
Learn everything you need to know about hiking the Camino de Santiago with kids here.
Top photo courtesy of Caroline Shephard.
This appeared in the August/September 2015 issue.