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How Walking the Camino de Santiago Helped Heal a Broken Heart

By Jackie Bryant

03.09.20

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Walking a medieval pilgrimage route can alter the way you think of your own past.

Photo by Jackie Bryant

Walking a medieval pilgrimage route can alter the way you think of your own past.

A walk on Spain’s pilgrimage route transforms the pain of a divorce into something like an epiphany.

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My husband left me one March. For months afterward, all I wanted to do was run away. But six months later, I found myself walking, instead. 

Just as I’d once longed to be married, hiking Spain’s Camino de Santiago was something I’d dreamed about since my time in Catholic high school on Long Island. Even though I hadn’t been a believer for years, I still wanted to walk the same path Christian pilgrims have taken since the Middle Ages on their way to the shrine of the apostle St. James in Santiago de Compostela. The trip sounded indulgent in a way I craved: drawn-out and with a hint of martyrdom. And maybe it was finally time. During the course of our marriage, whenever my husband and I returned to Spain to visit his friends and family, I’d ask if we could carve out time to walk at least a segment of it. “We can’t afford to do that right now, plus, I have too much work,” he would reply. 

After he left, I knew I had my chance to walk the Camino. I would get to do something I’d always wanted to do in a country I loved and knew so well. More than that, I hoped the experience of the pilgrimage, however difficult, would break the association I had between my ex and Spain, and replace it with a vivid memory of the country that was mine, not ours. Friends and family seemed confused. “Wouldn’t you rather go anywhere else besides Spain?” my parents asked. But I felt I had something to prove. I booked a ticket for the early fall. 

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Getting what you want can do strange things to the brain. Just as I had long pretended that my marriage was the one I’d wanted, I’d engaged in some magical thinking about the rigors of walking miles and miles for days on end. One friend who had walked the Camino advised me to prepare by ramping up to at least 10 miles a day before leaving. I did nothing of the sort. Instead, I rushed to San Diego’s REI store the day before my flight to buy my first pair of hiking boots, a water bottle, and moisture-wicking clothes—everything that a person who’d properly thought things through would have bought and packed already. My hiker friend lent me her backpack and poles—a “something borrowed” element for a very different sort of ceremonial walk.

The first few days of my 20 spent walking the trail were brutal. Far from being alone, something I had both craved and feared, I was usually within spitting distance of at least one other pilgrim. The Camino is a notoriously social trail, but I opted to keep to myself. That way I could cry whenever I felt the urge. I was also trying hard to acclimate to the physical tolls of the walk. In a few short hours, I went from being a writer typing on her couch to a trekker logging 15 hilly miles a day. All I could think about was getting my sore body and ripped-up feet to the next dingy hostel so I could rinse off and rest until dawn. 

In a way, I also wanted to punish myself those first few days. I blamed myself for naively hoping my marriage to a man from Barcelona would be filled with afternoons spent eating delicious food, drinking wine, and indulging in thoughtful conversation. Barring that, there’d at least be some exciting and spontaneous energy in our new partnership. The reality of the marriage was much more mundane. The groom turned out to be rigid, self-destructive, a workaholic, and usually exhausted. The bride was restless, needy, and self-absorbed, so exhausting to be around. We were not a good match. At the beginning of the Camino, this was my mindset: I’d ruined two good people, and I somehow deserved to feel pain, both physically and psychologically. 

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But on the sixth day, I headed out from breakfast onto the dark trail with my iPhone’s flashlight on and the phone strapped to my chest. (I hadn’t anticipated hiking in the dark, so I hadn’t packed a flashlight.) I noticed that my feet didn’t hurt as much. My muscles felt strong rather than sore. My blisters had hardened to callouses. My physical discomfort and mental anguish had subsided, and I'd found a sort of peace with the realization that I’d been sadder about losing my connection to Spain than about losing my husband. Was I moving on?

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I walked in the predawn light through a countryside dotted with stone farmhouses and then up a hill into a charred forest. The previous summer had brought devastating forest fires to this area of Galicia and I was walking through one of the burn sites. 

A recent divorcee walking at sunrise through a burned-down forest in her ex-husband’s homeland. I allowed myself an audible, macabre laugh. “Thanks, God. I get the metaphor,” I thought. But then, just before the sun cracked the horizon, the sky lit up in white, blue, and pink pastels. It reminded me of the dawn sky during our makeshift honeymoon years ago, a few stolen days in Puglia. 

I smiled and texted my ex-husband, “I’m here. Walking the Camino. I am sorry about everything. I am sorry I wasn’t a better partner. I am so grateful for you.” Back in California, he was probably getting ready for bed. 

Buen Camino,” he quickly texted back, using the greeting all pilgrims on the trail use with one another. All Spaniards know about the Camino. He was being polite.

Later that day, climbing another steep hill, I settled into a slow pace, taking small steps and barely lifting my feet, but inching toward the top. Eventually, I caught up to a priest wearing a Roman collar with hiking clothes. No matter how far from my Catholic schoolgirl past I felt, I also felt struck—perhaps a conversation with a priest was what I needed. I broke my self-imposed silence. “Buen Camino,” I said. “Where are you from?” 

A parish in Hyannis, Massachusetts, he told me. I confessed I was a lapsed Catholic who no longer believed in God, but because I identify with being “culturally” Catholic, it felt right to be on a more-or-less religious pilgrimage. He nodded and asked why I was alone on the journey. I told him I’d been recently divorced. My ex-husband is from Spain, I said, and this country means a lot to me.

He was quiet for a half a minute as we walked. We were both winded by the climb. Eventually, he took a sharp breath and responded. “I’m glad you were able to find your way back,” he said.

At the end of her 20 days of hiking the trail, Jackie celebrates at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

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