It is an honor to feature Leslie Gilmour as the first in the series of Camino love stories on this blog. Leslie has written a guidebook on the Camino Frances, he runs the Camino Adventures website, and a Camino Forum. He shares an incredible story about three unexpected ways the Camino changed him.
What the Camino Provided Me
By Leslie Gilmour
I expected nothing more than a long walk on the Camino Frances. Looking back, I was not very imaginative. The couple of years before I walked the Camino had seen some major changes in my life. I had, at long last, abandoned the career I didn’t enjoy much, and had enrolled as a mature student at university studying English Literature and Philosophy – a dream come true.
I enjoyed hill walking on the weekends, but I hadn’t undertaken a long multi-day walk for many years. Dara, a friend at university, told me that in a low period of his life he packed his rucksack and walked from Amsterdam to Santiago de Compostela over a period of three months. He talked about this experience quite a bit. I thought it was interesting but I also thought he was mad. He slept outside, in church portals, and when he arrived in Spain, in pilgrim’s hostels.
His description of the hostels (albergues), didn’t sound attractive. Sharing dormitory style rooms with anything from 3 to 100 people sounded like a form of hell. Walking all day sounded good, but carrying a rucksack? And a pilgrimage, really… an antiquated idea in my modern twenty first century existence. “It’s cheap,” he said, “and a great way to spend a summer.”
Dara must have said something convincing, because I headed off after my exams for the first time in 2004. And again in 2005, and again in 2012, and right now I am planning another trip.
I left St. Jean Pied de Port midday with only 8 km planned and had already booked the albergue in Orisson for the night. The countryside was beautiful, the path quiet, and the people I met friendly – but my head was elsewhere.
I continually thought about nonsense, and always on subjects I could do nothing about at the time. My head did not stop. At home I did not notice this much, but I was aware that when I really wanted to switch off, I would go to the cinema and watch a great movie – it was two hours or so of rest.
For the next three days my body was sore, my feet had blisters, and I watched my head continually turn over thought after thought. Why am I doing this, I questioned as I watched one thought drift away only to be quickly replaced by another. Wasn’t this meant to be peaceful? Head, please leave me alone!
I bought walking shoes in Pamplona and my feet thanked me. My body was getting used to walking all day with my rucksack. Walking out of Pamplona I met a French man. I said Buen Camino and wandered past. We met again when I was having a rest at a coffee shop. I again passed him later in the day. He talked a little, but the only thing I remember was him saying “slow down, there’s no hurry.” I walked on at my usual pace. My head talked at its usual pace, and the kilometers mounted up.
I was sitting having a rest the next day, massaging my shins when the same French man sat down beside me. “Slow down” he said again. I was sore, perhaps sore enough to start listening and not keep thinking I knew better. Pain is the touchstone.
The next day I walked slower and my head also slowed down. Without me noticing much, I started to see more of my surroundings, to listen better, and I became less impatient. Within a few days I had reached a stage of tranquility that I had last known the summer I left school and played tennis every day for two months. That was before joining the real world and starting a job.
Today that old ugly habit comes back again and again. Too many things to do and not enough time – and sometimes I remember to slow down and life suddenly becomes sunnier. That tranquility is available for me always, the choice is mine; one of my first lessons on the Camino Frances.
I was living my dream. I thought I was destined to be an accountant, but I had made the jump and was spending all my time surrounded by books and writing essays. At the time, I could not imagine a better way to spend the rest of my life – no wonder so many people don’t want to leave academia.
In early 2006 I tore up my last attempt at a novel. The next morning I awoke with the idea that I should know how to build a website. So in my usual obsessive way I started learning HTML, CSS, some PHP, and built my first website. Of course it was about the Camino and my experiences. It was pig ugly, but I was still proud of myself.
I launched my website and waited for all the visitors, and I waited – nothing happened and nobody came to call. Looking back I don’t know what I was expecting, I wasn’t selling anything, did I just want a pat on the back?
Being ignored bothered me so much that I started researching the problem and found the solution. I aimed to have my site as the number one result on Google when people searched for Camino de Santiago. It took me ten months to achieve that goal; again looking back I am surprised by my obsession, I don’t think that I am normally an over achiever – though I can be quite competitive, (another trait that has the power to disturb tranquility).
I left university behind and went into online marketing. I did not see that coming, and all from building a little website about the Camino.
A couple of weeks into my second Camino I met Anna; that killed my tranquility once again. While walking the Camino I had managed to stop caring about a lot of things, my appearance being one of them. But a good looking woman who you find attractive changes all that. We walked together everyday for the last two weeks into Santiago de Compostela.
Spending a lot of time with people you have just met is typical on the Camino, and it can be intense. Anna and I got to know each other fairly well over those two weeks. Once in Santiago I wondered where next. At the time I was living in Vienna and Anna in Prague – this was fairly convenient as I could travel between the two places on the weekends. After the academic year I had to move back to Ireland, so one morning I got down on bended knee and asked her to marry me and come back to Ireland with me.
That was more than ten years ago now, and we have still to walk down the aisle – we will get there eventually. After seven years in Ireland we moved to Prague. Just over a year ago our son was born, Thomas James. Thomas for our own reasons and James due to us meeting on the Way of St James.
It has been an incredible journey and sometimes it feels like it started when Dara went on about that long pilgrimage walk he took when he was feeling low. Thank you Dara.
When I first read Leslie’s post, Finding Love on the Camino de Santiago, I was very moved. I thank Leslie for sharing his trifecta of big life changes. The Camino certainly has an enduring impact!
For the month of February, I’ll feature Camino love stories on this blog. Why? Because love is in the air! I certainly respect the premise of what happens on the Camino stays on the Camino. However, love is a splendid thing that should be celebrated. Has the Camino provided you with more than just a long walk? If you have a Camino love story to share, email me or use the form below. Photos and video links welcome.
Share the Camino love! ♥