Camino Life: The Power of Unplugging

Hunter Van Wagenen crossing the Pyrenees in 2013

Hunter Van Wagenen crossing the Pyrenees in 2013

A lot has changed on the Camino in the last ten years. In 2007, the first time I walked it, wifi was almost unknown, and it was difficult to find internet cafes. The hourly cost to use a computer hardly felt worth it, but the cost of a SIM card or provider plan to use internet and phone in Europe was just as hard to swallow. Walking the Camino in 2007 forced me to unplug in a way I never had before, and it radically shifted my relationship with technology.

In case you can’t tell by my photo above, I’m a millennial from the United States. Typing was an elementary school requirement, texting passed from novelty to mainstream sometime in high school, and smartphones began to outnumber simple cell phones sometime in college. For most of my life, I’ve had internet access, an email account, and phone service, and now, with the advent of streaming entertainment, it is rare to be without a high definition video to watch and music to enjoy. This is just as true on the Camino as it is at home.

It can be fun to have entertainment at hand any time of day, but it comes at the cost of being available to the demands of work just as often. With a light laptop or tablet in your pack, it is completely possible to keep up with emails, documents, or other projects that clamor for your attention when you’re at home. Even if you take a tablet for the purpose of keeping a blog, or simply keeping friends and family updated, the temptation to stay plugged in will be with you the whole trip due to the ubiquitous wifi along the way.

Technology use will greatly affect your experience of the Camino. To some, giving up email for weeks might sound like a blessed escape, but for others it will take discipline. Whichever of those describe you, I urge you to consider giving up email, social media, and your entertainment while you walk.

Let me say now that I have no perfect record with this. Each time I have walked the Camino I have kept a blog and, to an extent, indulged in using the internet for something I didn’t need to do. But I have also unplugged enough to feel the good effects of going without social media and constant connectivity.

Last time I walked, it felt a bit like withdrawal. I craved not just stimulation, but the chance to share my thoughts, experiences, or a picture with my online “audience” of friends and family. I found myself constantly thinking of things I could do, or watch, or listen to with the ample time I had walking each day. What media I had consumed in both recent or distant memory took up a lot of my thought, and I struggled with anxiety about missing friends’ and family events.

Gradually, however, my focus shifted. When I resisted the temptation to check my phone, I found that I noticed more of what was going on around me with greater interest. Without considering a beautiful sight as a way to generate a social media post that would get praise from my “audience,” I could appreciate such sights in a different way. Without listening to an audiobook or music while I hiked on the trail, I was able to notice the small sounds in nature as well as the grand. The crunch of gravel under my feet and the quiet twitter of birds filled my mind more and more as I took in my immediate surroundings.

The natural rhythms of the Camino, too, took on greater, almost sacred, significance. Whether it was showering, treating blisters, or washing clothes, focusing on the tasks at hand gave greater satisfaction in the completing of them. Fellow pilgrims and resident Spaniards alike went from being a distraction from my entertainment or work to being focal points of my day. Indeed, the longer I went unplugged, the more I came to see entertainment and work as distractions from the sights, sounds, and people I wanted to experience rather than the other way around.

Of course, most pilgrims will want to have phone or email available. Our jobs and personal responsibilities often require it. As you prepare and plan for your time on the Camino, let me urge you to consider leaving behind as much of your electronics as you can, and staying present in each moment of your walk as much as you can. It really does make a difference to “unplug,” and you might find your way of interacting with the world transformed.

Hunter Van Wagenen’s Camino experiences began in 2007, and he enjoys sharing the humorous and the miraculous stories and practical advice he has lived and collected. His dream is to live in Spain helping pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. He currently lives in Greensboro, NC with his wife Stephie, who will walk her first Camino this summer with Hunter.