How the Camino Shapes Us

Crossing the Pyrenees, processing the beauty, making memories.

Crossing the Pyrenees, processing the beauty, making memories.

One of the most common feelings among pilgrims who have just finished their first pilgrimage on the Camino is a sense of anxiety about returning home and not being able to convey the impact the experience has had on them. John Koenig of the website Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows has invented a word for this: exulansis.

Each time I have walked the Camino I have felt that feeling – no one at home will be familiar with the places I describe, but even if I can show them a picture or find the words to vividly describe how I felt, they won’t understand the sensations I had while standing in the street of a small town at the end of the Meseta. They won’t truly be able to share the particular emotions I felt, or how a certain sight, sound, or smell struck me. I’ll have to field a bunch of well-meaning questions like “Was it hard walking so far every day?” and “But where did you sleep?!”

This experience is part of the Camino. The journey home is just as much a part of it as the walking. The month following your return is just as much a part of it as the month you spend on the Way. As many along the trail will tell you, the Camino becomes a part of you.

Now, before some of you roll your eyes because that last sentence strikes you as cheesy, know that I am right there with you. I am a man of faith, but I have little patience for some of the would-be deep statements such as the one at the end of the last paragraph. That said, there is a simple truth to it that has forced me to repent of my intellectual snobbery and consider the facts.

Whether you walk on the Camino for one week or for six, you will make many memories. Some of these memories will be good, some will be bad, and some will be transformed from bad to good by considering the lessons learned from difficulty or other similar rumination. Regardless of how good or bad your memory is, you will carry these experiences with you for the rest of your life. Applying this to the rest of our lives, it is easy to say that our identity is by and large the sum of our memories. So it is actually quite true that, after walking the Camino, it becomes a part of you.

The memories you make on the Camino will be unique and stand out because of the Camino’s separateness from “normal” everyday life. It is easy to go on autopilot when you’re on your way to work or school or going about a familiar daily routine, but what you experience on the Camino will stand distinct. It can be hard to reflect on lessons you’ve learned or experiences you’ve had while immersed in the daily grind, because these happen more slowly and can be as imperceptible as weight loss (or gain); day to day you may not notice much change, but the change, for better or worse, is apparent when you observe the difference a month or a year makes. So it is with ways we train our minds and hearts.

But on the Camino, this process is quickened. Just as your body will go through speedy changes, your mind and heart will go through changes faster as well. This makes the changes easier to reflect on, and therefore they will stand out in your memory more distinctly. In the months after your return, these memories will make the transition from short-term to long and have their effect on your whole life.

The inability you feel to convey your experience fully is normal and can be frustrating, but at the end of the day it is part of the Camino. It is your experience. As your memories become ingrained they will continue to shape you, and that is a great gift.

Hunter Van Wagenen’s Camino experiences began in 2007, and he enjoys sharing the humorous and the miraculous stories, in addition to 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 is walking her first Camino right now with Hunter.