By Adrian Harding

Stepping on My Shadow – Walking the Camino de Santiago


It’s six-thirty in the morning, and my shadow is reaching out to infinity immediately ahead of me, directing me towards the path I need to take. With the sun rising in the east behind me, the longest shadow I have ever thrown points emphatically due west, towards my destination. I marvel at the joy of a beautiful sunrise bathing the landscape in gold. I tilt my head back to gauge the distance to the line of hills on the horizon. Fifteen miles? Twenty, perhaps?

A day’s worth of walking, anyway, to get me over that distant rocky divide before I can see the next stage of my journey. My way, my Camino. I raise my right foot and plant it down on my shadow. And then my left repeats the action and makes the same connection with my shadow and the earth. And so on, as I will do again 40,000 times today. As I did 40,000 times yesterday. As I will, again, the day after tomorrow. And the day after that.

The journey started 5 days ago in St Jean Pied de Port, on the French side of the Pyrenees, and will continue for 500 miles to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, a pilgrimage to the tomb of St James which has inspired the faithful for over a thousand years. Am I one of the faithful? Not really. Not in any way that would be recognised by adherents to a Catholic way of life or, indeed, by a follower of any other organised religion. I do, however, believe in a greater capability of humanity to think, to care, to understand, to socialise and to laugh with my fellow humans and yet to be equally content alone in nature with only my thoughts. That is the spirit of the Camino; one which would prefer you to be a committed catholic, but will wholeheartedly and warmly embrace people of all religions, and none, who share in a common but undefined understanding of the magic of community and solitude, hardship and pleasure, great effort and gentle rest, quiet contemplation and raucous laughter. The only luxury you need is time: time to walk and time to think. All along the way there are people to help you, cheap refuges to sleep, bars and cafes to eat, shaded benches where you can rest and friendly locals and fellow pilgrims to wish you a "Buen Camino" a hundred times per day.

Although my personal pilgrimage will continue to the same destination as before, today is different. For the last five days, I have enjoyed the company of a mixed group of Camino pilgrims as we walked through the provinces of Navarra and Rioja. A Brazilian music producer, a German software engineer, and an extremely camp and entertaining Italian department store assistant who sometimes wears stilettos, a Buddhist trans-gender lady called Angela, a German restaurateur and a group of ladies connected to the Australian Broadcasting Company. I had many ideas about the Camino before I set out, but I never considered these as remote possibilities. It proves that the best moments are chance encounters, meetings with complete strangers. All individuals, all with their own aspirations and unique personalities, but all sharing a bond and a common goal to cover the same distance over roughly the same number of days to reach the same destination; Santiago. This is what makes them a Camino Family, a supportive eclectic mix of characters who will share their food, their kit, their advice, their stories, their jokes and their troubles, but above all, their human experience to add to a combined sense of purpose. Something about the Camino makes people disclose their deepest thoughts to complete strangers. We are not looking at each other, but ahead. We are thinking out loud.

So why is today different? Today I have risen an hour earlier than the rest in order to start my walking day before them, to cut free and walk alone for a day or two. Or three or four. Who knows?

Anyone who has been on a pilgrimage, or even just a very long walk, will recognise the ever-present need for company, and the paradoxical but equal urge for solitude. Pilgrimages are more about stopping than going. You stop your own life and step out of the familiar world so that you can look and listen, ponder and reflect. You strip away all extraneous physical and mental clutter so that you can hear a different voice in your head. And so, today, I decided to proceed on my own and test my physical and psychological strength.

The Camino takes the pilgrim (pelegrino) on three simultaneous but contrasting personal journeys.


The first is a long but easy to follow way-marked route through some of the most beautiful landscape in the world; the mountains of the Pyrenees, the Alto de Perdon (the Heights of Forgiveness) and the Montes de Leon; the vineyards of Rioja and Bierzo; the high, dry plateau of the Meseta, and the green woodlands and river valleys of Navarra, Castile and Galicia.


The second is an opportunity to marvel at the man-made environment; the ancient Roman roads and sheep droves; the town squares, each a welcoming oasis of bars and cafes, laughter and chatter; the pack-horse bridges and medieval river crossings which accentuate a sense of progress as you transit from one province to another and the free wine fountain at Bodegas Irache. One cannot fail to be astounded by the breath-taking architecture of the cathedrals of Pamplona, Logrono, Burgos, Leon, Astorga and Santiago with their ornate facades and gothic spires stretching upwards to touch heaven.


Finally, there is an internal journey, a voyage of self-discovery. Why am I doing this? Where am I going? What do I hope to achieve by the end? Will I become a different person? A better person? I hope so, but probably not. I am who I am, and am unlikely to ever change, but I can view my dealings with the world, and my relationship with my fellow-man, from a different perspective, with a clarity of insight which was otherwise muddied by normal daily life.  


The next three days after my decision to separate are spent virtually alone. I had dreamed of La Rioja, and the long slow meanders through the sun-baked vineyards. Alas, it was not to be. The anticipated bad weather has arrived with a vengeance and the day starts with me walking into a gale with needle-sharp icy rain driving into my face. Friends at home who are following my progress offer sympathy and supportive homilies, which helps to keep my spirits up. But, honestly, solitude is not a problem if you are sure that it is temporary. Soon, the weather returns to glorious sunshine, and the smile has returned to my face. I hear the dawn chorus, brighter and more beautiful than ever before, distant dog barks, skylarks, the sound of running water, church bells tolling to mark the passage of time and the crunch of gravel under my running shoes to mark the passage of distance. One day passes after another, another 20 miles of progress, a little wiser, a little calmer, a little stronger, a little lighter, a little more in awe of the magic of the world.


In the inspiring cathedral city of Burgos, I form a new bond with my next Camino family. This comprises a young man from Hungary, and two young women, from Australia and Korea, who are to become my constant companions for the next few days.


The new friendship certainly helps, after my short period of self-enforced solitude. Despite our great age differences, and vastly differing origins, we find a common thread to unite us. We soon settle in a steady walking rhythm which leaves no-one struggling behind, and yet leaves no-one frustrated in their eagerness to charge ahead. Together, we cover the next stage of the Camino, a strenuous trek across the Meseta, the high, dry plain of northern Spain which many pilgrims choose to skip, thinking it a featureless and sun-bleached stretch which will not add to their enlightenment. On the contrary, we find it uplifting and most enjoyable. The views of the Camino stretching sinuously into the far distance, as well as the opportunity to gaze over one’s shoulder and marvel at the distance already covered, provide a blank canvas to help one to understand the scale of the journey and to appreciate what we have taken on. We are now in no doubt about the magnitude of the endeavour. It is, we are told, a sin to be proud. But my companions and I consider ourselves justified in our feelings of pride about what we have already achieved, and what we still need to accomplish before we reach our final destination in Santiago de Compostela. The pleasures of good company and the jaw-dropping beauty of the scenery continue. We find, within us, a harmony which transcends age, gender and nationality. Surely, that is the true spirit of the Camino.     


The route continues on a long straight Roman road, the Calzana Romana, and the walking conditions are perfect. Clear blue skies, bright warm sunshine and, most importantly, no headwind at all. I am now in the company of my third and final Camino family, a beautiful and adventurous Brazilian lady, a young Slovak who started his Camino in Arles and a Frenchman who started in Toulouse. They are three very special people.


We take a short 14-mile stroll into Leon where we have a lovely languid lunch together, with plenty of refreshing chilled wine and ice-cold beer. The sun is baking down on us. Wonderful people, wonderful times. Sorry, I feel that I should be meaningfully meditative, or whatever a pilgrim is supposed to be. But this actually feels like a summer vacation now, so I am relishing my creature comforts, free of guilt. I’ve earned it. The night is interesting. It’s not every Monday night that I get to sleep in a Benedictine convent in such great company.


There is a tradition on the Camino that each pilgrim carries a stone with him or her from home and leaves it at the foot of the Cruz de Ferro, the Iron Cross, which is located at the highest point on the pilgrimage. Leaving the stone behind symbolises a means of ridding oneself of the burdens of life through the process of contemplation and prayer. I am a very happy man, content in my family life, so I do not feel particularly beset with problems. Instead, the stone I brought with me from home represented our less fortunate friends and dearly departed family members, in the hope that they will always be remembered fondly and that we will all find our own inner peace. Now that we are in the mountains, I take my inspiration from the panoramas which astound me.


With 100 miles to go, some of my fellow pilgrims in other groups are beginning to fall by the wayside, and many are now taking buses to the next start point or sending bags on ahead. But my small cluster of friends are resolute that we will walk every step, carrying our own rucksacks.


We made a very early start this morning in order to get all the maximum exertion out of the way before the scorching afternoon sun arrived. I have spent the last two weeks stressing about climbing 1500 metres (5000 feet) up to the heights of O Cebreiro. In the event, it turned out to be a wonderful streamside walk at the beginning and ending with a tough six-mile climb rewarded with absolutely spectacular views. So, I needn't have worried after all, and my final physical challenge is complete. I've now crossed the border into my final province of the Camino, Galicia.


Twenty-six days after my pilgrimage began, I am now in Santiago de Compostela, and ready to enter the Cathedral Square, Plaza Obrodoiro. I have completed my plan to walk 500 miles, ahead of schedule, without a break. One million steps, over mountain ranges, across arid plains, through towns, cities, fields and vineyards. I started with fear of failure, which I now know I needn't have had, and I had extremely high expectations, all of which have been greatly exceeded. I've made some wonderful temporary friendships, whose memories will last for ever, and some permanent ones. Hopefully I've made no enemies in the process. And I've done it all without even brushing against a car, taxi, coach or train.

I'm not sure that I am any more spiritual than when I started, but I hope that I will be a better, more tolerant and less judgemental person in future. I'm ten times physically stronger, more resilient and determined than I thought I was, but ten times weaker emotionally, being very quick to cry, mostly for happy reasons. So, for me, my first Camino, is now over.

I wouldn't say that it has been a religious or a spiritual experience - time alone will tell - but it has certainly been a magical one. And I do mean magical. I feel more connected with the planet than ever before, and I have met such lovely people of different nationalities and different personalities that I would never have met in my normal life. I have thoroughly enjoyed their company and, heaven comprehend, some of them seem to have even enjoyed mine.

I have no bumps, blisters, bruises or bed-bug bites, I'm not in pain or even tired. At no point have I ever wished for it to stop, and I genuinely wish I could keep going.

I'd start it all again tomorrow, if I could.


(Post scriptum: Adrian completed this, his first Camino at Easter, 2017. True to his word, he did start his next Camino the following day, adding a further 125 miles to take him to the sanctuary at Muxia and Fisterra/Finisterre – the end of the world. He completed additional Caminos in 2018 (Portugal) and 2019 (Catalunia). For 2020, he intended to complete 1000 miles on foot, diagonally across Spain, from Almeria on the Mediterranean Sea to El Ferrol on the Bay of Biscay. Covid-19 has put a stop to that, but the calendar looks clear for 2022… who knows!)