The Healing Power of Pilgrimage

I didn’t grow up exposed to nature and my first real hike in the wild wasn’t until my 30s, but hiking saved my life. A daily walk around town had become part of my healing process and as I gradually came back to life I longed to be walking in the wildness of nature instead of along sidewalks in my neighborhood. In this quest I moved to beautiful Colorado and joined a walking group. On Saturday hikes I'd pick the brain of the group’s organizer about his recent trip hiking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in northern Spain. My soul recognized this 40 day, 570 mile walk was the reset it needed. I'd spent the past few months on a work project which had me glued to the computer and my body longed to move and be outdoors.

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El Camino de Santiago

is a traditional Catholic pilgrimage following the way of St James and dating back to the middle ages. I’m not Catholic, but was drawn to it as a newbie hiker because it felt like a safe way to experience a long distance journey. A popular trek in Europe, there would be plenty of other pilgrims, the path is well marked with yellow arrows and there are many hostels and churches for pilgrims to sleep at along the way so I wouldn’t need to carry camping gear.

I was feeling anxious before the pilgrimage since I struggled with health issues. I was still experiencing severe adrenal fatigue, had difficulty sleeping, irregular periods, followed a very restrictive diet since most foods caused my thyroid condition to flare up, and was overweight. And the first few days were brutal! No training could have prepared me for my very first day hiking up and over the Pyrenees mountains carrying 20 pounds on my back! I was unable to sleep the first few nights and on the second night the only room available was a hard cold gymnasium floor with a cardboard box for cushioning. All of this was made bearable because I’d formed a walking tribe with five other hikers- greatly supportive friends to lean on and share difficulties and laughs.

Two weeks into my journey, after I’d found my rhythm and two of my Irish friends returned home, I wanted to walk alone. By this time my healing was underway and the solitary rhythm of walking and being outdoors from sunrise to sunset gave me peace. I felt so proud of myself while climbing mountains and crossing miles of hot desert landscapes. I felt irritated by older hikers who wanted to “adopt a vulnerable young woman” on the trail. I was strong, aligned with my soul and free from all the worries of home.

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I began in the French
Pyrenees,

experiencing different landscapes as I walked across northern Spain – through Basque country, hot and dry desert, magical forests, cities, vineyards, foggy Celtic landscapes, mountains and ending at the sea – Muxia. I never wanted to stop walking, it brought my soul the closest I'd yet felt to the expansive freedom of a soaring bird.

I learned on my journey how few material items I need to survive. Since I carried everything I owned on my back while hiking I wanted to make it the least amount possible and found that releasing unneeded items was a great relief not only to my body, but also my psyche. I was completely disconnected from technology – no phone, iPod, watch, or books – only a journal.

During this pilgrimage I gained confidence and regained my health, aligning with the rhythms of nature. I cured the sleep problems, adrenal fatigue, Hashimoto’s and hormonal imbalances and lost the excess weight. By incorporating what I learned on this hike into my lifestyle – regular movement in nature, releasing what I don’t need from my life and mind, living simply, and listening to the wise voice inside – my health continues to improve today, 4 years later.