The Song of Camino de Santiago

One woman’s 500-mile pilgrimage from heartbroken to whole-hearted

BY Breanne Cunningham

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ill it ever stop hurting? My feet, pustule and cracked, were screaming. My troubled mind, worn tired from long days under the sun, wanted to give up. Will it ever stop hurting? I frequently asked this to myself as I hiked the timeworn path of the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile trail stretching from the French Pyrenees to the interior of northern Spain. What was at first an opportunity to, at the very least, prove to myself that I could be disciplined and self-sufficient enough to reach my final destination, transformed into my own personal mode of healing. With every step, therein laid the possibility of ripping open old scars, confronting my ego, and reclaiming a feeling of being fully alive—a feeling of which, at 25 years old, I’d lost.

Camino De Santiago

Month’s prior, I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, quote-unquote successful, but hardly inspired. Unfulfilled by a drab routine that dampened my soul’s desire for growth, I quit my job, sold all of my furniture, and bought a one-way ticket to Europe. Hiking across Spain was never on my itinerary, but the spontaneous decision proved to be undeniably the most memorable and transformative of my trip.

The trail begins in the mystic hills of the Pyrenees, and the initial 10 miles were accompanied by unrelenting rain, making my already heavy load, now sopping wet, seem like an even heavier burden. It became clearer just how alone I really was, trudging through foreign land with nothing but my drenched backpack. As I climbed higher, clouds of fog and mist grew thicker among the trees, and I could barely see the skin of my hands.

Pyrenees

I suddenly began to hear footsteps and the crunching of leaves coming from a creature I could not identify. Every time I stopped, the noise behind also came to a halt. I was being followed. The mysterious footsteps got louder as I climbed higher and the voice of a little girl, a younger version of myself, started to speak. She was afraid. She said that I was in danger and that I should go back home where it was safe and warm. I finally gathered the courage to find my headlamp and illuminate the space beside me.

To my surprise, I found a white horse looking back at me with bold brown eyes. I held my breath within the stillness of the moment, and the voice of my inner child was soothed by the silence. The horse stared at me with indifference then continued on into the pines. A signal of wisdom and power, the white horse served as an omen, and for the remainder of my journey I lived from a place of strength rather than fear. I found momentum and confidently danced my way through the wilderness, becoming a witness to the carpets of downcast color spreading through the hills.

I started to feel so comfortable being alone that my greatest challenge became understanding how to share the experience with other hikers. I loved my cocoon and desperately wanted to stay hidden. I didn’t have time for small talk and was convinced that I didn’t need the extra company; but I was wrong.

Thousands of people from all over the world visit the Camino every year, and the harder I tried to vanish the less often it happened. I met many people of all ages and ethnicities, some of whom I walked with for only a few hours and some who I chose to walk with for weeks—these people I came to know as family. I had a paradigm shift, where I understood that the essence of the Camino was not about myself, but about humility and taking care of one another. It was a perfect blend of solitude and community. With limited space for material wealth and judgment I noticed how people became authentically themselves, unfolding effortlessly, like white lotus flowers under the sun.

Camino De Santiago

I enjoyed the graceful energy of others yet still preferred to walk alone—something inside me was saying that what I needed most was myself—and soon enough my journey continued unaccompanied. It didn’t take long before I found myself on the Spanish Meseta, arguably the most dreaded part of the Camino. The Meseta is tedious because of the empty landscape and lack of shade; it creates skewed perceptions of distance and time.

My legs grew stiff like concrete with volcanic blisters bursting at my heels. The long road, with its barrels of hay and scattered piles of rocks, was a strange reminder of my heart, still beating, but withered and broken. I couldn’t help mulling over my habitual patterns of love; repeatedly getting it wrong, but not for lack of desire or lack of trying. Not for lack of faith.

Camino De Santiago

I spiraled into thoughts of former romantic partners, from falling in love and losing my virginity, to sporadic one night stands with men I had just met. Memories I thought I had forgotten came creeping through my veins with mixed feelings of empowerment and shame. I struggled to silence the endless chatter of my mind, my subconscious melting pot of grief.

I looked around and the only thing between the earth and the sky was I. My body, the only body that I have and the one that has so boldly carried me throughout this life. I paused in the center of the path and began to run my hands through my hair, across my face, over my throat, below to my breasts, around my stomach, and down to my feet. I heard the birds singing and, I too, started to join in their song. I realized there was no time to beg for forgiveness or approval, but that I had to instead find freedom by accepting the fluidity of existence, the inevitability of change, and wake up to my own worth. Nature was calling me back to simplicity, providing pure visions of truth and decay that couldn’t be ignored.

Camino De Santiago

I finally arrived to the mountains of Galicia located in the Celtic part of northern Spain, a place known for the witches who reside there. The euphoric spell of the land had its grip on me. The mountains always help provide a clean headspace—a beautiful reminder that our time here is short-lived when compared to the development of mountains that have taken millions of years to grow, and evoking, too, a sense of interconnectedness, an understanding that while we impact the natural world we are also a part of it.

I remember the glow of the Spanish moon, how it held me in the early morning. I remember dogs barking, the abundance of fresh of cow shit, and how I grew to love the smell. I wandered through graceful rivers, ancient stone cathedrals, and fields of golden sunflowers. My feet were calloused, skin bronzed, hair wild, and I felt strong.

I was almost to Santiago. I had become addicted to the steady pace of my footsteps, to the rhythm of the earth beneath my feet. I was nothing and I was nowhere, dissolving into the rise and fall of air inside my lungs. Into surrender. Into a peace too often quoted but rarely felt.

As I neared the end of my expedition, I knew that I had chosen to do something good for myself, which was in turn, good for the world. I knew that self care is not selfish. I walked over the last 25 years of my life, kissing the ghosts of my past. I thought of every significant event in my life, every person, every place and felt that I could finally leave it all behind. I had a renewed sense of peace, grateful for the chance to die and come to life again.

My heart was no longer merely beating; my heart was revived.

Will it ever stop hurting? Will life ever be void of suffering? The answer is no, but with time it can start to hurt less. We all carry pain that is justified and true. Some of us will choose to bathe in the comfort of our wounds, never fully cleansing ourselves of life’s most profound attachments. Others will roll in the mud, venture out into the rich direction of the unknown, and let each sorrow drown under the force of a frigid cascade.



Breanne Cunningham

Breanne Cunningham

Breanne Cunningham was born and raised in Sedona, Arizona, where her love for hiking and outdoor adventure began. A former high school teacher on hunt for her destiny, she is enchanted by world exploration, photography, and dancing. You can follow her on instagram at @cunning.b.

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