“Here’s a prescription for Ativan,” the doctor said as he handed me a slip of paper. Fear wouldn’t let me sleep the previous night. As a matter of fact I found myself curled up on the bathroom floor around the base of the toilet in an effort to shorten the travel distance between the bed and bathroom if the contents of my stomach decided to projectile lurch. The cool temperature of the hard, laminate floor against my hot, sticky cheek was a relief and somehow did more to set me at ease than my warm duvet and soft pillow.
The reaction was a result of anxiety and a lack of self-confidence; a panic attack that got out of hand. That night fear churned up a swarm of butterflies and sent them on a petrified frenzy between the pit of my unsettled stomach and rapidly beating heart.
In two weeks I was supposed to fly to Paris, France, find my way south and then walk 800 kilometers across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Neither country was familiar to me. I had never set foot off the North American continent aside from a couple of family trips to Hawaii and Cuba. Not only that, but I had never traveled anywhere alone before and here I was thinking that little inexperienced “me” would be able to navigate around a foreign country by myself where I didn’t have the slightest clue how to speak the language.
What was I thinking? Maybe I just wasn’t. Maybe I was disillusioned by romantic images of French lavender fields and relaxing Spanish siestas. Or maybe my imagination was caught up in a colourful tale in which I was the main character in an adventurous plot to reach the Emerald City of Oz.
Fear had reared its ugly head and spread its long, dark shadow of doubt over me. Its lurking essence enveloped me and whispered stark reminders of just how little I am in this large and unpredictable world. After all if things went sideways, who would protect me? Who would look for me if I was abducted? Who would even know where to look? How would I call for help? All I know is English. Would I become part of the small percentage of travelers that go missing in this gigantic and diverse world; their families left to wonder what happened to their loved one whether they had been murdered or subjected to human trafficking? Who would hold a perpetrator accountable? My mind reeled out of control as fear rooted itself deep in my thoughts.
Furthermore, I was in no shape to tackle such a long walk. A cold had me popping decongestants every four hours and I had developed a twinge in my right knee. The timing was impeccable, but that’s how Murphy’s Law works right? The twinge came on unexpectedly as I walked across the office lunchroom. My knee suddenly buckled under my weight and a pain shot through it. That’s strange, but maybe not. I had been training pretty heavily on the short, but steep Abby Grind three times per week and then supplementing my training regime with longer treks on weekends; however there was no sign of a knee problem until that moment.
The pain came after the previous weekend’s hike. I had set off with a full backpack up Frosty Mountain to see if my body could handle carrying the weight over a long distance. It was a 23 kilometer hike with a 1200 meter elevation gain. My pack was loaded with food, water, my tent, sleeping bag and clothes. Maybe the twinge was a sign that I just can’t do this, that I’m not physically fit enough.
Well, too late now…or maybe it isn’t. I could give up the plane ticket. Yeah, it’s $1500 down the drain, but I could cut my losses and work another two and a half weeks to recoup the lost money. Or, maybe I could visit the doctor and get a note to send to my insurance provider and recoup the money that way. Then I could remain safe inside my comfort zone instead of flailing around blindly outside of it. What a relief it would be to calm the restless flurry of butterflies and carry on comfortably with my regular life routine.
The morning after my sleepless night cuddling with the toilet, I called in sick to work. With no sleep and my mind on a collision course with an anxiety-induced heart attack I would be of no use there. Instead, I sat across from the doctor at the walk-in clinic. He would validate my thoughts about cancelling the plane ticket. After all a doctor wouldn’t send someone with a cold and a twinging right knee on an 800 kilometer trek…or would he?
The doctor smiled at me as he handed me the prescription for Ativan and continued, “Take one and go on the journey.” Wow, really? Even with a cold and the strange sudden knee pain? Not even the doctor was going to validate my plan to give up the ticket, so I took the slip of paper and filled the prescription relieved to at least have something to stop the crazed butterflies from ricocheting around in my belly like lunatics bouncing off the walls of a padded room.
Someone told me that it isn’t good to mix drugs, so I stopped popping decongestants. The funny thing is that as the drug wore off I began to relax. That’s strange. The butterflies in my belly settled and my thumping heart calmed and returned to its normal rhythm. The lurking shadow of fear began to retreat and slowly my rational thinking returned.
I put the bottle of tiny pills away in the bathroom cupboard. Maybe I wouldn’t need to take an Ativan after all. Could an ingredient in the decongestant have triggered a reaction and increased my anxiety level? According to “Dr. Google” the answer is yes, it’s possible.
My confidence returned and I began to think, “I can do this! Other people do it, so why can’t I?” And so, I took a step forward and with each subsequent step the rest of my plans fell into place.
There’s a saying by Lao Tzo,“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” To look at it any other way would be overwhelming wouldn’t it? The journey would feel impossible; out of our reach. To analyze its entirety would allow that lurking essence of fear to move in, spread its dark shadow and plant little seeds of doubt in our mind.
There is always a reason not to do something. We can easily talk ourselves out of anything that presents a physical or emotional challenge; that feeling of being outside of our comfort zone whether it be the apprehension of developing shin splints or blisters and not making it to the end, encountering sleepless nights listening to a bad snorer in the dorm or, a big one, the fear of going alone.
What we are really afraid of is the unknown; those things that could happen to us. But what if they don’t? It’s possible that a physical ailment could crop up, but it might not. Snoring is bound to interrupt sleep at some point along the way, but there are other options to avoid it. One could also contemplate the thought of how unsafe it could be to travel alone, but what if it is safe? By nature we are problem-solving beings. When presented with a life-challenge we come up with a solution, don’t we? We would on the road too.
The truly scary thing is that if we allow fear and doubt to rule our decisions, we will never know the amazing experiences that lay beyond. If I had allowed the scary stories I told myself to consume me and let fear get the upper hand, I would have missed out on the most beautiful journey of my life. I thought about that as I stood on the steps of the Santiago Cathedral reminiscing back on the previous 31 days; about all of the wonderful people, camaraderie, wisdom, synchronicity and amazing moments, including the challenges that taught me so much about my own strength and courage, and a chill came over me to think that I might not have experienced any of it.
Go on the journey.
Have questions about the Camino de Santiago or do you have reservations about going alone? Do you need help getting started on your own journey? Email me!
Check out my Camino de Santiago Flickr photo gallery!
What a shame it would have been if your fear of the unknown won! You would have missed out on an invaluable journey that ended up being life-changing. We have so many fears, some are rational and help keep us safe while others hold us back. Here are a couple of good quotes to remember that will help us move through our fears:
Fear is a darkroom where negatives develop (Usman B. Asif)
Many of our fears are tissue-paper-thin, and a single courageous step would carry us clear through them (Brendan Francis)
Yes, it would have been a shame if I had given in to fear and not gone. Taking a step outside of our comfort zone past the fear of the unknown is so valuable and so necessary for growth too. So often what we fear is the picture our mind creates (the negatives in the darkroom – great quote!), but when we face the fear, we realize it was unwarranted; that it is really not as scary as we imagined.
I can’t imagine my life without having gone on the Camino. It was so special! As you know, it changed my life in so many positive ways. Thank you for sharing 🙂
Thank you so much for sharing Tania.
I am wanting to go in September 2017. I want walk it alone but at the same time i don’t want to go alone. The Camino is calling me. I really need to go. I have many questions as a girl to ask. I would love to email you later to ask some questions.
Hi Ruth! That’s wonderful you are planning to go then. September is a beautiful month to walk the Camino. I left on September 23rd in 2013 and the weather was still at 32 degrees for the first week! I really think if you want to walk it alone then you should go alone. The Camino is calling you for a reason. Also, know that you don’t need to be alone on the Camino if you don’t want to be. The camaraderie you will experience with others and the people from all over the world who you will meet is really special. You will reap the rewards of this more if you go alone. It’s scary to take that first step, but I realized that what’s on the other side of fear is really not the scary thing we imagined in the first place. You don’t want to miss out on the most amazing journey of your life because of that looming dark shadow of fear that holds us back. Yes, please email me. My email address is under “Information” on the menu. Look forward to chatting! 🙂
Also doing the thing alone Septenber 2017. Hope to meet up with you. Regards Liesl x
I am leaving tomorrow and will start from SJPP on Sept 7. Going alone! Hope to meet up along the way.
Thank you, Tania for your story, and I thought I was the only one to think like this when travelling alone.
Thank you Lee-Ann! I’m beginning to realize that many of us, both men and women, have these fears. It’s not easy to step outside of our comfort zone and do something different. We can tell ourselves horrible stories about what ‘could’ happen. As you know it doesn’t mean those things will happen. All I can say is that I’m glad I took the chance and walked the Camino. Since then, I’ve not been afraid to go anywhere on my own.
I leave in 4 weeks today and starting to feel a little overwhelmed.
I’m worried there won’t be many walking at the beginning of April and I will be lonely all the way 🙁
Exciting Kelly! It will likely be less crowded then which could be very nice, but there will still be others walking. A good resource to check out is the Camino Forum if you haven’t already. To connect with others you can always post a thread asking who might be walking around the same date you are. After I regained my confidence in this story, I posted a thread asking if anyone wanted to share a taxi with me from the Biarritz airport to SJPDP. Two people responded. Although we didn’t start walking together, we bumped into each other at points along the Camino. The Camino is funny that way. You kind of leap-frog. You’ll see someone, not see them for days and then you see them again. Both of these people are my friends on FB now. I’m sure you will meet others even in April. In any case, it’s an adventure of a life time. The Camino has a way of giving you what you need 🙂
Did you carry your SLR the whole way with you? Wasn’t it heavy. I am going in 9 weeks and I am losing my nerve. I had been planning and working toward walking for two years and the day is getting near and I have put back all the weight I was trying to lose in preparation and have developed an Achilles heel. I am also going alone and can relate to the anxiety. Mine revolves around not being physically ready and yet I am in desperate need of the challenge. I am 50 so much older than you. Your photos are amazing. How did you carry your camera though!
Hi Tracey! Part of my fear was about not being physically ready either…my twinging knee and a cold. Also don’t let your age worry you. You’re still young. My parents walked the full 800 km’s at 70 and 77. So…don’t let all your 2 years of planning and training for this go to waste. You can do it! Even if challenges with your Achilles heel arise along the way there are valuable lessons in it. Embrace the challenge! You need this right? Whats a challenge without challenges? 😉
As for the camera I didn’t bring an SLR – too heavy! The weight you carry is a big deal on this journey. I purged things along the way too because 12 kilos was too much. 8 was perfect for me. To take pics I brought a small Samsung point and shoot.
Thanks Tania. Its so wonderful to be able to discuss this with you. Your writing is fresh and emotive. Very Inspiring. Do u think I’ll regret only taking my iphone no camera. I am also thinking of weight but your photos encourage me. I wonder if I will regret only using my iphone.
Thank you Tracey! It depends on the image quality of your phone’s camera. If you question it then bring a nice small point and shoot. Is it a newer iPhone? I traded my old iPhone 4S in for a Samsung S7 mainly for the camera on it. I would take the S7 on the Camino instead of a camera because it takes great pics, but my iPhone 4S…no way.
Hi Tania, thank you for sharing! I am going to do from Sarria to Santiago in June solo and have been on a rollercoaster of emotions with the countdown getting closer!! I have never travelled alone or done anything like this but I feel the time is right! I am nervous but really excited too! It’s great to hear from someone who has taken the plunge already and come through it as positively! Thank you for sharing!
Hi Nicola! I remember the roller coaster of emotions. The unknown can be scary, especially when planning to do something of this scope. You’ll be amazed though, and so proud of yourself that you did it. I’m so glad I didn’t cave into the fear. Taking the plunge was the best thing I could have done for myself and it will be for you too. June will be such a beautiful time to walk. You definitely won’t be alone walking from Sarria. Enjoy! Buen Camino!
Hi Tania, Thank you so much for sharing this piece. I will be walking the Camino Norte alone in June starting in Bilbao. My nerves are under control for now (although rolling my ankle yesterday had given me pause) but my dear grandmother is ready to disown me. She has let me know in no uncertain terms, by doing this alone, she is feels I am putting myself in harms way . I have shared my guide books, preparation, training and motivations, but she is in such a place of fear, she cannot hear it. I hate that I am causing her such suffering (she didn’t sleep the entire night after watching The Way). Her fears unfounded as they are, have a kernel of truth and are chipping away at my confidence.
Your welcome Rebecca! That’s a tough one. It’s hard to convince others sometimes, especially loved ones, but I think you have to do what’s in your heart. You may regret it otherwise. There will be others walking the Norte at this time too, although not as many walk this route compared with the French Way. If you are at all concerned about that, you may be able to connect with other pilgrims through the Camino forum. When I walked from Irún last May for five days I wasn’t afraid at all and I walked alone for the most part. People passed or I passed them, however much of the time it was me, nature, the ocean and country roads. I did walk with a friend out of San Sebastian for one day though which was nice. Walking alone didn’t bother me and when you’re there it might not bother you either. Things can happen anywhere…there or even at home, but they may not which is usually the case. We can inflate our fears if we allow ourselves to, which is likely what is happening with your grandma. She sees her baby granddaughter going out into the world and into the “great unknown” and to her that’s terrifying. Her fear is bound to rub off on you. The unknown can be scary, but once you’re there in the moment, you may wonder why you were. There’s a reason why you want to do this. The Camino is a wonderful thing. I’m sure you’ll find there is much kindness out there. Buen Camino! 🙂
Hello, my name is Selma, i am brazilian and i am learning english, so, sorry for my mistakes! i am goig alone to Santiago in jun, 2018. I loved read about the experiencie that you had! i am counting the days to go, buyng the essencial, preparyng my minda and my body because i have a litlle problem in my knee too! but i will go and i am sure that will be amazing
I’m so excited for you Selma! It’s going to be a journey of a lifetime. It’s good that you are preparing your gear and mind well ahead of time although you never know what to expect when you actually get there. That’s the beauty of it though. The Camino always has something to teach 🙂 Whatever happens, there are new experiences and friendships waiting for you. Don’t let your knee problem stop you from going. It may not cause you problems at all. Just don’t over train before you go…all in moderation 🙂