Stephanie conquers the Camino

It has been a big year for foundation member Stephanie Altus of Victor Harbor.  Not only did she launch her first book My Faded Uniform, but she has just completed walking a gruelling section of the Camino Trail from France to Spain to raise funds for the Blackdog Institute.

And it looks like she’ll be able to say she achieved her goal to raise $5000 for the organisation.

But for Stephanie the journey has included much more than the walk, the fundraising and the book, it has been a major step towards healing her own personal health issues and to pave the way for a positive future.

Having been back from Spain for two weeks she has had time to reflect on the 800 kilometre walking journey.

The following are her thoughts on her year and her return from the Camino.

It still feels a little surreal, and the changes that have occurred in my thinking and body still surprise and catch me unawares at times.

In 2008 I wrote a bucket list of things I would love to one day do in my life. Fast forward to 2017 and in the darkness of suffering Post Traumatic Stress, a series of events made me aware that I needed to do something drastic to make changes in my life, as it was rapidly spiralling out of control. I made an impulsive decision to tick off 1 Big Goal from my bucket list, and the Camino was an obvious choice in that moment.

It is considered to be a spiritual journey in which the final destination is to arrive in the square in front of the Cathedral in Santiago in Spain. I decided to give it more meaning by raising money for the Blackdog Institute in support of their Exercise Your Mood program and research into PTSD.

At the time, I was very unfit and overweight, so I also thought a physical challenge would be beneficial to my own health. The PTSD had also left me disconnected from who I was and from others around me,and I had read that the Camino was a place of reconnection and sharing time with other pilgrims walking the journey.

Walking the Camino is the hardest challenge I have ever undertaken in my life, both physically and mentally, yet it has also ended up as one of the most rewarding and magical life moments. The self growth and learning from walking alone for 44 days has been phenomenal, and will continue for quite some time into the future as life events prompt reminders of the difficulties and rewards of undertaking such an adventure.

I began my trip with 10 days of fun and rest, after a year of working hard without a break. This time was spent ticking off a couple of other bucket list items in France, before spending three days relaxing on the beaches of San Sebastian in Spain.

On October 1 I got on a bus headed for St Jean de Piedde Port at the base of the French Alps in France. Here is where I began what was to be a life changing trek across the north of Spain. Two days later, I stepped out the front door of my hotel and took my first step on the path of the Camino, headed towards Santiago de Compostella in Spain.

All I knew at this time was that I had 44 days and more than 800km in front of me, and no idea really of what to expect and only the thought that it was a well walked trail and others would be walking at the same time. My accommodation and meals were pre-booked, and my bigger pack was being transferred each day, so I set off with my day pack and the excitement tinged with a little fear that comes from doing something new.

I soon realised I was completely unprepared for what I had chosen to take on. All my reading, efforts at getting fit, and listening to many others who had walked it previously were not enough to give me a realistic version of what my own experience of it was to turn out to be. On this first day, I became deeply aware that each of us has our own individual interpretation of what we are doing in each moment and my excitement turned to apprehension and doubt of how I was ever going to finish even this first day,let alone another 43 days ahead.

The Camino is broken up into three sections – the alps and mountains from France and across the top part of Spain constitute about the first third of the journey; the Meseta or flatter plains of Spain, which are mostly remote farmland that is dry and stretches for miles on end is the second thirdof the walk; and finally back into the lush green forest mountains of Galicia for the final third.  It is often said that in the first part, your body is broken down, as you get used to walking long distances of around 20km day after day. The second part breaks your mind as you walk through terrain that issimilar day after day and know that there is still so far to go in front of you.  The third part is where you find healing and reconnect with your soul and inner being. After having walked it, I would agree that this was a true reflection of how I experienced the walk, although the physical toughness never diminished completely but did certainly improve.

Back now and I wonder at the commitment, determination and courage it took to stay there for the full 44 days, to walk every step I was physically able to walk, to problem solve and adjust to the changing environment and conditions, especially when the weather turned from a sunny 28 degrees one day to pelting rain and seven degrees the next, and even snow on some days, to work through all the emotions and thoughts that filter through your mind while you walk for hours alone day after day.

The Camino is a metaphor for life. It is filled with ups and downs, highs and lows, sunny days and storms but in the end it is what comes from inside us that determine how we walk it. We experience it according to the thoughts and feelings we hold onto and the ones we choose to let go of. There were many, many things along the Camino that symbolise life and as I walked I could see how taking notice of these and relating them to my own life could hold the opportunity for improvement and change.

There were the yellow arrows that had been put in place by others who had already done what we were attempting to do and if we followed the direction it would take us to the destination. There was the shell of Santiago, a constant symbol and reminder of what the journey was about. There were the daily accepted routines of stopping frequently for coffee at a cafe in the little towns along the path and there was the pilgrim passport for collecting stamps as proof of having done the walk.

Some of the greatest lessons I learned of undertaking a multi-day very long walk were about sticking to a routine and creating habits that take you in the direction you want to go.

  • Taking small steps and doing a little each day adds up to achieving big things.
  • Find the directions of someone you trust (a mentor) who has already done it and follow their lead (via the arrows,guidebooks, the locals). 
  • Take time to stop and reflect on where you started, how far you have come, and to look at what is ahead so you know where you are going. 
  • Know your destination, but break it down into smaller stages and steps. Commitment to your goal will keep you going,even in the hard moments.
  • Know why you are doing it, have a strong purpose to help you stay focussed.
  • Be consistent in your approach, keep doing what works, but be flexible enough to change when it is no longer working.

For the first 30 days of my Camino, I struggled greatly with the loneliness, the difficulty of walking such long distances and for many hours each day, the sameness of the routines, staying in a different place each night, not speaking the language or knowing the lifestyle of another culture, eating foods that were not a normal part of my diet, and not having my family and friends close to share it with. There had been so much beautiful scenery along the way, I had met many wonderful people, I had succeeded physically more than I thought was possible, I had enjoyed lots of laughter and fun and a few silly moments of trying to make myself understood by the combined use of Google Translate, charades and the international language of a smile,but it was hard going for me. Yet I knew that the pain of not finishing the Camino would weigh harder on my soul than the pain I was feeling. I had my fundraiser to give more purpose to my walk and the goal to raise money and awareness for those with PTSD, and help to heal my own PTSD was a big enough reason to keep me there.

After 30 days I finally realised that the pain I was suffering was coming from my own expectations – of myself, others, and the way I believed it should have been. By now I had realised that I could walk further than I thought, I could walk that last painful kilometre looking for my hotel even when I was tired and lost, I did have other pilgrims to talk to in the cafes along the way, even if I walked alone there was much beauty along the trails around me despite how hard they were to walk some days, that when things didn’t go as planned I could learn from it and make changes as I needed to, and I was lucky to be here in a place where many would love to be able to come, but for whatever reason were not able.

So, as I walked into another town alone, I finally let go of the thoughts and expectations in my mind. Instead, I decided to trust myself and trust the universe (life, God or whatever other belief you choose to call it) that if I had succeeded up till this point, I would get through the rest of my Camino, and I chose to focus on the good instead and the not good moments would just become the learning parts of the experience and from them I would grow stronger.

It is funny how once I surrendered to what the experience was providing, I began to see the things I so desperately wanted starting to happen. I began to smile more, say hello to more people I met, stop and rest more frequently when I had pain, notice the little things that made each day so special and take time to visualise what it would be like arriving at that Cathedral in the Square in Santiago which I had read so much about.

From then on my walk became a magical experience – I would often find other slow walkers and be able to walk with them for all or part of the day, if an accommodation did not have other people staying I would go out into the town and find a group of pilgrims to eat a meal with, I began to value my alone time for thinking about what I wanted for my future, I learned to appreciate my body and how much stronger and fitter I was getting and gave myself little challenges that were fun and showed me how much more I could do that when I started, and I began to stop looking at where my life had gone wrong as failures and instead be glad I now had the opportunity and insight to start making the changes I wanted to create a future I wanted. And somewhere on that trail I found self love and self acceptance – and marvelled at my own resilience of having made it through every single tough moment in my life so far.

My last 24 hours on the Camino provided the most amazing synchronicity of events that created a day that will be forever etched in my memory with happiness and love. Two other girls I had met during the walk, but who had gone ahead and were already in Santiago had told me they would be waiting for me as I walked into the square the next day at the end of my Camino.

That night I stayed in accommodation where there was a group of 10 other pilgrims and was invited to share in their evening meal and watch the most special Celtic ritual performed after dinner. The next morning I was woken at 5am by the early walkers who headed off while I was at breakfast.This was to be my longest walking day on the Camino, so I began my walk at the first glimmer of light on the horizon and walked alone to the first town. In my mind I had decided to walk slowly and steadily, stop frequently and enjoy each step and all the little markers and landmarks along the way that indicated I was getting closer to my last steps.

At the first town, I stopped at the cafe for coffee and my first rest of the day. Inside was a wonderful group of people I had walked with on a previous day, and they were also slow walkers. I joined their little group to walk together to Santiago and complete our Camino together.

The day was filled with talking, laughter, sharing our stories of why we were there and what we had learned along the way, sharing our hard moments and our moments of triumph along the more than 780km we had already walked. We supported each other to keep going when the steps became more difficult and the distance seemed long, we celebrated and took photos at all the pilgrim landmarks on the way into the city, we shared the emotions and joys of knowing that you are about to complete such a huge journey in a very short time, and we embraced the connectedness with ourselves, each other, nature and life that we had gained through a trek of more than 800km.

In the late afternoon, we walked down a city street and caught a glimpse of the Cathedral tower in the distance. I could no longer contain the emotion and tears flowed freely as I walked those last couple of kilometres. Turning into the final street the sound of the bagpipes filled our ears, and in that very moment I knew that I had achieved my 1 Big Goal. Just another few steps down the road, down the stairs, past the bagpiper, and together our little group took our very last steps into the square and stood in front of the majestic Cathedral in Santiago de Compostella. The two girls I had met ran up with open arms and my tears turned to huge open sobs of relief,happiness, love, achievement, and a deeper connection to life than I had had in a very long time. The celebrations began and that night we partied late into the night and enjoyed the success of finishing what we had started so many days before.

The Camino does not end in that square though, instead it is a beginning!

In the days that followed, there were many more places to explore, pilgrim rituals to enjoy, new people to meet, and more pilgrims coming into the square to meet and celebrate their arrival. My hotel was right on the square, so every morning I got to walk outside and see the Cathedral and re-experience the feeling each day. On the four days before I left to fly home, I had the privilege and delight of meeting more amazing people and experiencing special moments and events that touched my heart in their simplicity and depth of joy they left in my soul.

There was a lot of reflection about the walk, the people I met, the stories I heard, the places and things I saw, the experiences I had, and the changes I felt inside. There was lots of wondering about how I bring the learning, simple routines, and best parts of the Camino into my everyday life at home. There were new understandings, insights and realisations about myself, my life, and the world around me. This is a continuing process,but somehow my heart, mind and soul feel at one and are lighter. There is a yearning to return to the paths and walk, for in the simple process of taking steps in nature I got my life back again.

I am so very grateful to my gorgeous family for being the constant and unwavering foundation of my life. And for all the people who stand by me, support me, share their stories with me and listen as I tell mine,who inspire me to do more and be a better version of me each day, that share their wisdom and knowledge, and to those who share their friendship and all the good and bad times.  Thanks also to all those who have donated to my fundraiser – together we make a difference.

In the lead up to walking the Camino I set up a Facebook page, 1 Big Goal to share my journey via daily blog posts. I had recognised I needed change in my life, and was doing a course to try and determine what I might do into the future.

Having returned from my trip with clarity of where my life direction is headed.  I am now focussed on raising the final few hundred dollars to reach my $5000 goal for my Blackdog fundraiser.

Please follow my journey or send me a message through my 1Big Goal Facebook page if you are interested in more information.