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Ancient Spanish ‘Camino’ Trail Draws California Adventurers Inspired By Social Media

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Sacramento couple Cyndi Torres and Robert Freitas walk through Midtown to condition for their hike along the Camino de Santiago, a 1,200-year-old Spanish pilgrimage route that is blossoming in popularity.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

A room full of aspiring hikers watched studiously as Kerri Daniels rattled off packing tips. She began to pull emergency supplies and athletic gear out of a worn-out teal backpack.

“You need pockets on the Camino,” she said. “Pick pockets that have zippers on them. Pick the things you’ve trained in, that you’ve tested out.”

Daniels is a veteran of the Camino de Santiago, a 1,200-year-old Spanish pilgrimage route that is blossoming in popularity. Social media and online hiking forums have made the 500-mile journey an accessible bucket list item for California boomers looking for mid-life adventure.

Earlier this spring, Daniels and other leaders of the American Pilgrims on the Camino Sacramento chapter held a send-off ceremony for 130 hikers who will hit the trail this summer. It’s about twice as many as they guided through the process last year. And she said there are many, many more who make the journey without the chapter’s assistance.

She gave first-time walkers a scallop shell — the universal symbol for Camino pilgrims. And she shared dozens of insider tips for the journey: carry only 10 percent of your bodyweight, use a contact lens case to store small supplies, label your boots and walking sticks so they don’t get lost among other hikers’ belongings.

“I say ‘If I can do it, anyone can do it,’” Daniels said. “Do it in your time, at your pace, on your schedule. Walk your own Camino, and enjoy your journey.”

The Camino has been gaining notoriety in America since the release of "The Way," a 2010 drama starring Martin Sheen. About 300,000 pilgrims finished the route in 2017, up from 183,000 in 2011. Americans now make up 6 percent of that group, up from just 2 percent in 2011.

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While most people walk the 500-mile Camino Francés, which begins in France, there are dozens of other trails that make up the broader Camino de Santiago network. They all lead to Santiago de Compostela in the Spanish province of Galicia.

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This map shows the network of Camino de Santiago trails in Western Eurpoe. Manfred Zentgraf / Wikimedia Commons
 

Many people see the Camino as a lighter version of the Pacific Crest Trail — the West Coast thru-hike that underwent its own renaissance thanks to the 2014 film "Wild." Unlike the rugged PCT, which winds through desert and alpine climates and requires hikers to carry their own food and tents, the Camino takes hikers from one European village to another, with spells of natural beauty in between. Each day ends at an albergue, or hostel, where pilgrims from all over the world share a meal and a bunk room.

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Sacramento couple Cyndi Torres and Robert Freitas stayed at an albergue, or hostel, while in Spain on their Camino journey. Cyndi Torres / Courtesy
 

While some international hikers still treat the Camino as a Catholic pilgrimage, most Americans have their own reasons for taking the journey. For some, it’s driven by a desire for self-actualization or better physical health. For others, it’s an escape from media overload or a busy schedule.

Los Angeles-based author Casey Schreiner has written extensively about outdoor recreation in the digital age. He said people who feel trapped often take inspiration from something they see in a movie, or stumble across on the web.

“Some people are motivated for a sense of attainable adventure,” he said. “We live in a world where every corner of the globe is mapped. There’s not too much more to explore in terms of finding new places. But if you’ve never done something like this, there’s something alluring and romantic about leaving everything you know behind.”

 

But he warns people not to get too gung-ho when they see other people’s travel photos on Instagram, and to make sure they’re prepared for the elements.

“Basically, know what you’re getting into,” Schreiner said. “These are not amusement park rides where there’s staff to take you home.”

Sacramento couple Robert Freitas and Cyndi Torres said hiking the Camino is their way of hitting the reset button. Cyndi Torres recent left her job at a women’s shelter, and Robert Freitas retired from the fire service. Their only child just started college. They found themselves longing for international travel.

“I guess the one expectation is I expect it to be difficult,” Torres said. “I have never hiked 500 miles before. …. Are my challenges going to be primarily physical? Primarily mental? Primary spiritual? I don’t know, and I don’t really want to go seeking an answer to anything, I just want it to reveal itself to me.”

After hearing about the Camino from a friend, they started doing hours of online research about  the trail’s history. They also started walking every day. At first, it was just short strolls, but over time they worked up to being able to hike 10 or 12 miles a day.

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Cyndi Torres and Robert Freitas walk along the American River to condition for their hike along the Camino de Santiago. Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio
 

They walked everywhere — to the grocery store, to their favorite breweries and restaurants. They didn’t even drive to the airport when they left town. Instead, they put on their backpacks and walked to the Greyhound station.

“It just becomes this weird thing to get into a car afterward,” Freitas said. “A lot of this is a change in lifestyle that I think will stick long after the effects of the Camino”

Torres and Freitas left Sacramento on April 4 to start the Ignatian Camino from the Spanish city of Manresa. They’ve passed gothic Cathedrals, underground prayer caves, cobblestone streets and ancient ruins. When not walking through cities, they’re crossing creeks and climbing mountains.

They are keeping a detailed blog about their journey.

“We moved through fields of green just starting to bloom with flowers, down rocky paths that have been traveled for centuries, and past towns straight out of medieval picture books,” Freitas wrote. “It’s the small things that stand out, however: the sound of the bells on a hundred goats feeding in a nearby field or the picnic we had in the bright sunshine.”

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Cyndi Torres and Robert Freitas have been keeping a detailed blog of their Camino de Santiago journey, which they say is their way of hitting the reset button. Cyndi Torres
 

In Spanish, Camino de Santiago means “the way of St. James.” The large network of trails was created by pilgrims, who used to walk from their own homes to the apostle’s resting place. As the Camino grows more popular, modern-day hikers are rediscovering — and reviving — paths that have fallen out of use.

Find more information about the route from the American Pilgrims on the Camino, and see Kerri Daniels’ packing tips here.

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