Leaving Home and Coming Back: Reflections on Doing the Camino Pre-Internet and in 2018
by Nancy L. Frey, PhD, 20 December 2018
Intrigued by my work on how tech usage impacts the Camino experience (and the podcast interview I did with producer Dan Mullins of My Camino The Podcast), editor Andrew Priestley asked me to write a piece for his pilgrim anthology My Camino Walk #2, (pp.153-169) a collection of 18 Internet Age pilgrims' accounts. I decided to share a personal story from my first Camino de Santiago journey in 1993 because I wanted to show how it is possible to reflect on and witness the impacts that our dependency on tech devices and their applications potentially has on our personal and interpersonal experiences. Here is the article printed with permission from the book. The full reference to the article is in Reources- Reading Further under Articles Specific to the Camino.
Leaving Home and Coming Back
Nancy L. Frey, PhD
For 25 years I’ve been listening to pilgrims’ stories. It’s a privilege I don’t take lightly. Now I am going to share one of my own stories. It’s from another era – pre-Internet. It’s not that long ago – 1993 – but the world and the Camino have changed irrevocably since the rise of the Digital era. (i)
People often lament, using the voice of nostalgia or by romanticizing the past, the Camino’s ever-changing nature. Nonetheless, whether it be a bucket-list trip or an earnest soul search, the Camino continues to be a potential pathway of discovery, empowerment and triumph of the human spirit.
The Camino de Santiago is a tough journey filled with ups, downs, dirt, boredom, wonder, adversity, silence, heat, pain, suffering, joy, confusion, beauty..... It’s not an easy pathway (physically or mentally) with a golden epiphany waiting at the end. Such wishful thinking is a recipe for disappointment.
You are the most important part of the equation and your willingness to walk through one of the many doors the Camino opens to you. I hope that my story and insights from my research will help guide you across the threshold through that door of opportunity that awaits on the road to Santiago.
Over the last 10 years I’ve observed and written about the impacts of the Internet and mobile phone technology on the Camino and the experience of being a pilgrim. (ii) My main argument focuses on how the mental part of the journey is compromised when a person allows their digital habits and desire to connect with the outside world to become dominant, habitual and a normal part of their Camino experience.
Internet Age pilgrims are on the Camino in body but often their minds are somewhere in the Cloud. (iii)
Pilgrimage is a powerful mind body experience and if the mind part is distracted and stimulated by external stimuli, then the pilgrim’s ability to focus on the present and being in the moment of the Camino is seriously impaired. The illustrations shows how different the pilgrim’s mental state potentially is pre-Internet and now. I believe that it illustrates well the mental burden of the Digital pilgrim in a way that words can’t. (iv)
Digital age pilgrims typically embark on the Camino physically but do not make a clear mental break with home. It is more common now to have collaborative pilgrimages in which friends, family, unknown followers, Camino Facebook (or any other social media platform used to connect pilgrims before, during and/or after the journey ends) friends and even the boss come along virtually on the Camino. The pilgrim may maintain a significant mental back and forth via the Cloud with this audience.
A boundary that used to be a significant is now only blurred. A fundamental part of the Camino used to be leaving home in the broad sense of getting out of your normal routine and comfort zone mentally. (v) I’m using home not just as family and a physical space where you live but also many other aspects of one’s daily life – work, habits, daily routine, problems, known surroundings and even language and customs. As one of the pilgrims I interviewed in 1994 wrote in a post-Camino poem,
For all that they follow the Milky Way,
Pilgrims aren’t homeless –
For it’s the leaving home
And the coming back
Which gives shape and meaning to the journey (vi)
Why would this pilgrim say that the leaving home gives shape and meaning to the journey? The Camino as a pilgrimage has an underlying structure, a three step process:
- Separation (Leaving Home),
- Limen (The Journey/Camino), and
- The Return (Coming Back).
Most often we hear about the journey and the trials and tribulations one experiences on the way. That’s the exciting part! Thousands of people have published books and blogs about their experiences. Often we forget that the other two parts of this process are equally important and all three have been radically impacted by the rise of digital technology.
No News is Good News
Pre-Internet a common phrase of consolation during the ab-sence of a loved one was: No news is good news.
Pre Internet you said goodbye to home, home said goodbye to you. Perhaps you arranged to send mail to one another and pre-planned stops or agreed to call from time to time. Communication would typically be one-way and initiated by the traveler/pilgrim. Leaving might also be a tremendous relief or fraught with anxiety coupled with the excitement of going on an anticipated journey with new adventures waiting. On both sides there had to be a basic trust and letting go. Cutting the proverbial mental and physical cord was an important first step in the pilgrim’s journey.
When I left California in 1993, I left behind my husband and family. I was 24. The summer before in 1992 I had also traveled in Spain for my research on my own and had occasionally felt homesick. I was lonely and I sometimes suffered as I missed my partner. I also met interesting people in towns and on the trains as I traveled from place to place looking for my dissertation topic. It was an intense experience.
Like most pilgrims when I left home in 1993, I felt trepidation about the unknown and excitement about the adventure to come. I joined two scholars and a group of five students for an 8-week pilgrimage where we would walk the Camino and study its history, art and literature in Spanish.
For me the Camino was going to be an academic experience as a PhD graduate student studying cultural anthropology at UC Berkeley. I would watch and observe others on pilgrimage but I wasn’t going on pilgrimage myself.
Or so I, naively, thought.
My Camino walk quickly became an unanticipated personal soul search that turned my world upside down.
I woke up metaphorically.
I found myself confronted with all that I had avoided in my personal life and, in that special space of the Camino that is
created by having physical and mental distance from home, I forged a path that would ultimately lead me to make major life changes and shape my life’s course.
Digital age pilgrims typically maintain a more heightened mental proximity to home and the world in general. One common reason given for carrying tech is to allay fears, report back and keep in touch with loved ones. Worry from Home projected onto the pilgrim increases the sense of needing to be connected and being on-call.
Pilgrims also want to share their experiences, know about home or keep their virtual audience happy with their exploits. In return the pilgrim receives Likes validating their experiences reinforcing the desire to connect. That need to constantly reinforce home that all is okay or get constant positive feedback about what one is doing is a shift in our attitudes regarding separation in travel.
The old adage No news is good news appears less and less relevant suggesting that our contemporary virtual relation-ships have a greater fragility and they need constant, often public, reinforcement.
Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder, or Not
One of the benefits of having a strong mental break from home is that it helps you put your relationships into perspective and what they mean to you. Keeping yourself mentally connected, you don’t give yourself a chance to miss loved ones fully or have sufficient mental distance from them to see the relationships clearly.
As I embarked on my Camino in 1993, I knew I would miss my mother very much as she and I were very close and spoke frequently on the phone. If she and I had the same relationship then and phones had existed, we would have messaged and Skyped each other constantly about all of my insecurities, observations and doubts.
At the time I was also deeply bonded with my husband of one year who had been my steady boyfriend prior to that since we were 14 and 15. We had never broken up in all those years. We were best friends and loved each other very much. If I had had a phone, he and I would also have been constantly chat-ting via a messaging platform keeping me from the group, my experience of where I was and my Camino. I probably also would have been texting grad school friends, my professors for advice and shared photos on Instagram. My mind would have been all over the place except where I was physically.
Connection via the Internet can provide tremendous support for a pilgrim especially when feeling down, tired, insecure, or lonely. The temptation and the ease with which you can resolve those negative feelings through a phone reduces the need for the pilgrim to look within to find a solution or look around to fellow companions or circumstances.
Pilgrims appear more independent but actually become more isolated from their on-the-ground community and more dependent on their phone and virtual community to resolve crises. The consequence is self-limitation and distance from the present moment. Curiously, what on the surface appears to be a help may actually be a hindrance to growth, as the quick-fix is not always the best solution for long-lasting inner solace. Your phone may end up being the heaviest weight in your pack.
While I loved my husband very much part of me unconsciously knew that I had not been completely honest with him or myself about my doubts I had about our relationship. I knew that there was something untapped within me that, up to that point, our relationship had been unable to access. He was my best friend. We shared everything together. I loved him dearly. I did not want to throw that out the window because of some unknown curiosity which I assumed was some defect within me that had no solution.
What does this have to do with my Camino? Everything and nothing. The Camino often isn’t about what we think it will be.
I love the quote from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress that starts the book:
“As I walked through the wilderness of this world …”. viI
The wilderness he walks into is his own inner world that is a fearful, unknown place. How will he react when confronted with temptation, adversity and the unknown? You must face the fear to move forward.
I called one of my chapters in my book Pilgrim Stories, "Landscapes of Discovery" because that is often what the Camino is - a space of discovery, surprise and wonder when we allow ourselves to delve into our unknown, inner realms.
Getting into the simple rhythm of the Camino of walking, eating, finding shelter and sleeping allows the pilgrim to receive two of the Camino’s greatest gifts: the power of simplicity and freed up mental space.
People love the simplicity of the Camino and how you can feel deeply fulfilled and connected with the world and those around you when you have relatively few material possessions even if you are suffering physically.
By freed up mental space I don’t mean a clear mind without thoughts – though some people may experience that as well - I mean the layer of stress that one carries around in daily life induced by work, responsibilities, commitments, busy-ness, contemporary society, etc is lifted.
A mental pairing down typically occurs after a few days of walking when your mind is anchored to the present and not drawn constantly to the worries of the world. Into that freed up space, inner material often surfaces and flows – upwellings of emotion, memories of the past, vivid dreams, confusing thoughts, people you once knew, songs, etc.
In my book Pilgrim Stories I describe this as a cork being released from a bottle. If this freed up space is constantly filled with noise from the Internet or the perceived need to please the home audience with status updates and social media posts, the pilgrim never allows him/herself to release the cork of stress and see what lies underneath. You don’t give yourself a chance get out of the rut of your mental routine.
The Mental Distance Allowed Me To Find Myself
On the surface I had a normal Camino walking along, learning, meeting other people, feeling wonder and awe at the historical monuments we passed, enjoying the natural landscapes, suffering pains in my feet, etc.
On the inside I was an emotional wreck.
Within the group of five students there was someone I felt an instant, magnetic attraction to. It was so intense it was painful. I felt a profound inner turmoil. That untapped part of me was screaming out for me to take action but my love, fidelity and respect for my partner shouted equally strongly to stay away from this with a 10-ft pole. It was agonizing and there was no one I wanted to confide in nearby. It was hard but I am glad it was that way. If it were today and I had had a phone, I would have been texting and Skypeing my husband and my mother and the potential guilt and mental proximity probably would have altered the outcome significantly. I thought my Camino was a disaster due to this unforeseen life situation. But this was my Camino. I had to confront what I had been unable to see clearly in my daily life. I was profoundly dissatisfied on some essential level with what I thought was my perfect relation-ship. As hard as it was, the distance (emotional and physical) allowed me to access this place within myself, a place I really didn’t want to go.
It turned out the attraction with the other person in the group was mutual. He would place his hand on my back and I felt electricity. I had never felt like that. After struggling I decided I had to listen to this inner urge that compelled me so strongly.
One evening we took a walk and wandered to edge of the village. At one point we turned to one another and kissed. I literally saw fireworks like in a movie. The inner charge was equally strong. I had never felt anything like that before. It was intoxicating and confirmed all of my inner doubts that I had denied myself for many years. He became my catalyst for change. As I write this I can easily conjure the emotion of this moment probably because I have never written about it before. I’ve told a few people orally but there are simply stories one keeps to oneself. The more you tell a story, the more the power and energy around the story potentially changes and diminishes.
While on one hand I felt I had seen the light on the other I was wracked by a terrible sense of guilt. The OneRepublic’s song from a few years ago Counting Stars instantly resonated when I heard it for the first time:
I, feel something so right
Doing the wrong thing
I, feel something so wrong
But doing the right thing (viiI)
Achieving this mental state becomes the access point to inner understanding and allows you to observe your own life. People had monkey-mind (i.e., overly active and easily distracted) too back then just like they do now.
Releasing the cork is not necessarily a pleasant experience.
In fact it can be fairly traumatic.
The big difference between pre-Internet and now was when it got mentally tough on the Camino you couldn’t escape into the Internet. You had to deal one way or another in the present. People did escape mentally into books they might carry or alcohol, or relationships along the Way but still their minds were anchored in that place and space and not distracted by Facebook posts, Internet dating sites, sports channels, TripAdvisor bookings, notifications, SnapChat
images, frustrations with crappy WiFi, blogs, sharing photos on Instagram, etc, etc, etc. All these things serve to keep you on the surface of your life. People talk now about the Camino being stressful because they don’t have enough time to write it all down and share it. You don’t have to share it, you can simply live it.
The Camino becomes work rather than something you live and breathe, suffer and enjoy.
The Gift of Feeling Alone and Far, Far Away
One of my most powerful memories from my first Camino in 1993 was walking across the meseta (Spain’s high tableland between Burgos and León) on a moonlight night with several companions. At one point we reached a rise and huge wheat field extended out in front of us. We went into the wheat, laid down on our backs and looked up at the star-filled sky. I remember feeling a powerful sense of freedom and anonym-ity and the thought went through my head, “No one in the world knows where I am right now.” It was very liberating. I was just one with the stars, insignificant in this vast, open space and all was good.
If it were now, I’d want to share it, or take a selfie of myself and my friends or start thinking about how I would write about it in a blog. It was just a moment to live that has always stayed with me in a powerful, comforting way.
Over the years, guiding people along this stretch of the Camino, I have probably passed this place 75 times and I always look on that field and remember that moment with a sense of great inner peace. Sometimes the wheat is lush. Sometimes it’s been harvested. Sometimes there are red poppies coming up through the stalks. Windfarms have gone up in the distance on the horizon. It doesn’t matter, the essence of the place and the moment are still there embedded in my inner Camino landscape. I wonder if I would even remember this moment if I had tossed it into wind of the Cloud with all my other amazing moments back in 1993?
Pre-Internet you could be a different person and experience new and different things without judgment or ties or worry about what home might think. If you are constantly reporting back, you may inhibit yourself from experimenting with self and others. Your journey is no longer your own when you have a host of people watching you from the Cloud and you are editing your experiences as they are happening.
The truth is there is a part of pilgrimage which is very selfish – it’s typically a journey you need to go on alone mentally to have a true time-out from your life, responsibilities and worries to achieve the mental pairing down and stillness within that brings connection, insight and transformation. Sometimes you just need time for you, however you may define the journey’s purpose whether it be religious, spiritual, inner or personal. We need to withdraw from the cares of the world and simply be – sit in the wheat, look at the sky, listen to your body and the sounds of nature, be still and wonder.
Leaving Home is Hard, Returning Can Be Worse
Over the following weeks I allowed my instincts to flow and to trust my inner world and where it was taking me. At the same time I was wracked with guilt. I knew something very powerful was occurring, I had some idea of where it might lead me and I was terrified. I was worried on one hand about the futureandexultantandpowerfullyenergizedinthepresentofthe Camino.
My dream life was very vivid. I wrote in my journal. I felt the present greatly. I saw my life clearly and made other decisions too. I wrote letters and received letters at periodic stops along the way about stuff that had no relevance. I took about eight rolls of colour slides that I wouldn’t see for another two months.
About five weeks into the trip I felt like I had to talk to my mother to get some perspective. I made an expensive international phone call and heard the calming voice of my mom telling me it would work out.
I also remember reflecting that the previous summer on my own in Spain I had experienced intense homesickness but this summer on the Camino I simply didn’t want it to end. As the weeks went on the intensity of emotion was so great that I decided I had to stop it before the relationship with the catalyst got more serious than I wanted. The door had been opened, the spring tapped, my eyes uncovered. There was no going back to my previous state. I had experienced a profound inter-nal shift over the course of the pilgrimage.
As I reflected in the last days about all that had happened over the previous eight weeks, my goal upon return was to incorporate this intense new energy into my relationship with my husband. I did not want to lose him or what we had. I never would have guessed before starting the Camino that my graduate school research project would have as an outcome a profound personal dilemma around one of the things I felt most confident about before leaving – my relationship with my husband.
All of this time I did not have any contact with the outside world except a few glances at the TV in bars, letters from home and one or two phone calls over 8-weeks. My mind was profoundly centered in and on the Camino for eight-weeks. I achieved a powerful experience of the here and the now. I was not multi-tasking my Camino by sharing the many moments of the day. I did not send emails or write a blog to get feedback. I didn’t parcel it out in fragments as it was occurring. I kept this inside of me evolving, growing and churning. I didn’t worry, like I would today, that I wouldn’t remember everything or try to record it all. I didn’t feel stressed out about not having time to share my experiences. I wasn’t trying to process my experiences by writing emails to others and getting feedback.
Believe me, I didn’t do this because I wouldn’t have wanted to but because it simply wasn’t possible. I feel very lucky to have been stuck in this mental bubble because it takes a tremendous amount of discipline now not to give into the
temptation to connect to the Internet and share or get help as we do now. The energy and time that Digital pilgrims now invest in Cloud activities is startling.
My well laid plans for my return failed miserably. Nothing was the same. I wasn’t the same. The spring that had been tapped would not stop flowing but when I tried to incorporate it into the relationship the flow dried up. The relationship couldn’t contain the shifts and changes. I was faced with devastating choices – close my eyes to what had been revealed and save our relationship but die on the inside in the process or keep my eyes open and take the plunge into the abyss of uncertainty that lay ahead by ending what was a beautiful relationship.
In the months after my return, I developed a very strong inner image: I was standing on an enormous, vast open plain and in the far distance I could see this radiant city, glittering. Between me and this vision of promise was a vast, black canyon. I walked to the edge of the canyon and looked down into the abyss and darkness but could see no way across. The only way to get to the other side was to go down into that pit of fear and uncertainty and climb back up the other side. I didn’t want to go and turned around and looked back but there was nothing there – just empty plain. It was the hardest emotional leap I ever took in my life. I flung myself into that black space and I managed to crawl back out onto the other side. I didn’t climb out unscathed nor did those in my circle. I ended up breaking my husband’s heart in the process and shocking everyone in my circle of friends and family. I had always been the straight, reliable arrow. Some of them have never forgiven me.
All of these years later, I still feel bad for him and always wished that it had been a mutual decision. I never wanted to hurt anyone on my journey but sometimes that is the outcome of profound growth and change for the spirit to survive and thrive.
At the same time, I never regretted descending into the chasm and I feel very grateful to the Camino for the many gifts I received along the way. I grew up on the Camino. The mental and physical time away allowed me to separate and become my own person. It was very hard and I was not the same person when I returned. I was a stronger, more confident and capable version of myself. I felt an iron bar of courage running through my centre that allowed me to make the changes that I did. I was also more compassionate and less judgmental.
I returned to the Camino to do my field research from July 1994 to Aug 1995 working as an hospitalera in many albergues along the way. The outcome of my conversations, listening and tending pilgrims was Pilgrim Stories.
Since I had already been through my own personal Camino hell and survived, it allowed me to be a better caregiver as well as a compassionate listener and more understanding of pilgrims’ inner struggles. I am still friends with many pilgrims I met in those profound months of research in the 1990s when I was often the only person who heard a pilgrim’s story because, unlike today, people didn’t share and post their experiences as they went. There’s great power in keeping your stories and experiences inside and letting them churn and evolve within you until you are ready to reflect on and learn from them.
The Journey Goes On
What does this have to do with tech?
I can confidently say that I never would have undergone the powerful transformation I experienced on the Camino in 1993 if I had been connected to the Internet.
People really aren’t all that different mentally today than they were 25 years ago. Now, like then, there are many insecure, needy, adventure seeking, confused, curious, hopeful people who are open or closed to new experiences on the Camino. The big difference between then and now is that
pre-Internet you were forced by circumstances to deal with all of your issues, adversities, inner anxieties, etc in a contained space limited almost entirely to the immediate world around you. It was easier to reach that state and maintain it even if you didn’t want to. I’m definitely not saying that everyone chose to keep their eyes open or take their Camino lessons fully home. Many people compartmentalized and some seemed to learn nothing or left the Camino when the going got rough.
Nonetheless, that fact is you couldn’t escape from yourself or the Camino as easily as you can now. Circumstances forced you to look within to deal with whatever adversity arose and thereby the Camino gave you constant opportunities to grow, struggle and learn. If you struggled with loneliness you turned to your companions or the hospitaleros or villagers and other people you met along the way. If you got lost you fought down the panic and figured it out. Each of these experiences often became life lessons to help you deal better in the real world.
In the Internet Age, the tendency is to instantly resolve any minor glitch by turning to your phone for the solution. We diminish our Camino tremendously when we don’t allow ourselves to have one. If you don’t live, you don’t learn. Our phones keep us from living by dulling our senses. When we delegate our emotional needs to our phones, we miss opportunities to grow and at the same time atrophy our dealing-with-life skills in the process through disuse.
If you never really leave home, what’s the point of going on pilgrimage as a time-out, soul search or personal, transformative journey? Dare to enter the wilderness within.
I don’t guarantee you won’t come out unscathed but you will definitely learn many things along the way.
(i) I’m using roughly the year 2000 but on the Camino the Internet’s impact didn’t really become visible until about 2008.
(ii) Please see my website Walking to Presence (www.walkingtopresence.com) where I share my research on pilgrimage in the Internet Age.
(iii) On my website Walking to Presence (www.walkingtopresence.com), you will find the article 15 Tips for Keeping Your Head Out of the Cloud if you want to reflect on how digital communications potentially impact your Camino experience.
(iv) I've used different versions of this image for different talks and presentations. This one is from my article Leaving Home and Coming Back in Priestley, A. (ed), 2018, My Camino Walk #2, p. 154.,
(v) Digital Age pilgrims still get out of their routines through the physical journey which is often very tough and requires mental fortitude. Both being in nature and walking are powerful therapeutic activities which are also conducive to helping the pilgrim access his/her inner worlds.
(vi) Frey, N. (1998). Pilgrim Stories. On and Off the Road to Santiago. UC Press, p. 178
(vii) Bunyan, J. (1853). The Pilgrim’s Progress. Auburn: Derby & Miller, p. 10.
(viii) Songwriter: Tedder, R. (2013). Lyrics from Counting Stars by OneRepbulic © Sony/ATV Music Publishing L
About Nancy Frey, PhD
In 1998 Nancy published Pilgrim Stories. On and Off the Road to Santiago (UC Press, 1998) based on her three-year anthropological research project on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in the early 1990s.
She received her PhD in Cultural Anthropology from UC Berkeley in 1996.
In Pilgrim Stories, Nancy brings to life the multi-faceted nature of the late 20th C pilgrim experience and takes the reader through the pilgrim’s journey before, during and after the Camino is over.
Nancy moved to Spain in 1998 and began to write for Lonely Planet as well lecture for the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Santiago de Compostela.
In 1999, she founded the educational walking tours company On Foot in Spain (www.onfootinspain.com) with her partner. Since then Nancy has shared with more than 1400 people her knowledge, love and passion for the Camino on their guided tours and walked the Camino too many times to count.
Nancy’s 25-year relationship with the Camino spans the rise of the Internet. Witnessing and observing the changes wrought by an increasingly digitalized society, Nancy began to research the impacts of the Digital Age on the Camino. She freely shares her research on this topic on her website: Walking to Presence (www.walkingtopresence.com).
On Foot in Spain (www.onfootinspain.com)
Walking to Presence (www.walkingtopresence.com)