A great day on the Camino

Photo by Ariana Rose Brackenbury

The first time 70-year-old Ariana Rose Brackenbury walked the Camino de Santiago, there were times when she thought she wouldn’t be able to complete the 780 km trek. But in the end, the excruciating pain of black and blue toes, legs so sore they required medical treatment and sweltering 35-degree heat didn’t stop her from completing the walk in 40 days.

As agonizing as Brackenbury’s experience was, she was drawn back to walk the Camino nine more times.

“I think what the Camino does, is it offers an opportunity to go beyond what you think you can do.” she says, “But, I’m not going to kid anybody that wants to go on the Camino, if you’re following the guidebook, you’re going to have a body that’s going to be grouchy. There’s some 31 or 32 km days.”

The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage route in Northern Spain. For hundreds of years people have travelled from all over the world to make the grueling, sometimes transformative, spiritual journey. The traditional starting point is Saint Jean Pied de Port in southwestern France. The route begins by going up and then down the Pyrenees Mountains. The trail winds through small towns, cities, through fields, valleys and across streams coming to a triumphant end at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. On Brackenbury’s first walk, making it to this point changed the trajectory of her life.

About ten years ago, Brackenbury’s world had taken a turn. She says her life stopped as she knew it. Her husband had died and soon after, she had to sell the house she loved and she lost her savings. To top it off her job as a systems developer/Microsoft access programmer was winding down. She was left literally without a home and a purpose.

“Trust me, it hasn’t been smooth sailing, just like anybody, whether it’s marriage or expectations, there’s so much stuff that people go through,” she says.

Brackenbury went to live with her son-in-law in the Okanagan Valley, where every day she would get down on her knees and trim the grapevines. Trimming rows and rows of grapevines repeatedly was meditative and healing. She says going through the motions brought her to a place where she could begin to take a bigger breath again. She was able to start looking outside herself again.

“I had been in a car accident that year and when I was with my physiotherapist, she said, have you thought about walking the Camino? …and I knew I had to do it. There was no doubt in my mind. Letting go of all logic — I didn’t speak Spanish and I’d never backpacked. It wasn’t a decision; it was just done.” Brackenbury says.

Driven by an innate purpose to walk the Camino. Brackenbury drove back to Calgary, and hopped on a plane to start her Camino. Despite her best intentions, Brackenbury wasn’t able to train her body or build up her endurance for her first Camino. Suddenly she was asking her body to walk 7-10 hours a day.

“I don’t advise people to go without training. Do some training.” She says, “One day, I was walking with this guy and walking faster than I should have, in conversation, then we came to this little town [and stayed at an Alburges (small hostel) for the night]. I woke up to go to the bathroom and I couldn’t walk to the bathroom! I literally had to drag myself, it was excruciating. I was crying and telling myself I screwed this up, [that] I’m going to have to go home.”

Strangely, Brackenbury says the body has a way of recouping itself. She ended up taking a taxi to the next town the next day. She rested for two days, made some new friends and was able to continue her spiritual journey.

“The Camino gave me lots of insights into patterns. I realized I was always in a hurry and I had never really thought about it. Those patterns are what you begin to see on the Camino. I couldn’t walk fast, I had shin splints so bad, I literally started to be the last person [checking into the Alburges at the end of the day] and started to like being last…I started thinking ‘this is so much better than rushing’.”

Another time, Brackenbury had been walking all day and had a few kilometres left before arriving at the next small town. Her bruised toes were killing her, so when she saw a stream, she stopped and soaked her feet for a while. It was late in the day when she finally got back on the trail.

“I had 6 km to go and it was 4 p.m., it was really hot and I’m really thinking — I can’t do it, I have to do it, but I can’t do it…” she says, “I see the town and I have to go down this hill, and I’m like, oh dear God, and then I see the Alburges is on the uphill. At that point I had a conversation with God that wasn’t polite. I just said what do you want from me — and there were a few bad words.”

When Brackenbury, who was feeling pain in every part of her body, arrived at the Alburges, people were clapping and cheering her on. She started sobbing.

“I said to God – you better give me a lower bunk [bed],” she says, pausing she adds. “I think what the Camino does is it offers an opportunity to go beyond what you think you can do.”

Brackenbury carried on and completed her first Camino. The joy and accomplishment she felt when she walked into the square and into the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was immeasurable.

“I came back from that Camino. I was refreshed. I took 10 years off my life. I was so healed from the stress of the time before I left.” she says.

Brackenbury has carried on to share her knowledge of the Camino de Santiago with others by training and leading groups along the spiritual walk. In the last few years, she has also started to explore and lead Mary Magdalene groups to France. Seventy-year-old Brackenbury sees no end in sight to her adventures.

She feels a pull to share with others what life has shown her.

“A lot of people want to do things and they allow that voice in their head to take them out of the game. Don’t stop doing things because of what you perceive to be possible and not possible.”