An interview with Nancy of WalkSit.com.
Nancy felt pretty unfit, and wondered if she could I actually walk nearly one thousand kilometres at the age of 56. Her Camino de Santiago dream began 40 years ago, but like many of us, life got in the way. She recently decided to wait no longer, bought her ticket to Spain and completed her first Camino! Nancy’s story caught my attention as completing a long-distance walk like the Camino is a goal of mine too, and I could relate to her age/fitness concerns. I’m delighted Nancy agreed to answer a few questions about her journey.
Q: What made you take the plunge and fulfill your 40-year dream?
Nancy: I’d gone through a bad workplace experience at the beginning of the year that sort of topped off an arduous 12 months the year before. So I decided to “retire” as I’d reached my Super’s preservation age [in Australia, early retirement – Ed.] and access most of my Super to renovate my house, take a sabbatical to recoup, and to fulfil my dream. Until I’d bought the ticket ($3K) I didn’t actually believe I was going to walk the Camino after all these years.
Q: Why did you choose the Via de la Plata Camino route (Seville to Santiago de Compostela) instead of the more popular Way of St. James route?
Nancy: My answer probably says more about me than anything else. OK – since I’d taken the plunge and accessed my Super, I thought I’ll do this Camino thing, then I thought I can’t be bothered with crowds of people (the Camino Frances is very populated) and I certainly didn’t want to be competing for beds every day SO I picked one of the hardest and least travelled routes. The Granada route sounded too hard (see Sinning Across Spain by Ms Piper) so the Via de la Plata was my first choice. Veteran pilgrims I met along the way said they’d rarely heard of any newbie tackling the Via de la Plata as their first Camino.
But my attitude was just to do it – I didn’t know what to expect really so I went in naïve and ready for anything.
Q: Did you do a lot of physical preparation for the walk?
Nancy: I thought I was “heroic” walking 8 kilometres every few days for about 4 weeks! Ha! When it came to practising with a loaded rucksack, as they suggest you do, I put that off for weeks as I didn’t want to find out that my back with its severe arthritis couldn’t manage it. Talk about avoidance and procrastination!
Q: Along the way, were your biggest challenges mental or physical? What did you learn about your body’s physical abilities?
Nancy: My biggest challenges, as a new pilgrim, included not being too clingy and dependent on more experienced peregrinos. I spent a lot of my first 2 weeks strongly doubting my own capabilities to get out of the village and manage the distance and get into the next village and find accommodation.
Once I figured out that I could do that, I stopped having expectations of other pilgrims. That eased the mental load.
Physically, the distances took their toll on the soles of my feet more than anything. I managed to inflict blisters on myself through stubbornness, but once they cleared up I was fine. Plus your pain threshold rises so you get to a place where you can cope with whatever your body is screaming and just keep walking. You know that you will get there in one piece!
What I learned about our ageing bodies is that we are actually designed to be work-horses. We/I spend so much time being sedentary it’s no wonder we are prone to disease and decay. We are meant to be out using our bodies to their optimum level each day. Mine thrived on walking 15 to 20 ks a day! And I learned that we don’t need all the food we eat in our sedentary lives. I was one of the youngest ones out there at age 56! The oldest I met was 86 and someone met another person aged 94.
Q: Gear – Is there any must-have item that made your walk easier or more enjoyable. Are there any items you wished you brought?
Nancy: I positively couldn’t have managed the walk without my walking sticks. I picked up a pair in the local sport shop and had never used sticks before. In fact I’d never walked more than maybe 10 ks in my whole life before! Walking sticks kept me balanced on muddy ground, through longish grass, on bitumen, up hills and mountains, down as well, through all sorts of terrain. They were a support and became my friends. You hear the pilgrims tap tapping out of any village from around 6am onwards on the cobbled roads.
I wish that I had not thrown out my Tiger Balm! And I strongly recommend buying a pair or two of those little shoe skirts that you can get in supermarkets – tradies buy them to keep dirt or sparks etc out of their shoes. Gravel and sand etc on the Camino can do your head in. Shaking out your boots on the Way involves finding somewhere to sit, unloading your rucksack, undoing your laces, etc etc. Those little shoe skirts would have been wonderful. I would take a pair next time.
Q: Food is usually a big part of travel. Was that still true on the Camino? Did you pack food for along the way or eat at restaurants?
Nancy: I was looking forward to what I thought was Spanish food – tortilla, chilli con carne, very spicy food, as I love heat, spice and more spice. But Spanish food in rural Spain is quite plain – after all they are farmers and crop growers. So the food was quite mundane but still very delicious. I did get sick of Menu del Dia but then I ate around 60 of them – grilled meat of some sort and chips.
A few times early on, I made up a big sandwich for the road – as I thought I might be starving to death with all this walking. But eventually, a couple of pieces of fruit were more than adequate for the walk with a light brekkie to start with and as much as you can eat that night in the next town.
I ate at restaurants each night or bar/cafes – but it’s easy to stock up at the supermarket in each village for supplies for the budget-conscious. Just finding out the opening hours is the thing – Spain closes from 1pm to around 5pm every afternoon. (and remember, due to my super money, this was an adventure of a lifetime – I treated myself to whatever I wanted for the first and only time in my life – money was not going to be an issue on this walk!)
Q: While traveling I’m much more active, and love the feeling of getting stronger. But somehow when I get home it’s too easy to slip into old habits. Have the Camino habits carried over into your post-Camino world?
Nancy: Funny you should ask that as just today I wrote a post about having become a couch potato. For the first couple of weeks since I got back, in October last year, I righteously walked every couple of days. I didn’t want to lose all my excellent muscle definition and tone and feelings of being in top condition. But then the extreme summer heat AND the Christmas season struck so I spent a lot of time indoors. Even now, nearing the end of March, I’m still sedentary.
When you’re out on the Camino, that’s like your job. That’s what you do each day – walk walk walk. There are no pressing issues of real life stressing you out and life is clean and simple and basic. Uncomplicated. Back home, it’s quite different. Same old streets, more of a chore, whatever.
But I’m happy to think that it’s a stage I’m going through and that with the onset of our southern hemisphere winter, I will get back out into walking mode. I believe walking is the best thing because it’s not stressful like jogging on our ageing bodies and it’s free and scenic and flexible.
Q: Any advice for fellow boomers considering this challenge?
Nancy: My biggest realisation is that ageing is made out to be a disease. A complete negative. The media and the culture we occupy are complicit in this. I learnt that we are ageing, yes, but we are strong and vital. No need to think about the nursing home at all ever! If some 94 year old pilgrim is out there walking the Via de la Plata then that says a lot more than I could ever write about how we are capable of a lot more than this culture/society gives us credit for.
My advice? Just do it! If it’s still nagging at you, then that’s a glorious part inside you that is telling you a dream is about to unfold. Make it come true!
Nancy is on a mission to show that we are all more capable of achieving our dreams than we think we are. Please check out her website Walk Sit for walking resources and stories about her Camino journey, and keep up to date with her on Twitter at @walkingsitting or Facebook at walksitcarrywater. Photos are courtesy of Walksit.com.
Are you up for a challenge?
I just finished reading “Wild”, Cheryl Strayed’s autobiographical account of her 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. I can imagine myself on an epic hike such as this…or maybe following in the footsteps of pilgrims on the 500-mile Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) from St. Jean-Pied-du-Port, France to Santiago, Spain…
Okay, okay, I will probably only experience this hike in my dreams. But Cheryl’s story of physical endurance and self-discovery is all the more inspiring to me because she was a relatively inexperienced hiker, but determined to reach her goal.
For the rest of us… hiking is an adventure you can scale to your ability and timetable, and is usually free. Public walking trails are available around the world, and they often get you out of the tourist crush and lead you to wonderful natural places you couldn’t access by car. Here are eight great walks for inspiration – some we’ve experienced and others are on our list.
1. The Pacific Crest Trail, USA
The Pacific Crest Trail runs from Mexico to Canada, along the peaks of the Sierra Nevada and the Cascade Mountain ranges. Cheryl Strayed hiked 1,100 miles, and a few determined hikers complete the whole trail. But like many epic hikes, there are points you can experience parts of the trail as a day-hike. The section that includes Crater Lake National Park sounds really interesting to me.
- When to go: summer, as the trail can be snow-covered much of the year.
- Distance: roughly 2,650 miles long
- For info check the Pacific Crest Trail association website
2. The Lake Louise Tea House Hike, Alberta, Canada
A hike to the Tea House from Lake Louise is one of many that can be done as a day trip from our home in Calgary, Alberta. This forested hike up a mountain rewards you with spectacular views of Lake Louise, two more lakes and a waterfall. At the top of the hike, next to Lake Agnes and under the Beehive peaks, is the very popular Lake Agnes Tea House. It has been serving tea since 1905, and is a great spot to relax before the hike back down, or continuing your hike further.
- When to go: June to October
- Distance: 7 km (4.5 miles) return, about 1-2 hours each way
- Elevation Gain: 400 m (1300 ft)
- Altitude: 2135 m (7005 ft)
- Difficultly: moderate (early June or fall may have snow)
- Check here for more info.
3. Hadrian’s Wall Path, UK
This path follows Hadrian’s Wall, which the Roman emperor Hadrian ordered constructed across the width of England in AD 122.
Today, most of the wall still exists, and it can be walked coast to coast, while enjoying spectacular views across the countryside. Highlights along the way include Roman forts, bridges, wildlife, pubs, cafés, and market towns. This is one I want to try!
- When to go: May to October
- Distance: 84 miles coast to coast (135 Km) There are also shorter circular walks based on the Trail.
- Difficulty: Relatively easy but with rough and uneven ground. Some of it is steep, and there are a lot of stone and timber steps.
- It is recommended to book accommodation along the trail in advance.
- Baggage services are available along the Trail.
- Check the The National Trails website for more information on the Hadrian’s Wall Path.
4. Hiking the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall was constructed to protect the vast Chinese empire and its vast lands, and is one of the world’s greatest feats of engineering. It was constructed and rebuilt over the centuries, but a majority of the existing wall is from the Ming Dynasty. Climbing the wall’s path up steep steps and down valleys is a bucket list experience, and you can choose from a range of areas to climb that suit your interest and ability.
We chose the Mutianyu section, which is good for a day trip from Beijing, but much less crowded and touristy than the nearer Badaling section. The day we went was cool and misty, and we almost had the wall to ourselves. Eventually the sun broke through and the views were spectacular. We spent a couple hours at Mutianyu hiking and taking in the scenery. If you want a bit longer hike there is the Jinshanling to Simatai route, which is about 10.5 kilometers.
- When to go: year-round
- Difficulty: Moderate. Some of it is steep and there are a lot of stairs. Some of the less-visited sections are in ruins or missing, so are more challenging.
- The Badaling and Mutianyu sections are well maintained.
5. Meteora, Greece
About four hours northwest of Athens is Meteora, where unique geological peaks form a dramatic and beautiful natural landscape. Upon these seemingly inaccessible peaks, monks in the 11th century began building monasteries. Eventually twenty-four of these amazing monasteries were built. Ancient paths weave throughout the area, and guided or independent hikes are possible. We were so glad we had the opportunity to visit this magical and off-the-beaten-track part of Greece.
- When to go: year-round
- Difficulty: There are options rated relatively easy to expert.
- The trails are generally not sign-posted, so only experienced hikers should venture out on their own. To experience Meteora as we did, I would recommend contacting the friendly Visit Meteora office in Kalampaka. Visit Meteora offers guided tours and hikes, but will also assist you with maps and information if you wish to hike independently.
- For more about our Meteora visit click here.
Our excellent hiking adventure in Meteora was facilitated by Visit Meteora. All opinions are our own.
6. Bryce Canyon, Utah
Bryce Canyon is another geological wonder with spectacular colors and hoodoos. There are countless walking trails through the canyon, including the day-long Fairyland Loop, Wall Street trail, which laces its way through an alarmingly narrow gorge, and Navajo/Queens Garden Loop. Bryce Canyon is on my list to visit soon.
- The trails are well laid out and maintained.
- Spend a day or a week. Camping and lodging facilities are available.
- To plan your trip check the National Parks Service website.
7. Yoshida Trail, Mount Fuji, Japan
The Yoshida Trail starts at the Fuji-Subaru Line 5th Station and leads to the summit from the north side of Mt. Fuji in Yamanashi Prefecture. There are mountain huts and pitstops en route, to rest your feet and bed down for the night.
Mount Fuji is apparently the most climbed mountain in the world, so is more of a community experience, than an alone-with-nature one. Viewing the sunrise from the summit is said to be unforgettable.
- When to go: early July to early September, perhaps avoiding the busiest week (Obon Week) in mid-August.
- 170,947 people climbed the Yoshida Trail in summer 2014.
- It is recommended that climbers stay at mountain huts one night on the way to the summit to adjust to the altitude and temperature.
- For more information about climbing Mount Fuji click here.
8. The Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, Spain
The epic Camino de Santiago is really any pilgrimage route that leads to the Cathedral of Satiago de Composela in Galicia, Spain. The most famous is the 500-mile route from St. Jean-Pied-du-Port, France. But there are many others including the Portuguese Way, which begins in either Lisbon or Porto in the north of Portugal. Some go for a religious experience, but people do the walk for many reasons. I would love to try even a portion of this hike some day.
- When to go: spring and fall are recommended to avoid the heat of summer, and the cold and snow of winter.
- Most hikers carry a pilgrim’s passport, or credencial, which is stamped with the official St. James stamp along the way.
- Pilgrims hostels are available along the route.
- Martin Sheen starred in an inspiring movie, “The Way”, about a father’s journey on the Camino de Santiago. The Way was produced and written by his son, Emilio Estevez.
- For more about the Camino de Santiago click here.
“Go forth on your path, as it exists only through your walking.” ~ Saint Augustine (354-430).