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. Keep up to date with her on Twitter at @walkingsitting. Photos are courtesy of Nancy.