Get out of your element.
I work at a nonprofit that provides summer and gap year programs, so I’ve become familiar with the life-changing benefits of these experiences. They offer real-world exposure, a chance to engage with diverse cultures a viewpoints, build confidence, and help our generation step back from burnout. But it all comes down to the personal growth that happens when we get out of our element.
Frankly, I was jealous. Here I was, working to organize gap years for others — why couldn’t I take one, myself? I was deep in my commitment to work, grad school, and a relationship, so the flexibility just wasn’t there. Ultimately, a gap year just sounded like a lot to take on.
Then I found the perfect solution for me: hiking the Camino de Santiago.
The Camino de Santiago de Compostela, or “The Way of St. James,” is a historic and spiritual pilgrimage in Spain. Pilgrims make their way to the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, where the body of St. James is believed to remain. In its early history, Europeans began the pilgrimage by simply walking out their own front door, which is why there are actual multiple routes from all directions to choose from.
Anyone who documents at least the final 100km (by foot) or 200km (by bike) can collect the official document proving completion of the journey. For those who find the time, one of the more popular routes — the Camino Frances — begins in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France and takes a little more than a month to complete.
The Camino Frances became my 34-day gap.
After requesting a temporary leave of absence from work, I set an out-of-office reply on all of my emails, carefully packed a backpack and a fanny pack, then set out alone to walk 500 miles. Thirty-one days later, I am still employed at a full-time job, enrolled in graduate school, and happily living in Washington, D.C.
It wasn’t easy, but I firmly believe that anyone looking for a break, an adventure, a spiritual pilgrimage — or all three — should consider the Camino. It is a perfect solo trip, and a more manageable “gap year” activity for busy adults.
Here are three reasons why.
1. The Camino can be flexible, and unique to you.
I had several reasons for doing the Camino. I needed a mental break before continuing with work and full-time graduate school. I also wanted to see this famous Catholic pilgrimage for myself. Finally, I wanted to challenge myself — the idea of walking across the country intrigued me.
Whatever your reasons, pilgrims on the Camino will affirm that everyone’s pilgrimage is unique. Both the why and the how can look completely different from one person to the next. I was motivated by the spiritual opportunity and the physical challenge of doing all 500 miles by foot. Meanwhile I met a friend who googled “best hikes in Europe” and hopped on the Camino — due to time constraints, he skipped the middle section by taking a bus.
By going alone, you can craft your goals, itinerary, and experience to fit your style. By not having to consult with anyone else or consider how their body and mind were doing, I was able to push ahead and walk fast when I wanted to or take a nap on a bench when I found a beautiful spot. And even though I was constrained by the date of my flight home, I had the day-to-day flexibility to take the experience as it unfolded.
2. You are not really alone. An international, mobile community is by your side.
As an extrovert, I was admittedly nervous about spending a month on my own. I need people to talk to and wasn’t sure what it would be like to walk alone for multiple hours. What I found is that many people do the Camino alone, and even those who go with a companion embrace the spirit of friendliness.
On the Camino, it is both common and encouraged to walk alone. I discovered that I actually liked to walk by myself for most of the day, but I would enjoy seeing familiar faces at the cafes and hostels along the way. It only took one day to begin recognizing other pilgrims and from there on, I almost always had someone to eat with or chat to when I was grabbing another espresso.
I imagine that as a solo traveler anywhere else, it would be easy to blend in and go unnoticed. But by sharing a room with dozens of other people every night, I wasn’t sitting alone in a hotel room feeling isolated. I could sip wine and write in my journal whenever I wanted until random people introduced themselves and sat down, as they inevitably always did.
My health stayed strong, but for those dealing with injury or illness, there were many opportunities to adjust the Camino. Other pilgrims will always affirm that “your camino is your camino,” and you do what you need to do to get to Santiago. That includes taking a bus or taxi if needed, or arranging for a service to take your backpack ahead to the next town so you could walk without the weight.
3. You have lots of time and space to be present with your thoughts and prayers.
We all live in a world with a lot of noise, and it can be difficult to find time to reflect or pray about everything that is going on in our lives. This is why getting “out of your element” is so important. Breaking from routine to take on a new challenge is where learning often flourishes. On the Camino, there is not only enough time, but also breathtaking views that move your heart and mind in fresh ways.
The Camino is truly a metaphor for life that you can experience over the span of a month. You experience ups and downs, diverse people, challenges, joys, moments of clear direction, and moments in which you’re not quite sure which way to go. I became really good at spotting the guiding yellow arrows (which serve as trailmarkers on the Camino de Santiago), but that daily practice ultimately helped me to reflect on the art of looking for the trailmarkers God places in my own life.
I was surprised to find that Catholics did not make up an overwhelming majority of the pilgrims, despite the Camino’s origins as a Catholic pilgrimage. But even those who were not there for religious reasons reflected on the joy of being truly present. Rather than ask what you do or what burden you might be carrying, people focused primarily on the here and now. Your new friends would ask you how your feet were doing or which town you were walking to that day. It’s only later that you might discover that they were an international lawyer who spoke multiple languages. We can all use more peace in our lives, and on the Camino there is widespread understanding that we are all there to walk and think.
The most interesting experiences of my life so far have been the ones I worked hard to make happen. I recognize that it is a big gamble to take any sort of an intentional break from your life, but I hear too many people say, “I wish I had taken a gap year.” It doesn’t need to be a year, and you don’t have to be a student to take a rest and learn from the world. If you are intentional and plan ahead, you can make it happen. And if you go in with an open mind, you will finish with a fresh perspective on life.