Solo Travel and “The Way”

The four solo travelers in "The Way".

The four solo travelers in “The Way”.

Saturday night I watched the 2010 film “The Way” starring Martin Sheen.

It’s not a brilliant film. It’s a sweet film. It doesn’t break any new ground but its subject matter is compelling and it stays with you.

Without giving too much away, the story is of a father honoring his son by walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, one of the most famous Christian pilgrimage routes in Europe, located in northern Spain. He meets three other solo travelers along the way and they end up making the 800 km pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela together.

DVD cover of The Way

The Way – there are many books about the Camino to Santiago as well. Click on the image to go to Amazon.

What is it about a long walk?

“The Way of St. James”, the “Camino to Santiago”, the Chemins de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle…  known by name in many languages, it is most commonly called “The Camino”. It was one of the most important Christian pilgrimage routes in the Middle Ages. History, including plague and war, caused the route to be less traveled over the centuries. According to Wikipedia, there were only a few hundred pilgrims per year in the 1980’s but now there are tens of thousands who walk the Way annually.

Perhaps the recent popularity of The Camino is due to the many books that have been written about it including Shirley McLaine’s The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit. As I read up on it, it became clear that not all pilgrims are walking this holy route for religious reasons.

Well then, the question is: why?

For the challenge? Some might say it’s inappropriate to use the Camino for such frivolous purposes. There are, after all, many other challenges out there.

For escape? Certainly walking for a month or more pulls one away from the every-day into a routine free of modern pressures.

For reconciliation? It does seem that walking can help reconcile one to life’s issues. Whether it’s to leave a grief behind or ruminate on the future, the folklore of the Camino says that walking it has helped many, though not always in ways that were anticipated. As one writer said: “You probably won’t find the answers you’re looking for, but after 33 days of walking (plus two rest days) I certainly ended up asking different questions.”

Martin Sheen in "The Way".

Martin Sheen in “The Way”.

What is it about walking solo?

I haven’t walked the Camino but I have spent a week walking in the Lake District of England alone. I’ve hiked in Patagonia as well. I’ve spent days and days alone and learned to appreciate solitude. But I’ve also come to appreciate that a  journey started alone can also be rewarded by the friends you make along the way. Some trips are necessarily quiet, introspective, solitary journeys. For some that is their purpose and their methodology.  But for others meeting new people is also deeply rewarding.

This brings me to the question of: what is a solo traveler.  My interpretation is this. A solo traveler is simply someone who leaves their friends and family behind. In so doing, you leave behind the influence and expectations of others. You find freedom to live your journey more intensely and explore its meaning more fully.

Walking solo, whether with others or alone, whether along the Camino or on one of thousands of inspiring routes, is an opportunity for reflection that is rarely matched.

Is the Camino more special for this purpose than those other inspiring routes? Well, I guess I’ll have to do it to find out.

  • Sometimes She Travels

    Yes, what IS it about walking solo? There is something special about about walking and traveling solo and on the Camino from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago last summer, my experience was that I didn’t have to walk alone for very long. I have traveled alone far more in my life than with others since spending three weeks as an exchange student with a family in Japan when I was twelve. As you said, the opportunity is there for camaraderie and/or introspection.

  • Jennifer Hofmann

    I left behind family, friends, and all my roles in order to walk the Camino solo in 2013. The movie, The Way, depicts the unlikely friendships that emerge from that shared experience, but it is by no means typical. Many pilgrims walk alone all day by choice. It is up to the pilgrim to decide what kind of experience she wants to have. You might also like the Camino Documentary: Six Ways to Santiago for a different perspective on the journey.

    Interestingly, although church attendance is decreasing throughout the US, the number of people taking pilgrimages each year is increasing worldwide. The need for solitude and reflective time seems to be growing in our ever-busier lives.

  • buencamino

    the former president of our uni here in the Philippines walked the Camino as soon as he retired. he did it back in 2011, is a Jesuit priest and was 71 at that time. twas when i heard that he was doing it that i came to know about the Camino.

  • Slowtravelwins

    I walked the Camino in April-May this year. I met people who were 80 years old and they walked the Camino and enjoyed the Way. You can shorten the distance and find different levels of comfort available for pilgrims. I found that the main resistance to walking every day for many miles was mostly mental. Your body will adjust and develop endurance. At the end, I couldn’t imagine life without walking daily.

  • julia
  • Pablo

    GREAT FILM! I would like to share my book about the Camino

  • Anita Mac

    I walked the Camino last year in September and fell in love with it! You really are not alone on the Camino (I actually wrote about that on my blog – – at times I welcomed the solitude, at times I relished the opportunity to meet new people. Will you be walking the Camino this year? It was not the transformative experience that I was looking for, yet in many ways, it actually was! I loved walking it and will cherish the experience for ever! I may even walk it again in a few years…I imagine the experience will be completely different the second time!

  • Janice Waugh

    That’s wonderful to hear Mary. In the movie it looked like solitude might be difficult to find.

    Thanks for contributing.


  • Janice Waugh

    I”m glad you enjoyed it. :)


  • pico

    as a woman alone, did you feel safe? there are many stories now about roberies on the camino
    I really enjoyed this movie. it does inspire me to try the trail

  • SingingM

    I felt the same way. I like the comforts of home too much to be walking along a trail for days.

  • SingingM

    I purchased the movie; money well spent.

  • Mary

    I did the Camino Primitivo (from Oviedo to Santiago de Compostela) alone last year. As it was my first camino and I was a woman alone, I was a bit apprehensive, but I needed the solitude. I met many wonderful people along the way, but the solitude was what really fed me the most.

  • Leslie

    I really enjoyed this movie. However, after seeing it, I decided I’m not going to do the walk. Maybe 20 years ago! Really good movie.