7 Reasons Recent College Grads Should Consider Backpacking 500 Miles

by Erica Tausch

I first decided to write this article in December of last year. Since then, I've drafted seven different versions, none of which have been able to truly convey just how life-altering, inspiring and goddamn hard backpacking 500 miles through Europe on the Camino de Santiago was.

Just as the lyrics to my favorite songs take on different meanings as I grow older, my memory of the time I spend walking the Camino is constantly taking on new significance.

I've managed, however, to summarize my experiences into seven reasons why everyone should hike 500 miles after college.

While these reasons may appear cheesy, there are some things in life we experience that are greater than words can express — and this pilgrimage was one of them. So, just bear with me.

1. After four years of friends, drinking, exams, homework, lectures and countless life lessons, you need and deserve to take a *breather.

*A metaphorical breather, that is, since it’s sometimes hard to breathe when you’re scaling The Pyrenees.  

I’m not sure exactly why I assumed that after college, I’d know exactly what I wanted to do with my life. Even as I enrolled in my last semester of classes, I mistakenly believed graduation would bring unparalleled mental clarity, as it pertained to my future.

After all, my relatives had returned home and the excitement of graduation was over, however, I quickly realized I still had no clue what the heck I wanted to do — much less where I wanted to live.

I would probably have sh*t my pants from anxiety if it weren’t for my parents, who financed and planned an epic, 30-day backpacking trip for my dad and me.

This experience was the Dramamine to my life-induced motion sickness.

2. Once you start a career of your own, there will be very few, if any, opportunities for you to take 30 days off to do something like this.

The next time you’ll have the chance to do something as intrepid, physically strenuous and life-altering as this might not be until you retire.

That is, if you’re even lucky enough to live until then. Graduating college is a huge accomplishment.

Why not take advantage of your newfound, yet short-lived freedom to do something that will legitimately change, not only the way you see yourself, but how you view the entire world?

3. Completing a 500-mile pilgrimage will likely be one of the most mentally and physically trying feats of your life, but it will also teach you the true meaning of determination, discipline and inner-strength.

It only took about one week of backpacking 20-25 miles a day for my dad and me to garner an impressive collection of blisters on our feet.

After spottily translating the amputation of my dad's big toenail by a Spanish doctor, my dad cut a small hole in the top of his Merrill’s and trekked on.

Our weary limbs bore the increasingly heavier weight of our gear. There were definitely mornings I woke up enraged that I, once again, had to slide my battered feet into the same, dust-covered Patagonia’s.

I joked that my feet probably felt like the princess did in "The Princess and the Pea" because each tiny stone on the road became the “extreme” to my extremities.

Honestly, there might have even been a few times I hated the world and questioned WHY THE F*CK I’d volunteered to embark on such a journey, but I was so proud when I successfully emerged from the gray area that exists between mental and physical pain.

Accomplishing something so great gave me confidence I could accomplish anything I put my mind to when I returned to the “real” world.

4. You’ll remember the bonds you form with other pilgrims and the lessons they teach you for the rest of your life.

The first night my dad and I slept in a hostel with 20 other people, I never would have guessed that some of these snoring strangers would become my most cherished friends.

As we walked hundreds of miles side by side, both our shared struggles and blessings bound us together in a way that was deeper and purer than any friendship I’d ever experienced.

Language barriers were no match for the invisible glue binding each pilgrim to the next.

While every person had different motivations for embarking on this expedition, the Camino had a way of erasing our differences and reminding us that regardless of our history and origin, we are all, at the center of our beings, human.

5. You realize how little you need to survive.

My dad and I spent an adequate amount of time researching which items were truly necessary for our trip. Starting at 25 pounds, my backpack felt light and comfortable as I walked through a French airport on the first day of our voyage.

Seven days and more than 140 miles later, however, I began to reevaluate the importance of each and every item I’d packed.

By the end of the trip, I’d rid my backpack of every single item I could live without because even just 1/20th of a pound made a difference to my battered appendages.

I didn't wear makeup or do my hair for the entire trip, and there were long stretches of time I went without even looking in a mirror. Nobody had time or energy for caring about appearances, just for the “bare necessities.”

Ironically, there is something so absolutely freeing about possessing next to nothing. It’s hard to think of another time in my life I’ve been so present and in-tune with myself and the things I was experiencing.

6. You find unparalleled joy and appreciation for the small, simple things.

On the ninth day of walking, I was having a particularly difficult time feeling motivated to stick it out. As a last resort, I got my iPod out and blasted some of my favorite music. Before that, I’d never appreciated the simple yet overpowering magic music possesses.

As I clumsily did the “Harlem Shake” in a Spanish forest a few hundred meters ahead of my dad, I felt my spirits return with more enthusiasm than ever. There were many other, little things I learned to truly appreciate for the first time in my life.

In the relative absence of cell phones, WiFi, television and the general noise of the world, I found solace in the purest forms of human entertainment — good conversation, great food and awe-inspiring music my fellow pilgrims played.

7. Silent reflection.

The Camino de Santiago taught me what it’s like to hear the “Sound of Silence.” When is the last time (other than when you were asleep) that your brain had literally zero audio input? It’s nearly impossible to tune out the noisy, bustling world of our everyday lives.

The Camino de Santiago served as a refuge from this incessant buzz. There was no shortage of silence or opportunities for self-reflection.

I thought a lot about my past, my future, the pain in my feet and aliens, but there were also times when I found myself thinking about absolutely nothing — a concept that is probably hard for most to fathom.

Ironically, it was when things were the quietest that I could hear myself the best.

There are many, many more reasons I could give to convince you to backpack 500 miles on the Camino de Santiago after you graduate from college (or any other time you may have the chance).

Two weeks after I returned to NYC, I packed my car and moved to Denver, and it was the best decision of my life.

Although only a year has passed since my life’s greatest adventure, it almost feels like a dream, laden with self-discovery, extreme joy, excruciating physical pain and utter fulfillment unlike any I've ever experienced.

So, go get ‘em, tiger, or in pilgrim-speak, “Buen Camino!”