Courtesy of Charlie Brook

Instead Of Jumping Straight Into A Career, I Hiked A 500-Mile Trail In Spain

By Samantha Lefave

By Charlie Brook, as told to Samantha Lefave

I tend to have this sixth sense when I travel to new cities, states, even countries. I can tell almost right away if that place will hold significance to me; it’s almost as if I can feel my own energy there already, so I know it’s going to be special to me in some way.

That happened in the summer of 2013 while studying abroad in Madrid. I was on an educational trip in Santiago de Compostela, a beautiful city along the coast of Northern Spain that marks the end of the Camino de Santiago, a religious pilgrimage spanning over 500 miles. I remember standing in front of the cathedral in the square, learning about the trek that peregrinos, or pilgrims, embark upon daily. (In April 2019, nearly 32,000 completed the journey.) As I watched the pilgrims finish, this overwhelming sense of excitement took over. I knew that one day, I would also walk into the square and finish my own camino.

Flash forward two years later and, with college graduation looming, I was facing a big life decision: stay in New York and pursue a career in one of the two fields I studied — journalism and acting — or return to Spain. In the end, I knew I would regret it if I didn’t take the time to travel and accomplish a life goal before starting a career. So I decided: I was going to hike the Camino.

I’ll be honest, though — it was scary to think about graduating without any real plan. It helped that a lot of my friends were actors, so by nature they had the same level of stress just because they were entering a space where nothing is certain. But then there were friends who already had full-time jobs lined up. It was difficult when I compared our lives; they got to enjoy graduation and feel more relaxed. I wasn’t necessarily jealous, but even though I had decided to hike the Camino, I remember feeling like a bum sometimes for not getting a head-start on my career.

When those moments of insecurity cropped up, I reminded myself that, as silly as it may sound, this really was a unique time in my life. If I couldn’t take this time now, after doing a really big and exciting thing like graduating, when I didn’t already have the obligation of a full-time job or any other responsibilities — then when would I? I was very aware that if I didn't use the time now, then I may never get this experience. So despite the expectation in the U.S. to start working right away after school, I told myself to stay confident — I was doing what was best for me.

Charlie hiking the Camino. Photo courtesy of Charlie Brook.

Once I started the trek, I knew I had made the right decision. It probably should have felt scary, being a single woman hiking a 500-mile trail alone, but it was actually very calming. It gave me time to myself, without having to worry about the decisions of other people. If I wanted to keep walking, it was up to me. If I wanted to stop, no one could force me to keep going!

I wasn’t truly alone, either; the Camino has this sense of camaraderie where things just seem to work out, and if they don’t, people help you find another solution. When I lost my way on one of the trails and, almost serendipitously, a car drove by with a hand pointing out the direction that I needed to go. Or when there wasn’t space to stay in an albergue, or pilgrim hostel, after hiking more than 20 miles that day. Instead of freaking out, someone simply helped me find somewhere else to stay. That’s just the camino attitude.

It took me 33 days to complete the Camino, and watching the landscape of Northern Spain change before my eyes was fascinating. Walking up mountains and down into beaches every single day was tiring yet extremely rewarding. And it helped answer a lot of big questions about what came next for me. When I graduated, I had no idea if I wanted to pursue acting or journalism. But spending such a large, dedicated amount of time thinking about my goals helped me recognize what I actually value; what was worth my time and what wasn’t. And it helped me accept that, despite studying it intensely for four years, I was truly OK with letting acting go.

Charlie in Santiago, arriving at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela after hiking 500 miles. Photo courtesy of Charlie Brook.

When I returned to the States, I moved back to New York in pursuit of a job. Immediately, there was a lot of pressure to find something full-time, but I still wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do in the journalism industry. I ended up landing a job, and while it was interesting, all I ever thought about was my time on the Camino, the clarity I felt, and the sense of belonging that encompassed me while abroad. I knew that I needed to get back there.

Over the following year, I became obsessed with getting back to Europe. My time on the Camino reminded me of my ability to go against the grain and follow what was best for me, despite what the outside world said. So I packed up my bags again, and moved to the UK to pursue my masters degree. There I studied documentary journalism with a concentration in gender representation, which solidified the ideas that often came up while I was hiking — that I could have a voice on female representation, and help create change toward a safer, more equal culture for women.

Now I live in Barcelona, where I work as a professional content writer for various companies and create my blog and podcast, Her Me Out. I often think about my time on the Camino, and how different my life might look if I never went. I wonder if I would still be in New York, struggling to figure out my real passions. I like to think that I would have figured it out eventually, but taking the time right after graduation to have this month of soul-searching really shaped who I am today. It reminded me of how strong, confident and independent I am — and that following my own path is ultimately what matters.