July 11, 2024

Stories from Spain: How the Camino de Santiago Led Karen Back to Herself

- By Jules Torti with Karen Kroeker

Continue reading Stories from Spain: How the Camino de Santiago Led Karen Back to Herself

We created this space to introduce you to some of the remarkable Wild Women in our community who have traveled with us. This particular story is both heartrending and inspiring, especially if you have any connection to the Camino de Santiago. What drives each of us to visit a destination or embark on a pilgrimage is wholly unique and Karen’s motivation and spark is one that we know will resonate.

For Karen, it was as innocent as scrolling through Facebook one day and discovering the Wild Women Expeditions page. She loved the group name and the fact that we were Canadian and based in Newfoundland which triggered all sorts of nostalgic ties. She had looped around the Maritimes and Newfoundland with her husband several years ago. In fact, Karen and Scott were so moved by that province, that they returned to spend another two weeks exploring the coast. “We both felt a deep, primal connection to that piece of rock and the people who lived there.”

Quietly ignited, Karen signed up for the Wild Women e-newsletter and when she received an email about an opportunity to walk the Camino with Wild Women, “it’s like it was gifted to me.” She’s a firm believer in signs and symbols, “they’ve never let me down. My life has been all about synchronistic moments and being in the right time and place. When I received that email I thought, I’m going. I just hit ‘send’ and my kids were so proud of me for it.”

Walking in the Shadows of Love

“My husband and I always wanted to do the Camino together but he had medical issues and we were worried about the remote nature of the walk. When he died in November of 2022, I suddenly found myself starting all over. Scott and I had an email address that was a combination of our last names but I decided I wanted to create my own handle of ‘renaissance gypsy’. The word ‘renaissance’ symbolized reinvention and gypsy, well, that word has resonated with me since I was a teen”.

Initially, Karen was anxious about the Camino terrain but reassured herself. “I mean, it was only seven days of hiking and I live at the bottom of two steep hills in White Rock (British Columbia). I walk my dog three times a day and I can’t go anywhere without climbing a hill! I trained and was confident. I knew I could do it. It was seven days, I wasn’t going through the Pyrenees!”

Walking the Camino everyday led Karen to a missing connection between her heavily occupied mind and feet. “Walking alone brought my busy brain back into line with my body, becoming a whole rather than disparate body parts. I found a beautiful rhythm to my walking and didn’t notice the kilometres disappearing under my feet. I was lost in wonder so many times I had to be called out to as I passed everyone at a meeting point. One day I had to be picked up in the van because I had missed our check-in by a kilometre and they were all wondering where I was!”

Grounding Gifts

“I finally felt settled and whole again. I found this rhythm that wasn’t super fast, it was just comfortable and I stopped to take so many photos. All of it sits inside me now—the Spanish cobblestones, the groves of trees.” One day, Karen found a small crocheted green star. She caught up to the pilgrims ahead of her and asked if maybe they had dropped the star. They hadn’t so she held onto it and later found out that another woman in their group had a similar experience. “I like to think of it as a ground gift. I’m now connected to someone I’ll never know. This was something beautiful that they did for other pilgrims and next time I’ll find something to leave behind as well.”

On another day, Karen stopped to admire a woman’s tiny crocheted octopi and little bags with button closures that were laid out on a table in front of her home. “Finally, a lady poked her head out of the door of her house and I said I was interested in buying some things. I told her I had two grandchildren who were born just 10 days apart. My son had a son and my daughter had a daughter. I showed her photos of Easton and Florence and told her that I thought the little bags were perfect for my children to put their child’s baby teeth in. When I shared this, it was like the sun broke out on her face.”

Butterflies and Baristas

There’s definitely a strong, spiritual force underfoot on the Camino de Santiago. There are surprises and reassuring signs that appear when they are most needed. On Karen’s birthday, the group’s guide, Jennifer asked her what her favourite flavour was. “I said chocolate, of course! I couldn’t believe that she ended up finding me a chocolate cake and somehow hid it in our van for the entire day! Everything was just so special on the Camino. Our guide, Jennifer was fantastic and so knowledgeable and kind. She saved my butt when I forgot that I was supposed to be following a map and walked way past our meeting spot. She gave great pep talks too.

On that same day, while walking through the deep forest, two pale yellow butterflies danced around Karen’s head and feet, following her closely. “I said, ‘Scott, thank you for the birthday gift.” That night, the group gave Karen a card that they had all signed. “And if you can believe it, the front of the card was covered in butterflies.”

Her birthday gifts came in unexpected forms—right down to her cappuccino foam. “Our guide told the barista that it was my birthday and he came out in a black beret and dramatically announced that he was Picasso. With a toothpick he drew my portrait in the foam and it was just perfect with my long hair and glasses even! Then, as I was eating my pastry, he came out with a paper flower that he had made me from a napkin. He had burnt the edges so they were all frilly and it was they were on a stem even. It was so sweet.”

Cloudless Days and Mind

Karen had decided that she would be walking alone most of the time on this Camino. “It was my walk and I wanted to walk with my husband. I listened to the birds and I loved how they were living their best little lives. I had checked the weather three weeks before our trip and anticipated rain every single day. The day I arrived, it was all sunshine and balmy and cloudless for the next seven days. On the eighth? We had a city tour in Santiago and it didn’t stop drizzling. I looked back at posts from Camino de Santiago All Routes, the group I follow online, and there were rivers of water flooding the paths that we’d walked on in the sun just days ago.”

“On the last day, I walked with a woman in my group from Schenectady, New York, who had been suffering from shin splints so she was walking a little slower. I wanted to slow things down too. As we came into the city, I noticed a sign on a telephone pole advertising a peregrino tattoo promo for forty euros. I jokingly said, ‘We should get one!’ She said, ‘yeah girlfriend, let’s do it!’”

A tattoo was never on Karen’s radar. Her son-in-law and daughter-in-law have tattoos but she’d never considered one. “Something just clicked. I was committed. I knew this trip with my husband had to be etched on my body. That night over dinner I googled designs and shops and found out the shop we liked opened at 10 a.m. It was quite beautiful with this elaborate hand-carved sign and blooming geraniums everywhere. I found out then that it was the oldest parlour in Santiago. Looking through the design books I just had to find what I wanted! It ended up being a scallop shell with one arrow, marking me forward all the time. It’s above my right ankle and it’s permanent like my husband and I. When I look at my tattoo, I’m deliriously happy, for myself, for my husband and my life. It’s about so many layers and markers and about moving forward. It’s like I’m finding the way into my own life. It was a little seven day journey that turned into something more.”

A Quick Five with Karen

1. Name three things you can’t live without when you’re on the road.

After Scott died, I held a celebration of life for him but several friends from Vancouver Island were unable to attend so I went to visit them. Because I’m a big stitcher, I love going to the Cowichan Valley galleries and studios. I found these earrings made out of tumbled beach glass and silver which remind me of my husband. He had such blue eyes and a sterling character. I also have a silver ring with a blue stone that connects us and our wedding rings. I wear both of ours on a necklace which actually broke on the Camino but got caught in my scarf so I didn’t lose them! I also have a pashima scarf that I bought on a school trip to Rome when I was still teaching. I use it as a scarf or a shawl. Oh, and my journal. I really enjoy the physical process of handwriting.

2. What name brands do you live by?

Well, it’s funny. I had been following the Camino de Santiago All Routes page and I ended up creating this spreadsheet of shoes and clothing, even underwear! I had a $100 gift certificate from Mountain Equipment Company that I received at Christmas and I bought a pair of Karhu IHoni Trail runners—they’re made in Finland. I also bought a pair of Hoka trail runners from a local shop and ended up wearing them more and had no blisters! I love my Columbia insulated vest—I bought it for $18. I’m a big thrifter and found it at Value Village. I wore it every single day, and especially appreciated it on cool mornings.

3. Do you collect anything when you travel?

In Santiago I found these wonderful earrings that were oval-shaped. They have a woman with red hair sitting in front of a sewing machine and I’m a redhead at heart! These earrings were the last pair in the shop and I said to the shop owner, “They belong to me. They were waiting for me!”

4. Do you have any trip traditions?

As an art stitcher, I always travel with a Ziploc of fabric scraps, a pair of small scissors, needles and embroidery thread. Every trip I make a 4” x 4” applique image of a photo and sew it onto a panel which serves as my visual diary. It’s a tradition that I started 10 years ago and I choose the daily photos that resonate with me the most. I do hand and machine stitching, art stitching, needle felting—anything with fabric and threads.

5. Where next?

I originally thought I’d want to do the coastal Spain route as the Wild Women seven day section into Santiago is all internal. Then I read about the 700 km (435 mile) Camino de la Isla route on Prince Edward Island (PEI Camino) in an article on JourneyWoman and I thought, I’m going to do Canada next year!  I’ll book the B&B’s along the route and do it independently. Scott and I loved the Maritimes so much and I know this is something he would have enjoyed as well. I’ll aim to do half of the Camino—it’s a flat island but I won’t do the whole thing—I’ll do 20 kilometers (12 miles) or so a day. I’ll visit my kids in Toronto first and see my little granddaughter, Florence, and then take the train out east. It will be a whole month of journeying. When I did the Camino with Wild Women I was gone for a month as I spent 10 days in Toronto, 10 in Spain and then another 10 in Holland to visit family. It made sense being so close, and time and those relationships are precious.

If you’re thinking of heading in a bold new direction and finding your feet again, you can follow in Karen’s Hoka footsteps! Check out our Camino de Santiago Hiking Adventure!

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