What fortitude, determination, preparation and intention would it take to leave the comfort, security, familiarity and safety of your home and step out onto a trail that winds between two countries and within your own mind? Could you do it with no expectations, taking it one day at a time — like addiction recovery?
Retiring at age 36 to travel around the world, author and speaker Kurt Koontz was on a trajectory that led him to hit the road and write his book A Million Steps, which he wrote after his month-long journey along the Camino de Santiago in 2012. The title of the book came from his estimation that his long-legged stride took him approximately a million steps to traverse the terrain through the Pyrenees from France to Spain. The Camino has called to people since medieval times to trek the 500-mile path and was popularized by the film The Way starring Martin Sheen.
Lessons learned while walking “home”
Along his own way, Koontz encountered pilgrims from 37 countries, the oldest being an 82-year-old man and the youngest a 2-year-old girl who traveled with her parents. He recognized that they were all “one big family, walking each other home.” One of the many lessons that came along with the trip was that relationships come and go, and that we need to let go in life. Simultaneously he discovered that we meet the right people at the right time and that everything happens for a reason.
During his journey, Koontz found that walking 500 miles “felt like an eternity,” but upon taking the final step, he experienced a sense of exaltation. “The trail gives you what you need,” he says. Koontz was able to recognize that “the first part of the trip is for the body, the middle part is for the mind, and the final part is for the soul,” as he faced fears and self-imposed limitations.
He also learned to trust in signs — those that are literal (people paint yellow arrows to indicate directions) and those that are symbolic. Koontz explained that on two occasions he veered off the path and then found his way back by listening to inner guidance. “In life there are big flashing lights telling us where to go,” he says.
Q&A on Koontz’s Camino de Santiago journey
Here Koontz answers questions about his million-step journey and the personal discoveries he made while walking 500 miles to addiction recovery:
Q: What prompted you to invest months of your life and a million steps to walk the Camino?
A: I’m a seeker, and this sounded like a very interesting way to spend a month. When evaluating a journey, I make sure that the experience would push the boundaries of my comfort zone. For me, personal growth occurs on the edges of that zone.
Q: Was it a spiritual pilgrimage for you as it is for many who choose the Camino challenge?
A: I went through a complete spiritual awakening on this walk. I haven’t participated in a traditional addiction recovery program, but have read a lot about 12 step programs. The lessons I learned from this walk, like living in the now and letting go of uncontrollable events, are the foundations for these recovery programs.
Q: What did you do to prepare for it?
A: I’ve been an avid fitness fan for the past 30 years, so my preparation was more mental. I had no doubt about finishing the walk, but wondered about being able to enjoy the alone time and the repetitive nature of walking.
Q: What does the role of recovery play in your life and how was the timing ideal for your Camino venture?
A: I started drinking around age 13 and stopped 24 years later. I quit two days prior to the death of my alcoholic father. Watching him shrivel up in bed with a yellow tint was my wake-up moment. Since that time, my entire life has been a journey of discovery and personal growth. This walk was another chapter in that story.
Q: What emotions arose for you during your Camino journey?
A: Every known and submerged emotion came to the surface on this walk. I delved into my fear of death, my wasted days of drinking, contemplated the future of my love life, thought about my unhealthy relationship with money, my fear of failure, and the joy of accomplishment.
Q: How did you balance alone time on the trail with social time with other walkers?
A: In the evenings I stayed in hostels that were full of people taking the walk. During the day there were several coffee and meal breaks. At those times, I engaged in the social part of the Camino. By choice, I walked alone about 80 percent of the time. I walked in a meditative state and enjoyed each and every moment.
Q: Was it a total mind-body-spirit experience for you, and in what ways were you able to integrate those aspects of yourself?
A: I came home with a new set of values that were learned on this walk. I’ve dropped my resistance to situations that I can’t control, which happens to be most of them in life. I give myself a mental slap on the face when I drift into my past or future. This helps me stay focused and in the moment. I’ve also made great strides to delete worry from my life.
Life has been a complete joy as a result of taking the Camino journey through Spain. I left my home without expectations and returned to write an unexpected book and tour the U.S. for speaking engagements. I’m a lucky man who’s found his true purpose: to give people a different perspective on their lives based on the lessons I learned on the Camino. How fortunate I am to be able to share a great trip with the rest of the world.
Q: Do you have any guidance for someone who may want to take on the Camino challenge?
A: Yes. Don’t wait for the stars to align to do it because that will never happen. Reach up into the sky and create your own constellations.
Since returning from the journey, Koontz has gleaned other life lessons, many about gratitude as an antidote to worry and that “the trail” is a metaphor for life and recovery. He also says that even if you never venture to France or Spain, you can create your own “Camino” experience. “Get outside your comfort zone and do something different every day,” he says.