Ode to a Travel Pillow

If you spend any time at all in the pilgrim discussion boards and Facebook groups, you’ll discover that many of those who have walked the Camino have very strong feelings about how much everyone else’s backpack weighs.

My pack was 6.4 pounds WITH WATER.

Yeah? Well, I shaved off the handle of my toothbrush, wore only one pair of underwear for 35 days, and I carried everything in a fanny pack.

Oh no! I just weighed my pack, and it’s 12% of my total body weight! Everyone says it should be 10! Should I cancel my trip?

(My advice to that last question, of course, was to eat more and get that body weight up.)

Well-intentioned people ask for recommendations about what book to read during their walk, and get long lectures about “useless weight.”

Then, once you’re on the trail, pilgrims clearly size up one another’s packs the way that teenage boys in the locker room size up… well, never mind. We may try not to judge, but it’s hard not to think Well, of course she’s having knee problems. She’s carrying a full makeup kit! Or Are those JEANS he’s wearing? Do you know what those must WEIGH?

To counter all of that comparison and dogma is the whispered thought: Walk your own Camino. Carry what YOU need, not what someone else says you SHOULD have.

In that spirit, I’d like to introduce you to my biggest, heaviest (more than half a pound!), most treasured Camino indulgence: a pillow of my very own.

Me and my trusty pillow
Me and my trusty pillow

I’m a side-sleeper with very strong feelings about pillows. Thin, flat, hard pillows are worse than useless. Feather pillows usually become thin, flat, hard pillows over the course of a night. Before we left, I knew I was okay with the idea of sleeping on cots and lumpy mattresses and squeaky bunk beds. But I could not handle. the idea of living for three months with a kink in my neck.

If I was going to walk, day after day and week after week, I NEEDED a pillow. Nine ounces was worth my rest.

My Therm-A-Rest compressible pillow had actually been traveling with me for a year before we set out on the Camino. It got me through long flights (remember when airlines actually provided pillows?) and many questionably-clean guest rooms. And so I rolled it up and stuck it in the top pocket of my backpack, right next to the always-handy ibuprofen bottle and the almost-never-needed headlamp.

And in hindsight, I’m so glad I had it. While most gites and albergues do provide pillows, they seem to be of varying qualities and cleanliness. I never had to worry about where I would lay my head at night.

Most pilgrims have some kind of “luxury” item that they carrying along, whether it’s an iPod or a fancy scarf or, in the case of one pilgrim we met, a bottle of nail polish to paint her toenails every week. At the same time, most albergues in Spain had some kind of table or box of donations left by previous pilgrims who didn’t want to carry something anymore. That three-ring binder of guided journaling or that extra cable-knit sweater doesn’t seem so important after 1300 straight meters of ascent.

One person’s need is another person’s frivolity. As far as I’m concerned, if it’s important enough for you to willingly lug it over a mountain range or two, than it’s important enough for no one to judge.

PS. I didn’t actually weigh my pack before we left, but according to a scale of questionable accuracy in Aubrac, it was about 10 kilograms, or 22 pounds, with water (and maybe some snack food). Yes, that’s more than ten percent of my weight, and no, I’m not going to tell you by how much. But considering I carried it for for three months, and it got me through both snow and summer heat, I’m fine with it.

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