The Journey to Camino

“Camino” is Spanish for “path,” “way” or “journey.” The word is commonly used to refer to the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage that stretches across Northern Spain, ending in the city of Santiago de Compostela.

In Winston-Salem, many people know the word as the name of the popular hangout on Fourth Street. For Cary Clifford, the owner of Camino Bakery, the word refers to all of these things and more.

It’s around 9:30 a.m. on a Friday, but Cary Clifford is already wide awake and full of energy. As she sits down across from me at a small table in a quiet corner of Camino Bakery, her curly golden-bronze hair catches the sunlight and gives the impression of a halo crowning her head.

If there’s not already a patron saint or guardian angel of coffee shops and freshly-baked treats, Clifford might make a really strong candidate. While she declined to tell me when her birthday is, Clifford happily shares that she was born in Winston-Salem and says that she had a normal childhood.

However, after Hanes Mall was built when she was a teenager, there really wasn’t much for Clifford — who describes herself as being very active — to do.

“It was a great place as a little kid, but by the time I hit my teenage years, the downtown area was completely dead,” Clifford said with a shrug. “I was ready to get the heck out of here.”

Despite the lifelessness that surrounded Clifford during high school, she still managed to indulge her sense of adventure. When she was 15, Clifford spent a fair bit of time in Mexico as part of an exchange program — an experience that left her fluent in Spanish and itching for the next journey.

Upon graduating from high school, Clifford attended Rice University in Houston, Texas, where she majored in history. “I’m not really cut out for school, though,” she laughs. “I prefer to do stuff with my hands.”

After graduating from Rice and living in Houston for a bit, Clifford returned to Winston-Salem in 1998 when her husband, Jonathan Milner, got a job teaching high school students at the *UNC School of the Arts.

Clifford, too, thought she was going to teach, but after just one year, decided to become a Spanish interpreter to supplement her husband’s teaching salary. She continued interpreting up until her first son, Owen was born in 2003.

Nowadays, being a mom is what she considers her greatest role.

When not running Camino, she devotes her time to hanging out with her family.

“I spend most of my time being a business owner and a mom,” she tells me before adding that her coworkers at Camino are also considered family. “I love my coworkers — they’re probably my favorite thing about Camino.”

It’s no surprise that family is such a priority to Clifford. She declined to tell me the exact circumstances, but said that Camino was born from a dark period following the death of a family member.

“I was home with my son and I was between jobs but needed to work,” Clifford said before taking a sip from her water bottle. “It was just something that happened. I originally started doing a little cooking in the basement of Krankie’s, and it just really blew through the roof in a way I didn’t expect. Next thing I knew, Owen was cutting the big ribbon to officially open this location.”

The surprising turn of events that brought Camino into the world in 2008 has led Clifford to view the world differently. In fact, she told me, the entire journey with all its twists and turns is what gave the bakery its name.

“I walked the Camino [de Santiago] in 1997 and just loved it,” Clifford said with a grin. Her green-blue eyes light up at the thought of the pilgrimage. “It was a formative experience for me because it represents a different way of life.”

The bakery, like the pilgrimage, has been and continues to be a roller coaster of a journey for Clifford, and she finds many similarities between the two.

“It’s different everyday,” she said while taking a second to greet some Camino regulars.

“It’s exciting because you never know what’s going to happen, but that’s how I like to live my life,” she said. “You never know what life is going to bring you. In both situations, you just have to sigue la flecha — follow the arrow — and keep going in a really positive direction.”

We share a laugh at the bit of Spanish that weaves in and out of Clifford’s everyday language before she tells me about the meaning of “sigue la flecha.”

On the Camino de Santiago, the phrase is used to tell pilgrims how to avoid getting lost. As such, arrows and scallop shells — symbols of the Camino — feature prominently in the décor of the bakery, including all the tables. Clifford notes that all the tables are handmade because one of her hobbies is woodworking.

Many of the photographs that hang on the walls are also Cary Clifford originals. She says that while she doesn’t have a favorite photograph, she did really enjoy taking landscape photos around Winston-Salem using old techniques and a Victorian-style camera.

Camino Bakery is a large part of Clifford’s life. It’s seen her through some of her highest moments, but also some of her lowest.

Because of that, Clifford told me, Camino is like a second home for her and her family.

“It’s a community hub,” she said. “I just want people to have a sort of home away from home where they can feel welcome and have something great to eat and drink. For me, I have a lot of great memories of just laughing with my friends at work and watching my son grow up in this environment.”

As more people gradually trickle in to the bakery and the line at the counter gets longer, Clifford reminds me more and more of a bird ready to fly. Catching the hint, I wrap things up, but not before asking her about her closing thoughts or words of wisdom.

“I really think it’s important for young people to follow their obsessions,” she said, staring out the window but looking at the Northern Spanish landscape rather than bustling downtown Winston-Salem. “If an opportunity comes your way and you realize it’s something that you want, you just gotta go for it. Sigue la flecha.”