Catholic pilgrims pay homage to Saint James whose bones are said to be buried in Santiago’s cathedral. The rest of us are usually in search of something, a spiritual moment, an insight, a chance to get off life’s treadmill, or, in my case, a simple hiking challenge.
My guidebook offers a 33 day walk averaging 20-25 kilometers a day and allows for a few days of rest along the way. The route is well marked with yellow arrows and a unique scallop shell symbol posted on walls, fences, power poles and anything else that will stand still, so well marked that one could easily walk the whole Camino without a map. It’s well maintained and well used; more than 250,000 pilgrims a year trek the Camino.
Hostels along the Way, called albergues, offer showers, toilets, laundry facilities and bunk beds with mattresses for about 10 Euros a night. They are rustic but usually clean, cheap and convenient. Food is predictable, calorie dense and fried. My day starts with a cafe con leche, there are sandwiches along the route and a communal pilgrim dinner at the end. Numerous fountains provide safe drinking water and every shop sells water, fruit, snacks and local delicacies.
My knapsack is limited to essentials; a light sleeping bag, a few changes of clothes, toiletries and gear to last a month; I keep the bag under 10 kilos to limit stress on hips, legs and feet.
Every pilgrim carries a Camino passport, I gather stamps to verify my journey across northern Spain; Navarra, Rioja, Castlle et Leon and finally Galacia. The Pyrenees are wild and mountainous. Rioja is classic wine country terrain. Castille, the meseta, is a vast flat plain of wheat fields and grazing land for cattle and sheep that covers half our route. Galacia is hill and dale, stream and valley, mist shrouded and prone to rain. There were three tough climbing days, adding 800-1000 meters of vertical to an already long walking day.
Weather looms large in my life, a few rainy windy days at the start, a few in the middle and one on the last day; inconvenient at most, the challenge is wet clothing that won´t dry overnight and wet feet that are more prone to blisters.
My day is simple and repetitive. I awake about 6, gather up my gear, pack it, have a quick coffee and pastry and set out to walk. In early mornings, I use my headlamp. By 9 the sun is up and I stop for a short coffee. I prefer to walk straight through and by about 2, I usually make it to my chosen albergue. I check in, unpack, shower, wash my clothes from the days walk, rest, drink lots to rehydrate and then write some notes. Dinner is usually at 7, I am asleep by 9 or 10. I do the same for the next 28 days and manage to walk across Spain.
The obvious question is why? Often asked, I still don’t have a ready or easy answer. It was neither religious nor spiritual but I promised myself to be open to any spiritual feelings that might emerge. Few of my fellow pilgrims seemed to be on a spiritual quest. We are all here doing something ordinary, yet extra-ordinary, something as normal and mundane as walking, yet on a grander scale than any of us had ever attempted. It invites self reflection.
For me, this is an adventure, a step into the unknown and a physical challenge on a grand scale but it is physical and emotional rather than spiritual. Can I walk every day for a month? Do I have the persistence, patience, stamina and fortitude to achieve this goal?
The Camino is a daily reminder that I am control little in my life. The weather, the trail, the people I meet, the places I stop – all are new to me, all beyond my control.
I am constantly reminded that I am but one of many pilgrims most of whom have stories rich with courage and nobility; my epic shrinks in comparison.
I am reminded that I am walking in someone else’s back yard, some farmer’s field, some cow pasture; such ordinariness keeps me grounded.
I take great joy in small things. Wild fennel grows along our path; I rub some of its seeds in my hands and am rewarded with a delightful smell of dill and anise that will forever remind me of the Camino.
Early morning walking is a treat, the air is cool and fresh, the sky is filled with stars, sometimes the moon shines so brightly that I do not need my headlamp. I hear roosters crow and cowbells off in the distance, they automatically bring a smile to my face.
I delight in the sounds of church bells marking the hours; this was a religious pilgrimage, we travel from church to church. If I don’t know where I’m going, I look for a church steeple and am almost guaranteed to end up there. The churches also provide a place of quiet contemplation when I stop, a vesper service or a mass in the evening.
In the morning especially, I delight when I see the familiar yellow arrow on a wall, a curb or a rock; it tells me I am still going in the right direction and I smile in the comfort of that knowledge.
These are the small miracles of discovery that I will remember most vividly.
Above all I will remember the people;
- Two dutchmen who rode their bikes all the way from their home in Holland to then ride the Camino.
- Peter who started walking from his native Austria in 2004 to do bits of his 3000 Km Camino; he was going to finish this year – ten years after he started.
- Mike, an 81 year old from Alaska who was doing as much as he could but was going to walk the last 100 KM to Santiago to get his certificate.
- Daniel from central Massachusetts explained meditation to me and how it might make my Camino easier.
- Three women from Denmark, California and Victoria (Sally was doing it to celebrate her 65th) who had become fast friends in half a day of hiking together.
- A group of 7 from PEI who were delightfully Canadian, full of openness, kindness, and happiness; they were tough to miss with their repertoire of colourful matching t-shirts.
- Steffi from Berlin; who gushed so much over maple syrup I promised to send her some when I got home.
We all shared our stories and politely wished each other a ‘Buen Camino’ as we passed along the trail.
I met Jeanette from Sweden along the Way. She was a small grandmotherly looking woman in her 70’s who would have looked more at home in her kitchen. She had recently lost her husband and rather than sink into mourning, she decided to do the Camino. So, she learned about electric bikes, managed to get her bike shipped out to St Jean and rode it confidently. I met her on the way and again in Santiago; we hugged and I shed a tear of happiness for her courage and resolution. Her experience opened doors to life, she discovered a strength she never knew existed; there is nothing she cannot do and little for her to fear. It was both humbling and uplifting.
My Camino ended at about 10:30 am on the 29th day of my trip. I arrived in Santiago after a short walk in a driving rainstorm. I was bone tired, soaked to the core, chilled and done. Later, I toured the cathedral, attended Mass, bumped into many fellow travellers. I ended my Camino with a warm, wonderful pilgrim dinner, sharing the events with a group of my favorite Camino friends.
I had no grand epiphanies, I had no insights into my soul, I made no resolutions to change the course of my life. I did come away with a more optimistic view of the inherent goodness of ordinary people, We ought to ignore the disaster mongers of the media; people are essentially good. I enjoyed an infinite number of small daily kindnesses from complete strangers. I gained a resurgent joy in the purity and simplicity of nature.
For that and everything else that occurred, I am grateful.