“I eventually fell into a rhythm with a group of people who who walked my same pace and distance. And we talked. We shared. A common first question was ‘why are you doing this?’ Like snowflakes, the reasons were unique and beautiful.”
“I first heard of the Camino de Santiago when I was a college student and was backpacking and bicycling through Europe in the the summer of 1986. It sounded adventurous but, given that it was my first trip to the continent, I preferred to focus on visiting Europe’s famous cities. I thought I would go to the Camino on subsequent visits. And then life got in the way.
As I approached my 50th birthday, I was thinking about how to celebrate or commemorate it. I was sure that I didn’t want a big party, or to go on a cruise for example. I take trips abroad often for work and pleasure, and couldn’t imagine anything so unique that it might mark my milestone. I wanted something deeper, that reflected the person I had become and was becoming. Then it struck me to revisit the Camino, not just for an adventure but for the epiphanies that so many encounter along it.
By this time in my life, I was far less concerned about the hiking but about staying in albergues, the shared accommodations found everywhere along the Camino. After all, I travel for work several times a month, traveling in business class and staying in rather nice hotels. It’s been decades since I stayed in shared rooms, let alone in bunk beds. I also began to wonder what it would be like going on a spiritual journey day after day. I hike several times a week, but after a few peaceful hours in nature, extroverted me is ready to go back to town, where the socializing and conversing is found. I asked myself, can I dive deep into my head for an extended period without getting scared of the silence?
I flew into Madrid and took a bus to Burgos. I spent the afternoon checking out the museum, buying some last minute items at the Decathlon sporting goods store (best value sporting good store!). The next day, I took the bus to Terradillos de los Templarios, so that my first day of walking would be a 15 mile trip to Sahagún. I finished my trip in Santiago de Compostela, and aside from a short bus trip between Leon and Hospital de Orbigo, I walked 270 miles of the 500 mile trek. After Santiago, I also took a bus on a day trip to Finisterre.
I began the pilgrimage thinking that I would be alone and actually feared how my extroverted personality would be able to survive traveling alone all that time. Boy was I foolish. The silence I was anticipating never materialized. It didn’t occur to me that people would reach out to me. Daily, you see the same faces of people who have a similar pace as you. You wind up walking beside each other, or sitting in the same cafes to take a breather. I eventually fell into a rhythm with a group of people who who walked my same pace and distance. And we talked. We shared. A common first question was ‘why are you doing this?’ Like snowflakes, the reasons were unique and beautiful.
It becomes a joy to spend time with these people, and so you often end up staying at the same places as each other. So while at first I stayed in hotels from time to time, I gradually shifted and stayed only in the albergues my fellow walkers stayed in. During the last week of the journey, two young cousins – who walked 3,000km from their homes in Austria – and a third Austrian student – fell into step with me and walked together. All in all, I am now Facebook friends with peregrinos from the six inhabited continents. Friends for a journey make for friends for a lifetime.
Though I cherish these friends I made, especially the Austrians – who somehow enjoyed walking with me, a guy older than their parents – I do have to laugh at one particular scary moment for me. Leaving Astorga at 6am in September means you’re walking in the dark. My flashlight did not penetrate even 10 feet beyond the mist, so my imagination played tricks with me when I would hear a “crackle swoosh crackle swoosh” sound somewhere behind me. The sound got closer and closer and yet I could not see what was causing it. I had already freaked myself out in Burgos Cathedral reading about a Bishop who described watching a peregrino getting eaten by a wolf 800 years ago. What was that sound? Why was it getting closer?
As it turns out, my flashlight finally fell upon an Asian senior citizen peregrino, dragging his feet along the whole path. He was much faster than me and soon disappeared into the mist. Though he may have been fast, we walked similar distances so I saw him several times over the next week. I wonder how many people he frightened in the dark morning mist! And I wonder how often he had to buy replacement shoes with that walking style.
Speaking of equipment, the only equipment problem I had was my rain coat. It didn’t protect me or my bag adequately (the water would pool between my back and the backpack). In Ponferrada, I walked to the Decathlon and got a waterproof poncho to cover me and the backpack completely. Also, since I don’t enjoy walking with a walking stick, I found that my photographer’s eye was deadly. I tripped five times, always while focusing on photos, and fell on the same right knee each time. Each time I fell, my right knee would get bloodied. This would cause me to limp for the next day and the limping caused some blisters. Thank goodness for Compeed to stop the blisters. I had to learn to force myself to walk with a stick for balance.
Nevertheless, most of my best memories are about people and spirituality. My journey was both the outward physical pilgrimage and an inward one into my self. It sits in my heart to this day. Unlike the typical vacation or hiking trip, the Camino revealed so much to me. In fact, I am now on a discernment process to see if a life of ministry is in my future. I suspected this to be the case, refused it, pushed it away, but the Camino made it plain that I could not evade the call.
Though the physicality was a focal point beforehand, it melted away as secondary in importance to the connections with others I was discovering. In each hand I shook, or shoulder I touched, I felt as though I were in the presence of the divine. With each mountain and valley, with each rainbow and stream, I felt as though I was seeing what life and the proper stewardship of nature meant to not just me, but to our ancestors and, I hope, to our next generation.
One incident grabbed me in particular: towards the end of my trip, in Melide, an older gentleman with a cross pendant from Alabama was in the bunk next to me. I assumed he might be conservative and thought to myself, ‘Oh my, what could I have in common with him? I don’t feel comfortable talking with folks who might be homophobic.’ So I avoided him. And yet, I ran into his smiling face at the grocery store. And then again at the church. Finally, after dinner, as bedtime approached, I could not avoid him any longer. I asked him why he was on the Camino. And he said, ‘I just want to find a way so that my congregation will allow my grandson to marry the man he wants to marry.’ I was devastated. I thought I was learning so much and here, near the end, I realized that there was much left to learn. I refused to open my heart all day long to this man who I could have been in deep discussions about something that matters so much to me. I was up half the night wrestling what I had so far learned and what I still had yet to learn.
On my flight home, I got a chance to put in practice the lessons the Camino taught me, even if I was reluctant initially. On that plane I was tired and just wanted to sleep, rest, and read. And yet this young man in a suit beside me wanted to talk for much of that flight. Now, if you’ve flown enough miles, you know how it can feel to be trapped in a conversation on a plane. I tried at first to give short answers and then politely shift back to my reading but he kept at it. So I thought about the many lessons I learned on my journey, and I gave in and listened. And talked. And shared. And he grew content. Finally, as we were deplaning, an older woman, also in a suit, asked him if he was ready for the next meeting and also said, ‘I’m sorry you had to spend your birthday on a plane, but maybe you got some good rest.’
I didn’t know if I sensed his sadness or loneliness directly, but somehow I realized that he somehow needed me, and it was not that difficult to give him the small help he needed – a bit of company on a special day. I also realized concretely that my journey wasn’t ending on this flight. I was to continue this pilgrimage, connecting with others in a healing way, every day. My first Camino had ended, but I felt like it began anew. I hike all the time, and I’ll be returning to Spain in September 2015 to walk the last few miles with my 80 year-old parents just to show them what I have seen. I will also return in May 2016 to walk a full Camino, but that pilgrimage won’t be about me. I’ll be starting in Lourdes France, an extra 100 miles, because it’s a venerated site of healing. My focus will be on healing for those who seek it, and I plan to bring some of the holy water from Lourdes to share with those who want it.
The journey continues.”