“I learned so many life lessons from the Camino that I continue to carry today. When I walked the Camino, I noticed that sometimes the hardest walking of the day was when the village I was walking to was in sight. The hours of walking through fields or vineyards, heading up a mountain or down the other side, they were were nothing compared to when the end was in sight. I would see the village and my heart would soar knowing that the end was in sight! At those moments I would mentally calculate how long it would take me to walk into that village. Then however long that was – 45 minutes? an hour? – would come and go and I wouldn’t be at my destination. Then I’d get frustrated, because I stopped focusing on the journey and got too caught up in the destination. I came to realize that when we do that, we risk losing the journey altogether, and then we start wonder why we are even walking in the first place! Like so much of the rest of life, we must keep the balance. But part of this is a trick of the ego, that part of your brain that is resistant to change. Along the Camino de Santiago a pilgrim can shed more than items from their backpack or pounds from their body: you can shed old ways of thinking, and habits that have kept you stuck!
The urge to keep the journey going brings me back to a particularly difficult moment on my Camino. It had been a long, hard day and I was flat out exhausted. I finally reached the village where I thought I would be staying, but felt an inexplicable urge – a little voice if you will – telling me to keep walking. To keep the journey going. But then I thought to myself, ‘keep walking?!?!?’ I was beat! I had been on the trail long enough by then to know to follow my intuition, and I did indeed keep walking, now at a slow yet steady pace. I didn’t exactly feel joy, but I felt like I was doing the right thing. At the late (for a Camino pilgrim!) hour of 3pm, I started climbing one of the steepest parts of the Camino, a mountain leading up to the village of O Cebreiro. Most pilgrims start this section early in the morning and have lunch at the top. I was walking with a German pilgrim for a while, until he could no longer walk as slowly as me and sped up. I quickly lost sight of him. I continued climbing, but started feeling sour about the difficult day I had had, and how crazy it was to be climbing to O Cebreiro so late in the day. I couldn’t shake this grumpiness until finally I decided to turn around and see the view. And what a view it was! It was like the world unrolled at my feet! I saw a beautiful fertile valley below me with fields and meadows, streams flowing, and a brilliant blue sky topping the whole scene off. It really took my breath away! I was reminded that while it’s important to focus on the journey, that it can be tough at times. And that behind every tough challenge is a reward like that valley – a place where joy, ease, love, wisdom, peace, tranquility, compassion, light, and laughter are untouched, whole, complete, and there for us if we will but reach out.
I learned another important lesson on my last full day of walking, I was so close to the finish line but I was overcome with doubts. It was the first day I had a real rainy day on my entire pilgrimage, and I was exhausted by midday, and struggling to simply put one foot in front of the other. I finally sat down on a rock in the middle of nowhere, and just listened to the rain as it hit the ground, my gear, my hat. After a little while, a French woman and her walking companion came up and asked if I was okay. They helped me up, offered me an orange. I was impressed, because oranges are heavy. I ate them every day, but usually early in the morning, so I didn’t have to carry the weight any longer than necessary. This was in the afternoon, so she had made a serious commitment to that orange, that weight! And after carrying that weight so far, she offered it freely to a pilgrim who looked like she needed it. We walked together for a bit, these two pilgrims and I, and the man told me their story: they were part of a group of 9 pilgrims who had met and bonded early on. Two of them were gourmet chefs, so they always stayed in albuerges with kitchens, dining on delicious meals together every night. When we parted a few kilometers on, I was again alone with my thoughts and almost fell into despair. I was telling myself that I had done the Camino all wrong! Where was my group of 9? Where were my gourmet meals? It really took over my thinking for a minute or two before I burst out laughing. Who could do the Camino ‘wrong?’ There is no such thing! I walked the exact right Camino for me, for my soul!
And today, I feel that my Camino never ended. I still walk, in nature as often as possible. I feel this deeply and completely, in fact, it inspired me to write my book Everyday Camino With Annie after I returned from my first Camino, and I am constantly moved by people’s letters who have read it. I like to say I am on my Urban Camino now, finding pockets of dirt trails whenever possible, walking on sidewalk at other times. There is still abundant beauty, beautiful sights, sounds, and smells, to be experienced here in the midst of a city, just as along the Camino de Santiago. Even when you have city views, freeway noise, and sirens all around, you can still see morning mists, hear birdsong and the wind in the trees; you can feel the warmth of the sun, and if you look at your surroundings with the right heart, you can find nature in a city vista, too.
Keeping true to the journey, not focusing only on the destination, remembering that even in hard times there is light beyond, and remembering that we are doing the right things for our souls, those things anchor us but also enrich us. At every moment, we are experiencing the deep and unchanging love of the One who made us. Everything, every imagined betrayal, every seeming disappointment, every apparent heart ache and heart break is another way that God is loving us. There is a bigger picture, one that is infused with love, with compassion, with strength and wisdom and charity. Meditation helps guide us to that picture, that reality, that dimension. Our spiritual practice bolsters the knowledge of what is truly so. Today, and in my book, I encourage others to walk a sacred pilgrimage everyday, no matter where we are.
That brings me right to Phil and his sacred pilgrimage. He’s a veteran, husband, father, outdoorsman, and Catholic. He also has Stage IV cancer. For years, Phil dreamt of walking the 500-mile Camino de Santiago, but this was an unattainable dream due to weekly chemo treatments. That did not stop him from walking. He created a parallel journey in his own backyard, taking 0.88km laps and mentally tracking his progress to Santiago as if he had started his trail in St. Jean Pied de Port. He found that the rhythm of walking presents healing in a way he had never experienced before. I and others were so moved by this story that we put our all into making a documentary of Phil’s story (www.philscamino.com), and its premiere was at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas on March 12, 2016. I could not be more proud of Phil and I am so happy that the Camino brings so much to many, every single day – before, during, and after the trip itself. It is such a driving force in so many lives, and it has brought so many souls together on a lifelong journey.”