“You find your true self when you peel back the onion of routine and normalcy. The Camino gave me that chance.”
“Fifteen years ago I read a book by Shirley MaClaine called ‘The Camino’. I had read many of her books, but this hit a chord in me that never seemed to stop ringing. I told many people that one day I would walk the Camino, but life and work always seemed to push it away from me. When the movie ‘The Way’ came out in 2010, it added a more visual reality to my desire. In 2014, I was working as a contract worker and enjoying part time status. I mentioned my desire to walk the Camino with another friend in the same situation and he suggested we walk together. This seemed like it was getting real so I started preparing for my journey by buying gear, training, and making plans through the Pilgrim’s guide books. When time came to pick a departure date and make travel plans my friend got busy with a project that would not allow him to go. But, my friend was just the nudge I needed to get my feet moving, and so I decided that at 63 years of age, I could do this on my own. This was going to be my spiritual sojourn across Spain. I was going to be open to whatever the Camino had in store for me – all it had to do for me was to make sure everyone I was supposed to meet and walk with would indeed be there.
I left San Diego on Father’s Day, and my entire family came to see me off as I flew to Madrid; I eventually made my way to St. Jean Pied de Port. I stayed in albergues for the first few days but eventually I felt that I needed my own space. So, after Pamplona, I started staying in hostels that had private rooms. I felt more at ease and not rushed in the mornings. I also felt that by staying in a private room, it gave needier peregrinos a better chance of getting a bed in an albergue. Also after Pamplona, I stressed my left knee. This slowed me down considerably. When I left San Diego, a friend told me to either come home victorious, or as the Romans said, dead on my shield. Well, I preferred not to be shipped home in my sleeping bag! I listened to my body and realized it was not a race.
Many people had to deal with their own pains along the Way. Some physical and others were dealing with losses. I’m not religious but I prayed in many of the churches along the Camino for family and friends – some who had just passed, and some fighting a fight they would lose. I thought every prayer would help, but God makes the plans and we have to accept them. I went through the three stages of the Camino – physical, mental, and spiritual – and felt over time that my body, mind and spirit all adjusted and tuned themselves.
I arrived in Santiago on the 24th of July, the day before the Celebration of St. James. The city was full of people from all over the country, as St. James is the Patron Saint of Spain. In Santiago, I came across many people I had walked with before, which led to lovely reunions and warm feelings. I’m proud of what I did because of the lessons I learned and the readjustment it gave me physically, mentally and spiritually. And of course, I got the Compostela, my “get out of Hell free card.” The people, the food, the history, the whole experience was more than I could ask for. I learned many lessons and found out some wonderful things about myself. I loved the way in which I and others shared anything that we had that a fellow hiker needed. I might have been a little nervous about hiking by myself at first but in the end, the Camino gave me the opportunity to talk to and meet new people, young and old, from all over the world. We all deeply cared for each other and formed small but strong communities along the way. Yet what I got most out of the Camino was a sense of freedom that I had forgotten: when your day consists of waking, packing up, eating, walking, resting, walking some more and getting to a good stopping place 6 or 7 hours later, resting and repeating everything the next day for over 36 days, you lose track of the day of the week, what month and what’s going on in the world, you find what freedom really is. You find your true self when you peel back the onion of routine and normalcy. The Camino gave me that chance.
I took over 3000 photos during my walk and whenever I see a photo someone else took, I know where that was. I recognized many places from having read my guidebook and various other Camino books carefully, but seeing them first hand was amazing. I vividly remember the colors and smells, the vistas, the long walks, the hard walks, and the evenings. The visual pictures in my brain are deeply ingrained. Everything impressed me. As I walked across Spain I pictured in my mind how something would have been recorded before they had cameras, by painting landscapes or portraits. So today, I process photos of my Camino in a way that gives them the appearance of being painted. Just as this site shares stories with people who have walked or plan to walk the Camino, I love to share my art – you can see it on my Facebook page, ‘Photo Art by John Mattingly.’ I hope my art and my story inspire you to take your own journey, and I hope you too take pictures that touch your soul like my photos touched mine.”