It’s been a few short weeks since we returned to California.
The hummingbirds are still where we left them–at their feeders.
The red-tailed hawks are soaring above the hill behind our house, doing what hawks do best.
Everything is as we left it.
Yet something was amiss—we had just returned from an epic journey, a sacred pilgrimage, but I could not put my arms around what had transpired; I struggled to comprehend what my wife and I had accomplished.
We had traversed 500 miles of France and Spain in 31 days, commencing in the snow-capped Pyrenees and concluding at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, the Celtic region of Spain.
Our inert bodies were confused and clamored for an objective–to continue walking, to move forward, to reach the next village or city.
History and Legend
I first heard about the ‘Camino’ or ‘Way of St. James’ in the early 1970s while reading James Michener’s iconic book Iberia. It is in Santiago de Compostela where the supposed remains of Saint James are said to lie. History and legend have it that Saint James the Apostle made his way to this Roman province in Spain to preach after Christ was crucified. When St. James returned to Jerusalem, he was martyred and his remains floated in a marble coffin to Spain where, eight centuries later, they were discovered in a field by the hermit Pelayo. The site was venerated and a church and sepulcher built. After a miraculous victory over the occupying Moors in 844 AD, the Spanish king ordered a pilgrimage be made to the shrine of St. James.
While the “Camino” became a highway for the passage of people, goods, and culture during the eleventh and twelfth century, it was about to collide with events beyond it control namely the Black Death, the Protestant Reformation, and various European wars. The Camino languished for five centuries, its traffic reduced to a mere trickle.
The Camino’s popularity increased during the 1980s when Brazilian novelist, Paulo Coelho, wrote the book The Pilgrimage triggering a tsunami of Brazilian pilgrims which continues unabated. In 2000, the actress Shirley MacLaine, found time to reflect on her own Camino writing the book The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit. And, in 2010, the actor Martin Sheen appeared in his own Camino movie The Way directed by his son, Emilio Estevez. A chance encounter with Martin during a volunteer mission in Mexico was all we needed to launch our journey. In our early 60s, with creeping arthritis of the knees, my wife and I decided to heed the call.
On a foggy spring morning in early May, we took our first steps through the clocktower arch in the Basque village of Saint Jean Pied de Port and began the journey of a lifetime.
Almost immediately, we began to detach ourselves from the outside world. Our priorities changed as quickly as the Navarran landscape and medieval villages passing by. How far could we travel in a day? Would there be a bed waiting for us? Where would we rest along the way and how often? What would we eat to sustain our bodies as we traveled up and over hills, mountains, and monotonous plains? What would we need to protect ourselves from the elements—from the sun and the storm clouds awaiting us in the later stages?
My Spanish and familiarity with Spain over forty years added another dimension to the journey providing a heightened sensitivity to our accommodating hosts and the ability to learn what they were thinking as well as understanding what the Camino meant to them. During the pilgrim church services I was honored to render translation for our fellow pilgrims. To look into the faces of our fellow pilgrims—Finns, Irish, Africans, Asians, Germans, French, Australians—and convey the words of peace and a pilgrim’s blessing in English was deeply moving.
The Iberian landscape was breathtaking and the churches and cathedrals astounded. But it was the people along the way–the pilgrims and non-pilgrims who were “Our Camino” and inspired us every day:
Pilgrims Who Inspire
Russell and Lori, a blind couple from Minnesota, were some of the most inspiring people we encountered on the Camino. We met them shortly after departing the city of Burgos where they unabashedly introduced themselves as “turtles.” We spent the better part of the day together and were astounded by their energy and love of the outdoors.
Francisco, the 89-year-old Basque cyclist, appeared at a convent hostel, his uniform and helmet covered in grime, his bicycle broken…but not his spirit. Fighting off the flu, he vowed to complete his seventh and perhaps final Camino. “Call me Frank,” he smiled.
Karla, the 66-year-old Dutch woman, who said she had dreamed about the Camino several times before sharing these dreams with her husband and sons. They surprised her saying it was a sign she had to walk the Camino. Traveling alone, she found the Camino ‘liberating.’
And we could never forget the Galician woman standing by the side of the road, her enthusiasm undampened by the rain. She pressed her cakes with a dash of homemade honey into our hands asking for nothing in return.
On this, the Jacobean Route, there is a spirit of community that connects everyone. If I could help a fellow pilgrim with translation, I was only too happy; if my wife, a nurse, could tend to the blisters of a young Japanese woman or the swollen knee of a Boston College student, she did so with joy. If a woman traveling alone requested to walk with us for company, we readily accepted. It became clear to us that the camaraderie on the Camino transcended race, religion, nationalities, and age.
Along the way, we were witness to the great snow-capped Pyrenees, the magnificent vineyards of the Rioja, the vast plains of Palencia, the rushing rivers and verdant splendor of Galicia, shepherds with their flocks and storks clacking in church belfries.
After 500 miles and 31 days, the end was in sight. We had been walking in the city of Santiago for almost an hour before the cathedral spires appeared above the rooftops. It was my wife who saw them first. So many thoughts came to mind–so many miles, so much had happened in one month. The excitement of concluding the journey energized us and, in the company of several Boston college students and new Spanish friends, we entered the dampened Praza do Obradoiro and thanked God for delivering us safely to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and the tomb of St. James. The feeling of relief, joy, and inner peace we felt staring up at the rain-stained façade cathedral must have been similar to what the medieval pilgrims experienced.
I never did find “myself” or discover the “inner me.” I didn’t lose weight (the contrary, thanks to a never-ending supply of custard flan from the Pilgrims Menu) or find love (I already had that).
A Personal Journey
Our Camino was the people along the way—each had a unique story to share, a deeply personal reason, or not, for walking to Compostela, something that compelled them either spiritually or for some other reason to endure the blisters, bad knees, fatigue, and rain.
If we learned anything, it was that the Camino, like life, was a personal journey. Except that this journey was meant to reflect upon the other world, breathe in the air and wait in joyous expectation for what might be around the corner…it all seemed so simple.
Thousand Oaks, California