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Still Learning from the Camino de Santiago 20 Years Later

In the spring of 2000, I had just graduated from college and taken my first job. The work was straightforward but not rewarding, and the rather ordinary tasks left me unfulfilled as I figured out what would happen next.

My friend Naomi reached out to me one April day and asked me to consider joining a large group of folks hiking the Camino de Santiago that summer. I had never heard of it, its significance or history, and I doubted that my boss would give me six weeks off. To my surprise, she did, provided that I would return to work once I came back and not abandon her for Europe.

The Camino de Santiago, or “The Way of St. James,” is a pilgrimage through Spain to the legendary burial place of St. James the Apostle, Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims have paid visits since the 9th century. St. Francis of Assisi and St. Bridget of Sweden walked the Camino, among many other saints and venerables. The route was very popular in the Middle Ages. Now, it is a widely-known and traveled route, most often undertaken as a sort of spiritual retreat. It is approximately 800 kilometers, or 500 miles, from just inside Spain to its completion in Santiago de Compostela. If one walks at least the Camino’s final 100 kilometers, they are eligible for the certificate of completion. 

I found myself booked on a Transatlantic flight and began saving money to embark on a journey still unclear to me. I borrowed a hiking backpack, bought some hiking boots and quick-dry clothing, practiced walking a few blocks around my neighborhood, and called myself prepared. 

The morning of July 5th, 2000, 19 of us piled into a passenger van and drove to Toronto, Canada, for our flight. We flew overnight, navigated Heathrow airport, made it to Madrid, sprinted through the complex subway system, and boarded a chartered bus, which took us over the border into France. We arrived long after the pilgrim hostels closed, so we slept in a city park with the bats flying overhead. 

Early the next morning, we registered for our “passports,” small booklets stamped at each city a pilgrim travels through, evidence that we were truly walking pilgrims. They permitted us to receive a bed for the night in the “albergues,” specifically set aside for pilgrims at a nominal cost. After a quick prayer, we started walking. 

Almost immediately, I realized how completely unprepared I was: the day’s hike was 17 kilometers straight uphill into the Pyrenees. In my first picture, I am dazed, overwhelmed, and having an internal wrestling match. We walked through herds of cattle, sheep, and barely-marked turns. I agonized over each bend in the trail, wondering how much steeper the next bit was and how I could possibly attain its height. Finally, we reached the massive summit which bordered Spain. We gasped, and it seemed unreachable until we crossed it, and then started our 5 km descent into the village where we would find beds and food.

Therefore, lesson #1 became clear: 

We only have the grace for this stretch of road.

camino de Santiago

We anticipate, worry, and try to prepare for what we think is coming in days, weeks, and months, but we don’t receive the grace to meet each day until we face it. We do not have the grace for tomorrow, because tomorrow is not here. We waste hours worrying about the unknown, but we are not equipped for that day until it arrives. 

I did not absorb this lesson right away and spent much time panicking at the distance we had to walk, the blisters on my feet, and a most ill-fitting backpack completely overloaded with extraneous items. I learned later that I initially came on strongly to other group members and pushed intensely regarding physical care. As the team broke into smaller groups and paces differed, I hiked with women I knew vaguely and was disappointed not to be with a friend I knew better.

The journey is raw, and there is no glamour in sweating profusely, with backpack straps rubbing against sunburnt skin, blisters being lanced and aching, and exhausted limbs with few hours’ rest until the next leg. I struggled the first several days, having never pushed myself so hard physically. But this was the point – to remove complications from our lives so that it was just us and our backpacks. Just us and the shoes on our feet, carrying us from mountains to flat wheat fields, from navigating busy highways to trails far from the main roads. 

I walked with two sets of sisters most often, and my near-constant companion was my friend Hilde. We set out each day at 6 am, and then stopped in the first village we encountered to buy freshly-baked bread at the panaderia, a wheel of cheese, and coffee. These were our breakfast and our lunch. A typical day’s hike was about 20 to 25 km, or 12 to 18 miles. Occasionally we ate a heavier snack in a town along the way, but most often we arrived to our destination village mid-afternoon, during the siesta. We showered, changed clothes, did laundry in the sink, and rested until the stores and restaurants opened again. Dinner was typically served around 8 pm and consisted of a 3-course meal for the peregrinos (pilgrims) at a nominal cost. Then it was to bed to sleep hard for a few hours before beginning again the next day. 

I learned a few years ago that Hilde did not want to initially walk with me, but did so because that is how the group separated. I am glad I did not know that because our walks molded us into a wonderful friendship. When it is just the pilgrims and the road, deep conversation follows. We laughed as we learned each other’s quirks and nuances. We paced each other throughout the day and made up songs to classic tunes, which carried us through the long miles to the next destination. We soaked our feet in the cool streams while we ate, played card games, and explored villages. She had patience with me as I wanted to stop at every church and see its windows. On the days I walked alone or with others, I missed her and our conversations. 

Lesson #2:

Let go of your agenda and immerse yourself in the experience.

I had a plan at the outset of the trip, to walk with the friends I knew best, care for everyone’s physical and practical needs, and be the best-prepared pilgrim. That was blown out of the water within days–as our group splintered into smaller teams, as I realized my backpack was the heaviest of the entire group’s, and as there was absolutely no way I could control how any day unfolded or who walked with me. I knew essentially no Spanish, and I found it difficult to ask for items by name. I would never have predicted that I would become fast and deep friends with the women I most often walked with, who were unafraid to tell me I was snoring (!) and waking them at night. 

Some folks chose to walk much further per day than others. A large portion of the group decided to bus far ahead of the rest and walk shorter distances. Others walked the entirety of the Camino, eschewing any motor transport. We walked through downpours, floods, and through parched dry fields. It was cool in the early mornings and then steaming hot in the afternoons. I perfected the farmer’s tan with my V-neck t-shirt and shorts, complemented with tall hiking boots and socks, hair pulled half-back, and daily sunglasses. Halfway through the trip, I shed all the extras I had been carrying.

Lesson #3: 

Accepting help from others is allowing them to love us. 

We assign ourselves tasks and goals and refuse the support and solidarity of those around us. But we were not made to live in isolation: we are made to live and commune with others on the journey. We need each other. When we reject offers of assistance and bury ourselves in work instead of accepting the gifts others can bring, we inhibit an opportunity to receive love. A fellow pilgrim gave me his pillow to use as padding against my back. Another friend insisted on giving me regular massages and another preached worth into my ears until I finally acknowledged that these blessings were as much for me as those offering them.

camino de Santiago

I felt myself growing stronger as the days passed, and we covered longer distances more quickly. When contingents of the group met up in various cities, it was a happy reunion. We chatted with other pilgrims and ate together in the evenings. On the Feast of St. James, pilgrims from all over the world sat and ate common meals together. I met a man who had started his walk in Italy, pulling a large cart the entirety of the journey as a promise to his late friend. Other pilgrims had begun in Germany and deeper into France. Folks had been walking for months along this road. 

After choosing to bus three days’ journey forward to line ourselves up for a good final stretch and have time to spend in Santiago, I sat in my bunk in the Albergue, awaiting the hike back into the mountains. I had a view of a beautiful chapel, lit by a turquoise sky too stunning to capture in a photo. I had been walking for just over three weeks, accomplishing something I NEVER thought I could do. I had laughed, cried, listened, ached, sung, and pushed myself through days that felt like marathons. I had ventured out in friendship, choosing to embrace the companions with whom I walked. I was lucky to keep up with them throughout the journey and had my fabulous friend Hilde writing poetry along the route. 

With that picture of the night sky in my mind, I woke the next morning and entered what felt like Middle Earth. The rocks were ancient, the walls of stone accompanying us to the summit of the mountain. It was wooded and cool. We walked long stretches of road, stopping in smaller towns for the night instead of the bigger cities. We ate fresh fruit and continued with our staple of fresh-baked bread with cheese and olive oil. 

Very early on a Sunday morning, Hilde and I decided to take a different route than the others, and we walked into the village of Samos just as the sky was lighting for the day. The large Benedictine monastery was not open yet, but we sat for a few moments in front of it, absorbing the serenity of our surroundings. We walked further and remarked at the farmers cultivating their land with oxen yoked together. We passed pastures of cattle and ate freshly-made sheep’s milk cheese. Conversation, prayer, and silence filled our walk. The Camino became more crowded as we approached the final 100 km, as so many people choose to walk as families or for their annual vacation. Beds were harder to come by, and we found ourselves often sleeping on gymnasium or storage room floors. We met up again with the other ladies, and four of us decided to spend the final days together. The night before our descent into Santiago de Compostela, we had a celebratory meal complete with octopus and bottles of wine. 

That final morning, we faced a 20 km hike into Santiago. We were exhausted, exuberant, and in disbelief. I was the strongest I had ever felt, looking back on who I was at the beginning of the walk and seeing how I had changed in just a few short weeks. During one encounter with other group members, they told me I looked refreshed and that I had a glow in my eyes. I had not known how I was being affected by each day’s walk. But I did know I gained heaps of confidence just by proving to myself each day that I was capable of walking 20 miles, and that I had learned patience with myself and others. 

I learned to use a squatty potty while carrying an extra 30 pounds and to laugh at myself. I learned how extraordinary friendship can be built on a shared experience, even when the individual experience is unique. I learned that I loved being in the sun and how physically healthy this journey had made me. I learned that I loved Vino Tinto con Limonada. I learned that I, and a backpack filled with just essentials, were enough to face a day’s journey. 

We walked over the bridge into the city, weaved our way through the busy streets, and followed the noise of the crowds into the huge plaza facing the Cathedral. We sat in awe for a few minutes, then walked through the church and into the shrine, which legend holds that the remains of St. James rest. We found our refuge for the night, showered, and then napped for what felt like an eternity. Then we ventured out again and found others from our group for dinner. We toured the beautiful streets full of souvenirs and bought ourselves dresses. I looked absolutely ridiculous in a tank dress with my t-shirt farmer’s tan but did not care. 

The day of our departure back to Madrid and home, a few of us took a rented car to the “End of the World,” or Finisterra. We drove to see the ocean and sit in the cool breeze coming off the water. I stood with my feet in the low tide and looked out over the vastness. The cliffs were jagged and the water cold. It was the perfect end to my Camino to reflect on its immensity and prepare myself to re-enter the life I had left. 

The Camino is a very individual experience. It is what you make it, and will change and challenge you as much as you allow. It is an expedition through history as you encounter villages and buildings that are perhaps thousands of years old and follow the steps of countless saints before you.  It reminds us of the universe beyond our borders. The spiritual communion shared through centuries past of people who have walked this walk, those who join us on it, and those who are to follow in the footprints we create. I have often lost sight of the lessons I learned, and have paid a hefty price for losing the perspective, but they always find a way back into my mind and heart. They are eternal lessons, still relevant in my “ordinary” (daily) life, which I can apply as I live out my vocation to love and to love deeply. 

About Author

Bridget is a deep-thinking compassionate caregiver with a love for color, culture, travel, kindness and the encouraging word. Called to seek out and serve the lost, vulnerable, broken and oppressed. A pediatric nurse, she has worked in numerous inpatient and outpatient settings, and with the underserved domestically and internationally. She carries a particular call to stand with the impoverished, whether they be affected materially, emotionally, physically or spiritually. She currently lives in Austin, TX with her dog Nigel.

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