by William Howell

History, in many lands, gets focused in pilgrimage—to a shrine, temple, place made immortal by heroic vigilance, saint’s burial place.  For is not each of our lives a journey . . . even if the destination is as yet unclear?  And is this not why pilgrimages have for eons drawn souls to make a sacred walk—in India, Japan, Spain?  Europe is veined with paths, lanes, roadside trails . . . all leading to the heart—the heart of pilgrimage in Europe being Santiago de Compostela, resting place of St. (Sant) James (Iago), one of Jesus’ most intimate disciples.  Symbolizing this 1000 year-old Church-sanctioned pilgrimage are the staff, gourd and scallop shell, whose ribs converge, as do the many routes to Santiago, with many races and nationalities making this commitment.  Every year, hundreds of thousands from all over the world walk The Camino (The Way, Road, Path, Journey) de Santiago.

The Camino has many routes—the Via Française, Via Portuguese, Via de la Plata, to name a few—but traditionally begins in southwestern France just over the Pyrannes, 800km from Santiago.  One woman we met walked all the way from Paris.  We, who’d pondered this sojourn for years, began in León, gorgeous old city where the Kansas-like terrain of north-central Spain gives way to fields and forests of the Cantabrian Mountains.  Our Camino would be about 150 miles.

To be an official caminante means getting a “pilgrim passport” that gets stamped at the dormitory-style places of refuge (refugios, alburgues) where pilgrims stay cheaply (usually 5 €).  Our first night in a León alburgue was a fine beginning (thanks to excellent earplugs).  There we met many lovely souls, some attending to blisters, a few limping and one hobbling on crutches.  A Swedish physiotherapist, knees blown out after 400km, told Brahmi, “Listen to your body.”  The Camino makes many claims.  On the first day we lost our walking sticks . . . and our guidebook!  Along with lesser items, the Camino was to take my glasses, watch . . . and finally our camera (yes, hundreds of unique photos . . . gone!), as if to say, “Sorry, but yours is a walk uninvolved with time and image.”

First night out, we slept in a village with cobbled streets, houses all of stone.  Next day we met Jeff, whose wife had died a year before:  he would place a stone with her name at the Iron Cross, Camino high point (4790’), the tradition being to leave a stone from one’s homeland at its base.  Then, Jeff could find his new life.  Such a theme was not uncommon, though always moving—as with Lori, retired firewoman and pursuing dreams—first the Camino, then the Peace Corps.  While some people may have been little changed by weeks of pilgrimage, many lives would never be the same.

The Camino, demanding, grounding, is simultaneously dreamy.  To be daily on the land brings new respect for feet, knees, thighs, bellies, shoulders.  Such integration!  And yet, one is dancing with other centuries, cultures, assumptions.  It’s a unique intimacy.  And for us, the door of our standard spiritual practices having shut due to the requirements of the Camino, a window opened to the world of dreams—every night, so many, so deeply remembered, at times fabulous—evidently part of the mythic dimension of the Camino.

Dreamy also due to such fresh air supporting October’s perfect weather, and postcard landscapes splashed with Galician sun, light-drenched stone walls sponged with centuries of moss either side of a lane arched by oaks, nonetheless permitting vistas of sheep-pointalized fields green as any in Ireland.  Entering a cobbled town was distinct satisfaction, nodding to its unique stone cross, nursing a café con leche and later on lunch (the Menú del Día—2 courses, wine & dessert for 9 €—encouraged eating more meat and bread and drinking more wine than one-time vegetarians could ever recall); then, bellies full, walking on till mid-afternoon, when we’d stop, shower, wash our clothes, rest, commune, enjoy a light dinner (7-8), lights out by 9:30 . . . then do it all again the next day.  Usually we were the oldest (a tiny octogenarian in great stride did pass us by), first to bed, last up (some type As were out by 6:30 with headlamps, sunrise not till 8am at that latitude, same as Boston’s) and propelled at the slowest pace.  When solely walking, there is no destination, no “getting to”.  In that contemplative air decades of experiences can cycle through.

We walked in our own intention amid “Buen camino,” the common greeting.  Claire, youthful at 65, was making her Camino for someone back in Connecticut.  And Einid, hoping to finish in this her fourth year (many living “closeby” do the Camino in stages), was walking for her sister “who’d died just returning to Dublin our first year.”  She whose fast gait had dubbed her “the Irish racehorse” told me tearfully, “I hope to find some peace.”  Fascinating our connections—quite a variety, never predictable, yet definitely knit.  We even encountered Denise, 30-year friend of Martin Sheen’s sister who lives in Spain, who told us The Way, Martin’s Camino film, was “one of the most wonderful things he’s done”; The Way sure served to popularize the Camino in the States.  The intention with which we walked was definitely amplified by the people we met.

Finally, after entering the quaint streets of Santiago, we descended through a gothic arch to a vast plaza bordered on three sides by official XIV-century edifices, then turned to the spired Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela perched on stairways above us . . . Brahmi was overcome.  Entering for the Pilgram Mass, with 8 monks pulling on ropes to arc the huge censor (Google botafumeiro and see it on YouTube) above filled pews, the gilded altar populated by huge angels depicting divine glory.  The Cathedral served as catalyst to the massively gathered energies of so many journeys culminating in this place of heritage and brotherhood.  Oh, the tears and hugs.

Yet, we’ve found, the Camino does not end . . . not in Santiago or in Finisterre (lit: Land’s End, 90 km west on the Atlantic Coast, where the stone boat carrying St. James’ relics from his martyrdom in Palestine legendarily landed).  Though back in America, not in the palpable flow of pilgrims who, religious or not, sojourned on foot or bicycle or horseback—we still carry something, however unnamable, too layered for travelogue, too full for reportage.  So much of being on foot day after unpredictable day was about our relationship—Brahmi and me, talking about everything, having bone and marrow conversations, just being together.  Such a forging in the vitality of the Camino.

Our attempts to share our experience seem characterized by collage-speak, our sentences not linearly related, the fullness of all that happened in that sunlight and stone-lined pathways of the most mystical area of Europe simply not meeting up with the regularities of speech and expectation.  It was immersion.  The trip of a lifetime.  Even the day we got lost (descending 1000’ to a sin salida [no exit] sign and struggling 5.5 km back up) was the Camino also.  Even then we were led, carried, day after day taken beyond expectation, beyond previously observed boundaries, out of all assumptions and into our bodies, into feet meeting earth, into towns centered by its tall stone crucifix and capella or catedral built on high ground, into the intersection of self and suffering that is iconographed in Christ crucified.  So guided we were that we felt the Camino has its own morphogenic field of intelligence, surpassing . . .

Oh, there I go trying to sum up the wholeness beyond the parts.  If the Camino’s anything, it is connection; it’s about waking up, donning one’s burden and walking, walking on, walking out of image, out of modernity, out of predictability, walking in the belly on the earth to where stone and sky, darkness and light, timeless past and inexplicable present all come together, like the ribs on the scallop shell.  Buen camino.