About 1200 years ago, a group of devout Christians found a tomb with the buried remains of the apostle, St. James, in Galicia, a region of northwestern Spain. To honor him, Spanish kings built a magnificent cathedral in Santiago where his remains are buried today. Since then, millions of pilgrims — “peregrinos” — have walked hundreds of miles to Santiago’s cathedral along one of several paths beginning in Portugal, Spain or France. Four peregrinos finished the Camino de Santiago last week — Belle (BFF from the 6th grade), Laura (long time Berkeley friend), and Leticia (Belle’s buddy from her days in Sonoma County). And me.
We started just north of Porto, Portugal and walked 8-14 miles a day along marked paths for about 150 miles. The Portuguese “Way of St. James” traverses beautiful countryside, ancient villages, small cities, and farmlands. And some ugly stuff too. Along the way, we met local residents — both encouraging and indifferent — lots of animals, and other peregrinos, mostly from Germany and England. We stopped at outdoor cafes for green salads with tuna, lentil stews, and coffee drinks. We left tiny Mexican babies at the altars and shrines along the way, and identified more than 100 varieties of flowers. We survived sore feet and ankles, a little anxiety, and pouring rain. Pilgrims are supposed to suffer at least a little!
Before our Camino began, I wasn’t sure why I was making this pilgramage. I am not religious. Did I come hoping for revelation? Reflection? Just a good trek with three powerful women? By the end of the first day, I realized there was no point in pondering my motivations or what I would feel, or whether my aging body would hold out for two weeks. The times I tried thinking about the recent changes in my life, my brain would shut down. The important things became the little gifts along the path — a friendly horse, a bag piper, a stile covered with ribbons and shells.
What began as a challenge soon became a rhythm that was comforting and familiar and freeing. During the first week, I wondered how I could finish the day’s journey. By the second week, I wondered why we weren’t walking longer distances each day. And as we approached Santiago on our last day, I cried a little wishing it wouldn’t end. And I know it won’t. As Belle might say, “It’s all a Camino.”
“Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace el camino al andar.”
Pilgrim, there is no path. The path is made by walking.
From a poem by Antonio Machado (Thanks to Wendy Feltham for sharing)