By Shari Randall
The Camino de Santiago (the Road of St. James) is a pilgrimage that leads across Europe to the green hills of northwest Spain and Santiago de Compostela, home of a spectacular cathedral that the faithful believe houses the bones of the apostle James. The pilgrimage was popular in the Middle Ages and then slowly declined. In the seventies, the work of a Spanish professor renewed interest in the Camino, and in 2010 the movie, The Way, brought the route even more attention.
My husband and I saw The Way and were fascinated by the Camino’s combination of outdoor beauty, culture, spirituality, and physical challenge. This summer we decided to join the over 200,00 people who walk “The Way,” every year — all seekers, each seeking something different, in the steps of those long ago pilgrims.
The traditional pilgrim travels with everything on his back, a sturdy walking stick in hand, staying the night at bare bones dormitory-style hostels called refugios. But companies have sprung up to serve the needs of modern pilgrims and will shuttle suitcases from one hotel or albergue to the next while the pilgrim carries only the day’s needs in a pack. Full disclosure: we used one such company. I confess: we did the one week “slacker” Camino — or as my husband put it, the “executive” Camino.
The Camino isn’t just one trail. There are many routes to Santiago. We took the one called the Primitivo, the oldest route, and as you’ve guessed from the name, one of the most primitive, the least traveled, with the fewest services along the road. We carried packs with our daily needs: water, a little food, tissues, foot remedies, sunscreen, guidebook, and raingear, just in case.
Having to carry everything shifts your mindset. It’s surprising what you need, what you don’t need, and how what you think you need turns out to be the last thing you need.
Let me explain.
Along with the traditional symbol of the pilgrim, or peregrino, the scallop shell, many on the trail use walking sticks. Very pilgrim-ish. I’d struggled on many steep uphill sections of trail and I thought having a stick would help. However, we were on the primitive path – no stores, heck, we walked for miles seeing no buildings. As we walked, I auditioned a couple of fallen tree limbs, but nothing was strong enough – other pilgrims had had the same idea and had snatched up any sturdy branches.
As we walked into the village of Villamor, we stopped at fountain outside a church. Well, my husband stopped, I collapsed – this was Day Two and we’d walked 26 km on Day One. To my right against the stone wall were three walking sticks, an abandoned package of sponge cake, and a bottle of water.
I looked around. No other pilgrims were in sight. The church building was closed. The cake didn’t appeal to me. But one of the sticks, a branch bleached white by the sun…
I picked it up. Smooth, the perfect size for my hand. I took a few steps, swinging it. It felt good. It matched my jacket. “Perfect,” I said. “The Camino provides.” We’d heard that along the way. Here was an example!
My husband shook his head as he munched the cake.
New energy surged through me. Now I felt like a real peregrina. As we continued our trek, I focused to coordinate the stick and my stride. Swing stick, plant stick, step, swing stick…
A few kilometers later we climbed the road toward Arzua, a small city. The stick helped, but…I had to think about coordinating the stick and my steps — a lot.
In Arzua, walking past a mix of centuries old churches, cafes, bars, motorcycle shops (two!), my energy shifted to trying not to hit anyone with my stick. Finally, we arrived at our hotel.
I leaned my stick against the brick wall by the front door and stepped back.
“It might not be here later,” my husband said.
Later, as I washed away the dust of the road, I considered. It would have been great to write about how the Camino provided just what I needed, when I needed it. Instead the Camino provided what I thought I needed and taught me that I didn’t need it after all.
Probably a better lesson.
Readers, do you have any travel wisdom to share?