This coming December, in the company of two of my four children, I will be making a pilgrimage. I know it’s almost Thanksgiving and the image of the pilgrim with the little brown hat and the crisp white collars is pretty clear. But suspend, if you will, what you know about pilgrims and picture me, with hiking boots, an ultra-light backpack, a waterproof jacket, and a clam shell. I’ll have my new trekking poles, a water bottle, a change of clothes, my camera, a notebook, and a sleeping bag. And in my pocket, next to my passport, I’ll have a list of names of the people I will be praying for.
We are going to walk the Camino in Northern Spain, from the Cathedral in Leon to the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela. This stretch of the Camino is 202 miles.
In the interest of full disclosure, this trip will not cover the whole Camino. As much as I wish I had five weeks to walk the route from St. Jean Pied de Port in southwestern France, I don’t. Our trip will be over 13 days and we’ll be spending both Christmas and New Year’s on this road that has been traveled by pilgrims since the Middle Ages.
I first learned about the route in an art history course in college. I studied Romanesque sculpture with a wonderful woman who spent her career studying one single cloister along the road. Over the years, I would read an occasional travel piece on where to stay in Spain, how to pack, what to look for, and every time I would imagine myself walking, but I never did it. Then, in 2009, I toured the churches around Toulouse in France with my son, and we walked the first stage that crossed the Pyrenees into Roncesvalles. We did not have the right equipment and I got burnt to a crisp, walking in full sun for 12 hours so we gave up after just one stage. But in 2010, I went back and walked the last 110 kilometers by myself, arriving at the Cathedral in Santiago on New Year’s Eve. After Mass, I watched the fireworks through the skylight in my hotel room.
In many ways, this time will be different. We may encounter snow which can obscure the yellow arrow way markers along the road. I have a compass. And it’s when the days are shortest and daylight is at a premium. I have a head lamp. We will leave each day an hour before the sun comes up and we will make our way along a dirt footpath in some places, next to a highway in others. I am looking forward to spending time with my daughters.
More than the physical preparation for this walk, there is emotional and mental preparation that I paid no attention to when I walked the first time. I thought if all I had to do was walk, I would just walk. What I hadn’t considered was what it would be like to walk uphill for hours on end. I never considered the stamina it would take and I never thought about the motivation I would need just to keep putting one foot ahead of the other. I know now that without sufficient motivation, you get nowhere and all you will think about is calling a cab to take you to the next village. That sounds remarkably like a life lesson, I think.
We already have our pilgrim’s passports that will be stamped at each of our stops on the way. When we get to the end, our reward will be a chance to see the tomb of the apostle and we'll collect a paper document to go with a canceled passport. It doesn’t sound like much, but there’s tremendous satisfaction when you arrive with the other pilgrims, many of whom walk from Paris or Rome.
And our sins will be forgiven. That’s pretty cool because I believe that happens on this road anyway, even when you don’t believe in that sort of thing.
Photo by me 2010