Walking the Way of St. James, the 1060 kilometers (640 miles) from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port isn’t an especially challenging effort. If it comes down it it, it’s about six to seven hours a day of walking, less work than one would do if they were at home, doing their job. It’s also not particularly expensive, good accommodations and food can be had, as long as one does not mind sleeping in the same room as five to twenty other pilgrims, for less than 25 bucks a day.
So, why wander? I do it to shed. Shed weight, stress, and baggage. It invigorates me to have little more than a simple goal every day: get to the next stop, walk the 25 to thirty kilometers, have lunch somewhere along the way, dinner at my albergue, know I am done, know I did what I set out to do. A pilgrimage along the modern Camino is an exercise in enjoying the ease of living without letting the unfamiliarity of some things get in the way. At home we sleep soundly, surrounded by technology, safe in the knowledge that drinks and food are right there. On the Camino we contend with snoring, with fellow pilgrims’ sometimes strange rituals, multiple languages, and having everything we own for a month always in reaching distance.
I got this tattoo after my last pilgrimage. It’s an elevation map of the Camino from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port to Fisterra, the 0,0km marker at the ocean out West. The first part of the Camino, the way marked “Body,” trailing from its start to about the “t” in ultreïa, is where muscles are built, feet hardened, and the sudden realization that snoring and elevation aren’t really problems in the greater scheme of things happens. Steeled and relaxed, the “Mind” portion takes us through the Meseta, the Spanish highlands, a place where ten miles of nothing than corn fields and no shadow lead us from small oasis to oasis, along dusty roads. Some pilgrims avoid this part, taking a bus from Leon to Burgos, but to me this was the most beautiful and relaxing part of my journey. Free from distractions, my mind cleared, my thoughts became louder than the environment I was in, and evenings were spent writing and thinking. It was here that I decided in 2017 to change my career, to take the hard way, and to brave the fear of having to give up my silverback status at work in order to become the new guy for the third time in my life.
The Meseta ended, and with its last stages came a new thing… sadness. Sadness that two thirds were done, sadness that I hadn’t taken in more sights and done more things. My soul (I am using this term loosely, maybe “spirit” would be a better one, in the non-religious sense) rebelled against being exposed, being examined, now that my body and mind had found a comfortable level of being, calmly chugging along.
At O’Cebreiro, the “Camino Duro” (hard Camino) stage of the trip, I did what everyone had warned me would happen: I cried for the first time. It wasn’t a sad cry for long, turned into a relieved one, resigned to letting the world happen around me. I took a horse up the hill, walked on for another few miles, and settled into an albergue that evening, knowing I was ready to walk the final 200 kilometers to the ocean.
Ten days later, I sat and stared at the sinking sun over the ocean. My journey had come to an end, my mind and spirit had cleared, a little weight had been shed, and my life at home would change very soon.
Tradition demands that pilgrims take a bath in the ocean, burn something dear to them, and then sit in silence to watch the sun set one last time over their pilgrimage. I did all of the above, burned the cork of a bottle of wine I’d drank with fellow pilgrims weeks before and that I had kept as a memento, collected a sea shell, and walked back to my hostel, having one last teary eyed moment.
As I drifted into sleep, checking my flight status for the next morning, I knew, really knew, that I would be back very soon. I am, and this time you’re coming with me.