by R.J. Regan, Guest Blogger
In April 2015, I chose to walk the pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago for my first trip to Europe. For over a thousand years people from all different backgrounds, faiths and generations have completed the 800 km (about 500 miles) journey from St Jean Pied de Port in southern France across northern Spain to Santiago de Compestella where believers are told the remains of the Apostle St. James are interred.
During my month long trek, surprisingly, I experienced something much deeper, more meaningful and profoundly more impacting than just a backpacking journey through Spain. You see, the Camino de Santiago is a very personal journey that holds different meanings for different people. But, the nagging question that many ponder along the trail is, “Who am I?”
What initially got me interested in the Camino de Santiago was a movie called “The Way”, starring Martin Sheen. I then purchased a guidebook by John Brierley entitled “A Pilgrim’s Guide to The Camino de Santiago.” John explained that there are many paths to Santiago including starting in Paris, Barcelona or even Portugal, but the traditional (and most popular) route starts in St Jean Pied de Port, France. His suggested journey involves 33 stages consisting of a little over 20km (14 miles) each day. I averaged over 30km each day and I met a couple in their 70’s who averaged 15km per day.
Although the movie “The Way” does a good job of depicting the journey, the one thing it misses slightly is the fatigue I experienced. I met all kinds of people from all over the world and we all had a similar experience of soreness in our feet. Walking 12-18 miles may not sound too bad, but it’s unrelenting when you do it day after day after day, and it starts to wear you down. Many mornings I wanted to quit, in fact many do. Only 15% of the pilgrims that start the journey actually finish.
At the start of the journey, all “pilgrims” register so they can be issued their Camino passport which verifies their status as a pilgrim and allows them access to the many albergues along the trail. At various stops along the way, I would receive a stamp and verification that I did actually walk the trail. This is needed in order to be issued the official Compestella in Santiago.
Although the Camino runs through major cities in Spain like Leon, Burgos and Pamplona, most of the journey is along a rural and rustic path connecting small farming villages, some with a population of only one!
But, regardless of the size of the town, without fail, there was always a cross, a church or a cathedral reminding me that this is a very Catholic and religious journey for most.
I ate the traditional Spanish foods. Ham and cheese is at every meal. The coffee, croissants and fresh squeezed OJ were a welcome delight every morning, and for about $3 for the trio. I had pulpo (octopus), cordero (roast lamb), anchovies, olives, chirizo (Spanish sausage), tapas galore and lots of Spanish wine. Northern Spain is known globally for their wine and for less than $10 per bottle and in many cases less than $5, I was able to buy excellent bottles of wine that were a welcome addition and end to my daily fatigue from walking.
I walked through cold wind and rain in Galacia. I walked over the Pyrenees Mountains through the snow and even got sunburned through the sweltering heat between Pamplona and Logrono. Regardless of the weather, I walked.
Day after day after day, I walked.
The key symbols of the Camino are the yellow arrows that mark the way, the seashells that pilgrims attached to their backpacks, the pilgrim credential or passport, walking stick, backpack, and a small stone. Although, just as common, were the other symbols of the Camino like the large 600mg ibuprofen tablets, Compeed (an exceptional blister aid, think a large band-aid on steroids), anti-friction lotion for your feet and foot wraps.
As I review my pictures from the journey I realized that I look the same in all of them. Nothing really changed about me. But, what you can’t see is that during the journey I changed on the inside.
There is something about the Camino that gives a person what they need, exactly when they need it. I had dozens of unique experiences and unbelievable interactions with people, but one that stands alone is with a little old lady who owned a gift shop in Estella.
It was in the early evening, on the fourth day of my journey, with my new travel companions, Roke from Argentina and Miles from northern California, that I saw this gift shop and wanted to purchase a few postcards for my children. I walked in the store, smiled and said, “Hola Senora!” We exchanged some small talk as best we could in my broken Spanish and her broken English when she stopped, stepped back and abruptly said, “You are a good man.”
I let out a small laugh and said, “Senora, you don’t know me, how on earth could you possibly know that I am a good man?” She said, I can tell by your eyes, your smile and how you are talking that you are a good man.” At that point, something came over me and my eyes began to water. When she embraced me, I began to weep. Then she whispered in my ear and said, “It is because of what you do right now that I know you are a good man.”
My companions were in shock. I heard them say, “Wow, this is powerful, so much emotion, such passion! What is going on here?” Then the lady let go of me and said, “Wait here. I have something for your journey.”
She began to dig through some of her trinkets and handed me a small stone. She explained that it was a heart stone and that I was to keep it with me during my journey to remind me that I have a good heart and that I am a good man. I paid for my post cards, embraced her again and we were on our way.
The three of us secured our backpacks and walked along the trail in silence. As I recall that experience, whether she knew it or not, I realized that she helped me answer the original nagging question, “Who am I?”
!Buen Camino! My friends.
Robert “RJ” Regan is a resident of Grand Rapids and if you would like to know more about the Camino de Santiago he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 616-291-3777