Many years ago, though possibly not as many as some would believe, the average devote Christian would emerge from his home, wherever that may have been, and begin walking with the intent on fulfilling a once-in-a-lifetime event: The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The journey could take anywhere from hours to weeks, when not months, to complete. It all depended on where their starting point was. To get to the Holy City, they would walk great distances day after day with footwear that was good for anything but a foot or for those distances. As a result, toes were mangled, heels hammered and ankles twisted and deformed; their joints would pain beyond imagination and their muscles would ache endlessly. The walkers would endure a beating sun, wind-driven soaking rain, frosty mornings and bone-chilling snowfalls. They would step through rushing rivers, trudge through mucky mud, and tiptoe over excruciating pointed rocks. They would fall sick, cough, sniffle, groan, wheeze, hack, shake, vomit, collapse and, on occasion, perish. Sort of like what happened to me on my first day.
If the Camino is a tough go nowadays despite all the modern-day amenities, back then it must have been a rugged and oft horrid piece of traveling made tolerable only by a great deal of luck and an immense amount of faith. Those who did make it, those who persevered, must certainly have felt fortunate, nearly chosen. They would have arrived in Santiago worn out and humbled by the experience, God’s children kneeling in adoration and awe. They would then ascend the steps of the cathedral, plug each of their five fingers in the five smooth sockets of the main column of the Pórtico de la Gloria (worn in over the centuries by the digits of previous pilgrims), go behind the altar, hug the apostle, attend mass, pay homage to all that there was to pay homage to, clasp their hands tight in pious prayer, squeeze their eyes shut and implore the Lord’s forgiveness and grace, imbibe themselves in the mystical sound of Gregorian chant, let the sweet yet acrid odor of incense penetrate their noses and brains and then fall upon the floor before the glory of the moment, and cry out “Hallelujah, the Lord is great. The Lord is merciful. The Lord has granted me the right to bear witness to the site where the holy remains of the Apostle Saint James lay. This is why I have come. This is why I am here. This has brought all meaning to my life. I shall never be the same again.”
Then they would stand up, turn around and walk home.
That’s right. Walk. All the way back to their goddamn kitchen. No trains. No buses. No taxis to the airport. Not even a rickety donkey-driven two-wheeled buggy.
Now that would suck. I mean, that would be a real bummer. No full-scale pardon awaiting you at the other end of the road, but a head in a kerchief, an angry look that could split atoms, and a rolling pin in one hand being tapped in the other hand accompanied by the words: “Where the hell have you been the last three months, you good-for-nothing weasel?”
“I’ve been eating octopus and thinking about God” …It would earn you a good crack on the crown, but it might just be well worth the one-liner.
Modern technology has helped us overcome that obstacle. But there are those who feel, in fact, that the “real” Camino indeed entails returning to your starting point the same way you came and in the same fashion. I believe that this is a total pile of Galician cow dung, because there isn’t any such a thing as a “real” way of doing it. Plus, back then, it’s not as if the pilgrims had much of a choice. Such doctrinistic purist hogwash tends to be the fabrication of the ignorant and their ignorance. Still, there is something alluring about the idea of reliving the original process, and yes, there are some who actually retrace their steps back to where they came from. The arrows pointing in the opposite direction are blue, but I can assure you that they are few and far between. For the most part, you are better off just turning your neck a lot and sticking to the regular signs as you regress.
Our choice of return was Andres’ Hyundai Matrix, the safest car in Europe, which by now had become like a friend to me. The thing was our captain was in no piloting form at nine that morning, so I took the helm and sailed us through the first half all to way to Benavente. Andrés took over from there and we cruised back to Madrid. The return trip was quiet and uneventful. We didn’t talk much, mostly slept. There wasn’t much to say anyway. The Camino was such an incredibly rewarding experience in so many ways, we had done so much in the past six days, what could we add? We recalled an anecdote here and there, and laughed a little, but most of the time there we sat silently and listened to the music and, in my case, thought to myself. I thought about the people I had met, the brothers from Huelva, the Saints from Belgium, the Italian Boys Scouts eaten alive by Santi the Killer Pilgrim Terrier. I thought about my co-pilgrims Aitor, Andrés and Javier, and what wonderful people they were and what a pleasure it had been for me to take to the Road with them. I was especially happy for Andrés. Six months before I had told him that he and I would walk into Santiago together, and there we were on our way back victorius. The man overcame and outdid all expectations. He suffered a lot and had a pretty crappy time for most of those kilometers, but he made it. And he did it with tenacity and good humor. God bless him, he made it.
And I thought about all the people in my life, my family and friends, and in particular my wife and daughters who had sacrificed their time so I could go frolicking about in the countryside for a week. I thought about all those I had done the trip for, and especially the good news I received about my mother. I was lucky. You must do the Camino for nothing in exchange and let destiny do the rest upon reaching your destination.
Like any departure from reality, especially one as fascinating, satisfying and entertaining as that one, we were caught in a mixture of emotions. Of course we were dying to get back to our friends and family; but at the same time, we were almost scared to reincorporate ourselves into society. At least I was. I guess it was a natural reaction.
In the following days I remember talking to a number of people about the Camino. Actually, it was interesting the way different people responded. Some asked general questions without delving much further, others wanted all sorts of details, and still others asked nothing at all. Most had never done the pilgrimage but almost everyone said they would like to one day. I completely felt for them, since I used to be the same way. I had nothing but encouragement for them, but wondered if they would ever take that step. It wasn’t a big one, just oh so hard to raise your foot. Wasn’t that like so many things in life, where there are dreams within our reach and yet we still fail to make them come true? Weren’t there roads waiting for us which we pass by just to stick to the old and familiar? Doing the Camino was a necessary challenge in my life, and one I could repeat over and over.
I could almost liken the pilgrimage to becoming a father. I knew it would be different, I knew it would be hard and I knew it would be extremely gratifying. I also knew it would change my life all forever. I just didn’t know how or in what way. For that you have to go out and live it. One big difference between the two was that I was on the Saint James’ Way for less than a week, and I have been a father for 4275 days and counting…but that’s another Camino all together.
So, you can do the Camino. You bet your life on it. And you don’t have to do it for religious reasons, even spiritual ones. You can do the Camino for whatever reason you want, for no reason other than you just felt like walking, though setting a goal or two to give it some meaning always helps…but maybe that’s just the teacher in me coming out.
You should do the Camino. Absolutely. There’s no excuse. It’s an attainable goal. It gives direction. It’s literally as easy as putting on your blue bandanna, walking out your front door and saying, “I’m going.”
- For Mom and Dad