The Camino

Day before day one.

Tomorrow I am joining a relatively new friend on a five week trek across the northern Spanish coast. My destination, technically, is the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. It looks like this: St. James, that is THE St. James of the famous 12 apostles of Jesus – reportedly lies buried in or perhaps beneath the cathedral. James, probably due to his body being interred there in the Galacian part of Espana, is important to the Spanish. At least the Christian Spanish and those who cater to the hundreds of thousands of “pilgrims” who walk one of five paths to Compostela each year.

I struggled over the quotation marks around “pilgrim,” not only because I try to be careful with those little buggers in general (amazing how much confusion they cause. We would probably be living a utopian existence by now if they had never been manifested) but also because the idea of pilgrims and pilgrimages is not one to be tossed into the word salad lightly.

Anyway, there are apparently people who walk anywhere from 100 to 1000 miles to qualify as a pilgrim on the Camino – certificate and all – but I would be hard pressed, at least here at the beginning of my journey, to use the P word for all of them.

I’m thinking at this point – now mere hours before my departure – that an exploration of what it means to be a pilgrim is going to creep into the philosophical strains of this blog. But not tonight.

Tonight I am just feeling excited about the adventure, and incredibly grateful that the universe has managed to arrange itself in a way that makes it possible for me to go.

Buen Camino, amen.

Background and day one

So this is the story of my trip to Spain, which I am recounting from a journal I kept, and it is now a year later. Who cares about this? one is likely to ask, and I would say “exactly!” to that. However, I have been asked to recount my adventure for those who were working or stuck doing something other than walking a good deal of northern Spain for five weeks, so I feel a bit of an obligation. The news is, and I’ m not alleging that it’s good or bad, that this is not going to be your typical travelogue. For one thing, I didn’t take notes consistently enough to make it one, and second, I couldn’t help but get ideas about all sorts of other things while I was trudging along with a hefty backpack and two trekking poles. Consequently, this is going to be part outward journey and part inward. I’m not sure I reached any revelations worth anybody’s idea of salt when it comes to the philosophical musings, but I thought I would figure a way to insert them. Perhaps I will write those in red or something so that if a reader wants to skip all of that nonsense, it will be easier. We’ll see how it goes.

First, a little background on the trip itself seems appropriate. I traveled with a friend I will call “D” to protect her identity, which is silly since her name and face were all over Facebook during our travels. She and I were relatively new friends, without much significant history, and that made for an interesting dynamic. D is very efficient, and has a great deal of travel time under her belt, having been from Nepal to Peru by way of Africa and New Zealand just to name a few, and she speaks Spanish as well. I had nothing like that to bring to the table, which was (and is) unfortunate. We met on a hike in San Diego, realized we lived near each other and since we were both retired could hike during the week without the crowds, and an association/friendship was born.

At some point in one of our conversations, D mentioned that she would like to “do” the Camino. Translation: walk at least 100 km on one of four or five routes in Spain with a bunch of other “pilgrims” or “peregrinos” with the goal of reaching the cathedral in Santiago. The tradition is quite ancient, and has to do with religious pilgrims walking from all over Europe to the cathedral to (honor? Visit? Behold?) the remains of St. James, which, legend has it, are ensconced there. For Catholics, I suppose it is much like Mecca is to Muslims, and for many others it has a very spiritual pull. Still others do it for the challenge or a cheap way to travel; some perhaps even to defy death, as in the case of Harry, whom I may psychoanalyze later. My familiarity with this phenomenon was from an ex-student and longtime family friend who had walked it several years ago, and I had been intrigued at the time and somewhat since (although I have to admit it was not in the top ten on my “bucket list”). So when D brought the topic up again around a campfire with a group of travelers, I said that I wanted to go, and the plan was set. This was a little over a year before the trip, giving us lots of time to research, plan, select and purchase needed accouterments, and do some significant hiking and walking to prepare our feet. Despite a six+ month bout of plantar fasciitis that kept me limping and avoiding contact between my right heel and the ground, by the time August 2017 rolled around both of us felt reasonably prepared.


D and me at the Oceanside train station, heading for LAX

A pilgrimage is, of course, a journey (generally a long journey; I don’t think it counts, at least not as much, if you drive to a parking lot and walk a few hundred feet) to a sacred site of some sort. The Muslims call it a Haj, and of course it might be a mission, an expedition or even a crusade. The fact that there is a definite spot one needs to get to in order to complete the pilgrimage begs the age-old question of the journey vs. the destination. Apparently you can attempt to get to Mecca as many times as you want, but if you don’t succeed, it doesn’t count. The destination would also be paramount if one were traveling to see Our Lady of Lourdes in France or Guadalupe in Mexico. In cases like those, as in Mecca, the point seems to be to get there, not to just go. This is likely just as true with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem or the ruins at Machu Picchu. While it may be a spiritual experience to be getting ever closer, it pretty much requires the arrival to make it a successful pilgrimage. So this is where it gets a bit hackneyed, but if you’ve read this far, hang in with me for a bit.

Everyone and her sister has made an analogy out of the journey (life) and the destination (death? Success? It gets fuzzy here, at least for me). I read a few books by people who had traveled the Camino before we left, and I would say that most of them made this sort of comparison at some point; as I said, it is a ubiquitous analogy. We’ve all heard it (WARNING – SOME HYPERBOLE MAY BE EXPERIENCED HERE) a gazillion times “it’s about the journey”, “live in the present”, “practice mindfulness”, “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” and all of that. In the case of the Camino, of course, it is the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. Not being Catholic myself, the destination was not a big part of my motivation. So when looking at our fellow travelers waiting in line at the Madrid train station that would take us to our beginning point (San Sebastian) I began to question my authenticity as a peregrino. It may be helpful to note that at heart I am an introvert, despite my rather big (at times) personality; they are not mutually exclusive. That tendency towards introversion tends to make me examine my own life experiences, motivations, reactions, etc. as opposed to trying to figure out other people. So I wasn’t evaluating what others had strapped on their backs or how old they were or their seeming fitness for the excursion ahead or even if their equipment could be distinguished as that procured for the Camino as opposed to just backpacking around the country. My first thoughts were whether I was a “real” pilgrim or not, which got me thinking about what a real pilgrim is, etc. That’s how my mind works.

My conclusion, inadequate as it is, was that it has to be all about intent and sincerity. As a “real” pilgrim, does one have the intent to receive some sort of divine guidance or insight, and is one open to the message that may be delivered? Of course this brings up all sorts of other questions about the validity of any perceived message; after all, they say perception is everything. In other words, is belief possibly the journey to conviction, just as the pilgrimage is the journey to spiritual completion? I certainly had no idea, looking at my fellow travelers, which of them were even spiritually motivated, much less the degree of their sincerity.  Of course I also considered the idea that the physical “doing” was the necessary precursor to the belief, and that one shouldn’t wait for some sort of divine surety before one takes the first step on a pilgrimage. I’m pretty sure I could die waiting for an epiphany. Perhaps I will, eventually.

Our flights and other transportation got us safely to Madrid, where I began my note-taking as well as my “asides.” We stayed in a nice enough pension (these are inexpensive hotels found all over Spain. Once and awhile you might have to share a bathroom with another room or two, but most of the time we had a room to ourselves with a bathroom. They averaged probably 30 euros per night for the two of us).

Of course it was exciting to be in Madrid – it was my first time – we stayed in the older part of town, and with the help of GPS technology we had a pretty easy time locating our lodgings. With only one night to see the city (or so we thought at the time) we walked around for a couple of hours and enjoyed the nightlife, which consisted of people of various ages and groups walking, talking, eating and drinking. It stuck me that there must not be too many people holed up in their apartments watching the television or playing video games, as they all seemed to be soaking in the surrounds of society while engaged in what seemed to be mostly friendly and animated conversations. Even teenagers could often be seen strolling with their parents, sans the standard American mask of pique or face buried in a phone. Elderly mothers and boomer-aged daughters, arms entwined like couples’ ice skaters, walked slowly and talked softly. I don’t want to romanticize it too much, as it was just a snapshot on a Monday night in late August, and perhaps the resumption of school was looming, causing them to want to savor the warm and friendly nights around the cafes and squares. Still, it was definitely a change from Southern California Suburbia, and a charming change at that.


Our little corner of Madrid


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