The Truth Along the Way
On a difficulty scale of one to five, the hikes on our week-long pilgrimage was rated a four or a five. Looking out the window of the bus to the trailhead, the intimidating mountains of northeastern Spain gave us reason to worry. Since I had done little research on our walk starting in San Sebastian, we turned to our guide book’s description for this section of the Camino de Santiago. "The most physically demanding stretches of the Northern Caminos are the opening stages.”
My husband and I were wrapping up a three-month, around-the-world trip celebrating our joint retirement and 60th birthdays. Healthy, wealthy, and adventurous, we traveled to northern China, Russia, Denmark, and Turkey. Spain was our last stop. Two friends heading from California to Germany decided to join us. Our reasons for agreeing to a long strenuous trek were all different. As for me, I wanted to reflect on the cultures we had seen and my new life as a retiree.
In the Middle Ages, up to half a million pilgrims, a year walked hundreds of miles to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the reputed the tomb of St. James, the Apostle. Pilgrims thought his bones provided divine intervention necessary to cure an illness or secure a place in heaven. The crowds have diminished, but pilgrimages continue. And their popularity has surged since the turn of the millennium. Roughly a quarter of a million people a year hike the 63 miles required to earn the “Compostela,” the accreditation of the pilgrimage.
Like many modern-day pilgrims, our reasons for a pilgrimage were more about curiosity and convenient travel schedules than religion. None of us were practicing Catholics. Our pilgrimage would not end at the church, but rather at Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Yet we would still walk 76 miles over an original pilgrim’s route. The night before setting off, we dined in luxury. Sipping wine while waiters served small courses of Basque cuisine on our table covered in white cloth, we discussed our hopes for the pilgrimage. For all of us, it had sounded fun. But I, at least, was also looking for something else. I had been journaling since keeping a diary in elementary school. But is journaling a meaningful life pursuit? I knew I wanted to write but not what to write- or even why. The pilgrimage, I hoped, would provide some divine insight.
My first revelation came early-- I knew I was not doing this again. At 60, my joints were too worn to handle long stretches in the Cantabrian Mountains. No one day in the first week of October stands out. They were all 8-10 hours of hiking on cloudy, rainy, sunny, or windy days. Our route skirted around towns, winding instead through forested areas. We saw an occasional house, a freshly shot wild pig on top of a trailer that hauls hunting dogs, and a barn where cows were busy birthing. Our route was dotted with deserted churches and, to guide pilgrims, simple four-foot concrete or wooden crosses.
Our tour company, Camino Ways, offered accommodations ranging from two rooms upstairs in a farmhouse to a small historic hotel. The company drove our luggage and provided breakfast, and dinner with wine for $100 per day, a good deal if you’re up for rustic charm and instead of pampering. For lunch, we were on our own to find one of the few restaurants open in the off-season.
We met only five other walkers in six days of trekking. I decided to hike a few days in silence—that would, I thought, get the divine inspiration flowing. My three hiking partners didn’t mind since that freed up more time for them to talk. But the only clarity that pierced the low-grade discomfort in my muscles and grinding joints was a nearly constant prayer for another rest stop with food and wine.
Strangely, the few pilgrims we met didn’t seem to be struggling. Brian, an American in his 40s, wasn’t even tired. He was walking with a backpack for six weeks, and staying at similar budget accommodations. A 60-year-old Australian lady enjoyed the pilgrimages so much she had walked six routes. Her walking mate, 62, had done this Camino twice. Cheerful and energetic, they would continue three or four days beyond Santiago to the Atlantic. Three older Spaniards walked the Camino de Santiago annually. They were joyful, full of life, and, by the time we reached lunch spots, they were already there with wine in their hands and a toast for us.
My second revelation came on the last day. At the end-of-the-trail marker in Bilbao, Brian tipped us off—the older hikers were cheating. The Australians had hitchhiked that day and even offer Brian a ride. We also we bumped into the three Spaniards at the marker. It turns out there were five of them; one was a relief hiker and the other a driver. Neither the Australians or the Spaniards were walking the entire Camino.
My final revelation came a year later. Sitting at my keyboard, the thrill of a long-sought insight came to me in the words of Mason Cooley: ”Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.” While hiking, I felt isolated, not just the pain in my joints. But I was also part of a historic trek that connected me with the past. I had the good fortune to travel widely outside the bubble of Santa Barbara. Mark Twain’s words rang true: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” I can’t claim the pilgrimage brought me divine inspiration, but it did clear my mind of clutter. I realized writing, if only for a travel article, is a valid pursuit for a meaningful life.