Why? A Long Walk for a Small Piece of Paper
July 14, 2013
I first heard about the Camino as a travel agent in the 80's. Not too many people were walking it back then; it had just been declared the first European Cultural Route in 1987. The idea of a 500 mile walk across Spain was fascinating. Although it didn't fit into my life at that time, I could see myself doing something like that in the future. Walking the Camino has been floating around in my head ever since then.
In the last 25 years, I've been divorced, remarried, and am in the last stages of raising my teenage son. Life's been busy! However, a year and a half ago, I was at a party and talk of walking the Appalachian Trail came up. Even though I love the idea of walking in nature, those of you who know me know that my idea of camping is a Motel 6 with a black and white tv. The idea of packing in food and shelter to walk in the wilderness just wasn't my cup of tea. Taking a long walk though, was appealing, and the thought of the Camino that had been floating around in my head all these years came to mind. This was a walk where you sleep in a bed and don't have to cook over a fire. My kind of walk!
I'm not a stranger to lots of walking, at least while traveling. In fact, Susie and various members of my family anticipate the “Julie Death March” at least once every trip. Susie, remember walking up to the snow at Gimmelwald? How about stalking the wild elk on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, in the pouring rain? Mom and Morgan, remember walking 12km to find the lost labor camp in Germany? I can stay on my feet all day in any city of the world (and do!) as well as walk a good nature trail.
So, the stars seemed to be aligned. My son was old enough to either leave at home with George or join me (so glad he decided to join me), I had no job or work commitment for the summer, and had two good friends who could join me. But it was more than opportunity. There were four components of my life that drew me to this adventure…
Physical – Could a month of walking make me physically stronger and help me lose weight? I love the idea of pushing my physical limits. As a martial artist, I'm used to keeping going even though it's not comfortable and possibly painful. The six plus hours each day of walking the Camino was like taking a black belt test every day. Walking felt good, even though there were aches and pains and blisters. Walking felt even better when I could lay my sleeping bag on my bed and feel so clean after showering. On most days, I felt like I was getting stronger. Plus, the physical activity meant that I could eat and drink whatever I wanted (which sometimes was everything edible in sight, sometimes not) without gaining, in fact, while losing weight. What's not to love about that?
Social – Will I be closer to my friends and maybe my son after this trip? Well, the answer to this was a complete surprise. Yes, I believe I became closer to my friends and learned all kinds of stuff about them that I never knew before. And even though I never walked with Morgan more than one day, I do feel that our bond is stronger as well, just through the shared experience. However, I was blown away by all of the new people I met, and especially awestruck that such close relationships could be forged in such a short time. There was speculation that in maybe the act of walking, since you're looking forward instead of at the person you're talking to, it was easier to share really personal stuff. Who knows? It was an amazing gift to meet so many people and to discover that each interaction fed my latent extrovert.
Mental – Could a month of walking create better mental health? My head was clearest when I was walking alone and I spent a lot of time walking alone. However, it didn't start out that way. In the beginning I resisted walking alone. Heck, I brought four potential walking companions with me, didn't I? Even when those didn't work out, the universe threw me some more, which was really great – no complaints here. But once I started walking solo, I really began to savor just spending some time with myself. It became a walking meditation. I had no desire to listen to music or podcasts; I just wanted to hear the birds, the traffic, the sound of my footsteps on the road, and just think about stuff without interruption. It was easy to be totally in the moment, taking it all in using all of my senses: tasting, hearing, smelling, feeling, seeing – not missing anything. I'm hoping to maintain forever the mental clarity this experience has produced, if that's possible.
Spiritual – Will walking to Santiago bring me closer to God, the Universe, my Higher Power? When pilgrims arrive in Santiago, the staff at the Pilgrim Office which issues the Compostelas, asks whether the pilgrim walked for a) spiritual b) spiritual/cultural c) cultural reason. I believe that most pilgrims check “b”. At least, I did. I really don't know how an experience like this could not be spiritual, even for the unbelieving. For me, I believe that the combination of physical exertion, mental clarity, and gifts of friendship from other pilgrims is the perfect recipe for being more connected to something bigger than myself. I feel that there are layers of some of my previous personal stuff that have been stripped away, allowing for a more clear access to determine what my purpose here is, how to live better, and how to love better. Did I find this in an ancient church? At the top of a mountain? Staring at the slats of the top bunk? I don't know. But I do feel richer spiritually.
I'm sure each person who undertakes this journey has their own reasons for why they do it. Some folks have an idea before they go; some folks figure it out on the way. It's a very personal journey that can only be done by you. It's a long way to walk for a small piece of paper, but I highly recommend it!
And with that, I'm going to close this Camino chapter of PracticingTravel. I'm so glad to have been able to share this adventure with all of you – and I'll still monitor any comments on any posts. I'll be going dark for a bit, until the next trip, whenever and wherever that will be.
If you want to continue a conversation about the Camino, or really, anything, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My new extrovert self will be happy to chat with you!
Buen Camino, all!