My housemate keeps asking me if I’m scared or anxious. I keep saying no, because I am not. Maybe I should be, but I have no fear or anxiety. I am simply grateful and excited. In less than two weeks a friend and I are flying to Madrid for a couple of days, then hopping a bus to Leόn in the north, and starting our own version of the pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago.
The Camino de Santiago is the name of the network of medieval routes that lead to the shrine of the apostle St. James in the town of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northwestern Spain. The main route, or the Frances Way (Camino Frances), starts in St. Jean Pied du Port in the French Pyrenees, cutting across northern Spain for 500 miles and following an even earlier Roman trade route. There are other routes–including a Portuguese route (Camino Portugues), a northern route (Camino del Norte), and a primitive route (Camino Primitivo).
The Camino is over 1,000 years old, and has its origins in the very beginnings of Christianity. One story says that after James’ death in 44 AD in the Holy Land, his body was transported in a stone ship guided by angels back to the Iberian Peninsula where he had earlier spent many years spreading the gospel, and was buried at what is now Santiago de Compostela. The remains were rediscovered by a hermit in the 9th century and traveling to this site turned into one of the most popular medieval pilgrimages. It became quite an organized affair, with hostels and services for pilgrims springing up along the say. The pilgrimage was also supported by the Catholic authorities and others who stood with the Spanish Church in its struggle against the Moors who were occupying the peninsula during this time.
Traveling the Camino peaked in the Middle Ages, and by the end of the 16th century it was reduced to a trickle. In the last 30 years or so, interest in the Camino has surged and many thousands of people walk it in some form every year. (Some people do it on bicycles, and some even on horseback!) There is a vast spiritual and commercial infrastructure to support these modern pilgrims, who do it for many different reasons, many of which are not religious at all.
We don’t have enough time to complete the whole 500 miles, so we are just doing part of it, maybe 120 miles or so, but that remains to be seen. For my friend and me this is more of an adventure than a pilgrimage. We have talked about resisting the urge to rush through and accumulate as many miles as possible, or to try to do more than we’re really capable of doing. If we feel we need to take a cab or a bus for a few miles, then that’s what we’re going to do. We will be staying in small hotels and inns as opposed to the hostels and eating our meals where the locals eat, rather than sticking with the simple pilgrim meals. I certainly do not judge anyone who desires a more traditional Camino experience. I think that’s wonderful. I’m just looking for something a little more relaxed and less grueling.
I usually don’t travel with firm expectations, because I find them useless, but I do have some hopes for this long walk. What I look forward to more than anything is just the chance to slow down, and walk from village to village with enough time to literally stop and smell the flowers, to enjoy the landscape, the food, the wine, the people, and to be distracted by whatever interests me. I want to visit churches and light candles for loved ones, and examine the architecture. I want to see the storks that nest on top of ancient buildings. I want the space to be able to stop and help someone who might be in distress. I want to leave behind work and elections and anxiety and television news, and just focus on walking, eating, sleeping, and being, at whatever pace seems right. I want to rest my harried monkey mind. At the same time I want to be open to whatever might come our way, good or bad, fun or frustrating. We’ve done a certain amount of planning, but a lot of this trip remains in the realm of the unknown. We’ll see what happens.
So no, I’m not the least bit frightened.