I never thought I wanted to hike through north Spain before this trip. Like the song, “I’ve never been to Spain”, I thought, and was OK if I didn’t go anytime soon. I knew so little about the country that, after leaving Barcelona, I had no idea where I wanted to go. I had seen the movie “The Way”, directed by Emilio Estevez, liked the story, and so knew there was some nice hiking to be had on the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St James, so called, I found out later, because that is the road pilgrims have traveled for over a thousand years to visit the final resting place of the Apostle.
In sum, I had not so much planned to hike this trail at all. It just happened to come up when I thought about a nice outdoor itinerary to fill in a 6-day hole on my trip. I am not Catholic, but liked the idea of this being a kind of spiritual journey. I wanted to see if hiking The Way would help me find my own way, in part, but mostly I thought I’d enjoy some nice scenery and bond with some like-minded folk.
That is why it was with a great deal of surprise that I found myself kneeling in the ancient (13th century) Monastery of Magdalena with tears running down my cheeks. I was in Sarria, a rural village along the Camino, and I felt strongly that at that moment I was not alone, even though the small stone sanctuary was empty. I was pouring out my soul to God, and I was asking for some kind of guidance while on the Way. I was trying to say I knew I had lived badly for a very long time. In short, I was repenting for my sins and asking for guidance.
I came out of the apse and a woman was waiting for me. It was she who had given me directions to the church when I was lost and made sure I had secured my credencial (a kind of passport to be stamped to prove you have completed the Camino) from the priest. She was not surprised by my tears. She did not speak English, but offered to take my picture in the courtyard. I got the feeling she had done this before.
I struck out across a 12th century walking bridge full of hope. I thought that maybe I could use this opportunity to do something real. Not to be a tourist only, but to find some truths about myself.
One of the things that I enjoy about nature is that the sounds and sights focus you on Creation. You can hear it in the quiet trickle of a stream, the rustle of leaves on a soft wind, or the chirp of birds. You can smell it in the Eucalyptus and the Wisteria distending from the arbors of homes lining The Way, and yes, in the earthy freshness of cow manure and fresh cut grass.
It’s easy to feel this connection with something larger than yourself here. Absent the sounds of machinery, far from the worries of the world you left behind, walking down this tree-lined path with its stone hedgerows overgrown with ivy reminds me a little of the road from Hobbiton in The Lord of the Rings. At one point, I try and fail to render justice to Tolkien’s song:
The road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can
And so I follow the road. I won’t say what I promised to God. Cynics might say perhaps that’s because I know I may not keep it. But with each new step I feel more strongly than ever that I must.
The path leads me over hills with great sweeping views of the furrowed fields and medieval churches. It takes me into deep forest glens where flashes of sun dapple the soft dust of the road. It leaves behind the world of sorrow and hate and leaves you only to contemplate the here and now, as my feet rhythmically carry me past the narrow apiaries and gardens of local farmers.
I’m met on the road by others walking the Way. They come from all countries. I meet a woman from Zambia and some friends from Gibraltar. There are Germans and French, of course, and plenty of North and South Americans. There is a Japanese couple and a journalist from Scotland. There are students and twenty-somethings, married and singles, men and women. Some are in large groups of a dozen or so people and some are solo travelers like myself. Each has their own reason to be here.
Most are faster than me. My knee is bothering me. I have taken to reciting the Jesus prayer in time with my footsteps: “Lord Jesus Christ”-one-two-“the Son of God”-three-four-“Have mercy on me”-five-six-“A sinner”-seven.
I hear some large group coming up the road behind me, and I move to get out of their way. I am surprised to see instead of hikers a herd of cattle coming around the corner. I am between two stonewalls, so they walk past me close enough to touch. A German Shepherd is following them, making sure there are no strays. Finally, the farmer appears.
“Buenos Dias”, I say to him.
“Buen Camino!”, he replies, using the traditional greeting of one hiker on the Way to another.
Later, I begin walking with Marcia, a married woman who has been hiking the Camino alone for over a month, and her fellow traveller, Olivia, a 24 year old New Zealander who wants to see the world. They have been staying in the most austere accommodations, auberges, which are even more basic than hostels. Marcia confides that she has had all her money stolen recently, but remains firm in her belief that all is for the good. I am embarrassed to tell them I am staying in relative luxury courtesy of a travel agent.
There are many options to travel the Way. Most are hikers like me, but some use bicycles and even horses. I have taken the easy (and expensive) way out and arranged to have my luggage transferred from place to place in advance of me. Most people carry everything they need on their back. Some have travelled nearly 500 miles; others will only walk a week. Yet I see no trace of rancor from anyone about those who have not chosen the most challenging method. The attitude seems to be that it is not how you get there that matters; what is important is that you have chosen to undertake the journey.
Further on, we stop at one of the many bars and restaurants that line the Way. We get some refreshments but we also get our credencial stamped. To receive your Compostela in Santiago, you must prove you have walked at least 100km of the Way. Every small resting place, inn, and church along the route has their own unique stamp, and you are expected to get two a day.
I ask Marcia if she is Catholic, and she says no. Olivia is, but says she has not been practicing, then intimates that she may start now. Marcia says as far as she is concerned it’s “all the same Jesus, isn’t it?” I cannot argue with that. I agree. Yet at the same time how we worship Him is also important.
My first night I will spend in Portomarin. It is about a 14-mile walk. As we near the village we can see that it sits beside on a pretty lake. There is a 50 foot staircase at the entry to the city. It takes the rest of my energy to make it.
I check into the Villa Jardin, which is the excellent hotel my travel agent has found for me. My room has a view onto the pristine lake. There is a bathtub, and I take the rare opportunity to soak in it.
Refreshed, I meet my friends for dinner on the square in front of the church. We all have the prix-fixe dinner option. I have have a huge salad, roast beef, and almond pie with a half bottle of the house white wine for about $11. The food is not great, and the wine I fear is watered down. But I am too tired to care. I say goodnight, and I sleep as deep as the sea.