My Camino

By Susan James

In 2016, in a small, austere cubicle in Olympia, Washington, I signed the papers that made my transition official.  A tingle ran up my spine as I left the world of an adult with an identity and passed through a portal to the vast unknown that is retirement.

My stomach lurched as I reached for the pen.  Will there be enough money to manage financially?  What if I get sick?  Will the medical plan I am choosing be enough?  How will I fill all the hours that were previously occupied by family, home and work?

Inspiration came in the form of a movie, “The Way,” with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez.  (The story: an American father travels to France to retrieve the body of his estranged son, who died while attempting the pilgrimage on Spain’s Camino de Santiago.  He resolves to take the journey himself, in an effort to understand both himself and his son.)

My mind was made up. I would walk the Camino and figure out my future. My biggest obstacle would be to convince my LSP, (long suffering partner,) a man uncomfortable with uncertainty, that walking 500 miles across Spain and sleeping in hostels along the way would be a great adventure.

In an effort at persuasion, I read every book available, studied the map, and agonized over how we would manage with high school Spanish, knee replacements, pack weight, shoes, sleeping bags, bed bug alerts and my tendency to get lost while driving to the grocery store with GPS instructions. He reluctantly and heroically agreed.  We began our preparation by alternating long walks, frantic research online and large quantities of wine (on my part.)

On the last day before our flight I weighed everything in my pack several times and finally reduced the total weight to the recommended 15 pounds including my sleeping bag.  This meant I would be taking 3 pair of underwear, 3 pairs of socks, two shirts, two pair of pants, a jacket and very little else for a six-week trip.  The true test of my commitment came when I weighed a mascara wand and decided it was too heavy to take along.

We boarded our flight and headed to Paris in our hiking gear.  At Charles de Gaulle in Paris we grabbed our packs and crossed the street to the perfectly located citizenM.  We set the alarm for our train to St. Jean the next day and asked ourselves “is it too late to turn back?”

At the beginning of the trail in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, we found our way through cobblestone streets and charming inns to the Pilgrim office. We officially registered as Peregrinos (pilgrims traveling the Camino) and picked up a pilgrim’s passport.  This folding paper would be stamped at cafes, Albergues (hostels) and other stops along the way.  Passports were used at the end of the journey to verify that we walked at least 100 km to reach the cathedral in Santiago and qualified for the “Compostela,” a certificate that validated our journey.

We left the French village at the border and began our journey into the Pyrenees Mountains.  The steep, arduous climb through rain and some lingering snow left us gasping for air and wondering how much it would cost to be rescued from the mountaintop in a helicopter like the pilgrims from Japan the week before.  We crossed into Spain’s Basque territory and inched our way down the steep path to the monastery at Roncesvalles on shaky legs, doubting that we would survive a week on the trail and asking ourselves again, “is it too late turn back?”

We found our bunks, stored our gear and showered.  As we limped back to our little cubicle, we were serenaded by men singing Gregorian chants that echoed throughout the building.  These two men, an Anglican minister and his neighbor, had walked all the way from their home in Wales, ridden a ferry across the English Channel and continued their journey.  They planned to sing chants in every cathedral along the way.  Their laughter and energy restored our optimism and propelled us out onto the trail the next day.  Surely if they could walk 1,000 miles, we could manage 500….. right?

Along the way we were greeted by our fellow Peregrinos with “Buen Camino.”  We walked with all types of people, old and young. We met UN translators from Malta, a doctor from Australia who worked internationally to eradicate Malaria, a South African man who had lost his job in London and was sorting out his future.  We walked with women from Germany and Japan, a blind man from Ireland, students from Sweden, a mother and son from Paris and the entire 10th grade class from a local school.

We averaged about 12-15 miles each day to medieval villages (inevitably found on top of an enormous hill.)  Some days were pleasant strolls along woodland paths surrounded by beautiful scenery with stops for coffee in shady leafed courtyards.  Other days we gritted our teeth and plodded along endless rocky paths in the rain. Occasionally we pushed on in deadly silence with a palpable level of remorse from the guilty instigator of the debacle.

Scallop shells embedded in cobblestone streets, arrows painted on walls, or pillars with an official symbol marked the way.  However, clever merchants had learned that if they painted a yellow arrow on a sign, they could redirect unsuspecting Peregrinos to their business.  On a particularly hot sunny day, we followed one of these yellow signs to a five-mile walk in the wrong direction.  The five miles back to the trail were difficult but the additional 12 miles to our Albergue that night were exhausting.

After walking 21 miles, we trekked uphill through the village but could not find the monastery.  My LSP had reached the end of his patience.  He wasn’t moving until “somebody” found a taxi.  (A pretty tough order in a medieval village.)  A little rest and a lot of persuasion got us on our feet.  We trudged on for another mile.  At the top of an impossibly steep hill, we finally arrived at an ancient white-walled building.  Colorful flowers surrounded a bubbling fountain. Lavender scented the evening breeze. Enormous wooden doors opened into a cool stone walled interior. We dropped our packs and were invited to sit at an 18th century desk graced with a vase of flowers from the garden. We registered and our passports were stamped. We silently groaned as we picked up our packs and followed the Hospitalero (inn keeper) along gleaming tile floors to the foot of a sweeping staircase.  Seeing us blanch, the kind Hospitalero shouldered our packs up the stairs to a lovely room with a private bath and shower.  (A delightful surprise after nights on bunk beds in rooms with a dozen strangers and communal bathrooms.) Dinner was delicious, crisp vegetables from the garden, a tasty soup with freshly baked bread, and the best glass of wine I’ve ever tasted.  The motto of the Peregrino,“The Camino Provides,” proved itself true again.

The scenery changed constantly.  One day we passed through places where the entire village was gathered for a procession of children dressed in white gowns, veils and suits for their First Communion.  On other days we walked over ancient Roman roads and admired beautiful cathedrals. Colorful festivals with music and costumed performers on stilts provided entertainment. Roadside stands sold grilled scallops and fruit along the way. Other days we found ourselves alone on the trail for hours wondering if we had missed another marker.

Galicia provided all types of weather, (think Seattle in the Spring.) We discovered that by putting one foot in front of another repeatedly you can actually do most anything you set your mind to.  At the end of the day, cheap Spanish wine was often shared around a communal table with fellow Peregrinos. We heard the perspectives of people from all over the world on every subject.  Climate change and politics, education, healthcare and history, books, philosophy, music and film were all topics of conversation.  We shared meals, supplies and strategies for staying healthy on the trail.

Everyone walked at a different pace, sometimes alone, sometimes encountering people again and again.  In a small village on a very rainy day we entered the only cafe in town hoping to find a meal and a bed for the night and discovered our friends from Wales.  We traded stories about our journey and laughed at quotes from “What Would Chuck Norris Do?”  Weeks passed before we met our friends from Wales again. We were headed out to find a restaurant on a beautiful sunny day when they waved us down on the street.  We joined them and several friends for a delightful lunch of tapas served by a flamenco dancing waitress.

As we walked along, our companions regaled us with their stories.  The legally blind man walked alone, relying on his ability to see the pack of the Peregrino ahead of him to find the way.  If they outdistanced him by a few feet, he was forced to stop and wait until another Peregrino passed and then follow them as long as he could.  Somehow he navigated 500 miles, finding food to eat and a place to sleep along the roads and trails with the help of strangers.  We walked our last day together in pouring rain and emerged through the medieval gate into the Cathedral square with a sense of wonder.

Our eldest daughter joined us for the last 100 km.  Seeing her get off the train in Sarria was a special joy.  The memories we shared are some of the most treasured of my life.  Her husband joined us in Santiago where we departed for Barcelona to recover and explore the beaches.  Monica’s excellent Spanish and Rich’s seaman’s sense of direction made a memorable end to our adventure.

We came to believe that this journey, or another one like it, should become mandatory for our world leaders as it is for most school children in Spain.  Walking and talking and thinking is a remedy for almost any problem that exists. This ancient trail has been travelled by pilgrims for more than 1,000 years and has left no one who walked it unchanged.

Today when I put on my walking shoes, my headphones and my worn gray North Face hat, I am transported to a time when I worried if my retirement income would carry me through the rest of my life, what would the future hold?  I smile and recall those Camino days when my only task for the day was to hit the trail by 7:00 am, walk across Spain to a new destination and trust that I would find whatever I needed along the way.

What I found was that I already have everything I need and that by embracing the unknown I open myself up to a world full of opportunities and adventures.  (And by the way, remember my LSP (long suffering partner?)  He is in the process of planning our next Camino adventure.

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