Five years on, five things I learned walking the Camino De Santiago

Reflections on a spiritual journey from France across Northwestern Spain

The view walking to Orisson on that first day.

On this day in 2012, I walked, stumbled, then half-ran onto the Praza do Obradoiro stretching beneath the western façade of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Northwestern Spain. I was tired, sweaty, sunburned. It was the culmination of a walk that began on a sunny Sunday morning five weeks before, although I had mentally begun the journey seven months earlier.

Physically, I covered somewhere around 500 miles, walking from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the foothills of the Pyrenees in southwestern France to Santiago de Compostela, believed to be the final resting place of James the Greater, the apostle of Jesus. It is a route that people have traveled for centuries. Peregrinos, or pilgrims, first reportedly began making the journey around the ninth century A.D., seeking indulgences for the remission of their sins. Peregrinos travel from place to place, collecting stamps in their pilgrim’s passport from monasteries, hostels, municipal offices and more to prove that they have made the journey. Today, people from around the world walk portions of that route, some seek forgiveness, others to create space for meditation and mindfulness, others because it is simply a beautiful walk, and still others because it is a thing to be conquered.

My reasons captured all of those things, and yet none of them are adequate to explain my motivation. When I first learned of the Camino, in February 2012, I realize now I was still mourning the loss of my marriage, a relationship that had lasted 15 years, and which I had thought would last deep into old age. But none of the reasons are greater than this: The Camino spoke to my heart. In the years since, I have given up trying to explain why. It matters most that I did it.

However, people often ask did it change it me and did I learn anything. My life has taken lots of wonderful turns since then, but there are lessons that I carry with me every day. These are what I believe to be the most important.

The Praza do Obradoiro in the days after I arrived in Santiago de Compostela.

Be prepared.

I spent months reading about the Camino. I planned my route. I bought equipment; tested it; replaced it. I went through six pairs of boots before settling on two for my final weeks of training and deciding on the one that would make the trip. I think the preparation paid off. I never experienced any serious physical ailment, even my blisters were minor (And I still have both pairs of boots). However, there came a time when there was no room for more preparation. I had to board a flight to Europe, and that taught me another lesson about preparation —

Leaving Samos.

Be open to serendipity.

When the day of my departure came, I missed my flight from Dulles airport to Charles de Gaulle in Paris — the first and only time in my life I have ever missed a flight. I had planned to take a network of trains to St.-Jean from there, but those plans fell apart when I missed that flight. I’m still not sure how it happened. I arrived at the main terminal with a decent amount of time to get to the concourse. When I arrived at the gate, the door to the jet bridge had just closed, and I could see what was supposed to be my flight just sitting there. I sat in a chair and gathered my thoughts, then I went to a rebooking center to see what could be done. United put me on another flight to Charles de Gaulle, but I had to connect through Frankfurt instead. All of my train connections from Paris fell apart. I had no choice but to slow down, to be agile, to make new plans. The irony is that, due to delays I never understood, my plane to Frankfurt left Dulles before that flight to Paris, but I spent hours in Germany waiting for my connection. As time passed on the Camino, I learned to use my planning as a guidepost, but I learned to not be rigid, that some of the most wonderful discoveries would surface when I deviated from the plan. That attitude taught me more about myself than almost anything else.

At Refuge de Orisson that first evening.

Be optimistic.

I was surprised to discover that I am an optimist. On the surface, I had always associated optimism with weakness, with a failure to realistically view the world around you. Nothing could be further from the truth. The discovery came in a way that stunned me. On my first day, I had met a group of guys walking together, one from Australia, one from New Zealand and one from the Isle of Man. At Orisson, a refuge where peregrinos can rest overnight on the arduous climb from St.-Jean to Roncesvalles, we enjoyed dinner together and had a couple of glasses of wine while toasting our views of the Pyrenees. The next morning, we went our separate ways. Later, maybe a week or so from the end of my journey, I ran into them again and we had dinner and a glass or two of vino tinto. One of them remarked that he was surprised to see me. He said that since he hadn’t seen me since that first day on the Camino, he assumed I had given up and gone home. Given up and gone home. I was thunderstruck. I put aside my anger at his comment, and realized something else: It had never occurred to me that I would not finish the Camino. From my first moments of considering it, I knew that I would complete my route. The thought of not finishing had never occurred to me. This is how I enter almost every situation in my life, appreciating the possibilities they bring and committed to seeing them through.

Be open to the wonders of the world.

One of the things that sustained me was the novelty and beauty of everything around me. I was walking paths that I could not be certain that I would ever see again. Even if I visited the cities and villages again, it might be from a car with a totally different perspective. That meant, I looked, really looked, at everything — the stones on the paths, the horses in the fields, the groves of eucalyptus, the churches, the people. There was one rain-soaked morning leaving the monastery at Samos where I was walking alone through the woods. There was a swollen creek gurgling to my left. The path was soft. The leaves on the trees were vividly green. The air was cool, and I was walking easily. I thought, I could lie down on the side of the path right now and die in peace. When I tell people this, they often misunderstand what I’m saying. It is this: There was complete and utter joy in that moment. It was a celebration of what I had experienced along the Camino and a celebration of the miles that were still ahead. It is one of the great miracles of the Camino that happen when people are open to the experience.

People ask me, did you experience any miracles on the Camino? Yes, every day, big and small. Some are things people would dismiss as coincidence, fatigue, delirium or nonsense. I talked with my recently deceased Momma. I talked with God. I walked with his Mother Mary, who helped sustain me. I saw people walk who shouldn’t have been able to go on, and I saw people reunited who should never have been brought together in the first place. I was open to everything, and I have taken that lesson from the Camino into my everyday life, from Washington, D.C., to Miami, to San Francisco.

The grand western facade of the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela.

Sometimes, you have to leave it all behind.

My last day on the Camino I walked about 24 miles, more than twice as far as I had planned. I awoke that morning in Arzúa, and I felt as good as I had at any point on the Camino. I was on the path out of town by 7 a.m., and the thought entered my head that I wasn’t stopping until I reached Santiago, but could I do it? It was the last day of September, and it had always been my intention to arrive in Santiago de Compostela before the month turned. However, I had taken extra days to visit cities such as León and Burgos, beautiful places I might never see again. If ever there was a day to make up time, this was it. If ever there was a day to literally leave it all on the Camino, this was it. I was unsure, though. My longest days of walking had been around 15 or 16 miles, and walking so far every day takes its toll. When I would talk with people in the evenings, we would joke about how everyone was stumbling around doing the “Camino hobble.” Once the adrenaline of the day wore off, people could barely shuffle around in the sandals and Crocs we would wear to help rest and air our feet. One of my friends compared it to having your legs and feet beaten with a 2-by-4 every day for a month. Around 9 that morning, I stopped for a café solo. The crying started then. I knew I wasn’t going to stop. I also knew I was going to finish, that day.

That afternoon, I blew through Rúa, my planned stop for the night, with just a quick look around. I refilled my water and pressed on. Still crying, still walking, still joyful at what has happening. My most vivid memory of that afternoon is walking up the Monte do Gozo, outside Santiago. I was exhausted, but exhilarated. I had Dolly Parton playing in my ears, singing “I Will Always Love You,” over and over again. At one point, on top of the mountain, outside the gates of TV and radio stations placed high to transmit their signals, I distinctly heard my mother tell me to get out of the road before I got killed. I cried some more.

That evening, around 7:30 local time, I pushed my way through the narrow streets of old Santiago, desperate to reach the Pilgrim’s Reception Office in Santiago, the place where I would receive my final stamp in my pilgrim’s passport, and my Compostela, the document that would attest to my commitment and completion of this spiritual journey. I was overwhelmed when I reached the Praza do Obradoiro. And I was relieved to see a familiar face among the dozens of others that were sprawled everywhere. It was someone I had made friends with along the Camino. I asked the way to the pilgrim’s office, and supplied with directions I rushed off. I reached the pilgrim’s office and groaned when I realized I had to climb one last set of stairs to get to the counter where I needed to be. Then, I did it. And it was over.

The kind assistant at the counter congratulated me on being there, and asked where I had started. I couldn’t contain the tears. The floodgates opened and I cried for what seemed like hours, but was really just a few minutes. I realized the attendants were all mildly amused; they must have seen it thousands of times before, but I couldn’t help it.

When he asked where I had started, it came back in a flood of memories. I thought about the woman from California with a broken leg I had had a conversation with in St.-Jean that morning weeks before; she was holed up in the bed and breakfast her boyfriend owned and had been desperate for news from home. We lost track of time talking about American politics, and it had delayed my start by hours.

I thought about the young guy from Canberra who I had met in Roncesvalles, who was doing the Camino before starting studies at the University of Oxford. He had started walking from Paris and was moving along at a clip that was easily twice as fast as my own.

I thought about this group of Belgians I had met, who, over dinners accompanied by huge helpings of laughter, instructed tons of us that when toasting you always look your companions in the eyes, or risk suffering years of bad sex.

I thought about the two times when I actually might have died, one day in particular when I had failed to realize that I was suffering heat exhaustion, lacking water, and no longer even had the words — or good sense — to ask for help.

Some of the friends I met on the Camino, at the great cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

I thought about Grace, the woman from Ireland who was living in Poland, and who had become one of my friends. I thought about Edmund, the wealthy builder from El Salvador who had embraced the very traditional reasons behind the Camino and was walking alone while missing his family at home. I thought about David and Laura, the couple from Louisiana who I had bonded with over discussions about SEC football and New Orleans food, and the memory of their daughter. I thought about my mother, who had died just three months before, and the privilege I had of being with her in the moments before she passed. I thought about the people along my journey in Spain, the many, especially the old, who had cried out “Buen Camino!” as I passed. One had told me, “You go for me, for me!” I thought about those who would never undertake the journey and could not fathom what it means. I thought about those who would begin it and never complete it, and I thought about the millions who had walked before me.

I cried all of that out in a cramped second-floor office in Santiago. I collected my stamp and my Compostela, and eventually I left that place, in search of some of my newfound friends and days of rest and renewal in the shadows of the great cathedral, and in the company of people who would understand it all.

Five years on, the importance of those days has not diminished. I think of them often, and photos and mementos often transport me back to those places and to that time, when I learned to leave self-doubt behind and to explore depths I didn’t know I had.

Ultreya.

One of many good days on the Camino.