The modern-day pilgrim who struggles across Spain to the shrine of the Apostle James faces one more challenge in a church office that gives out an official certificate to those who complete the journey on foot or bicycle. A clerk asks: Was the reason for the trip spiritual?
For many of those who hike or bike the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage trail all the rage during the Middle Ages and catapulting in popularity in recent years, it’s not an easy question. In walking a segment of the route in June and another chunk five years ago, I found that the reasons people had for undertaking the trip were often mixed. In more than a few cases, the spiritual aspect of the long trek grows on them unexpectedly. It did for me, too, even though the religious nature of the journey was an attraction from the start.
Many set out for the physical challenge, or even for an inexpensive vacation staying at pilgrims’ hostels, or refugios, for three to six euros a night. But I noticed something else: Quite a few were at some crossroad in life. Some had lost jobs or loved ones. Others were graduating from college, or entering graduate school. They may not have put it in religious terms, but they were looking for something.
Ancient and Popular
In this age of seekers, that may explain the sudden bolt in popularity for the Camino, a network of trails leading to the Cathedral of Santiago, or St. James, in this city in the cool, rainy, Celtic-influenced northwestern corner of Spain. Last year, 114,026 people arrived at the cathedral to gain a certificate granted to those who walk at least the last 100 kilometers or bike the last 200 (it’s also okay to go on horseback, as 364 people did). That’s more than quadruple the number who went 10 years earlier, and up from just 2,905 people a decade before that.
And so I was following a well-worn and ancient path when I set out on foot from Ponferrada with two friends on June 20, following blue-and-gold directional signs adorned with scallop shells, the symbol of the Apostle James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John. The New Testament says he was martyred in Judea, but legend holds that his remains were miraculously transported to Spain, which he is said to have evangelized. His feast day, July 25, prompts a huge celebration in Spain, where he is the patron saint.
The twelfth-century Templar castle we started near was close to 130 miles from the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela—but I soon found that many of the fellow peregrinos, or pilgrims, I met had come from much further. One Dutchman had started from his front door, in the traditional way, but he didn’t press it on me. “Everyone has his own camino,” he advised over a bottle of red wine in Vega de Valcarce, a lovely riverside village surrounded by big green hills topped by a castle.
Others had started across the Pyrenees in France from places like Le Puy, St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, and Lourdes. Very few were Americans—fewer than 2 percent in 2007, according to church statistics.
But I met a fellow Brooklynite, Lastenia Dardano, 37, as she sat at an adjacent table enjoying some paella at a restaurant in Sarria, a hilltop town that dates to Roman times. After I polished off a plate of pulpo with potatoes, a local specialty, I asked her and a friend, Mayela Santos, 38, of New Orleans, about their journey.
Both, it turned out, had left jobs and were looking to begin new chapters in their lives. Dardano had worked in the New York office of a British lingerie company. She was looking for a change.
“It’s supposed to change your life, so I said, ‘Let’s go,’” she said. She had to overcome swollen knees and a painful blister beneath a toenail early in the hike.
“People said, ‘The Camino speaks to you,’” she said. But a doctor along the way told her that her body was speaking to her, saying “stop.” In one town, an elderly woman approached her and pointed to a gnarled piece of wood—and she adopted it as a walking stick that helped her the rest of the way.
American, Canadian and British organizations provide extensive information on their Web sites about how to go on the Camino de Santiago. The Spanish tourist office also makes an excellent free pilgrims’ guide available as well as a variety of maps.
To start out, you will need a credencial, a sort of passport, which is available from American Pilgrims on the Camino. It is needed to gain entry into the refugios, inexpensive pilgrims’ hostels, along the way. (Inexpensive hotels are also available, but staying in the refugios enhances the experience, despite the crowded quarters, occasional lack of hot water, etc.)
As you proceed down the trail, you collect stamps in the credencial. It can be presented at an office in Santiago de Compostela to get the Latin compostela, the certificate granted to those who, for spiritual reasons, walk at least the final 100 kilometers or bike the final 200. (Those who don’t do it for spiritual reasons can still get another type of certificate.)
Training and good equipment—especially the shoes and socks — are essential. It’s important to travel as light as possible.
Dardano, who described herself as “a type A personality,” said she had learned to let go on the Camino and not to view it as some sort of problem to be solved. She let her friend Santos set the pace and came to understand that the experience wasn’t about achieving a goal. “It’s all about the journey,” she said.
Santos, who had worked at Neiman Marcus, said she set out to see if she could do it. She never thought that of the two of them, she would emerge as the leader of the expedition. “There was never a verbal discussion. We just fell in to the roles we needed to play on this trip,” she said in an email after returning home. “I learned a lot about myself physically, emotionally, mentally and most important of all spiritually. I feel invincible!”
The physical challenge of walking 12 to 15 or more miles a day with a backpack often leads to a powerful spiritual and emotional undercurrent, I found. On my first journey on the Camino, in 2003, I arrived, exhausted, at the Church of San Juan in Furelos to find a crucifix from which Jesus reached down one free hand. An attendant told me that Jesus was reaching down to help the peregrinos. On one level, it seemed as corny as could be. But it also made me cry because I felt intuitively, as many peregrinos do, that I never could have gotten to that point in the journey without some unseen helper.
Dardano also was struck by the emotions she felt. “This trip has made me cry at the weirdest times,” she said. Later, in an email after the trip was over, she recalled the first day of the trip in the Pyrenees. “We started at 8 a.m. and finished at 9:50 p.m. Walking 16.5 miles up to an altitude of 4,731 feet and then down again gives you lots of time to think or cry. I cried all the way down.”
She added: “ I felt like the land, the forests, the skies were clearing me of this debris I no longer needed. It was a very spiritual time for me.”
Jaimie Ove, 19, of Chicago, a student at Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana, also found unexpected emotions. One day, she had already walked 17 miles toward the town of Arzúa when she came to a hill that looked insurmountable. “I started crying,” she said.
But she found reason to climb every mountain. “There are situations in your life that are so tiring, so exhausting—but when you get to the top of the hill, you find that there are reasons for it,” she said.
Her friend Darci Long, 19, of Van Wert, Ohio, also a student at Grace, an evangelical Christian school, said she found life lessons in the physical rigor and spiritual inspiration in the rolling countryside, which seemed to be infused with Christ’s presence. “Climbing, climbing can be so tiring but in the end, can be worth it,” she said.