What Are They Walking For?

In the past decade, hundreds of thousands from around the world have descended on Northern Spain to trek hundreds of miles on the Camino de Santiago. What is it about this 1000-year-old pilgrimage route that attracts them?

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.

After completing their journey, which began in Triacastela, about 80 miles from the cathedral, they set out to put their beliefs into action by serving as volunteers in a picturesque refugio located in a 400-year-old stone farmhouse in tiny Ligonde.

The cold drinks and fellowship they offered there made it a welcome stop for me and many other pilgrims. It also gave Long and Ove a chance to learn more about their fellow pilgrims, who tend to reflect the highly secular society Western Europe has become.

“People are looking for something. But they don’t know what it is,” Ove said. “What it is, is Christ.”

A grapevine develops along the Camino as each cohort of peregrinos, exchanging remedies for blisters and chatting during the long hours on the trail, bonds on the road to Santiago de Compostela. So the two Grace College students soon found themselves praying for Matthias, a German with swollen ankles, and others they met along the way.

In my cohort, two of the people most everyone I met knew were Brittany Riley, 18, and Hilary Reis, 17, students at Gould Academy in Bethel, Maine. A teacher at their high school had gotten them excited about the Camino during a class on Spanish history and literature, and so they decided to make it their senior honors project.

Their youth and maturity made them famous, at least among the English-speaking peregrinos I came to know, and I was impressed one day to see them walk by at a rapid pace, with big smiles, as I slouched in a café, trying to put myself back together with Motrin and a carb-rich bocadillo, or hero sandwich.

But when I got to talk to them, I found that the Camino can be just as tough physically at their age as at mine (54).

“It’s been hard for me because I tend to give up on things,” Brittany said when we spoke in a hostel in Arzúa. Her hair was still damp following a shower after a long day on the trail, and she looked as fresh and alert as I was tired. But, she said, “It’s been really challenging for me … this has been really good for me. I really learned to push myself.”

I Prayed!

“The next day she talked to her friend Hilary about it. ‘I prayed!’ I said to Hilary. ‘I prayed yesterday, and it felt good.’”

She stayed in constant touch with her family, she said, trying to handle being away from home. (Although she attends a boarding school, she said, she often sees her parents, who live in Durham, New Hampshire, because they had an apartment near the school.)

But being away brought her home in an unexpected way. Brittany, a Catholic, said that when she was younger, her parents had insisted that she go to Mass on Sunday mornings. That churchgoing faded in high school.

Then she found herself in a chapel in Ponferrada. “It was one of the few times I wasn’t dragged into church,” she said. When she left, she felt that something important had happened, and the next day she talked to her friend Hilary about it. “ ‘I prayed!’ ” I said to Hilary. ‘I prayed yesterday, and it felt good.’ ”

She had set out on the Camino, starting in the city of Léon, out of interest in Spanish history and culture and for the physical challenge; Brittany wasn’t expecting to connect with her faith through it. But, she said, “It definitely helped me rekindle my relationship, which has always been forced on me. But now, it’s my choice.”

And me? I write frequently on religion and I’m involved in a variety of church ministries. It would seem an open-and-shut case that my reason for seeking out the supposed tomb of St. James was religious.

What Kind of Pilgrim Am I?

But when I was asked before leaving if the trip was a religious pilgrimage for me, I hesitated. Since I doubt that James’ remains really are entombed in the cathedral, what kind of pilgrim am I? Also, I felt I had quite a few reasons for hiking the Camino. It’s an adventure, one that reminds me of the college days when I thumbed twice across the country. It’s like walking the pages of a storybook, through all those enchanting medieval towns. It’s a re-enactment of history, a walking lesson in culture.

It was all that, but I knew soon after I started that the honest answer for me was that, yes, it was a religious pilgrimage, plain and simple. I stopped in every church, basilica or tiny stone chapel I could and went to Mass or stood for pilgrims’ blessings in ancient houses of worship in the evening, a steady reminder—along with the beauty of the rivers and woods—through the day of God’s presence.

I found some lessons, too. It dawned on me that if I could endure and even enjoy the exhausting daily routine—never-ending hills, cold showers, thin mattresses, nighttime snorers, tender feet, the strained groin muscle—I could be a lot more patient about the little disturbances of life back home.

The Camino had gotten its hold on me again. When I arrived at the Cathedral of Santiago on June 28, I was giddy even though my feet were sore from walking 25 miles that day. My wife, Maureen, a school nurse, had finished work for the school year just the day before and had flown in to meet me at the cathedral.

Grimy and smelly from the trail, I went into the cathedral, holding Maureen’s hand in one hand and my twiggy walking stick in the other. Other peregrinos filtered in, some wiping away tears. We sat in the back and, facing toward a bejeweled medieval statue of St. James, held hands and prayed for everyone we could think of. Then I went up to the altar, climbed a set of steps and, following the pilgrim tradition, hugged the glittering ancient statue of St. James.