The Camino de Santiago: A Long Road Home

How walking across Spain for two weeks changed my life

Maggie, left, standing in a field of sunflowers along the Camino de Santiago.
Maggie, left, standing in a field of sunflowers along the Camino de Santiago.
There is a saying amongst pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, Spain’s ancient pilgrimage path: “The real Camino doesn’t begin until you arrive back home.”

The place where we grew up is typically “home.” It’s an anchor, and we can always return to that physical location. But the thought of returning also brings up a sense of apprehension because home is usually, in some way, dysfunctional. It can be difficult to leave home and return when older, as a different person.

Starting at a young age, I emotionally ran away from the arguing and fighting dysfunction in my family. When college rolled around, I physically ran away from my hometown of Portland, Oregon, to Spokane, Washington, hoping to escape my past. It wasn’t far enough.

When graduation rolled around, I packed my bags and headed south of the border to Cuernavaca, Mexico, the “City of Eternal Spring.” There, I taught English to eighth-graders and World History to 10th-graders.

I didn’t and couldn’t realize it then, but as I broke down, my heart broke open, and the Camino was the beginning of my long road home.

I realized that my work was not my calling, but I decided I would stay in Mexico, since I had created my own family there. For the first time, I felt that I was truly at home. What I didn’t understand at the time, though, was that my true home lies within myself.

I walked part of the Camino for two weeks in August 2013, completing a little less than 200 miles. As I walked, my body started to break down; so did my mind, and my heart, and my spirit. In that process of breaking down, I opened up, and what came out of me was strength. I found my voice and had the courage to use it and I started to confront my self-critical thoughts and beliefs. I didn’t and couldn’t realize it then, but as I broke down, my heart broke open, and the Camino was the beginning of my long road home.

Upon returning to the United States, I was faced with the decision to either go back to Cuernavaca or to move back to Portland and start a brand new chapter of my life in my hometown. At one point during my two weeks of indecision, my mom opened up The Oregonian and said, “Maggie! There’s a documentary about the Camino de Santiago premiering on September 6 at The Hollywood! Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago … Let’s go!” We bought two tickets immediately. It was a good thing we did, because the show sold out two days later.

On Thursday, September 5, the day before the film’s premiere, I bit the bullet: I bought my ticket to return to Mexico in mid-September to pack up my things and move back to my hometown. I had no job secured there, but I figured I’d be able to find one easily. At the time, I couldn’t say why I decided to make Portland my home again, since I had a deep love for Mexico.

The next day, my mom and I went to see the documentary. My eyes sparkled with both laughter and tears. I was moved deeply by the honesty and intimacy with which the pilgrims shared their trials, along with their triumphs. With a heart ablaze, I was transported back to my own Camino only a month prior.

After the screening, I told the lead volunteer I’d be happy to help promote the film in any way I could. “Come back at 5 p.m. tomorrow,” he said. I returned on Saturday and told the director, Lydia B. Smith, how much I loved the documentary, how I walked the Camino, and how I would love to share the film with people in Portland.

During our talk, Lydia mentioned that she might have a position for me working for the film, at least part time. She had been meaning to look for someone to replace one of her two full-time employees, but she hadn’t had the time to do so, since she was so busy with the documentary. “And then you come along,” she said, “and you’ve done the Camino so you get it, and you’re great talking with people … I think I have a job for you.” After volunteering for a few days, Lydia hired me on to work for Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago, where I still work today.

Less than a week after purchasing my plane ticket to return to Portland, I had received a full-time job. If that’s not God telling me that I’m supposed to be in Portland, I don’t know would be.

Literally and metaphorically, the Camino de Santiago brought me home. By leading me to the place I grew up, the Camino helped me realize that I couldn’t escape my past: the whole time I thought I was running away from it, I was actually running back home. I had to return in order to confront the pain of my past, heal, and move on.

There’s another popular Camino saying that goes, “Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations.” Every day that I walked the Camino was difficult. Most steps I’ve taken in confronting my past and returning home have been difficult. During these formative years of my life, the Camino led me to the most important destination: the spiritual space inside of me that is my true home.