"Sure, I’ll go with you." I was responding to my brother’s suggestion that we walk the "Camino de Santiago," an ancient pilgrimage route in Spain. My reply was more a polite comment than a definite commitment. How should I respond to some strange idea my brother had picked up from listening to CBC radio?
Fast forward a few months. The tickets have been booked. What had we gotten ourselves into?
"Camino" in Spanish means road, way or journey. This camino is all that, and more. According to church lore, the remains of James — one of the apostles of Jesus — were found in northwestern Spain in the ninth century. A cathedral was built at that spot and a city grew up around it. Pilgrims journeyed to "Santiago" (St. James).
This region of Spain also taps into deep traditions pre-dating Christianity. Near Santiago is a point of land jutting into the Atlantic. Thought to be the most westward tip of continental Europe, this was a special place to the Celts. The Romans named it "Finisterre" (end of the earth).
For more than 1,000 years, this location was a beacon to millions of pilgrims from all over Europe. By the 1980s, however, the flow of pilgrims had virtually ceased. Then, more recently, a new breed of pilgrim emerged. These new pilgrims are motivated less by a specific religious duty than by a range of new goals: like embarking on a more general spiritual quest, exploring a different culture, becoming more physically fit, facing a personal challenge and meeting citizens of many countries sharing a common pursuit. A small trickle a few decades ago has now swollen to an annual tide of thousands.
This new kind of pilgrimage drew my brother and me to the Camino de Santiago. We selected a stretch to be walked over two weeks and embarked on a hasty training regimen to toughen ourselves.
Although many pilgrims carry all their travel needs, we opted for a service to transport our luggage. Pilgrims can stay in basic dormitory-style "albergues" (hostels), but we choose to stay in more comfortable hotels. We started in León, where we obtained our "credencial" (passport to be stamped en route as proof of the journey). We were now "peregrinos" (pilgrims) and we started walking. Day after day. We walked in the open under the sweltering Spanish sun. We walked in the rain. We walked in the shade of centuries-old oak and chestnut trees. We walked on sandy lanes beside vineyards. We walked on rocks up and down hills. We walked on cobblestone streets through ancient villages. We walked on modern city sidewalks.
Physical weaknesses emerged and we battled aching muscles, blisters and other problems. Of course, a project like this becomes a metaphor for a larger picture. How planning and preparation are important, but at some point, one has to just dive in. How achievement can come from accepting a challenge and setting a deadline. How simply walking can take on different meanings, often quite significant.
Interesting to see just who comes on such a pilgrimage. Many — as I had been — are inspired by a relative or friend. Pilgrims come from all over the world, but all value an active lifestyle, travel, and being open to other people and cultures. So, one sees many Germans and Australians (and surprisingly few Americans).
Arriving in Santiago, my brother and I were tired, but delighted by our accomplishment. We had walked a total of 270 kilometres in 12 days. This included the all-important final 100 km, which entitled us to collect our "compostela" (certificate).
Along the way, I became fascinated by what I dubbed "participatory monument making." One example were the stones that pilgrims left on the concrete posts marking the route. Somehow the simple act of picking up and placing a stone became transformed into a powerful message. Stones became a way of remembering the pilgrims who had gone before, leaving one’s mark and cheering on those yet to come.
One special monument has been built by the pilgrims themselves. The "Cruce de Ferro" (Iron Cross) marks the highest point on the Camino. By tradition, pilgrims bring a stone from home and add it to a pile at the cross, thus creating a huge cairn. When we arrived, there was an electric feeling among the small group gathered there. I found it quite moving to scramble to the top of the pile and leave my stone. The stone I had carried all the way from my backyard in Brandon.
» David McConkey is an active citizen. Contact him and read previous column at davidmcconkey.com.