The Camino Spirit

This is a transcript of a talk I was asked to give at an information session on walking the Camino, presented in September 2016 and sponsored by the Albuquerque, New Mexico Chapter of The American Friends of the Camino. My wife, Janet, and I walked the Camino Frances in the Spring of 2015.

We volunteered to do an informal show-and-tell- things like what boots we wore, packs we carried and why we chose rain jackets and pants over ponchos. But after I mentioned I’d include some spiritual observations, event organizers nudged me toward forgetting about the nuts and bolts and concentrating on the Camino and the soul. Janet isn’t comfortable with public speaking and certainly wasn’t going to attempt a presentation without boots, backpacks and other impedimenta for props, so I was going to have to fly solo. And winging it from a few notes wouldn’t work with this topic for me, so I got to work writing it.

Thank you to the Friends of the Camino for inviting me to speak.

Initially, I offered to share with this group some experiences my wife, Janet, and I had on our recent Camino. Not too surprisingly, since it IS a pilgrimage, I said I would also touch on a few of its spiritual aspects.

Well, like the Camino, one thing led to another, and so here I am, about to devote pretty much all of my allotted time to some random spiritual aspects.

I like to think of myself as a spiritual person; although I’m not a churchgoer, I don’t belong to any organized religion and have not studied theology, philosophy, or the history of religion. To profound questions from such disciplines, I have no answers.

But as Garrison Keillor wrote: “You get old and there are NO answers anymore, only stories.”

This is one of mine.

About two years ago, Janet and I were invited by some friends to see a movie with them at the Guild Theatre. “It’s called ‘Six Ways to Santiago,’” they said, “and it’s a documentary about this pilgrimage across northern Spain. We’ve never done it, but we’ve traveled through that part of the country and it’s gorgeous. The movie sounds interesting- something we‘d probably all really like. Wanna go?”

We went and we did like it. The “six ways” were profiles of six different pilgrims, one of whom was a gentleman, like us, up in years, who was walking the five-hundred-mile Camino de Santiago in memory of his recently deceased wife.

The film had ended and the credits were still scrolling when Janet turned to me. “You know, we should do that. And if that guy can do it, we can.”

I was a bit surprised. We had never even been to Europe, and our travel daydreams had always been of Italy, where Janet’s mother was born, and where she still had distant relatives. And then there was the food! And the art! What was up with this Camino thing?

I didn’t realize it then, and wouldn’t for some time afterward, but that pilgrim’s story in the documentary was the first of many “indirect infusions of grace from the Camino,” as I would come to call them. They were little affirmations, encouragements, and inspirations coaxing us toward what was to eventually become our own pilgrimage.

We later heard about Martin Sheen’s film, “The Way,” and watched the DVD. Many of you know it as the moving story of a father’s pilgrimage to mourn his estranged son, who had died in a fall on the Camino. We didn’t know then that we would eventually see first-hand how that movie, for better (and maybe just a bit for worse) popularized the Camino around the world
Those indirect infusions of grace became more direct and personalized when we began to connect with gracious people, generous of spirit.

One was Sarah Kotchian. I met her when I attended a reading she gave of her book, “Camino,” a beautiful, reflectively poetic account of her pilgrimage day by day. Through her meditations and evocative photographs, she reveals how her journey mirrors her spiritual awakening.

Sarah told me about Albuquerque’s chapter of the organization American Pilgrims on the Camino. Last fall Janet and I attended a Sunday afternoon gathering they held for people who had walked the Camino or were interested in doing so. Slowly the Camino was becoming more than merely an idea for us.

In that day’s discussion groups, we heard not only practical advice about how to prepare for and travel the Camino, but also how it had affected the lives of those who had walked and how we might become attuned to its spiritual lessons. In a closing circle ceremony, we each read aloud the wish we had randomly chosen from those we had all written anonymously. Janet and I still have the ones we drew: Hers reads:

    My prayer for you is finding joy and comfort in whatever the present presents to you.

I liked that wisdom and wordplay and added a bit to it: Whatever presents the present presents. The gifts may not be obvious, they may not be wrapped with sparkly paper and tied up with bows, but they can be treasures.

One of those in our discussion group was David Ryan, an avid walker, and veteran of both the Camino and the Appalachian Trail. David’s books praise mindful walking as a pastime. In “The Gentle Art of Wandering,“ a book and a website, David encourages would-be explorers to “wander anywhere! When you allow yourself to see what is already here, you can have an amazing adventure no matter where you are!” I was to think of his words often on the Camino.

We made a point to attend David’s personable and informative Camino presentation last March. He has consistently been very kind and generous with his knowledge and experience, always there with an answer or guidance.

By early spring of this year, we were committed.

The Camino

We would leave May 1st. Now we were deep into practicalities and preparations. We bought stuff, thought better of that stuff, returned it, exchanged it for other stuff. We trained. While no strangers to hiking and walking, we trekked with our loaded backpacks at the nearby UNM North Golf Course, where we became odd, familiar fixtures racking up the miles as we trudged around and around the jogging path.

Fortunately, there was a final gentle reminder that the Camino can be much more than “adventure travel light” and why we were doing it. The Albuquerque pilgrims held their Spring potluck just two weeks before our departure. The symbolic scallop shells we would be carrying with us we brought to be blessed. We were given a prayer for pilgrims, received blessings and the first of countless wishes we would receive for a Buen Camino.

The first of our fellow pilgrims to wish us a Buen Camino was one we met even before we actually started, in the Biarritz air terminal while waiting for a shuttle to St. Jean Pied de Port. We never did get his name, but I recall he was from Gilbert, Arizona, so I’ll call him Gil. He was about our age, tall and a bit weathered. His desert hiking buddy had made all the arrangements for a Camino together. Then suddenly his friend became seriously ill with Rocky Mountain spotted fever and was unable to go. So here was Gil, setting off alone. He appeared to be well-equipped but didn’t seem to really know much about what he was getting into. Our shuttle hadn’t arrived before he said good-bye and Buen Camino, grabbing a bus to St. Jean. We thought we’d see him again somewhere ahead but didn’t. We hoped his Camino would go well, but at that point, before our departure, we had not yet begun to understand the journey’s lessons. Later we would learn that the Camino is often said to be like life: ultimately, you don’t really choose one, you live one.

I thought about Gil and how “stuff happens” when, about a week into the Camino we met Daniel, an earnest young German. Daniel told us he was walking to foster a sense of personal spontaneity. A woman he loved had chided him for denying himself life’s potential for richness by obsessively controlling the random and accidental. His description of the meticulousness with which he planned his Camino for nearly two years bore witness to that.  Less than a week into his pilgrimage, he had yet to make much progress in his program for self-improvement, he admitted. We suggested that he use the structure of the Camino to free himself from the structure of his life.

We were beginning to discover how the Camino makes things simple. You get up, you walk, you stop for the night, wash yourself and your clothes, eat, sleep and do it again. David Ryan says it becomes your job.

Aside from the physical deprivations and demands, (and we discovered they can be considerable), you’re free to witness the world’s beauty and wonder, its squalor and monotony and the frailties and strengths of yourself and those of the people just like you who are doing the same things.

Angelica was someone we met on our first day out. She was a waiflike and willowy young woman traveling alone from Milan. Although very personable, she politely deflected all our inquiries about who she was and her life back home, explaining that her Camino was a new beginning and wanted to shed any thoughts about her past. She did reveal that her decision to walk the Camino was a hasty one made only two weeks before. Was she fleeing a ruined relationship? A family rift? (we’d had hints of generational discord) A career crisis? We walked with her much of our second morning, although we were slow and eventually she went on ahead. We caught up with her at the summit of a long, exhaustingly arduous climb and thought after a rest we’d all continue on together. But she had other plans.

“I forgot my stick back down at the bottom of the trail. It is just a branch I found, but it is the perfect stick. I must turn around and get it.”

That puzzled me and seemed so absurd. What made that stick so perfect that she would make all that effort to get it back? Wouldn’t another perfect stick be not far ahead? As we continued walking, my poetry mind tried to devise a suitable metaphor for that. What were her expectations? Did she feel that on the Camino she could control her destiny? What was this perfection she so highly valued? I began to ponder how much anyone could control anything.

Janet finally offered an explanation. “Maybe she needed an excuse for some time alone, away from us. Why don’t you just look at the flowers?”

I haven’t said much about what our personal reasons were for this undertaking. Janet had recently lost both her parents, (her mother unexpectedly), in a short period of time. She hoped to reconcile that loss and to consider how to proceed with the next phase of her life.

For my part, I looked forward to doing the Camino with her. We both wanted to renew and strengthen our relationship. Now that we had recently re-retired from the latest in our series of post-professional-career jobs, we were going to be footloose to a greater degree than we had been previously. It seemed like the right time to do this. Together.

Some recommend a solitary excursion, and for some, that may be a preferable course. Bill, a Coloradoan we met, said going with your spouse was a sure-fire ticket to divorce court. We met a number of people going solo without spouses for a variety of reasons. But we met just as many who were going together.

We did pretty well taking care of each other. We’re different in sometimes challenging ways, but as we sometimes like to say “weirdly enough, it works.”

We’ve always loved to hike together. Janet is petite and much shorter than me; my stride is almost twice as long as hers, so not long after we’ve stepped off together, I’m out in front. On the meditation-inducing Camino, amid all its new and beautiful surroundings, I’d easily get lost in myself. After awhile, I’d stop, look back and wait for her.

One day an Australian guy who had passed us a few times said “I think I’ll call you ’The Caterpillar Couple.’ You know how with a caterpillar the front moves forward and the back catches up…”
I so fondly remember those times when I just paused to look back at Janet following closely behind, and, on those especially challenging stretches of the trail, she would look up from where she had to often step so carefully, meet my eyes and smile with confidence and a slight measure of determination and I was just so happy to be with her. When asked to describe what it was like to walk the Camino, we simply tell people that we were happiest when we were walking.

There were some unhappy times, to be sure. Parts of the trail were grueling, we were sometimes hot and very tired, or soaked and wind-battered. We missed our kids back home. In the middle of an especially bad day, however, we got an email from our son, Max:

Hi Dad and Mom,

I hope you two are enjoying your journey. While I have a few minutes, I’ll write to tell you that I’m happy for you. I’m happy that you are healthy and still crave adventure. Your willingness and courage to take a pilgrimage inspires me to not give up on my dreams. I know I complain a lot and my fears hold me back at times, but I hope I can have your strength and optimism when I am your age.

Sending love, Max.

Another pilgrim we remember is Olga, a sweet grandmother with eyes that twinkled from within deep creases in her tanned and weathered face. She radiated such a calm demeanor. Janet confided in her that of all the people she’d met on the Camino, the Germans were her favorites.

“Every one of them I’ve met has been so kind and considerate, so warm and very fun loving.”

Helga laughed gently. ”Thank you. Yes, I suppose we do like to have a good time.” As far as being so kind, she said she couldn’t say why. “Maybe it’s because some of us feel we have a lot to make up for.”

Some of the albergues serve communal dinners and a few conduct pilgrim religious services. One memorable one did both.

It was a neighborhood parish in Logrono operating a by-donation albergue staffed with volunteers. It’s a particularly clean, well-run place accommodating about fifty pilgrims in one large room full of the ubiquitous Camino bunk beds. The night we were there, the place was occupied almost entirely with exuberant young people in their twenties. An Italian culinary school student and his new German friend offered to cook dinner for forty – a typical filling pilgrim meal served at one immense table. Introductions all around, prayers and songs afterward. I’m still moved when I recall how that room glowed with love and warmth and energy that lingered through a multilingual service afterward in the adjacent darkened church.

At La Faba, an albergue high in the Leon hills on the ascent to O Cebriero, an elderly German man hosts evening vespers in a venerable church on the property. A priest from a nearby village leads participants in prayers in several languages. I volunteer for what I thought was a reading in English but what turns out to be a ritual foot-washing. It is definitely a ritual wash, since I’m certain that all those in attendance have taken advantage of the excellent shower facilities at the end of their day’s walk. As it turns out, I’m a washee, not a washer. No matter.  To end the service, we sing, somewhat surprisingly to me, in English, “We Shall Overcome.” Everyone seems to know the words.

La Faba

As we are filing out, a German woman rises to sing. It is a poignant Schubert piece from his Wintereisse, a collection of songs portraying the allegorical journey of a lonely heart. I speak to her outside the church afterward, tell her as best I can how beautiful it was. She tells me it was a favorite song of her father’s.

Occasions such as these, when pilgrims come together, seem to amplify the Camino’s greatest lesson, the lesson of love. I recall a quotation Janet showed me from Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, and theologian. Merton said, “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone. We find it with another.”

What I have given you here is by no means a chronological account of our journey, but it seems appropriate to  conclude this with a fragment of the destination, not the end of our Camino, but the closing of a chapter:

We had tried so hard to eliminate anything nonessential from our heavy backpacks, but I did bring a small brass bell, intending to hang it to ring as I walked. Its sound was pleasing to me, but after we started, I decided it would be just noise, too intrusive to others and distracting to myself when the quiet of the countryside and the soft conversation of fellow pilgrims was much more appropriate, so it stayed at the bottom of my pack.

But when we arrived at the outskirts of Santiago early in the morning of that final day,  I took it out, hung it from my pack and let it ring to celebrate our accomplishment as the streets converging toward the Cathedral grew crowded with festive pilgrims.

We asked someone to snap our picture in front of the Cathedral, then rested a bit, observing the lively scene for awhile before we went to find the Pilgrim Office. After we stood in line there to get our certificates, our Camino diplomas, we sat outside the entrance, greeting other new arrivals. There were high fives and waves, smiles and some tears, from both them and from us.

It was another of those many moments when I remembered a favorite poem by the Japanese poet, Ariwara No Narihira, who wrote it in the middle of the ninth century, probably as pilgrims half a world away began to walk to Santiago.

I have always known
That at last I would
Take this road, but yesterday
I did not know that it would be today.

Robert Woltman is a retired museum exhibition curator/designer. He is also a baker, poet and writer and visual artist. He lives with his wife, Janet, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.