Six years ago, I peered over my mother's shoulder to read the laptop screen in front of us. The thought occurred to me that this was another one of Mum's crazy ideas. Yet as I read the screen and listened to the excitement in my mother's voice, something drew me in. My mother, Susan, was going to hike the Camino Francés. It was a dream she had harboured for decades. For me, as a 24-year-old, it spoke to my great wanderlust, and in that moment I knew that I, too, would hike the Camino. It would be an arduous 775 kilometre trek across the north of Spain with nothing but a backpack and the will to complete the journey. Hikers, or peregrinos as they're known, come to the trail from all over the world, drawn by its promise of transformation and rebirth. It is a trail that has been marked for centuries with departure points from many cities in Europe, all leading to Santiago de Compostela, at the northwestern edge of Spain. Over the millennia, kings, peasants and thieves found their way to the famed coastal city to worship at the site of the relics of Saint James, one of Christ's 12 disciples.
They say the Camino calls you. At 50, my mother was at a crossroads in life: questioning a career change and searching for meaning to a life that had been full but missing that je ne sais quoi. For both mother and daughter, the promise of adventure and the challenge to be independent was irresistible. No matter the reason why, hikers heed the call for their own reasons. My mother began the hike in June 2014, and I followed in September. For each of us, it would be a month-long journey of physical challenges, discovery and introspection. Following are excerpts from our travel journals.
Day 3, Roncesvalles, Spain — Sue
When I left Canada, I knew I was at a crossroads in life. I hope this trek brings me some answers because today I am confused and wondering why I thought this was a good idea. Everything about hiking the Camino is happening as I imagined, but I'm not sure about my decision to do this alone. I don't want to walk anymore. Who would judge me if I just became a tourist and visited major cities along the way? Yesterday's hike in the Pyrenees was a real test. I was halfway up the 1,450 metre mountain when I decided to rest. It was then that I got the worst leg cramps. I did not want to ask for help. The noisy group beside me increased my irritability. This morning, I dragged myself out of bed, disappointed in my body's weakness. I dawdled over breakfast of espresso and the ubiquitous tostada, (a potato, cheese and egg dish) and decided to set out. Worse than my fear of not being able to walk is my fear of being the last one left. I will walk to Santiago de Compostela, all 775 kilometres.
Day 3, Cizur Menor — Julia
Three days into my trek I've realized that I could not be less alone. The past few days seem like such a blur of navigating my way around planes, subways and trains. I was so relieved to finally start walking, to rely on nothing but my own two feet. There is just no way to prepare for walking 25 kilometres every day. Yesterday, I spent the night in a little town called Larrasoaña. It was a 27 kilometre walk spent almost entirely alone. I did something to my knee, and when I got into town, I could barely walk. I stopped at the grocery store and the owner told me that I must go to the river to submerge my knee. The cold numbed everything, and I was sure that I would wake up and be healed. I woke up this morning and my knee was no better. I could barely walk; and I thought for sure I wouldn't make it to Santiago let alone the next five kilometres. I fought back tears and winced with every step. People were passing me all along the way, checking to see if everything was fine. I stopped for a break and as I was leaving the town, a boy I had met at the river the day before turned a corner, handed me his walking poles and said, "Here, try these." Without his generosity, I don't think that I could have made it this far today. Just as I was certain of a continuing solitude, I was shown that the Camino is truly a place of great provision.
Day 5, Estella — Julia
Today was the best day so far. I tried to own my pain instead of resenting it. I would make it my friend, not my enemy. Tonight I had dinner with an amazing woman named Dale. She's in her 60s and from British Columbia. We had one of those conversations that I know I won't soon forget. Something about this place makes people more open and eager to share their hearts. It is nice to be in such mixed company. My friends are all ages and from all walks of life. On this path, we are but pilgrims, stripped of circumstance. I feel enriched by the conversations I have with others; and many of them seem to happen providentially, at the very moment in my day when I need them the most. Today, I was walking through the town and I heard someone call my name — a friend from a few towns back. How is it that I am so far from home, in a town that I've never visited, and yet someone is calling my name? In so many ways, being on the Camino feels like being part of a small, moving community. I feel cared for and I feel at home.
Day 7, Logroño — Sue
I arrived by taxi to this city since the last two towns had no room at the albergues (hostels). After checking in, I am led up to the dorm. To my initial dismay, I discover I am in a cubicle of four bunk beds, with three men. Awkward. Putting my pilgrim skills to the test, I make the best of it. I offer my muscle ache cream to Jacques, who is walking to test his strength against the cancer that spreads in his gut. I ask Tom from Scotland if he wants to share a washing machine. As we hang our things to dry, he passes my soggy unmentionables. I'm sure this makes us family. Later, he buys me a coffee and tells me of his family and their calling to charismatic Catholicism. Later, I offer the third cellmate, an aloof Trond from Norway, a chance to plug in his phone charger. Charging your phone is essential for the walk, so I figure this is a selfless act. Trond is not impressed. I laugh in my bunk as I remember the awkwardness of the situation. Yet, I am not put out, nor do I consider my space, my things, my comfort, my gender as so important anymore. We are all pilgrims.
Day 12, Burgos — Julia
I'm sitting on a bench facing the back of the Santa Maria Cathedral. It may be one of the most beautiful sights I have ever beheld. Tears inexplicably roll down my cheeks as I gaze upon this Gothic masterpiece built centuries ago. The afternoon sun is beating down on me and I am revelling in this moment of deep gratitude and wonder. I am imagining the many pilgrims who have come before me and felt this same warmth in their hearts. Mum hated the walk into Burgos. She told me to just skip it and take a bus. I thought about it, but I woke up this morning and my feet longed to walk. There is something so wonderful about knowing that my mother walked these roads and saw these sights before me. When you're here, everyone asks you why you chose to walk the Camino. Mum is always part of my story. I feel comforted knowing that perhaps I am walking in her very steps.
Day 14, San Antón — Sue
This is the second day walking on The Meseta, the supposedly arid plains of the country. I find it quite hilly and it has rained already twice. The land stretches out to either side, endless lemony-green wheat fields that sit under metallic-grey skies. Sometimes a wind transforms the sky to a piercing blue so true that your heart constricts with the purity of it all. The Norwegian I had met in Logroño remains aloof, but we walk together now. We have become fast friends. I had set out on this quest to walk alone, but I find myself with a constant companion. We stopped at the ruins of the San Antón Cathedral. The place has an eerie calm about it as I pass under the archway. I learn about the Cross of Tau, the 19th letter of the Greek alphabet that represents divine protection against evil and sickness. I am grateful for the good health I have been enjoying. In Castrojériz, we buy the wooden cross of Tau, which has become the pilgrim's cross.
Day 22, Astorga — Julia
This still feels somewhat incredible to me. At dinner I stretched out my knee and, for the first time, I felt no pain. I stood up in disbelief and walked around. My pain is gone. Just a few days ago, I sent Mum a note asking her when my muscles would adjust, when I would stop feeling these aches. She said: "Think of your pain as the release of old ways and habits that no longer serve you. Think of it as growth." Everyone here says it takes about two weeks for your body to get used to the strain of the kilometres. I had been disappointed in myself, I had felt weak for having to walk so slowly. I know now that every body is different; it was silly to try and compare myself to others. I feel ready and excited for the rest of this journey. I have no doubt in my mind that I will reach my destination.
Day 22, Astorga — Sue
The Camino stopped me in my tracks today. I awoke with a swollen eye and lip. I am staying here an extra day to rest. I spoke with Luisa, the albergue hospitalaria (hostel hostess). She is 54, tall, tanned, with a wide forehead and wizened mouth from smoking. She has walked the Camino several times. Once in memory of her Dad and once to prove her vocation was indeed hospitalaria. She gave up her job in Barcelona to run the hostel. She told me the Camino before La Cruz de Ferro (The Iron Cross) is for the body and mind. After that, it is for the spirit. Luisa knows I am looking for answers to figure out my life, my work, my purpose. She tells me to stop trying so hard. I thought I was ready to do this work, but now I am uncertain. I envy Luisa and her certainty. I am sure my body and mind have had enough of my endless introspection. No wonder I am sick. I will leave it to the Way and the answers will come.
Day 24, Molinaseca — Julia
At 4,940 feet today, I reached the highest climb of my journey. I passed La Cruz de Ferro, where for generations people have left stones to symbolize that which they need to release. The air was thick with sorrow. Many people come here with heavy burdens on their hearts; they walk to forget, absolve, release. As I laid my stone down on that pile, I left behind my fears. Fear of inadequacy, fear of change, fear of the unknown. I've trusted my own two feet to carry me through this journey. I am enough. I am blessed. I also leave a white stone to bring blessings to my loved ones.
Day 24, Molinaseca — Sue
It was a difficult day. Starting out I was in a cold sweat and wanted to vomit. I was still recovering from my setback in Astorga. I trekked to La Cruz de Ferro, the cross at the highest point, over 4,900 feet. All the way up, I found myself weeping and know it was not caused by my physical discomfort. At the cross, I sent blessings to my sisters and their families and to my aunts and uncles who have always cherished and loved me. Walking down the mountain for the next hour, I feel chilled. Was I walking with Spirit? I practically float down the mountain.
Day 26, Herrerias — Sue
Left Valcarce today and joined the Green Route. This means carrying on through three mountains to reconnect to the traditional Camino route. Once, approaching a fork in the path near the summit, we deliberated which route to take. As I checked my map, a voice from below echoed up, "Otro." It was a taciturn villager I had passed earlier, guiding me to the right path, saving much time and frustration. "Gracias," I echo back. I am overcome by the mountain view. Egoist that I am, I am sure God creates it for my eyes and heart alone. I have graduated from tourist to pilgrim. I am one with the land. I feel tears burn when I take in the immense sky; I know I am also that magnificent. If He created the sky so divine, He created me in its image. Blessed.
Day 27, O Cebreiro — Julia
I remember getting an update from Mum telling me that she'd taken a detour that involved climbing and descending three additional mountains. After my first week here, I remember thinking that there is absolutely no way you could pay me to take a mountain detour. As with many decisions on the Camino, I changed my mind quickly. Yesterday morning at breakfast I met Alex, a pilgrim from the United Kingdom. We discuss our plans for the day and soon talk each other into doing the mountain route. We hiked through the rain and didn't pass a single other pilgrim on the path. We ate lunch behind an old church, our feet dangling over a cliff to better enjoy the view. We reflected on the changes in the landscape; from the quaint stone towns of Basque country to the red clay earth and vineyards of the Rioja. Then came the long golden paths in The Meseta leading to the lush green of Galicia. Each day, the rain gobbled up the afternoon sun. The changes in the land reflect the changes in me. I stand tall and sure like the moss-covered trees.
Day 28, Triacastela — Sue
Today I am in the town of Triacastela in a fantastical little turret room with stone walls and small rectangular windows. For dinner, I feasted with my Norwegian friend on local specialties of antipasto, grilled beef, garlic potatoes and a spectacular Bierzo wine. We then made our way to Mass. I volunteered to say the reading in English. The priest was like a stand-up comedian. He cajoled us all into forming a tight group of worshippers seated in the front pews. It was a special Mass dedicated to pilgrims. We giggled and laughed at the priest's gestures and expressions, even though we understood every third word or so. After the reading, we offered each other a sign of peace, and the priest gave each reader a big bear hug. His embrace melted my stone heart. I felt welcome at church for the first time in years. I joined in Communion. Was this my homecoming? Along the walk, I have enjoyed several Masses. I think it was when I heard the singing of vespers by the nuns in León that my heart first began to thaw. After that, every chapel dedicated to Mary drew me in inexplicably. But tonight, after this Mass, something has shifted. I am lighter.
Day 28, Triacastela — Julia
When I go to Mass here, it feels both foreign and familiar. I often get frustrated that I don't understand the language; that I can't fully join in with my fellow parishioners as we celebrate together. Today, I was particularly frustrated. I'd spent most of the day alone and had tried unsuccessfully to communicate in Spanish with locals at a stop along the way. As I listened to the Spanish reading, I recognized the oft-quoted words of Saint Paul to the Corinthians. "Love is patient, love is kind." I am provided for once again.
Day 32, Santiago de Compostela — Sue
As I board the plane to leave this beloved land, I swallow back tears — my heart is longing to stay. So many things are unresolved for me on this Camino. Even arriving in Santiago was anticlimactic. Yet I knew the destination was never the purpose. Each step, each day, the struggle, the epiphanies, this was the reason. Certainly, it was bittersweet to bid adieu to my pilgrim friends as we met in small clumps, wandering Santiago's maze of streets. The month-long trek had brought physical changes to all; bronzed skin, leaner torsos, and a clear, forthright gaze. We had known each other well and now we would be strangers again. I promise myself to continue my journey at home. I must walk or I am lost.
Day 32, Santiago de Compostela — Julia
Well, I've made it to Santiago. On the walk today, I kept trying to tell myself to slow down and relish every step, knowing that they would be my last of the Camino. I feel a mix of joy, gratitude and sadness. Sad that my walking days have ended and that real life is but a flight away. Gratitude for the past weeks spent in prayerful meditation. Joy for the rich memories and friends made along the way. Something about being in this town feels a bit underwhelming. I had gotten so used to following the yellow arrows that mark the pilgrim's path that it feels strange to know that I won't wake up and walk tomorrow. Despite this, I am sure that being a pilgrim has now become part of my identity.