I had read about the Camino de Santiago in a few different places. Paulo Coelho sets his Pilgrimage along this ancient road, and I had been exposed to Camino history a few different times in some of my assigned reading in college; but it was still an abstract, still a place which existed only on paper. It was without emotion, without substance, a subject to study but not to experience. It was not until I watch a film written, directed, and starring Emilo Estavez that the Camino became an object of desire, bordering on obsession for me. The film, The Way, changed my life more than I ever imagined a movie could, and because of that movie I ventured on my own Camino and it fundamentally changed who I am and how I view the world.
First and foremost the Camino is a sacred journey, a pilgrimage to the mythic burial site of the Apostle St. James, Santiago en Español. The road runs from St. Jean in Southern France to the Northwest corner of Spain to the cathedral in which St. James rests. This 500 mile route is one of the oldest active pilgrimage trails in the world as Pilgrims have been making this journey for over a thousand years. But one must not be Catholic to experience the power of this road, nor even Christian, nor even religious.
The power of this road transcends the strict confines of dogmatic faith. There is a power along the road that religion cannot explain. During my own Camino I met Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Atheists. Buddhist take this road, Hindus, and Agnostics. This is the road of all of humanity. On this road one learns to live communally, learns to trust in others, learns to give freely and love more completely. It teaches one to judge less and experience more. It humbles the strong and empowers the weak. It inspires poetry, song, and film while having an expressionless reality which cannot be confined by simple words.
My own Camino took place over two different summers. The first did not end how I wanted as open blisters in my feet became infected and I was unable to continue. I was heartbroken. It was all I could do to hold back the tears as I limped out of Villafranca, only 8 or 9 days away from Santiago. I vowed to return, and return I did.
I made my way back the following Summer, this time with a friend to share in the experience. We arrived at the airport in Madrid and barely made the bus to Villafranca. The six hour bus trip allowed us time to plan and think about the journey ahead. I was so anxious to get going that I felt I was in danger of missing out on the journey in favor of the destination. The Camino is about the journey, not the city of Santiago.
And so began our walk. At times we spoke, other times we walked in silence. Sometimes we walked together, other times we were more solitary. We ate, drank, and slept in communal settings. The food was shared with other peregrinos all sharing in this experience, all walking the same road, yet all having very personal moments unlike any other pilgrim on the road. We attended Pilgrim masses, we tried new foods, and learned to speak better Spanish and we met amazing people.
Our joy entering the city of Santiago was dulled when we learned of the tragic train accident which took the lives of 79 people making their way to the city to celebrate the feast day of St. James on July 25. Arriving in the city, I had such a range of emotions. For me this was the culmination of two years of fascination and obsession with the Camino. It was a tragedy for so many other people in and around the city. Many in the city had lost brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters in the train accident and were now looking to the Cathedral and the relics of St. James for comfort rather than for praise at having finished their long journey.
My pilgrimage along the Camino may have come to an end, but what it taught me was that the Camino never ends. Life is our ultimate Camino. I've tried to live my life according to what I learned while on Camino. I’ve tried to trust more fully, love more completely, give more freely, and treat each day as an element of the sacred mystery of our shared human experience.
Michael is a History teacher at Pilgrim High School in Warwick, RI.