In the winter of 2011 I walked over 800 km (500 miles) on the Camino de Santiago from the southern border of France, across 4 Spanish provinces (Navarra, La Rioja, León, and Galicia) to finish at the sea in Finisterre… “the end of the earth.” There is much myth and lore associated with The Way of Saint James, a pilgrimage walked by thousands each year, for the past two thousand years.
I began by winding my way through the Navarran Pyrenese, a mountain range similar to the Appalachians, deciduous and dotted with quaint villages. In the beginning, I found myself on the
Route du Fromage - The Cheese Route, where each day I enjoyed the most delicious French, Basque and Spanish cheese varieties with fresh baquettes and abundant red wine. It was heavenly, and I enjoyed the slow roll of each day, my feet carrying me across idyllic pastoral landscapes dotted with sheep, horses, cows, goats and the curling smoke of cottage chimneys.
It rained softly, just enough to perfume the air with the intoxicating scent of damp earth, musky and ancient. Outside of the city of Logroño in the province of Navarra I came upon a cairn and a plaque about the Spanish Inquisition of the early 1600’s where an unknown number of men, women and children were burned at the stake during what is known as the Basque Witch Trials. Apparently, where I stood was the site of their burning, and I could immediately feel the cold creep of their presence up my spine. I imagined them, innocent, sentenced and executed with no recourse - all in the name of the mighty Catholic Church.
The day that I arrived to the cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela - the end of the line for most pilgrims - I stopped at the warm spring where believers have bathed for two millennia before entering the cathedral to bow at the feet of Saint James in reverence. Someone in the forest played a pan flute, adding to the ethereal nature of my arrival, and upon entering the medieval stone arch of the city, bagpipes droned from some distant corner of time. The day dripped with magic, as though time had been folded and I existed in both past and present, a resurrected pilgrim from some other moment in history.
I walked for 3 more days to reach the sea at Finisterre where I collected my Compostela - the ornately illustrated certificate that pilgrims receive upon completion of their Camino. In total, I walked for 35 days, with 5 days of recovery from injury and illness. That time spent on the Camino has been the greatest gift I have ever given to myself in this life. The gift of time to simply walk, to reflect, to pray, to meditate and to dream. They say that as you walk the Camino and pass through the different provinces, they represent your past, present and future. You take a slow and deliberate inventory of your life, and the long days are your teachers. Your aching feet are your teachers. The people you meet along the Way become your teachers. What can I say of such an experience, really, except that it changed me forever. My life is a pilgrimage, and I a humble pilgrim upon a path of scattered stars.