Sometimes I worry the about becoming a Camino de Santiago pilgrimage addict. The Iberian Peninsula, after all, is littered with Camino routes stretching back into France and even Italy. The many routes reflect the myriad origins of medieval pilgrims heading toward the fabled city of Santiago de Compostela, claimed as the resting place of Saint James.
I did my first pilgrimage in 2017, completing the popular Camino Frances route that runs some 550 miles from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees beside the FrenchSpanish border through the mighty pastoral breadth of northern Spain’s interior toward Santiago and then on to Finisterre on Spain’s most western Galician coast.
But that was small fry compared to what I did during the global pandemic. When I arrived in Portugal’s capital city of Lisbon at the end of 2020, the tap-tapping of my walking sticks on the pavement caused the trendy young things on the quayside watching the sunset to turn their heads my way. Behind me lay about 1,200 miles of multiple Caminos joined together.
From Bayonne in France I had hiked the Camino del Norte route, following Spain’s rugged northern coastline, before joining the Camino Primitivo, which drops from the coastline into the mountains before converging with the Camino Frances in its final approach to Santiago. Continuing to Finisterre and the coastline—the logical end of any peregrination—I did a sharp left and began the Camino Portuguese.
All this was done on foot—apart from a five-minute boat ride to cross the river marking the Spanish Portuguese border—while carrying a far too heavy rucksack. (I always carry too many books and too much food, the latter “just in case,” a modern-day consumerist habit that the Camino endeavors to free one of but that I still struggle with.)
The route the Camino Frances follows originally served during the Middle Ages as a pagan pilgrimage toward Finisterre, once viewed as the end of the known world. Medieval pilgrims arrived at the shoreline to gaze in what must have been awestruck wonder at the Atlantic’s expanse stretching into what seemed an unfathomable mystery. Like us, they were after answers or at least some sort of better understanding and appreciation about what their lives represented and meant.
But around the 10th century, the canny Benedictine monks of Cluny in France began fostering the route’s religious reputation. This was based on the claim that soon after Christ’s death, Saint James preached the gospel in Spain and that after his martyrdom in Jerusalem his body was smuggled back to Galicia by a party of Spanish disciples. Nothing of the sort is suggested in the Acts of the Apostles, where his death is recorded. Hence, his Iberian-based adventures may well be a fine myth. But that really is beside the point nowadays because in many ways the Camino has transcended its connection with Saint James.
Nonbelievers match if not outnumber the religiously inspired on this epic journey. What most pilgrims agree on is that the Camino teaches you about a potentially better and purer sort of lifestyle.
“Walking, I am listening to a deeper way,” American writer Linda Hogan wrote in Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World. “Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”
You don’t get that just by going on an afternoon walk, or at least I certainly don’t. But the more I hiked on, the deeper Logan’s lesson sank in, along with many others. These included how a primal need resides in us all to bear witness to and address our fellow travelers on this pilgrimage of life. How, though we may disagree on much of its myriad aspects and details, journeying through life should ultimately serve as a means of rejoicing in our shared humanity.
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