Perhaps the most challenging entry on my List of 65 is walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. The Camino Francés, as this portion is known, spans 791 kilometers (490 miles) across the northern tier of Spain. It begins on the French side of the Pyrenees in Saint Jean Pied-de-Port and culminates in the city of Santiago de Compostela. It is the primary path for peregrinos (pilgrims) wending their way from Europe to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where the remains of Jesus's apostle, Saint James the Elder, lay.
The Camino has existed for more than 1,000 years as one of the three most important pilgrimages in the Christian world. The three paths to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela were the only means that could free the faithful from penance for their worldly sins.
Christian lore tells that the Apostles divided the known world into missionary zones and James was assigned the Iberian Peninsula. He spent some years there preaching the gospel before returning to Jerusalem where he was martyred in 44 A.D. Legend says his body, guided by angels, was borne on the wind in a stone boat to Finisterre on the Atlantic coast of northern Spain. James was buried there with two disciples and forgotten until the ninth century.
A shepard, guided by a vision of stars, discovered the tomb of James and reported the finding to the local priest who told the local archbishop. The remains were declared to be those of James and canonized as Santo Iago, patron saint of early Spain. A monastery erected to inter Saint James was later expanded to the current Cathedral de Santiago.
News of the discovery spread and pilgrims began to arrive. Pouncing on the stream of people seeking penance and miracles, the route became politicized to further Spain’s influence in the region held by the Moors. The sanctity and popularity of the Camino has risen and fallen between wars, plagues, Moors, and the Renaissance. However, in the last twenty years its buzz has risen dramatically with over 208,000 peregrinos registering at the Catheral offices in 2014 alone.
Their pilgrimage is verified by inked stamps accumulated in their credential (a type of passport) at albergues and cafes along the Camino. A Compostela is a certificate awarded to any peregrino who finishes the Camino or at least walks the last 100 kilometers into Santiago. With the Compostela, a pilgrim is relieved of his penance by the Catholic Church.
Reasons are many for why one walks the Camino de Santiago or any of its feeder routes throughout Europe. Obviously, religion lays claim to many of the devotional pilgrims, but others do it for a myriad of reasons including spiritual, physical, memorial, or necessity.
For instance, John Adams was dispatched to France by our American Congress to negotiate treaties and financial aid for our Revolutionary War. His ship began to leak and was forced ashore on the Spanish coast. Rather than wait for repairs, Adams decided to walk to Paris and the Camino was part of the quickest way to get there. His account of the people, lodging and food along the way was the first blog written by an American about the Camino.
In Flanders, a prisoner is released each year to walk the Camino under a heavy pack with a guard. If he completes the 2700 kilometer journey, he is granted his freedom.
There are no restrictions as to who may travel the Camino or why. Royalty and common folk, the impoverished and the prosperous, and even Shirley MacLaine have all traveled the Camino. Each for their reason and in their own style, but MacLaine’s account of a previous life is by far the most fantastical to read.
The fastest completion time I’ve found is 12 days by a long distance runner. Perhaps it was his alternative to a penance of self-flagellation, or maybe he just had two weeks of vacation left. Most peregrinos take 30-40 days to complete the journey.
What are Cheryl and my reasons, you ask? I’m not sure that can be answered.
The Camino has crossed our path for a number of years through various REI talks, Emilio Estevez’s movie The Way, and documentaries, one in particular called Six Ways to Santiago. Each crossing between The Way and us has piqued our interest, but we've not had a pressing motivation to act.
Our purpose is not religious. I was raised a Baptist/Methodist amalgam and Cheryl was brought up Catholic, but we both lean toward a Buddhist philosophy now. And it’s not for physical reasons although 500 miles would be quite the accomplishment.
If I had to pick one before we embark, it would be the experience of leaving the comforts that surround us at home, putting only what is essential to the journey on your back, and experience what happens along the way.
Perhaps it is the unintentional embodiment of the List of 65’s theme – experience without expectation.