My husband, my daughter, and I embarked upon the journey of a lifetime early this summer from June 13 through June 23, 2015. In celebration of our 30th wedding anniversary, we set out to walk the last leg of the Portuguese Way of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. The route began in Tui, Spain with its destination ending in Santiago de Compostela, traditionally the location of the crypt and remains of St. James, the Apostle. This segment of the Camino is approximately 100 kilometers.
The history of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela dates back well over 1000 years with Christians making this pilgrimage since the Middle Ages. Today pilgrims can walk, bike, or take to the path on horseback with a variety of objectives in mind, particularly spiritual. A minimum of 100 kilometers by is required to obtain a “compostela” or certificate in Santiago. Proof is obtained by having a credencial stamped along the way.
My reasons for undertaking this journey were largely spiritual but also for enjoyment and celebration of my marriage. Some of my own personal insights gained along “The Way” include:
The key to accomplishing anything is perseverance. It is not about being the best, the fastest, the smartest, the nicest looking, or even good enough; the key to success is simply not giving up. The fastest person doesn't always finish the race. A slow and steady pace is particularly relevant for the long haul. One can quickly lose steam along the first few kilometers and deplete reserves needed to last the entire 100 kilometers. Drinking up all of the water and eating all of the granola at the first leg doesn’t get one very far. I have often heard of individuals in counseling say to me that it took them “a long time” to accomplish something. I am always quick to add, “But you did it!”
So if it takes several years to get a bachelor's degree or even a doctorate; so if it takes a long time to get a promotion at the job; so if it takes forever to clean through your living space; so if it seems like it is takes forever to find a soul mate. Whatever the situation might be-- don't give up--persevere. I always say, if at first you don’t succeed: Pray, cry, and try again!
Don’t fret falling down but more importantly learn to get back up and carry on. Don't get discouraged at the prospect of a fall, but be encouraged at being able to get back up again. I didn't actually fall on the Camino but the fear of falling definitely slowed me down. There were many slick surfaces, rocks to climb, and paths to maneuver. Life in itself has its series of slippery slopes that need to be conquered. The classic mark of a procrastinator is the fear of failure. These types often do not even get past the starting line. But the fall isn’t the problem nor the worst part of it. Remaining face down in the mud is. The challenge with most addictions is being able to stay the course even after a relapse. A cupcake binge should not get one permanently derailed from a diet. Get back up, shake the dust off, and then proceed the course. And if it happens to be an issue of a sinful nature, Catholic Christians have recourse to starting anew through participation in the Sacrament of Confession. The old saying goes that Christians are definitely not perfect, but they are forgiven. Isaiah 40:31: They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall walk and not be weary. They shall run and not faint.
It’s just as hard going downhill. The hills on the Camino were definitely challenging. Some went on for a couple of miles or so. Climbing a hill can be extremely exhausting especially when the temptation to turn back presents itself. But just as in life, there is no turning back. One thing I quickly discovered is that no matter how tough it was going up, going downhill was not any easier. It is a joy to arrive at the mountaintop. But all roads do not end at the summit. What goes up must inevitably come down. I quickly discovered that a different set of leg and knee muscles were required to make the descent. Life has its peaks and valleys. We are presented with unique challenges in each scenario. Perhaps there are many uphill battles. But it’s never all uphill. And we don’t necessary gain momentum going downhill. Some of the worse crashes occur at the foot of a mountain. Lives can sometimes snowball when we don’t know how and when to put on the brakes. I remember in my days traveling in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee there would be sand banks along the side of the road for runaway tractor trailers. The descent must be made at a slow and steady pace.
It’s not only all about me. One principle taught in running a business as well as learned in walking the Camino is that any group is only as fast and efficient as its slowest member. In our little walking trio-- the holdup would be me. My 52-year-old pace served as a ball and chain for my 17-year-old and even my husband. However later on in the journey another’s upset stomach or someone else’s toe blisters became concerns and affected our progress in other ways. One has to learn to be concerned with the disabilities and shortcomings of each other on the same journey. If one of the members of the group only has the capability to walk 10 kilometers a day, then the maximum for that group is only 10 kilometers a day. Productivity becomes a team effort. If one wins, we all win. If one is incapacitated, we all become incapacitated. It’s in everyone’s best interest to look out for each other.
Be open to the kindness and advice of others. One encounters a lot of strangers along the Camino that become friends along the way. Fortunately these days it is much safer than back in the Middle Ages where pilgrims were often attacked, robbed, and left for dead (thus necessitating the building of the Reyes Catolicos centuries ago in Santiago which began as a hospice to help those who had been injured). Over the course of several days we encountered many familiar peregrines. It’s important to be willing to accept help from others, to be willing to ask for directions, and to be willing to give assistance. But there is one caveat: Be careful about asking directions from a cross-eyed person in a foreign country who doesn’t speak your native tongue. We were trying to locate the birthplace of St. Anthony of Padua when in Portugal and almost became lost trying to find the patron saint of lost things! Something got mixed up and lost in the translation and we found ourselves going in the opposite direction. So the lesson here is to exercise prudence in discerning good advice. On the other hand, when we were in need of a taxi on another afternoon and asked a restaurateur to call one for us, he volunteered to take us himself and he even tripped on the pavement on the way to his vehicle. Upon completion of the journey he refused to accept any form of payment. We were very grateful for his generosity.
We heard all sorts of advice about preparing and going on the Camino. My advice: it is all relevant and helpful. Just like in life those who have gone before have something to say to us to help along the journey. It is prudent and wise to take their insights into consideration.
Small things matter. For instance see how long one can walk with a tiny rock in a shoe. Paying attention to detail is very important along the journey: the weight of one’s daypack is can make a significant difference. Someone I know on the journey decided to bring three books along the daily walk. After a day of lugging all of that extra weight, that same person decided that only one book would suffice.
Be prepared but also be willing to embrace the unexpected. Getting lost once in a while is part of the journey. The best laid plans can run amuck. Fortunately most of our journey was under sunny skies and the paths were well marked. But we did have to contend with a heat wave that hit throughout that part of Spain and dealt with temperatures that approached near 100 degrees F. We carried extra rain ponchos in our packs but never had to use them along the Camino. Most of our meals and lodging were planned ahead of time but we did have occasions when it was difficult to find a place to have a bite for lunch and dinner was often past 9 pm when we were used to eating at 5 or 6 pm at home. I have often heard that the most successful people in life are those who are willing to roll and adapt to the curves and changes in life.
Don’t expect to lose in 7 days what accumulated over 7 years. One hope in walking 100 km was that I would lose a lot of weight. But the Camino is like in life. A temporary change in one’s physical activity might cause a temporary weight change but permanent results don’t occur unless there are permanent changes. This can apply to whatever changes one wants to make in life. We have to be committed for the long haul.
Have a goal. Figure out what motivates you. Having a goal and dividing it up into smaller accomplishable tasks is helpful. We would walk so far in the morning and then have a pre-determined amount of distance to go in the afternoon. Often as the morning dragged into the day, I looked forward to stopping along the way to have a cappuccino or charcuterie at a certain milestone. Taking small breaks along the journey is important. We often would pop into Churches to cool down, admire the architecture of the buildings along the way, take in a breathtaking view, or engage in a water break under a shady old bridge.
But finally don’t forget that the process of the journey is just as important as the destination. For some reason the Camino brought back memories of my pregnancies. I carried two healthy children to term. Although each pregnancy was not easy and was full of challenges, I enjoyed each moment of the process. Thanks be to God, at the end of those two pregnancies I experienced the full joy of giving birth to my beautiful children. But at the same time I experienced some nostalgia at the remembrance of the precious time of carrying them in my womb. I felt the same way about the Camino. With my Compostela in hand, I was excited to have reached the final destination but simultaneously was a little bummed that the journey had come to a conclusion. There were so many sites, experiences, and friends that were encountered along the way. I actually wouldn’t mind going on another Camino!
The Good Walk. There is a manner in which Pilgrims greet each other along the Camino: “Buen Camino!” Which in Galacian translates as” have a good walk” or can even take on deeper meaning in signifying, “follow the right path.” Fortunately it was a very good Camino indeed! Much can be said about discerning the good path and following God's will in our lives!