Peace Corps Writers
The Road to Santiago (page 2)
The Road to Santiago
page 1
page 2
page 3

     I’ve lived in the city all my life. Encountering horses in the misty forest, cows and sheep grazing across my path, being greeted by the cuckoo every morning was a mystical experience, was magical, was, finally, deeply spiritual. Such encounters can happen anywhere, on any trip, but not with the frequency or the intensity of a two-month pilgrimage. And it doesn’t happen if you travel by plane or car or even bicycle. You have to be on foot, moving slowly. As St. Augustine said, “Solvitur ambulando. It is solved by walking.” I might add, it is also found by walking.
Chuck called the pilgrimage a monastic experience. There is a deep sense of community among pilgrims that is not dependent on language or profession or politics or wealth or nationality or, even, religion. There is communal living, archetypal dress, ritualized, basic work, and time for silence. Pilgrims for the last thousand years have carried a scallop shell as the symbol of the pilgrimage, worn a broad brimmed hat and carried a staff — and they still do.
     We stayed in refugios, refuges — usually renovated buildings — monasteries or seminaries — once a tower — large rooms with five to twenty bunk beds, blankets and pillows provided. Some were free — donation asked, most cost 3 to 12 Euros per person, all reserved exclusively for pilgrims.
On an average day we walked 15 or 16 miles, a distance you could travel in less than 30 minutes by car, even on narrow country roads. It was slow and often difficult. The path was rocky or slippery or narrow. Our packs were heavy. By 10:00 it was hot. By 11:00 every item of clothing was soggy with sweat; by noon we were exhausted and, most days, we didn’t know exactly where we would sleep that night, if there would be a place for us, if it would be crowded, if there would be food available, if there would be hot showers, if we would see anybody we knew. We usually stopped by 1:00, sometimes not until 2:00 or 3:00 depending on the day and the terrain and the availability of refugios. When we found the refugio, we had our credentiale stamped — proof that we were there — paid our fee, chose a bed, stood in line for the shower, washed our sweat-drenched clothes, hung them up, ate, lay down to nap. Got up by 5:00 to see the church, shop for food, talk to others, write in our journal, take pictures. The walking and the preparations to walk were our work, our vocation. The time after showering and eating and napping were unimagined luxury because we had nothing to do during those hours, no phone calls to return, no presentations to prepare for, nothing to study, no meetings, no day planner or calendar in our back pack, nobody depending on us to do anything or be anything.
More than half of the people we met, men and women, were walking alone and there were more pilgrims than we expected. At first I was sorry not to be more unique, but then I understood what an amazing, marvelous thing it is that so many people from so many places were taking two weeks, two months, three months to hoist up their pack and walk to Santiago. In this fast paced, multi-tasking cell phone world, thousands of people of all ages put on the pack and the shell and the hat, take their pilgrim’s staff and head for Santiago, walking across the continent at a snail’s pace. Walking across the continent at a pace that allows you to notice the snails and the ants, the beetles and to hear the cuckoo and to see the swallows dive. We were transformed, not by our arrival in Santiago, but by setting out for Santiago, by getting up every day, swinging that pack to our shoulder and setting out, walking across another magnificent strip of this glorious planet, alone, with difficulty, with blistered feet, with shin splints, with aching knees, using the two feet God gave us, in the company of sheep and cows, barking dogs and other pilgrims.

The marked trail
     How did we know where to go? The way is marked by balises in France, red and white stripes on rocks, trees, signs, buildings, to indicate the GR 65 — grande route 65 — and in Spain yellow arrows and scallop shells on rocks, trees, signs, curbs, and buildings. You don’t need a map or a guide. You follow the marks on the trees and rocks and curbs.
Christine said that when she started walking, she could hardly find her way. She was alone, ill and disoriented and had no idea how far she would go, or for how long, but after two weeks, her head began to clear, she said and she felt a little stronger. She kept going and by the time we met her in early July, not only was she walking at our speed, but she glowed with health and energy. The pilgrimage gave her her life back, she said. “I’m not Catholic, but I use these churches to cry.” Her husband was to meet her soon, nearly three months after she left home. “He won’t know me,” she said. “I am so transformed.”
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