WE WERE PILGRIMS THIS SUMMER, my husband Chuck and I, walking from Le Puy en Velay in France, over the Pyrenees and on to Santiago in the northwestern corner of Spain. We started in Le Puy because the Bishop of Le Puy was one of the first pilgrims in the year 951 and it is a thousand miles from Santiago. It would take us a while to get there. Lao Tzu said “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” That was the journey we were on.
A pilgrim can start anywhere. Jerry began in Geneva; Gerhard started in northern Germany; Hans and Karen stepped out their front door in Austria last April and arrived in Santiago in mid-July. Susan put her flat up for sale in England, took the chunnel to France and began walking. Jean-Jacques has left his home in Egypt, every year for the past three to walk an étape, a stage of the road to Santiago. He walked for two weeks this summer and will get there next summer one more étape to go. Jean-Pierre was walking for the poetry, he said. Christine left her home in Sweden, her husband and two twenty-something daughters, told them she was going to France to begin walking to Santiago. She had been ill for 15 months before she left, sick with daily debilitating headaches, so exhausted she couldn’t get out of bed most days, hospitalized for weeks. No diagnosis and nothing helped. She didn’t know how long she would walk, how far she would get, but on May 10th she began walking, alone.
This was our family of the road, our fellow pilgrims. There were many more of course, Pierre, Alain and Eliane, Dante, Doug, Jean-Pierre, Stephan, Guy, Jerome, Bartholomew, the Argentinean brothers Roberto and Pedro, Thierry, Lona and Lotte from Denmark, Drew, Rob, Orling from the Dominican Republic. Orling means ray of light which describes her perfectly.
There were three great pilgrimages for Christians in the Middle Ages: to Jerusalem, to Rome and to Santiago. The pilgrimage to Santiago began in the mid-tenth century and at the height of its popularity in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, more than half a million people from all over Europe made the pilgrimage each year. It almost died out in the 18th century, but interest was rekindled at the end of the 20th and last year 179,944 people walked to Santiago.
Thousands of people make this pilgrimage but we walked alone most of the time, in others’ footsteps, but just the two of us walking through meadow after meadow of wild flowers, across pastures held in by ancient, unmortared rock walls, with vistas of fields and farmhouse, sheep, cows, horses, in every direction; through sun-dappled eucalyptus forests; through waist high grass that left us soaked to the skin.
The mornings were stunningly beautiful. Most days we rose before dawn and were on the road between 6 and 6:30, walking on high plateaus, down plunging gorges, along country lanes, in shadowy forests, through hamlets and villages and every morning we said to each other, “Isn’t this amazing? Have you ever seen such light? Look at the sky or the meadow or the glistening leaves or the sun rising and the moon sinking!”
We were enveloped by birdsong. The sweetest voice of all was the cuckoo, far at the edge of the forest, every morning. We didn’t feel that the day had truly begun until we heard, “Cuckoo, cuckoo!” At night we watched the swallows dip and dive around the church steeple, hundreds of them, dark shapes against the dusky sky in every town. In Spain, we watched the storks rearrange themselves in their nests atop almost every church steeple. More than once we met unaccompanied cows on the path. Somebody had opened the barn door and said, Go, to the cows. Go to the pasture, you know the way, and they did. And early one morning, somewhere in France, we met twenty horses in the woods, walking alone, single file, on their way to their pasture. We stepped to the side of the path and they walked silently by, the colts hurrying to cover their fear or shying away from us, mares and stallions trotting confidently by, heads held high as if we were only ghosts.
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.
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.”
We also stopped at every church that was on the path. Many were built for the pilgrims centuries ago. Some were small, dark stone chapels, 800 years old, with simple altars and a few poor pictures or statues. Many had statues of St. James. Like Christine we are not Catholic, but we always paused before St. James to give thanks, to touch his feet or cloak. When there was a mass, we went. When there was a pilgrim blessing, we went.
At Rabanal, in Spain, the 7:00 Vespers and the 9:30 Compline and Blessing of the Pilgrims are sung in Gregorian chant by three Benedictine monks in the tiny twelfth century Church of Our Lady. The voices of the three monks filled that small holy space crowded with pilgrims. There were translations in English, French, German, Spanish, but nobody needed them. The beauty of the Gregorian chant, the company of our fellow pilgrims, and the sacredness of that simple space were enough. We understood.
The last days were hard on Chuck; his knee completely gave out and he wasn’t sure he’d make it. We didn’t talk about that much, but there was the possibility that a strong will and courage wouldn’t be enough to get him to Santiago, so it was with full hearts that we mounted the steps of the cathedral in Santiago on our 58th day and stood just inside the door. The cathedral was packed, a mass had just begun, and we saw a friend almost immediately, Roberto, the older Argentinean brother. “You are here!” he said.
Yes, we were there.
You tell everybody you are walking to Santiago, but it is as if you don’t really expect to arrive. You focus on the walking, on the birds singing, on the steep descent, on the rocky path, on the promise of coffee in the next village, on the hope of seeing somebody you know when you push open the door of the refugio, on finding a boulangerie to buy bread, on the herd of sheep that follow you for hours as you cross the Pyrenees, on finding the church open when you finally stop for the day.
There are rituals around the pilgrim’s arrival in Santiago de Compostela, rituals to remind you of the importance of ritual, of not just arriving and saying, “Well, I made it, here I am.” First you present yourself at the pilgrim office to offer your credenciale in order to obtain the Cathedral’s certificate of pilgrimage, the Compostela. Then you go to the cathedral and place your hand on the Tree of Jesse under the statue of St. James Sant-Iago. Your hand on the cool marble sinks into the imprint of the fingers and palms of the millions of pilgrims before you. Next you bow before the bust of Mateo, the architect of the great cathedral, and place your forehead against his to gain some of his wisdom. Then, you walk behind the 13th century statue of St. James high on the gold encrusted altar to give him the “hug for the apostle.”
The pilgrim mass at noon begins with a single woman singing a capella, her lovely voice embracing every stone, window, and chapel of the great cathedral. After the homily the priest announces the pilgrims who have arrived since noon of the previous day. “Two Americans dos Americanos arrived this day from Le Puy,” he says.
Christine was there. We hadn’t seen her in two weeks, but she was there in the cathedral with her tall, handsome husband, una pelegrina de Suecia had arrived in Santiago from Le Puy that day. She asked us how the fortieth day was for us, said it was hard for her and explained the many Biblical references to forty as a time of struggle. I was moved by her question, by how we search for some larger reference point for our struggle, for some reason for things to be so hard, for something that gives meaning . . . and we are still searching on the day of arrival.
Two days later as we left for Madrid to catch our plane home, we ran into Bartholomew at the train station. We’d dubbed him the great communicator because he talked to us so animatedly and at great length in spite of our obviously limited Spanish. Bartholomew had carried the most elaborately decorated staff of any pilgrim we knew, but he didn’t have it with him that day. “Where is your stick?”
“I left it in the cathedral,” he said, touching his heart. “A gift for Santiago. I must leave it here.”
Of course. The Buddha said, “You cannot travel the path until you have become the path.” And you leave or give a part of yourself with every step. It’s true of walking the pilgrimage with the cuckoo sounding at the edge of the forest every day, true of mounting the steps to a holy place, and true of walking out the door of your house every day of your life.
Kathleen Coskran’s short fiction and articles have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. Her collection of short stories, The High Price of Everything, won a Minnesota Book Award as did Tanzania on Tuesday: Writing by American Women Abroad which she co-edited. She is the recipient of numerous artists' fellowships and residencies including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Bush Artist's Fellowship, and two grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, Chuck Coskran (Ethiopia 196567, Kenya staff, 196971), and is working on a novel.