“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” ― Rumi, Essential Rumi
Father John is a priest from Uganda, who currently lives in Sydney, Australia. We met on the road, somewhere around Pamplona, and we continued to run each other periodically through the entire Camino. He was one of the most inspiring people that I met on the way. He sometimes walked up to 40 kilometers per day in order to have Sunday as his day of rest.
Everytime that I saw Father John, it became like a tiny miracle for me. Normally, on the Camino, if you jump ahead a day or lag behind a little, you miss all the people that you have come to know as famliar. So, I was certain that each time would be the last. But, he would pop up again in the craziest places and the real shock came to me when I arrived in Santiago and he was participating in the mass at the cathedral. He performed mass at nearly every stopping point along the way, so it was only natural that he should perform mass at the end of the road.
The lesson that I took from observing Father John, although I am sure there is more than one, is that the Camino is a personal journey. The vision that I had many times while trudging along in the heat was that of the crossroads. Four points intersect and four people arrive at the same time. They each took a different way, but no one way is really better, just different. And, isn’t that life? We are all just trudging along, trying to make it from Point A to Point B in one piece. Everyone will eventually make it to the end, but we all get there differently. Each Camino is a personal choice that only you can make and only you can decide how it will be done. Like Rumi says above, “Unfold your own myth.”
You can ride a bike if you want:
Or drive to the end:
You can make friends with a donkey, but he will eat your breakfast:
Heck, you can even ride the Camino backwards on a unicycle with someone recording you while listening to Right Said Fred:
As “The Dude” would say, “It’s like, your Camino, man.”
I love you. I’m not just saying that. You are one of the best things that has ever happened to me. People thought I was crazy. They thought that it wouldn’t last. They gave me the side eye everytime that I talked about you. “Are you serious?” they would ask, “You did it barefoot?”
But, I stood by you and you fit me like a glove. Not only did you make it through almost a year of training for El Camino de Santiago, but by the time we were ready to go, you were like an old friend. And, then! Then, you stayed with me the entire 800 kilometers. When other people were casting their boots aside in frustration, we just slipped right past them with ease.
Ask me if I had a blister? I had one. ONE. And, that was my fault, not yours. We got caught in that rain storm on the descent into Santo Domingo. Remember? That was a rough patch. Lightning and everything. I should have put on a pair of socks before the rain, but I was so comfortable going barefoot. You make it so easy.
Our relationship was built to last. When you got rained on, I stuffed you with newpapers. Heck, I even threw you in a dryer once. You are a champ.
Think of all the places we have seen! The bulls running in Pamplona, that was pretty great, right?
Wow, what a ride! And, then, when we finally made it Santiago? Well, that was sheer joy. We skipped, we danced, we almost collapsed.
I must confess, in a moment of weakness, I traded you in for a skimpy little pair of flip flops for a few days, but they meant nothing to me. When we made it back to France, we continued our training in Biarritz. Running by the beach is so romantic. It was then that I realized that you weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Merrell, my love, we were meant to be together. Maybe soon we will have another go at Santiago. What do you say? Another 800 kilometers?
“The sky is not my limit…I am.” ― T.F. Hodge, From Within I Rise: Spiritual Triumph Over Death and Conscious Encounters with “The Divine Presence”
After a suprisingly restful night at the albergue in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, I was finally ready to start the Camino. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I set off at daybreak on what I discovered from my Michelin guide was going to be a grueling ascent to the Spanish border and then a steep descent into Roncesvalles, the resting point of the first stage of my adventure.
The trek over the French Pyrenees is approximately 25 kilometers and although there are days on the Camino that exceed this distance, physically, this day is especially punishing and can take up to eight hours to complete.
Because I chose to hike in July, after about 10 a.m., I realized that I had a previously underated adversary- the rising sun. Duh. It is a bit of a blur, but at one point, before reaching the top of the mountain, I found myself pressed against what I can only describe as a ditch with about ten other people trying to find just a smidgen of shade.
Several times throughout the day, I found myself asking, “What the hell am I doing here?” I think I actually hallucinated at one point. But then, I finally arrived at the top of the mountain and I realized what made all the suffering worthwhile.
At first, I saw a flock of sheep. Then, goats. Then, a huge family of horses. They were everywhere! And, I was the only person for what felt like miles. I took a sweaty selfie and admired the view.
At this point, I also noticed a landmark. “La Vierge Du Chemin” or “The Virgin of the Way”. She stands on the mountain and is the first of many, many Virgin Mary statues on the Camino. But, she is especially significant as she seems to be watching over everyone that makes it to the top of the mountain.
I tried to keep my distance from the horse family. They were beautiful and busy grazing. There were babies and mamas and pregnant mamas and the last thing that I wanted to do was to disturb their routine. But, as I wound around the top of the mountain, the family started running in my direction. Running. I froze, then got out my camera and captured a few images as the horses got closer and closer. Magic.
At the very limit of the French border, I came across a family, the first people I had seen in hours, who had driven to the spot to have a picnic. They were sitting near a cross statue that is another stopping point where pilgrims leave prayers and take photos.
The rest of the day, was pretty much downhill. Literally, not figuratively. While I met many people later who complained about the descent into Roncesvalles because of its wear and tear on the knees, I found it refreshing after climbing upwards all day. Most of the climb down is through a Birch forest and notably cooler. I finally felt in a zone after struggling for hours in the heat. Then, miraculously, I found myself at my destination.
Roncesvalles is a little village with a pretty big history full of stories and relics dating back to the defeat of Charlemagne and death of the French commander Roland by the Basque in the Middle Ages. The Basque pride is real and over the following days, I saw a lot of graffiti demanding freedom for the Basque people.
The municipal albergue in Roncesvalles is huge, sleeping around 150 pilgrims per night. Although pretty crowded, I found the amenities surprising: a private locker, electrical outlets, wifi and a young priest bearing wine in Solo cups. What?? Completely unexpected, but after what reminded me of being in labor for eight hours, I wasn’t going to ask too many questions.
“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.” ― Amit Ray, Om Chanting and Meditation
I arrived in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port pumped up and ready to start my first day of hiking. However, I failed to anticipate the strength of the midday heat and the endurance required to hike twenty seven kilometers uphill in one day. I was quickly given a reality check by one of the volunteers at the “Amis du Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle” or “Friends of the Way of Saint James of Compostella”. He politely informed me that there was no freaking way that I was going to start hiking that day. He advised that I just relax the rest of the afternoon, get a good night’s rest and start fresh early in the morning. Bummer.
The village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is a popular starting point for modern pilgrims. The village is convenient for travelers because of its proximity to the international airport of Biarritz. Historically, though, it was a milestone for ancient pilgrims passing through and stopping for a night or two before beginning the steep ascent of the Pyrennes. The village has managed to maintain the ancient charm, while also creating a thriving economy based on the pilgrimage.
However, if you are the type of person who has a hard time sitting still *points thumbs at self*, a full day in SJPdP can be a little frustrating. There is a pretty steep hill to climb from the train station to the pilgrim’s office and most of the ancient town is situated on a few small streets on the hill. After eating some lunch and waiting in line for my credentials (the pilgrim’s passport), I found myself perusing the small shops and walking up and down the hill. In the late afternoon, I walked to the highest point of the village and finally started to relax when I caught a glimpse of a small flock of sheep doing what sheep do. Quietly grazing, no stressful or racing thoughts. I sat down, ate my early dinner as an impromptu picnic and enjoyed the view.
Then, I reclined on a nearby park bench and realized that I am so used to having somewhere to be or an obligation to fulfill that I had forgotten how to just relax. I would find out in the following days that it takes a while to slow down. But, when I finally did, when the racing thoughts stopped and I just followed the path, it was total bliss. People asked me on the camino what I was thinking about on the journey. Happily, I replied, “Absolutely nothing. My mind is finally empty.”
“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” ― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America
On July 6, 2013, I hopped a train in Biarritz, the French seaside resort town, and headed slightly southeast to a tiny village called Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. This is where I would began the long journey to Santiago de Compostela, the famed ending point of El Camino de Santiago.
Long before the invention of paved roads and spray-painted yellow arrows pointing the way, Christian pilgrims hiked the often strenuous path for months through unpredicatable climates and dangerous forests. The destination was the final resting place of Saint James, the martyr, who was said to answer the prayers of the devoted. Before the Christians, there were Pagans, on the route to Finisterre (the end of the Earth) on the Galician coast, searching for the Gods where the sun goes to die.
I was confident of avoiding forest bandits and wild animals, I did my research. Most testimonials of the journey warned against blisters and fatigue, but the thought of Robin Hood and imaginary Spanish grizzly bears crossed my mind more than once.
So, feeling a lot like a turtle, with everything that I would need in the next month or so neatly stuffed into seven kilos on my back, I set off on my adventure. For me, personally, this was not a religious journey. It was more like an endurance test. But, I found out quickly that on the road to Santiago, magic happens. Reality and spirituality collide. And, like the Steinbeck quote above, the more one tries to control destiny, the more destiny pulls away.