As I write this I’m at DFW airport, waiting to board a flight to Madrid, Spain. From there I’ll board a train for a four hour ride North to Ponferrada, and after a night of sleep, I’ll start early, walking out of that small city into the countryside South and West along the Camino Invierno. The most common question that anyone who walks these ancient pilgrimage routes is asked is “Why?” If you do it more than once, that question seems to take on more puzzlement, “Why are you doing it again.” The full response takes a moment longer than either the questioner or the responder have available in casual conversation, but I’ll write it here, in case anyone wonders why a 71 year old man is setting off to walk 180 miles with a 20 lbs. pack on his back.
The Camino is much more than just walking a very long distance, each day and in the aggregate. It is a historic, cultural and social phenomenon… and yet it is very unique and personal to each one of us that goes down that long path. We’re walking in the footsteps of countless others who’ve done this, the vast majority under unimaginably more difficult circumstances, for over a thousand years. We walk over roads that were built by Roman soldiers and slaves as part of the expansion of that empire 2,000 years ago. We cross their still-intact stone bridges and the towns we walk through or sleep in were once their settlements or fortresses. Tell me you wouldn’t feel some weird emotions around that. You’re knee-deep in the present-day culture of distinct communities connected, at least loosely, under the banner of the Spanish national government, headed still by a king. You experience Basque, Castillian and Galician culture and language and you feel in your bones how deeply connected each of these communities are within themselves. Unless you’ve got a hard shell around you or your senses are numb, it gets to you. And then there are your fellow peregrinos (pilgrims). They come from literally every corner of the world. Their motivations may differ, but they’re all here for the same fundamental reason… to walk until they reach the traditional goal of Santiago de Compostela, or possibly beyond, to the sea and “the end of the world” at Finisterre or Muxia. Your common cause becomes an immediate bond, regardless of language, flag or color of your passport. You sense it very quickly… you are all the same, you are all one. The trappings of national differences that somehow separate us lose their significance to be replaced by our sameness. And in that sameness, we share our lives, our food and drink, our experiences… everything… very quickly. There’s a kind of intimacy, by which I don’t mean physical intimacy, but clearly a level of emotional intimacy that you simply don’t find in normal social settings. When you’re walking together, struggling against your respective pains, doubts and even fears, it’s amazing how deeply people will go to share of themselves to fellow walkers who otherwise would be utter strangers.
All of this leaves you full of complex but generally positive emotions that draw me to conclude: Damn it, if we can get along and share like this here on the Camino, why can’t we figure out how to achieve a similar level of understanding and common cause to solve our national and global problems rather than magnifying the differences – mostly man-made and artificial differences – that seem to cause the problems in the first place.
Walking the two previous Caminos – the Frances in ‘15 and the Portugués in ‘17 – has stretched my emotional confidence. Maybe the better term is emotional capacity, and in taking on this new challenge – the Camino Invierno – I’m hoping to keep that confidence fresh and alive.
This is why I’m excited for the next 12 days of walking through a small but rugged part of Spain. I’m expecting a “Buen Camino.”