The Call to Camino de Santiago
“You don’t choose a life dad, you live one.” -The Way, film
The Call to Camino de Santiago has occurred for the past seventeen years, and I am finally said yes to the quest. I was 25 years old when I first heard of the Camino de Santiago on my first solo backpack trip across Europe. I had just left San Fermin in Pamplona, also known as the Running of the Bulls. Exhausted and excited, I was headed to Barcelona via train and found myself talking with fellow travellers. An American middle aged mother and her 20something son, shared plans of their summer holiday walking the Camino Frances route of the Camino de Santiago. “Why?” was the only question I could muster. The response intrigued me, as they wanted to spend time bonding together after the son had graduated from college.
Why would anyone walk 500 miles? My family does not go on hikes. I never had the urge to do a marathon or anything to overly physically exert my body. I was already having a difficult time navigating Europe with a backpack and large luggage, while using public transportation. But walk? I understood this was a pilgrimage, but had never had met anyone in person that accomplished such a feat. In my twenty five years, nobody in my family or friend group had gone backpacking anywhere. People had travelled to exotic, but generally with large tour groups.
I realized travelling via backpacking and staying in hostels exposed me to a world of people I was unfamiliar with. These people were true wanderlusters who embarked on journeys for the sake and story of adventure. They were not the bourgeouise, who only stayed in five starred hotels and popped from city to city on a one week vacation. They were not tourists but travellers.
Over the years, the call to the Camino de Santiago would pop up. One entry point was the film The Way starring Martin Sheen, which was a beautiful story that shared several characters journeys of why they took this endeavor. The characters were all of different ages and life experiences, but walked with intention.
Camino De Santiago Facts
Camino de Santiago has theoretically been a pilgrimage on and off for over 2,000 years. Traditionally it was taken by Catholics, to walk towards the location where the apostle St. James’ remains were buried. In addition, reportedly, it was a way to spend less time in purgatory. But more recently people not only choose to do this for religious reasons, but to mark transitional moments in their life, to prove one’s physical and emotional strength, for health reasons, for the adventure, and even to walk towards an answer. The path takes on average four to six week to complete, and there are multiple starting points depending on the path (Frances, Portuguese, del Norte, Primitivo, Ingles). To receive a certificate of completion, one must complete at least 100 kilometers walking or 200 kilometers bicycling.
The Camino as a Learning Walk
On another trip, I was in Malaga Spain, alone for Christmas. I chose to stay in a hostel and met loads of fellow travellers. I spoke with a female social worker from a Nordic country. She shared her stories of walking the Camino de Santiago. She used to work in an adolescent correctional facility. The country offered to these individuals the potential opportunity to transform via this pilgrimage. One dozen adolescents were hand selected each year, after having written an essay as to why this journey would be beneficial for them. One staff member would accompany this individual on this walk. They would walk together for the six weeks.
This seemed surreal to me. The national government offering a pilgrimage opportunity in lieu of time served? The program had gone on for decades with numerous stories of success and emotional development. She also shared that she was assisting in gathering data for an upcoming book about this practice. For this she interviewed one of the first participants who took the journey 30-40 years prior. After she spoke with him on the phone, he automatically left to do the journey once again. That phone call reminded him of what a monumental life changing moment this was and vowed to repeat it.
The Possibility of a Camino in My Life
I was hungry for this transformation, but thought a journey like this was totally out of the question for me. As an American, I received only three weeks off per year, which is inclusive of sick days. When would I have this amount of time available just to walk?
Years later I met a previous American Camino voyager in the Shakespeare Bookstore in Paris who felt the same way. She nudged me I can still do this and offered what she had done. Each year, she took a different part of the journey, and collectively made one long Camino. She reminded me I don’t have to do the journey one particular way, there are multiple paths to get there. Some take longer than others. This still counts.
The Popularity of the Camino
Interest in the Camino is growing in 2019, over 350,000 pilgrims received a certificate of completion. In 1985, there were only 1200 people who completed this. Even in 2020 with the pandemic, over 53,000 people completed it. Once many of us hear of this journey repeatedly, it’s as if the call to Camino de Santiago is occurring.
I thought of this for years, and finally during the pandemic I decided to take her advice. The search for organized walking tours began . I paid a deposit with one organization, who postponed their remaining trips for the year. Disappointment loomed, maybe now was not the time. But I was able to locate another tour group who were doing one last tour in the month of October. I signed up, and now am ready to begin.
But why did I choose to start the camino when I did? It was a transitional period in my life. I was leaving my full time job and transitioning into unknown territory of The Great Resignation. I tried to absorb as much as I could about this path, which included listening to podcast episodes of fellow travellers sharing their tales. One individual offered that the Camino does not give you what you want, it gives you what you need.
Your Own Camino
The Type A personality in me knew that I may be judged by fellow peregrinos, because I did the camino with a tour group and only completed the last 100 kilometers. There may be preconceived notions that this is not the full 500 mile trek, and we cheated for walking six full days is not the entire experience.
Yet I would disagree. The individuals I walked with, our hearts were pure and ready for this pilgrimage. For many of us it’s not something we did to check off the list, but an opening towards the pilgrim way that exists within. I’m reminded of words of wisdom I heard that the arrival to Santiago, is only the beginning of the journey, not the end.
The Camino called to me for years, and I finally answered the call. Perhaps as you read this, it may be the first fluttering of the way pulling at your heart. This blog may be your Call to Camino de Santiago. May you continue to reflect, grow, and be present on your current journey. And maybe one day, you may meet your soul and others on the camino. Buen Camino.
If curious about The Way, trailer link is https://youtu.be/o5VZKWcgw6c
Also there is a research article available at this link for the Camino being used as a learning walk for juvenile delinquents. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/357245684_Young_Offenders_on_the_Camino_de_Santiago-Theoretical_Background_of_the_Learning_Walks