“Wanderer, there is no way, the road is made by walking.”
That’s what 20th century Spanish poet Antonio Machado said.
Turns out he is both right and wrong, as we discovered while walking 215 kilometres (135 miles) on the Camino de Santiago.
The Camino is a large network of medieval Christian pilgrimage routes stretching across Europe that come together at the tomb of St. James in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain. It’s become a popular thing to do for people looking for everything from spiritual enlightenment to a physical challenge.
Our adventure took us along the Camino Francés from Sarria to Santiago and then along the Camino Finisterre to the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Fisterra which in ancient times was referred to as Finis Terrae or “the end of the world”. This path is linked to the pre-Christian, Celtic and Roman origins of the Camino de Santiago.
The Camino is also known as the way of St James or simply The Way. So, in one sense Antonio Machado was not correct. There is actually “a way”, a path that has been walked for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. A path that is marked by yellow arrows and scallop shells, the symbol of St. James.
But what he was really getting at is at the heart of why so many people are called to give the pilgrimage experience a try. Walking for days on end has an impact – physically, mentally and emotionally. While you might have a map that points the way, you really don’t know what you might encounter along the way, or who you will be while you are trudging up and down the Galacian countryside.
My husband and I didn’t really have a specific motivation for walking the Camino. It simply was something that we had talked about doing for a number of years. We weren’t influenced by religious reasons. If anything, we were more interested in the historical and cultural experience. It’s fair to say we were just open to whatever The Way might offer.
In the end, it turns out The Way offered us what Buddhists call The Middle Way – a path between extremes.
While at times it was not easy physically, it was not overwhelming. There was good conversation and time for reflection but neither of us had an epiphany. There were no great ah-ha moments, no call to drop to our knees in tears at the end of the journey as we witnessed some people doing. A sense of satisfaction -definitely, an excellent adventure – absolutely.
If anything, I’d say The Way confirmed, highlighted, or reaffirmed some things that I already knew to be true. You could call it Life Lessons 2.0 – same wisdom in a slightly different package.
But isn’t that the way it always is?
Life is continually showing us what we need to pay attention to, what is important, and how to walk the path. It’s not so much that we need new lessons – we need to apply the ones we already know.
Here are a few of those lessons….
Whatever you are carrying gets heavier the longer you carry it. Fortunately, we only had a day pack to manage as our larger bag was transported for us each day. Even then you noticed the difference of taking your pack off at rest stops, the lighter it became as you drank the water in your bottle, the heavier it seemed the more tired you got.
Chances are you are carrying too much of something. Whether its too much stuff cluttering up your home, or old thoughts and beliefs weighing you down, or habits that keep you from your goals or a burden that you need help with, remember that it takes a toll. Lighten your load by putting down something that no longer serves you. And don’t underestimate the cumulative effect of a bunch of little things. One less thing to carry is good no matter how small.
Following people who have gone before is good
There’s something reassuring about finding one of those yellow Camino markers pointing you in the right direction. Especially when you get to a fork in the road. But sometimes there isn’t a marker and you need to rely on the people just ahead of you on the path. Often there was someone ahead of us giving us the confidence that we were headed in the right direction.
In life we sometimes think that we need to blaze a new trail but there’s nothing wrong with playing follow the leader. Learning from people who are already doing what you want to do can often fast-track things for you. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel. Discover who has gone before you, study what and how they did it, and then use that wisdom to your advantage.
Make sure the people you are following are on the right path
Just because someone is ahead of you doesn’t mean they know where they are going. One day we watched a group of people follow a couple the wrong way simply because they didn’t see the marker pointing the other direction.
So yes, it’s good to let others lead the way if they are heading where you want to go. But don’t follow blindly. Be conscious and intentional about who you follow and watch for the signs that confirm you are indeed on the right path.
Greet people on the path
One of my favourite things on the Camino is the ritual of greeting pilgrims with a cheery “Buen Camino”. It literally means good road but is intended as a wish for a good journey. Whether it was from fellow travelers on the path or local people in a village, hearing buen Camino made it seem like we were all connected on the journey. It gave a sense of camaraderie. Sometimes buen Camino was offered as encouragement to someone who was struggling a bit– an acknowledgement that meant “keep going – you can do it.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if we greeted each other – friends and strangers alike – as we went about our day? In a time when technology is supposed to connect us, it seems that people are more disconnected and distracted than ever. The simple act of a heartfelt hello to people who cross your path is a way to begin reconnecting us as human beings. Make eye contact. Smile. Wish people well.
What’s challenging is all perception
It’s safe to say that everyone has their own experience on the Camino. What is challenging for one person doesn’t seem so bad for another. Is it worse to walk a long, long incline or to go up a shorter but steeper slope? When my feet were tired, my strategy was to focus on a smaller chunk – a mile at a time. I’ve walked a mile many times. It’s not hard. When I was bored with walking, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to walk this path hundreds of years ago.How hard something seems is in many respects a mind game. What you focus on creates your experience. Click To Tweet
How hard something seems is in many respects a mind game. The more you tell yourself “it’s hard”, the harder it seems. The more you think “I can’t” or “I don’t want to”, the more resistant you become to the task at hand. On the Camino or anywhere else, what you focus on creates your experience.
Go out of your way sometimes
When you are walking 24 km one day, it might seem kind of crazy to add an extra 4.6 km to make a detour, but that’s exactly what we did. There was an opportunity to add some mileage to see a 12th century monastery dedicated to the Templar Knights of Santiago. I’d say most people opted for the usual route. We were glad we didn’t as we had the chance to see something off the beaten path and chat with the lovely custodian who shared some interesting tales about the history of the monastery.
Sometimes going out of your way gives you a different and richer experience. It usually requires a little more effort, but it often is well worth it. Don’t always take the path of least resistance. Require more of yourself sometimes. Sure, simple and straightforward will get the job done, but every so often go for the juicy stuff that is a bit of a stretch.
Delight in simple pleasures
When you are hot, sweaty and tired, the simple things seem oh so lovely. Cold water. A juicy orange. A shady path. One day we had packed a local treat – an almond cake called tarta de Santiago – into the backpack. Sitting on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, with many kilometers done and many still to go, it might very well have been the best cake I have ever eaten.
Take time to pay attention to the simple things – the ones you take for granted. Slow down and savour something at least once during the day. Chances are these little things are the ones that you will miss the most if they disappear.
It really is all about the journey
Turns out we became the poster people for the cliché about the journey not the destination. That trip to Finisterre to see the medieval lands end? Well when we got there, you couldn’t see anything. Two days of fog meant that while we could hear the ocean, all we could see was a wall of white. Getting to the 0 marker usually means photos of you standing with the glorious Atlantic Ocean as a backdrop. Not for us. It didn’t matter. We took some cool foggy photos, took care to not fall off the cliff and found satisfaction in the adventure that had brought us here.
We are all so focused on the destination, the outcome, the goal, the result, that we forget that it really is the journey that makes all the difference. In the wise words of Ursula K. Le Guin:
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”