I came to the Camino looking for profound experience, and I found it. It met and surpassed all the expectations I had. I have always been an introverted person, a highly self-conscious person, bordering on obsessive. An isolator, a loner. Many people realize and acknowledge I am a personable and easy-going person. By all outward appearances I am. But for some reason, I never allowed myself to excel and take risks in my life. I carried this exaggerated idea of false modesty and never wanted to be noticed doing anything, good or bad. I envied the happiness of my peers and viewed it as something unattainable and not in my make up to possess. This lead to a very lonely and anxious existence, second guessing every last move and and living in fear that every one was judging me.
I worked for 2 years at dead-end entry level jobs, I was fired from the first one, being overwhelmed and overworked and generally unmotivated. I bumbled my way into another job at a non-profit after a two month break and an enlightening stint serving as a juror on a grand jury. After an anesthetized year behind a computer screen 9 hours a day, I was fired from this job suddenly, 2 weeks before I had planned to quit. I had checked out mentally, even though I was already going through the motions for my entire time at the job.
I set my sights on the Camino de Santiago, of the knowledge I only had of the many travel blogs and the Martin Sheen movie “The Way.” On the Camino, there is atmosphere of respect for individuality and non-judgment for one’s personal journey that allows for a break from the stresses of daily life, small and large. There are water shortages with no fountains in sight, blisters, muscle cramps, bed bugs, sickness from overexertion and foot pain that we commiserate over and it unites us. Through the sharing of these physical hardships, I realized I am not so special, and I am not such a victim, everyone else hurts.
After baring this physical gauntlet, people start to soften up and bare their souls. Sometimes it’s slow, and sometimes I leapfrogged the lengthy small talk phase of conversations altogether. I wanted to skip over the bullshit and get to the good stuff. Why are you here? Is the Camino what you expected? What do you hope to do with your life? Is there something that brought you here? There is nothing quite like the thrill of the open road. The excitement of who you might meet that day, the stories they will share with you and the vulnerabilities they will bare to you. Most of all, a shared goal. “Which city are you going to today? Ponferrada? Wow that’s a trek, another 20 kilometers” The shared goal puts us all in a mindset of moving forward, always advancing, as slow or as fast as needed and whatever each person has the capacity for.
The true magic of the camino is in the silence, traversing an entire country on foot, all the wheat fields, mountain passes, highways, foothills, streams, bridges, rolling scenic hills, quaint villages with charm, absorbing the culture, one step at a time, with everything you need to live in your backpack. Meeting the stray dogs, cats, sheep, cattle, horses that greet you, and the friendly local people of Spain who are eager to assist you. Relying on the guidance and kindness of strangers and knowing that we all need help, a point in the right direction. When I sank low and things looked bleak, there was a pilgrim there to brighten my day. There were times when I was brought to tears walking long stretches in solitude in the afternoon. I couldn’t exactly pinpoint what emotions were being brought to the surface. It was a mixture of bliss, sadness and gratefulness, which is shocking to me as I never considered myself a grateful person, always complaining about the things I had and wishing I had better things, better friends, and a better life.
The feeling could most accurately be described as: this world, the natural world and all the people in it, is overwhelming beautiful and complex, and it will all come to an end. My life is a journey, with a beginning, middle, and end, ups and downs, peaks of bliss and valleys of self-doubt. I think I started to glimpse, if only a tiny bit, the wisdom that authors like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson preached about solitude in nature. The natural world in all its beauty, is trying to tell us that we came from it, we are inextricably linked to it and will return to it, and no one can evade that fate. I struggle to process ”life” every day and everything that encompasses that word, in dreams, relationships, existential loneliness and contemplation , that lead me nowhere.
I shared in the bond of this very human activity, walking, so simple yet so powerful. The state of being constantly in transit leads us to be open, continuously taking in new experiences, learning a new way, through the sharing of passions and fears, childhood dreams, failed efforts, broken promises, plans dashed, lives re-started and reimagined. The Camino reminds me that we are all headed to the same place. Now when I hear people that are impressed by my journey and want to know more, I don’t want to list the Camino’s attributes, I only want to go back, to sink in to that feeling of being an explorer and soaking in the world, a town at a time, on my way across a country.