It was an impulse thing — picking up a book at the sale table while waiting for a friend. “The Pilgrimage,” by Paulo Coelho was about an old trail that pilgrims used during the Middle Ages to get to some shrine in Spain called the Santiago de Compostela where the bones of the apostle St. James are said to be. After reading the first three pages, I found tears running down my face. I knew I had to walk the Camino de Santiago, all 800 kilometers of it.
For the rest of the summer I walked every day, trying to build up my couch potato muscles. I bought the best walking boots I could find. A friend lent me a backpack, another insisted I take his old raincoat. “You’ll need it before the trip is over,” he said. I argued that I would be walking through sunny Spain, but he won out. There was one additional thing I decided to take, an old fiddle. I’d learned to play, not too well, but well enough to keep me company.
I still remember that first day walking over the Pyrenees. It was a long hard route full of fog that hid the path. I thought I’d get lost even before I started. Maybe it was those thousands of other pilgrims across the ages that had walked this way before me — who knows? Somehow my feet stayed on the path, and just in time for dinner I arrived at the ancient town of Roncesvalles, where the great warrior of my history books, Roland, fought his last battle. In the weeks following, I trekked up glorious hills filled with tall trees, through lush farmland with vineyards almost as old as the hills themselves. I walked small villages with cobblestone roads, cattle in the street, chickens about, and at every house door (fortunately, tied up) a barking dog. but never a drop of rain. The only useless piece of clothing in my rucksack was that darn raincoat.
Every evening, I would arrive at a refugio: special places pilgrims can stay overnight, sometimes in old monasteries. I remember one old monk giving us a delicious garlic soup for dinner. On a few nights when I wasn’t too tired, I’d bring out my fiddle and play some of my favorite pieces. I began losing my beer belly, and my legs grew stronger. I walked farther each day. People began to wave at me as I passed along the road. At first I wondered why. Then I realized that I wasn’t a tourist, nor a stranger. I was like those who had been walking through their village for centuries. I was a pilgrim.
Slowly I began to see like a pilgrim. Everywhere I looked, in even the smallest town there was not just a church, but a cathedral. A beautiful ornate structure that had taken generations to build. A father had laid the foundation, his son and his grandson’s had built the walls and their children had put on the roof. My memories are of early mornings full of joy and gratitude at being alive. I found myself filled with warm feelings of goodwill toward everyone I met. Was this what it meant to be a pilgrim?
After a heavy rainfall the morning I arrived in Compostela, the sun came out while I had my raincoat on. What I saw amazed me. Hardly believing my eyes, I pulled out my camera, taking a picture of the shadow cast upon the road. It wasn’t just a shadow, what I saw in front of me on the road was the image of the pilgrim, complete with hat, staff and cloak but in duplicate. There was only me, yet there were two shadows. I felt as if my soul had connected to the thousands who had over time walked this sacred road that connects heart, mind and soul to a time of simple faith and limitless spiritual energy.
I’ll never forget the power of my 30 days on the “Road of St James” …. NEVER!
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