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{February 6, 2018}   A Walk to Remember

Last year, two months shy of my 83rd birthday, I signed up to walk the last 112 kms (60 -65 miles) of the El Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) with one of my sons. After signing up and paying my non-refundable deposit I must admit I began asking myself … “what was I thinking?”

This is a walk well-known as a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage. It is a road said to have been walked and evangelized by St. James the Elder – one of Jesus’s apostles – and travelers come from all over the world to make the journey.

Its most common route begins at St. Jean Pied de Port, France and travels 500 kms through four of Spain’s 15 regions ending at the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. The entire journey takes about 30-35 days, but shorter portions of the walk have become more popular with modern day sojourners.

Thankfully for our walk my son had insisted on purchasing walking sticks; for while we had anticipated a long, tedious walk on a somewhat level roadway, we soon found ourselves hiking up and down steep hills, and treading upon dirt, gravel, rock, asphalt and slate surfaces.

As we began I told myself I would be happy if I walked six miles a day, but I surprised myself when at the end of the day I had walked ten. It was one of the most challenging things I have done in life thus far, and if time permitted I think I might even attempt completing the entire 500 kms.

The portion we walked from Sarria in Northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela took us through picturesque forests, farmlands and villages, and into small towns. We crossed highways, bridges and streams, encountering breathtaking views, some extending to the Atlantic Ocean. We met villagers and peoples from all over the world; exchanging the customary greeting of “Buen Camino” (good walk or good way) along the way. We wore shells to commemorate our journey, the shell being the symbol of St. James, indicating – not only the many roads that lead to Compostela – but representing the two layers of the human condition, the physical and the spiritual.

Symbols of and for the walk dotted the roadways and included stone markers painted with yellow arrows pointing the way; milestones indicating area covered and miles to go; and crosses, mounds of stones and personal items left roadside by pilgrims as testament to their journey. It was more an experience than a vacation, one that left an indelible mark on our lives.

Upon entering the main plaza in Santiago de Compostela at journey’s end, we were greeted with the music of bagpipes and cheers. Everyone was singing, hugging and high-fiving, expressing joy and relief for having completed an arduous but rewarding journey.  We then took the Credencial del Peregrino (Pilgrim Credential) we had carried and had stamped at various places along the way (churches, inns, shops and restaurants) to the Pilgrim Office in the plaza for the final stamp. Finished, we took photos; passports held high overhead and toes planted on the zero mile marker embedded in the tiles there.

It was a fitting end to a memorable experience that will never be forgotten.

 

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