We walked into Santiago de Compostela on Wednesday afternoon. 500 miles done!
I set out on the Camino with two goals. First, I wanted to take on the physical challenge of walking 500 miles. Second, I wanted to raise money for Episcopal Relief & Development’s work with children. Both of those goals have been achieved with the support, prayers, and good wishes of hundreds of my family, friends, and colleagues. It’s been a wonderful, challenging, and deeply rewarding pilgrimage. Your love has sustained me throughout. Thank you.
As I wrap up my Camino, I have a lot on my mind. Accordingly, I’ve decided to divide my 500-mile reflections into two parts. This is part one. Part two will come in a few days.
One of the most moving aspects of my pilgrimage has been to see the memorials to pilgrims who have passed away. Sometimes these memorials have been put up by friends and family as a tribute to their loved one who made a regular practice of walking the Camino. Other times, these memorials are for someone who passed away in the midst of their Camino, either from natural causes or an accident of some sort. As Idle predicts, these pilgrims are both named and remembered.
All throughout walking the Camino we’ve been part of a cohort of pilgrims who more or less started at the same time in St. Jean Pied de Port. Our interactions began with silent nodded acknowledgments, moved to pleasantries, and, in some cases, light friendship and exchanged tips and commiseration over a shared meal.
There is an unspoken understanding that what happens on the Camino stays on the Camino. Accordingly, I will refer to members of my cohort of pilgrims by nicknames. I’m not sure this is what Idle had in mind when he wrote one would be “named” in the Epiphany hymn I quoted in my first blog post from the Camino. Perhaps so. I’ve also altered personal details and, in some cases, created composite descriptions. I don’t flatter myself that any of my pilgrim friends will find my blog, read it and recognize themselves, but I still want to respect everyone’s privacy.
While walking the Camino, we didn’t usually see our entire cohort every day. Sometimes, we’d be in sync for a day or two and then lose track of each other for a few days, or never see each other again. Part of the pleasure of the pilgrimage was the serendipity of finding one another after a few days and exchanging tales of our trials and tribulations.
These are just a few of the more memorable characters who have populated our world as we’ve walked, much like in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
The Reluctant Romeo
On the night before we set out from St. Jean Pied de Port, we were eating dinner in a local restaurant. It was very busy and two young women arrived. The only seats were at a table already occupied by a good-looking, solitary, and shy Italian man in his early twenties that I nicknamed the Reluctant Romeo. The hostess asked if the young women could be seated with him. He graciously invited them to join him. By week three the Reluctant Romeo had an entire harem of lovely Juliets vying to join him at meals. He looked a bit overwhelmed by the attention. If he’d set out on the Camino for some solitary time and private reflection, that didn’t look likely.
The Duke and Duchess
One fashionable Argentinian couple, whom I referred to as the Duke and Duchess, always turned up at meals immaculately groomed having just attended the local Pilgrim Mass. We would stagger in, barely able to walk, never mind groomed. The Duke and Duchess had an aristocratic air about them and invariably knew which restaurants were good and what to order. We saw them only once actually walking the Camino. They were posing for photographs in front of a church. Uncharitably, I suspected them of secretly taking taxis between stops.
Archie and Edith
One afternoon an irritable British couple, who I came to think of as Archie and Edith from the US television series All in the Family, was checking into a hotel just ahead of us. They spoke not a word of Spanish. They made the rude mistake of assuming that if they just spoke more loudly and angrily, they’d be understood. It didn’t work. One day the wife and I fell into step and talked pleasantly for a few minutes. Her husband bent my walking partner’s ear with endless unsolicited advice and strongly held opinions about every topic under the sun. After that we tried to avoid them. By the third day, the couple didn’t seem to be speaking to each other. The last time we saw them they had contracted COVID and were headed home. I pray for their recovery.
Daddy Long Legs
We were routinely overtaken by a young Frenchman, who I nicknamed Daddy Long Legs because he had VERY long thin legs. It didn’t always look as if he knew where he was putting his feet. Combine that with poles that he would flail about and it was quite a sight. We’d catch up to him at the next village and invariably he’d be entertaining a cohort of lovely young women, regaling them with tales of his adventures in at least three different languages over beers and food. And yet, he always walked alone.
The Gritty Granny
One day we passed an elderly and very dignified Korean woman who was slowly inching her way along the Camino in bandaged feet and bedroom slippers. She very sweetly wished us a Buen Camino as we apprehensively watched her gingerly make her way down the trail. Three days later we passed her again. How did that happen? Did she walk all night? She’d managed to put on sneakers, but she wasn’t moving a lot faster. She had amazing grit. She was not unusual. There was a surprising number of Korean and Japanese women of a certain age making their way to Santiago. They each traveled by themselves, moving slowly and steadily towards their goal. Their resilience, determination, and grit were inspiring.
The Merry Musketeers
For a few days we were accompanied by a group of Italian guys, probably in their late twenties or early thirties. They each had an impressive number of tattoos and an alarming array of piercings. I was worried that one of them would get snagged on a branch and lose a body part. These young men partied hard and long into the night at the local bars and yet every morning they were out on the Camino bright and early teasing and laughing with each other. Every so often they would get separated and they’d frantically phone one another shouting in Italian until they were together again.
The Bicycling Beauties
On several occasions during our walk we would come across groups of between five and six young Japanese or Korean women walking together. They spent a lot of time giggling and making funny faces while taking pictures of each other in front of churches. By the time we reached the final days of the Camino, one of these groups had decided they were done with walking and rented bikes for the final stretch of the Camino. Much to the disappointment of the Merry Musketeers who were often trying to buy them beer at various rest points, they bicycled off to Santiago de Compostela never to be seen again.
The Lost Lawyer
One of the most poignant characters on the Camino was the Lost Lawyer. They were mostly young men, although there were some young women, who were between jobs. Many, but not all, were lawyers. All were in demanding professions. One night while I was waiting for my clothes to dry in the laundry room of our hotel, I sat and chatted with a young man who was at the end of a three-month hiatus between finishing a clerkship with a judge and starting at a major Wall Street law firm. He was struggling with how to balance what he knew would be the demands of his job with his desire to maintain an active and engaged life of faith as a gay Catholic. I resisted pitching him on The Episcopal Church and mostly just listened as he rationalized his way through the career choices he’d made and the tension between his Catholicism and his sexuality. It broke my heart to hear him say that he viewed walking the Camino as a way to prepare for the burnout he knew was coming. When I asked him why he didn’t take more time to think through his options, he said he couldn’t go without health insurance any longer. Clearly a bright and thoughtful young man, my sense was that he’d been on an escalator of achievement his entire life and even though he knew what lay ahead wouldn’t fulfill him and might actually harm him, he didn’t know how to get off.
The Modest Mountaineers
Our favorite pilgrims were a very nice and very fit couple from New Zealand in their early sixties. We would often sit at adjacent tables and chat over meals. They oozed good health and clean living. In contrast with us, they carried their gear in packs on their backs from hotel to hotel. They were very much “on task” planning every move and securing healthy fruit at various stops while we worked on our second beers and ate potato chips. The Modest Mountaineers were on the lookout for waifs and strays and on more than one occasion I saw them take one of the Lost Lawyers under their wing for a meal and conversation. They were deeply caring and generous people. Most of the hotels we stayed in were perfectly clean and utilitarian establishments. The décor tended to the spartan and the rooms were designed to be hosed out after smelly pilgrims had moved on. On the one rare occasion when we were booked into a nicer hotel than was typical, I met the wife at the lavish breakfast buffet. She seemed embarrassed to be staying at such a fancy hotel. I felt sad that her enjoyment of the amenities was curtailed by her discomfort. Here was a generous and lovely woman, who spent an inordinate amount of time looking after Lost Lawyers and yet she felt she needed to apologize for what I considered basic self-care. I thought this over as I ate a second chocolate donut, which if you’re walking at least ten miles a day counts as self-care in my book.
When I was preparing for the Camino, I focused on my physical and spiritual preparation. I had not thought much about who I would meet. I’d framed my experience as a solitary one, albeit with a supporting role for my walking companion. It hasn’t been like that at all. As in the Canterbury Tales, everyone has a story to tell. Each person on the Camino is here for their own reasons and at the same time one is engaged in an intensely communal experience. Seeing how people react to that experience and sharing my reactions has been deeply enriching.
At one point during the Camino a young Korean man approached me to take a selfie. He told me he was taking selfies with everyone he met as he walked the Camino and that he was going to put them together into a film showing the face of God. Initially, I was perplexed by his project. But as I thought about it and the people that I’ve met, each one of them made in the image of God, I realized that he is on to something.
God is made manifest in the lives of the Reluctant Romeo, the Duke and Duchess, Archie and Edith, Daddy Long Legs, the Gritty Grannies, the Merry Musketeers, the Bicycling Beauties, the Lost Lawyer, and the Modest Mountaineers. It has been a privilege to encounter God in each one of these people.