As I walked the Camino, I kept thinking that it would get easier. “Tomorrow will be better than today,” I told myself. “I only have to walk 14 miles,” or “my pack is lighter,” or “there is less climbing.” But it never got easier. Every day I stumbled into the hostel feeling like I could not walk even one more step. Then I got up the next morning and did it all again.
In the same way, I kept thinking that my thoughts about the Camino would coalesce, that I would gain some sort of clarity towards the end of the walk, or shortly after, or after a week at home.
That has not happened, either.
I finished the Camino two weeks ago, but I’m still not sure what it all meant. I still have so many disparate thoughts about the experience that it is hard to link them all together to say anything coherent. But I’ve already delayed, procrastinated, and resisted writing this blog for so long that my thoughts are beginning to melt away as my memories fade. I know I just need to write something. I started to put together a buzzfeed-style “7 things I learned from the Camino de Santiago,” but I grew more and more frustrated as I wrote it. The “lessons” I came up with – don’t carry too much… everyone walks their own path… it’s the journey, not the destination – were trite, obvious, and overdone. Trying to fit what I had learned into sound-bites cheapened the experience, as if by defining it, I was making it smaller than it really was.
What it was, really, was an incredible, unique, inexplicable, life-changing experience. It was more than just a long trip or a physical challenge or a tour of Spain, but I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the beautiful landscape, the kind people, the meditative nature of walking, the energy from the centuries of pilgrims who have passed before. Celtic mythology talks about “thin places,” where the line between this world and the next is blurred. I think the whole Camino is a thin place, a place where you are more vulnerable and open.
Since coming home, I find myself in a “thin moment,” a time of vulnerability when I am re-evaluating how I behave and who I want to be. I can feel a source of strength within me that wasn’t there before the Camino. Other experiences – graduating from college, living in Madagascar, finishing marathons – have probably contributed to this strength, but I never before felt it as such a concrete presence. Something in me is qualitatively different. I feel more compassionate and more open, more present and aware, more conscious of how I treat people. I see how little is needed to make a happy life. I feel more motivated to let go of masks and defenses, to just be myself – and I feel more confident doing so. I see how often I try to hide behind humor. I understand how different people can be, and that they do not always think the way I do, but I realize that they are on their own path. More than anything, I see how important it is to enjoy the present and trust that you will find everything you need at the right moment. I feel cradled by the universe.
I arrived in Santiago on Tuesday, June 17. After a 28 days of following yellow arrows, I arrived to a plaque on the ground and a cathedral under construction. There was no fanfare, no one to greet me or welcome me or high five me. In fact, I saw fewer pilgrims than I had for most of the past month. I was surrounded by tour groups taking photos, listening to their guides, and paying me no attention. Didn’t they know that I had just walked from Pamplona? That they were witnessing a momentous occasion? I had finally reached Santiago… and it was just over. I thought I would feel a rush of joy and enlightenment, but without the yellow arrows to guide me, I just felt lost.
Though there was no one to greet me the moment I arrived, I did run into many of the people I had walked with during the two days I stayed in Santiago. I spent a gloriously sunny afternoon sitting at a café across from the Cathedral, sipping wine and greeting my friends the way I wish someone had greeted me. Even though the official Camino had ended, we continued saying “Buen Camino” when we parted – now for the final time. What else could we say? Good-bye; good luck; safe travels? None of those was quite right. Our journey together had ended, and each of us had to return home to confront the impossible task of integrating the person we had become with the person we had been before. “Buen Camino” wasn’t quite the right word, either, but it managed to convey everything we needed to say.
Now, I don’t have the right words, either. Maybe they will come some day, but until then, I hope I can share what the experience meant by carrying it with me, by feeling that source of strength within me and letting it remind me to live life well, treat people right, and enjoy every moment. Maybe I don’t yet know how to sum up my journey because the journey isn’t over yet.