“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step onto the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”–Tolkein
On May 24 I am going out the door…on a pilgrimage that will take me 500 miles over the Pyrenees of France and across northern Spain.
On foot. Walking. Hiking With a backpack. And a hope and a prayer. One foot in front of the other for some 40 days. The destination? Santiago de Compostelo, where the remains of the Apostle St. James are buried.
It is a religious, spiritual, physical, mental and emotional trip into letting go, taking in and sorting out. Into the self. It is an adventure, a journey and a long walk across mountain ranges, through thousand year old towns, along ancient rivers and desert steppes.
I’m starting from the small village St. Jean Pied du Port, France and ending at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostella.
The pilgrimage is called the Camino de Santiago, or simply known as The Way.
It is neither a road nor a highway. It’s a path trod by travelers of all kinds for more than 2,000 years.
Much of the route described in a 900-year old guidebook is still in use today. Some of it wends its way over the remains of pavement laid down by the Romans two millennia ago. It’s a route that writer James Michener—no stranger to world travel—calls “the finest journey in Spain, and one of two or three in the world.” He did it three times and mentions passing “through landscapes of exquisite beauty.” The European Union has designated it a European Heritage Route.
People are attracted to this remote corner of Europe because of a legend that Santiago de Compostela is the burial place of the Apostle St. James the Greater. As such, it ranks along with Rome and Jerusalem as one of Christendom’s great pilgrim destinations.
When the apostles spread out across the known world to preach the Christian gospel, tradition has it that James the Greater came to Galicia. On returning to Palestine he was beheaded by Herod, becoming the first apostolic martyr. A legend that has persisted for 2,000 years claims that his followers took his body back to Galicia, where it was buried inland.
By the 12th and 13th centuries, thousands of pilgrims made their way to and across northern Spain and back each year. Local kings and clergy built hospitals, hostels, roads and bridges to accommodate them. The Knights Templar patrolled the Camino, providing protection, places of hospitality, healing and worship, as well as a banking system that became one source of their fabled wealth.
Among the historical figures who made the pilgrimage to Santiago are Charlemagne, Roldan, Francis of Assisi, Dante Alighieri and Rodrigo Diaz (El Cid, Spain’s great epic hero).
The scallop shell, often found on the shores in Galicia, has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. Over the centuries the scallop shell has taken on mythical, metaphorical and practical meanings, even if its relevance may actually derive from the desire of pilgrims to take home a souvenir.The scallop shell also acts as a metaphor. The grooves in the shell, which meet at a single point, represent the various routes pilgrims traveled, eventually arriving at a single destination: the tomb of James in Santiago de Compostela. The shell is also a metaphor for the pilgrim: As the waves of the ocean wash scallop shells up onto the shores of Galicia, God’s hand also guides the pilgrims to Santiago.
To get a feel for it, watch the movie “The Way” with Martin Sheen on Netflix. It’s said to be a pretty good representation of the journey…
I’m going alone, carrying a backpack and will sleep in pensions/small hotels or free camp along the way. I am going partially to be alone, but equally important to be with other pilgrims I’ll meet along the Way, so a big part of it is for the community and dialogue that comes with connecting with strangers on a like-minded journey.
I have to average 12-15 miles a day and that will be challenge. I could do that for a day or so, but continuously for 40 days? And carrying a 20 lb. pack? We’ll see how the old body holds up. And the other concern: being gone from home for more than 40 days. Just this last week everything at home seems to be breaking and needing repair. Is that a sign, I wonder? To get the heck out or to stay? And being gone for so long from my place, my dog Buddy, Barbara, and my kids and grandkids will be difficult, if not impossible. But not necessarily in that order!
We’ll see if I make it.