Searching for Life’s Answers on the Trail to Santiago de Compostela
Writer reaps rewards of hiking Spain’s sacred Camino, sometimes even without stepping foot in the city
“Slow down, this isn’t a highway. You aren’t a car,” says my guide, Jorge Granda, as I rush down a rocky road, thrusting my walking sticks dramatically, hardly noticing the vineyards on one side and the fields of Spanish gold broom and purple heather on the other. Ahead, a tumbledown bridge blocked by cows and sheep has my attention.
“They’ll move,” continues Jorge, unperturbed. “Listen to the birds instead — feel the wind, smell the flowers.” He then hands me an apple from a fruit-filled box a friendly farmer has left on the roadside for hikers.
“Buen Camino,” reads the farmer’s sign, the words messily scrawled on cardboard. “Good journey,” translates Jorge.
As a pilgrim on the Camino Frances, one of the many paths throughout western Europe leading to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain, I’ve been hearing hikers greet one another with those words each day. It makes for an instant connection with a stranger that feels nearly sacred because it acknowledges the quest you’ve both undertaken, a journey millions have tackled over a millennium, originally to pay homage to the relics of the Apostle St. James the Greater. According to legend, his remains were brought to this Galician city from Jerusalem and buried at the site where the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela now stands. Ever since, believers have been making the pilgrimage to the city as a form of penance and to seek forgiveness for their sins, although people with all types of beliefs now do it for reasons often not related to religion and their offenses — some fitness buffs make the trek for the physical challenge.
I’ve made the pilgrimage multiple times. For me, the walks are spiritual (not necessarily religious), contemplative experiences that bring much peace of mind. As I step one foot in front of the other on paths so many have walked for centuries, the history is palpable and comforting, somehow making me feel connected to the human race — a connection that fuels me and gives me strength.
Sometimes I walk alone, periods during which I test my self-sufficiency and gain confidence that I can overcome obstacles. Being solo also gives me quiet time to mull over my interior landscape, to get into my own head and come to grips with long-buried emotions, conflicts, memories or thoughts. Other times, I’m trekking with strangers, periods in which I embrace vulnerability. I’m always surprised at how fast a safe intimacy develops, prompting me to trust these strangers with my secrets, and vice versa. It’s these very conversations that help spark transformation. People learn from one another. Just as fascinating, I’ve walked with a single pilgrim for eight hours and never uttered a word — yet felt buoyed by the person’s pace or energy.
When I make the walk in good times, I find myself focusing on the beauty of life and fully appreciating all my blessings. In dark periods, those times I’m struggling with a problem, I can tune out on all the distractions and noise of the outside world, go inward, and really think through an issue and find solutions. Those walks have helped me heal my heart and soul, and even helped me get clarity in my marriage.
Cutting it short
As a travel writer specializing in Europe, I typically make several trips across the pond every year (before COVID), one reason I’ve been able to do the Camino on several occasions. I’m already there. But there’s another reason, as well: I’ve always done it my way. Rather than spend the five weeks trudging the approximately 500 miles that compose the most popular route — one that begins in France, just across the border from Spain — I’ve hiked only portions of the various paths to the cathedral, sometimes never even making it into the city and to the sacred church. I’ve never spent more than 10 days on a trail, and sometimes I’ve simply walked for an afternoon. With children to raise, a job and other responsibilities, I’ve never felt I could withdraw from my busy life for the long-haul journey.
For me, this abbreviated approach hasn’t diminished the profound impact the Camino typically has on all those who tackle it. I feel I’ve still gotten the full experience. I’ve stayed with other pilgrims in affordable albergues (inns that cater specifically to those doing the walk) in small villages, and I’ve slept in more luxurious lodges and hotels in bigger cities. I’ve carried my belongings on my back in all types of weather, and I’ve worked with tour companies that have transported my bags from hotel to hotel. I’ve hiked alone, with family and friends, and with strangers — sometimes logging up to 30 miles in a day on rugged terrain, other days just a few lazy miles. As I’ve walked, always finding my way with the help of scallop-shell directional symbols and pointing arrows, I’ve met a bevy of fascinating people, including students from Japan, professors from England, ministers from Canada and artists from Mexico. Each inspired or influenced me in some way as we shared secrets and found our way together when we took wrong turns.
I’ve reaped big rewards every time I’ve gone afoot on one of the routes, even those times when I didn’t end my pilgrimage at the cathedral. I’ve always returned home with a better mindset and better equipped to handle any problem that might have been weighing me down.
In the summer of 2010, my then 18-year-old daughter Lizzy and I walked a portion of one route to Santiago that snakes through Germany, Austria and Switzerland, zigzagging past castles, forests, lakes and villages. Just months before this pilgrimage, my 80-year-old mother had died and Lizzy had lost two of her dearest friends in a tragic car accident, so we both needed a break from our grieving. We hadn’t planned to address our losses specifically on our route; we just wanted to temporarily escape that heavy feeling of anguish. But once we began walking through bottle-green belts of pine trees, beflowered meadows and pungent-smelling moors, something happened, as it so often does on the Camino: Surrounded by such beauty, our conversation soon turned to all the good times we had with Mom, the funny things she did, and the funny things we loved about her. Before we knew it, we were laughing. Our heavy hearts grew lighter, and we reset. Bavarian therapist Norbert Parucha, a friend of a friend who accompanied us part of the way, claimed it was the rhythm of our steps, something he called spiritual walking. “You see the rhythm, the very act of going forward, is the only way to address our burning hearts,” he told us.
Another time, during a rough patch in my 25-year marriage, I took an organized tour with a handful of walkers on the mountainous Camino Primitivo, the least traveled of all the routes to Santiago despite its stunning forested terrain awash with Celtic and Roman ruins, verdant hinterlands and the occasional characteristic village. On this remote route, you can walk for hours and see no sign of life. Free of distractions, and free from easy answers offered up by well-meaning friends back home, it was easy for me to go inward, dig deep and give serious thought to my marital woes. The same questions kept running through my mind. What had the marriage given me so far — including three wonderful children — and what could it still give me if I stuck with it? And what was the downside of walking away from it? At my age, did I really want to be looking for dates on Tinder?
One day, amid my contemplating all of this, our group encountered a furious snowstorm just as we reached an isolated mountaintop. The inclement weather was unexpected, so none of us were dressed quite right for the extreme cold that accompanied it. Our anxiety level quickly rose, especially since we were five hours from our stop for the night and we could see no temporary shelter nearby. Although wet and cold, I felt a delirious and enlivening sense of danger as we slowly trudged on. Luckily, we soon saw smoke coming from the chimney of a moldering building that turned out to be a small, rustic restaurant/bar that was there to feed pilgrims like us. Inside, huddled in the snug quarters (it had just four tables) and thawing out from the harrowing experience, a strong sense of contentment came over me. I was now safe and warm, surrounded by kind people, and enjoying hot drinks, wine, sausages, bread, cheese and soup. In that moment, I knew I would remain committed to my marriage and making it work. In my contemplative state of mind, I took the experience as a well-timed reminder that life throws us curveballs — curveballs that can take us to a dark place, but that we can overcome with a bit of perseverance and the kind of perspective one can get on the Camino. As a sense of strength overcame me, I knew I could handle whatever happened next in my life, with my marriage, with anything, really.
Marching into the city
While ending one’s Camino in Santiago de Compostela itself isn’t necessary to feel a shift or have an epiphany, it’s something every pilgrim should experience at least once. I can barely describe the satisfaction and surge of gratefulness I’ve felt each time I’ve strode into the city.
My elation starts atop Monte do Gozo (Mount Joy), where views of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela’s stone towers down below beckon like a crooked finger. I sob, giggle, hug strangers and fall to my knees awestruck each time I make my way down the mountain to the sacred church. The euphoria continues as I march into the city center, through undulating streets, alleyways and medieval neighborhoods. Then suddenly, straight ahead like the bull’s-eye in a target, the cathedral looms in all its glory, the terminus of the mystical hike. Instantly, suffused in a golden light, I feel lighter and at peace as I’m surrounded by others who have just completed the same life-enhancing journey, I suspect their hearts as full as mine: blistered pilgrims with hiking sticks, people in wheelchairs, bicycle riders, equestrians, parents with children in wagons, people with donkeys, even fit trekkers in expensive athletic wear.
Yet the cathedral, while beautiful and historic, isn’t a Lourdes-esque cleanse in itself. No matter why anyone makes the Camino — and no matter the route taken — epiphanies come to all. This centuries-old pilgrimage takes us to where we need to be, not necessarily to Santiago, but to a place within. That’s its gift.
Austin-based travel writer Becca Hensley contributes to The New York Post, Travel + Leisure, Elite Traveler and other publications and websites.
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