El Camino
by Patrick Pfister

The Camino de Santiago in Spain stands alongside the Hajj to Mecca and the circumambulation of Tibet’s Mount Kailash as one of the world’s great pilgrimage routes. Also called the Via Lactea (Milky Way) since it is believed to be the terrestrial reflection of heaven’s brightest path, the Camino is not only unique in western civilization, but one of the reasons for it. Thus, Goethe stated that, "Europe was made on the pilgrim road to Compostela."

The journey to Santiago de Compostela began in the 9th century when, according to legend, a mysterious star guided a lone shepherd to the remains of St. James the Great. (The name Compostela is from the Latin campus stellae, or "field of a star."). By the 11th Century, the Camino ranked in importance with sacred journeys to Rome and Jerusalem. In the Middle Ages, when people rarely traveled more than a few kilometers beyond their natal village, the journey to Santiago was the equivalent of a trek across the universe. Yet an astonishing half million pilgrims a year used to walk the Camino. Those who "took the cockleshell" tramped across Europe on diverse paths—from England, Italy, Denmark, Russia—forming not one Camino but thousands. The time-honored route--called the Camino Francés, or French Way--runs from the French border town of Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees to far-off Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, a distance of about 780 kilometers (485 miles). As well as the traditional scallop shell, pilgrims wore tattered capes and wide-brimmed hats. On the Camino, they faced lack of food, contaminated drinking water and--in the wild regions of Spain--thieves and bandits. A typical pilgrim wore out two pair of heavy boots on the road to Santiago. Others wore themselves out, for many died along the way. The pilgrimage continues to this day. Every year thousands of pilgrims from over a hundred countries walk the Camino—children, grandmothers, movie stars, Korean Buddhists, the blind and the lame. They wear North Face jackets and Gore-Tex boots. Some glide on bicycles; others sit astride donkeys. Many go for the art and architecture, for nature and a nice stroll, to give up smoking or lose a few pounds. But most are there for the same reason as their predecessors: because they ache with the same longing.

The call to pilgrimage usually sounds as a cry from the heart. People in crisis—divorce, the death of a loved one, physical illness or spiritual malaise—pack all their faith into a bag and surrender themselves to the road. Many set off when they are at the end of their rope, when there is nowhere to turn and no answers in sight. It is said that when all else has failed and all options have closed, that is the moment to begin. On pilgrimage, one leaves behind the noise and blur of everyday life. It is an inner and outer journey in which obstacles are faced and surmounted, a time of silence, prayer and meditation. Above all, it aspires to be a transformative journey to a sacred center. Walking the Camino, you cannot help but be aware that, over the last ten centuries, millions (no exaggeration) of pilgrims seeking guidance and redemption have tramped the exact same path as you. It becomes like a mirror. You see you are walking straight into the reflection of all your weaknesses and bad habits, sins and accumulated karma, all the fear, doubt and worry that prevent you from becoming who you are. Slowly, you begin to realize that slippery rocks and steep mountain ascents are not the only obstacles you are going to face. The Camino de Santiago is slow but not easy. Perseverance does not magically descend from above, encircling pilgrim heads in rings of light. Trial and adversity pave the way as surely as stones and fallen branches. In the hostels at night, pilgrims sit with their swollen feet in cold baths of rock salt and vinegar. If devotion builds on the Camino, it does so one blister at a time.

The Spanish may ridicule Picasso as a cubist charlatan, laugh out loud at tales of the Cid as drivel for children, and refer to the great cathedrals of Burgos or Toledo as glorified examples of slave labor. Yet rarely does one hear a nasty word about the Camino de Santiago and the same irony could easily be loosed on it. Most guidebooks point out that the cadaver of St. James probably never touched Spanish soil and that the entire sacred pilgrimage was nothing more than a clever marketing plan launched by the Church in the 10th Century and maintained by the Minister of Tourism in the 20th. However, such comments tend to come from "foreign experts." The Spanish themselves seem to understand the Camino as a rite of passage, a signatura pendiente that must one day be undertaken. People who possess not a drop of religious faith--the same who would squirm at the writings of St. Teresa or poetry of St. John--put on a more serious face when it comes to the Camino.

Walk the Camino and you will never forget entering the forests at sunrise, when the full moon still hangs like an earring from pine branches. The air is cool and fresh, the silence as palpable as an empty cathedral. Many mornings you are the one who awakens the birds so they can begin chirping. How simple it is—walk, eat, sleep, pray—and how overwhelmingly variegated it becomes. Cross 20 rivers and streams, hike through a dozen picturesque villages—many that haven’t changed much since medieval times—trek over a mountain pass or two, and soon you cannot remember half the beauty of a morning, let alone a week. A month down the road and you no longer remember the person you were when you began.

Santiago de Compostela is a city of perpetual arrival. In the summer months, pilgrims come into town in hordes, usually wet and bedraggled. They mount the steps of the great cathedral utterly exhausted, but with tears of gratitude and joy spilling off their cheeks. It is one of the world’s great travel sights. And just as the steps have become indented over the centuries, so the Camino has pressed into the national consciousness of Spain. If the country is so vital, it is in part because this eternal migration ceaselessly revitalizes it. The secret heart of the nation resides not in the running of enraged bulls, but in the endless plodding of pilgrim feet. Europe is still made on the pilgrim road to Compostela.

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