The camino de Santiago, one of the most familiar names for the pilgrimage, has been traveled by pilgrims for over 1200 years. There are many routes to Santiago de Compostela. The traditional end of the pilgrimage is the cathedral there, in which the bones of St. James are said to be interred. One of the most famous routes is a 500 mile walk that starts at the border in the French town of St. Jean Pied de Port. Known as the camino Francés, it is the route that many people think of when discussing the camino de Santiago.
Even after I left that marriage, the camino never really left me. It got tucked away in some corner of my mind, resurfacing when I read Frances Temple's The Ramsay Scallop, a gem of a young adult novel about two teens on the pilgrimage in 1299.
Lately the camino de Santiago is very much on my mind. I've been spending a lot of time with my good friend Mark, who was recently relocated to Cancerland. We were talking about the terrible sense of dislocation that comes with that sudden forced move. Mark marveled at what he perceived to be my patina of sagacity and acceptance of life in Cancerland.
I remarked that I've lived in Cancerland for almost ten years compared to his four or five months. It's not wisdom so much as familiarity. I have been walking that path a long time now.
Somehow the talk (or rather, talks, as we have a running dialogue) snaked around to pilgrimages. Maybe we were talking about life being one long pilgrimage. Maybe we were talking about the endurance one has to have to walk a pilgrimage.
Mark casually mentioned a few locals who have walked the camino de Santiago. He thought the more recent walker (within the last decade) had characterized the walk as a nonstop party on foot. For my part, I came back with my favorite quote from The Ramsay Scallop: "Pilgrimage is painful...Painful and hard." I wouldn't want to walk the camino as a party, I said. "Well, then you probably should have walked it thirty years ago," said Mark.
Several days later, he sent me an email entitled "maybe rethink this." It contained a single link in it.
I let the email set two days before I opened the link, which turned out to be a website for a documentary about the pilgrimage, Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago. I watched the trailer:
I watched it again. I watched it one more time. Then I looked at the film's website to see if it would be playing anywhere near our home. It was late Friday afternoon; the film was playing in Columbus for that weekend and that weekend only. The very tiny window of opportunity was already closing.
I emailed Mark immediately. Could he and his wife join us at the movies? Then I went in search of Warren.
"I have to see this film," I said, dragging him to the computer to watch the trailer. "We are going to see this film on Sunday." Warren had no objections, but I think the intensity of my voice threw him a bit.
Mark and Mel's schedules didn't work out, so Warren and I went alone to the film.
Alone? Well, only in the sense of not sitting with anyone else we knew. The theatre, a small one, was probably three-quarters full. As we learned afterwards, some of the moviegoers had walked the camino. One of the film's co-producers, Annie O'Neil, who also appears in the film (the one crying about not wanting to stop), briefly introduced the film and said she would take questions afterwards.
Then the film began.
I cried. Okay, not sobbed, but tears were constantly pooling in my eyes and running down my cheeks. I cried in response to the emotions expressed in the film. I cried when the pilgrims the film follows finished their walks. I cried with the realization that walking the camino is something I am no longer physically capable of. I cried imagining Sam walking the camino in my stead. I cried again thinking of Warren and both my sons walking the camino together in my memory after my death.
Pilgrimage is hard.
I came out of the movie into the late afternoon, spent and a little soggy. As we drove home, Warren and I talked some, sharing our reactions to the film. My voice broke at times. I am drawn to the idea of a long walk where you take each day for what it is, walking to a destination, but always aware of the journey. I shared my sadness over realizing I will never walk the camino de Santiago.
Pilgrimage is painful.
Annie O'Neil shared a story with us after the film during the Q & A. She finished the camino, despite her fears that she wouldn't. When she flew home to Los Angeles, she was baffled to discover that her husband had taken up walking in her absence. "You don't walk," she told him. "Why now?" He told her that after her phone call, the one you see her make in the trailer, he began to walk in case he had to fly to Spain and find her on the camino. To take her home? No, to help her finish, carrying her in his arms if need be. (And yes, I cried when she told that story, as did she. I am crying again just typing it.)
Pilgrimage is beautiful.