Friday, October 2, 2009

What is it like to be back? Footprints of Pilgrimage

That's the question everyone asks. Some people want the nano-second response; others want more. As always, the answers vary depending on who's asking. But with the Camino, I have a hunch the answers will also alter with time.

Most obviously, it's just plain strange not to be walking. We teased our friends on the Camino about how hard it would be to shake pilgrim rituals. Like zombies we'd get up, pack up, and hit the road before daylight. While the spectre of Zombie-Pilgrims cracked us up in Santiago, back home in San Francisco, it's close to the truth. Several mornings, particularly as my body crawls back into this time zone, I've been up before dawn, in my boots as soon as my feet hit the floor, and first in line at Peet's Coffee in the village.

I also miss people, especially my excellent traveling companion, Lisa. I joked that we'd talk our way across the top of Spain --and we did! We made up stories, retold the plots of every book we'd recently read, and replayed all of our favorite movies. We literally talked for miles.

Then there was the easy camaraderie of the other pilgrims we met along the way. Some of them have names and stories of their own; others we came to know only by sight. Because the Camino attracts people from all over the world, we found ourselves using all the languages we knew -- and even a few we didn't. "Buen Camino!" became the universal greeting.

Pilgrim banter taught me the enormous value of "encouragement." In the Christian scriptures, the pastoral epistles constantly invite believers to "encourage one another" (e.g., Hebrews 3:13f.) It always seemed like filler to me.

The Camino taught me the importance of encouragement: stray conversation and simple greeting alike spurred us all on. I remember sitting with Lisa at an outdoor cafe in Viana, a tiny town in the eastern region of Navarre. The pilgrim route ran right past our cafe, and we spent the late afternoon cheering on everyone who passed by. We'd taken a "slow" day; they were walking on to the next big city. For that one night, we were the cheerleaders of the Camino.

And believe me! the favor got returned, repeated, recycled. Maybe I'll figure out how to do a little more cheerleading back on the home front.

A final, tentative answer to the question: what is it like to be back? Everything seems hopelessly and unnecessarily complicated. For weeks all I did was sleep, walk, eat -- and walk some more. Everything I needed was in my backpack. All I worried about was reaching the next village. Now there are schedules to coordinate, appointments to make, obligations to tend to, articles to write. I'm not complaining: this is life. My life -- and it delights me. But it's different.

Where are the footprints of the Camino in all of this? I find myself handling things with a lighter touch, a lot of humor, and a spirit of what-the-hellness. My computer screen has cataracts? Well, gosh: maybe I can move them around like a desktop icon. The contractor didn't show today? He'll come tomorrow. There's nothing for dinner? Bread and olive oil worked well enough on the road....

It's a welcome attitude. Here's hoping it outlasts the blisters.


  1. This feels like kind of a stupid question, but as I mull over both your and Lisa's blog postings about your pilgrimage experience, I find myself wondering about how important "destination" is (or isn't?) when speaking of, or living in, pilgrimage. Your blogs highlighted the physical challenges as well as the rhythm of life on the way, and much value seemed to come from the journey itself (hearing the stories of others, relationships--a "pilgrim bond"--with folks you might never have met and will likely never meet again, and related insights), but reaching your "destination" seemed almost anti-climactic! How much does the idea of a destination play into keeping the pilgrim moving? While the lessons may really come from the journey, how does the idea/dream of a destination motivate the pilgrim? Would the trip still qualify as pilgrimage if there is/was no clear idea of destination? I guess I ask this question both historically and as it might apply to our modern-day life "journeys"--can a person be a pilgrim if they don't know where they are going?

  2. Hi, Sandy! Thanks for being one of our travelers. And thanks for these questions. I realize I've been wondering some of the same things, but I haven't put them so clearly. You're right: reaching Santiago was both anti-climatic and undesired. We'd so fallen into a rhythm that we didn't want to stop walking. So we reached our "destination" with mixed feelings.
    So here's what I wonder: destination is the initial motivator, but the point is the journey itself. The way was crowded, luminous, hard, surprising.
    So here's the question: how can we integrate these "pilgrim" rhythms and "pilgrim" insights into ordinary life? We can't spend our lives on pilgrimage -- but then, we already do. Any ideas? From you or anyone else out there.
    Thanks to you all for being with us!

  3. My experience is that once we reach Compostela, once we finish the Camino, the Camino starts 'walking us.'
    I first did the Camino in 2005, leaving from Le Puy, in France. 2006, 7, and 8, we returned, starting in Roncesvalles, Somport, and Burgos. Next Tuesday, we fly back to Burgos to walk once again to Santiago.
    Every time, the Camino is both the same and different. One reaches the 'zone' faster. The challenges, the difficulties still are there. But once again, at least for me, it is a cleansing, a sorting out, a walking retreat, a spiritual quest, a religious rhythm.
    Then I will have to come back to daily life, a bit transformed, calmer, healed -- with the great longing of going back again, as long as my feet, legs, back are willing.
    Thank you for your blog. It is a delight. I have just discovered it thanks to a friend who has the blog Amawalker...

  4. Claire! You're a real Caminista! Your experience is rich and deep, and you identify some of the answers to the question: "Why do they walk?" Cleansing, sorting out, a walking retreat, a spiritual quest, a religious rhythm. And the "zone"! We felt we were there just as we walked into Santiago -- it made it very hard to stop.
    Blessings to you as you head for the Camino again.