I arrived in San Jean Pied de Port, France in the early evening of July 18th, 2009. The streets were empty, shops closed. I tried to mentally prepare for the next month of my life; I was about to begin the Camino de Santiago, a 500 mile trek over the Pyrenees mountains and across the Spanish countryside, continuing west until the Atlantic coastline. It was a daunting thought.
I reassured myself I could stop whenever I chose, and set out the following morning not knowing what to expect.
It took very little time to know with absolute certainty there would be no stopping. I was on the brink of something intensely powerful and life-changing. The next 26 days and 500 miles were without a doubt beyond anything I could have anticipated. I was intricately connected with my surroundings, utter happiness filling every moment and thought.
With aching, blistering feet I marched across ancient Roman roads from San Jean to Roncesvalles, winding down the mountains to Pamplona, Burgos, and across 5 days of arid, scorching, shadeless meseta to León, Astorga, Ponferrada and a hundred small Spanish towns in between. I walked early mornings and through the sweltering heat of the afternoon. 15 mile days were considered easy, while 30 mile days were considerably harder. Countless old Spanish men yelled, “Slow down, you can’t go that fast!” I was being pulled westward by a new and exciting rhythm, and there was no slowing down those first couple of weeks.
I pushed myself to the absolute limit. I reveled in the physical endurance as well as the mental. My feet burned with massive blisters and my shins were on fire. Eventually my brain stopped registering the pain signals. I lost the ability to flex my feet and toes, was unable to take one more step, and hitchhiked 30 miles as a last resort. A 75 year old heart surgeon found me, thumb out on the side of the dusty road, leaning against my hiking stick. His old fashioned medical bag was at the ready. We parted over coffee and a croissant in Astorga, with a gift of various medicine for my pains. There was no other choice. My legs were racked with tendinitis.
I was forced to slow down and walk a normal pace. The second half of the hike was much more social in nature. Long talks through sunflower fields followed by bottles of Spanish wine and dinners with new friends. I was connected with everything and everyone, every fiber of my being was in the moment, living in the present in a way I didn’t think was possible. My chest and throat felt oddly unobstructed, all stress having melted away in the hot Spanish sun, my heart and mind unhindered. I discovered a new way of existing, one that I later feared losing sight of as the days brought me closer to the end.
I reached Santiago de Compostela too soon, and wanted nothing more than to continue on endlessly. But ahead was the Atlantic ocean, and it was time to say goodbye. I prayed I wouldn’t forget the lessons learned.
Years later I still wonder if I will ever find that joy and serenity again. Not just contentment, but elation, day in and day out. It feels unlikely, but I do feel lucky to have been blessed with it while it lasted. Sometimes I think about that time and feel sad it’s over. It’s as if Life let me in on a secret that I can’t quite recall… Can’t quite put my finger on anymore. But I do remember this lesson: no matter where you are, friends exist around every corner, every step of The Way, just waiting to be met. Remain open to these possibilities, keep your heart in plain view and friendship always extended. You’ll find the world a much less scary place, with endless possibilities and fellowship.