Making a pilgrimage.

Sometimes I forget that the Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage.

I know that it’s a pilgrimage, of course. When I tell people what I’m doing this summer, most have never heard of the Camino, so understandably they have lots of questions. I always start by explaining that it’s a pilgrimage route to Santiago that was popular in the Middle Ages. Sometimes I mention that many believe the remains of St James are buried at the site of the cathedral. But mostly I talk about the walk: how far it is and where I’ll stay, what I’ll eat and what I’ll wear. Always, I answer questions about going alone.

All of that has kind of been my focus, as well. The length of the walk and my gear and my training and the logistics.

Sometimes I forget how this all started.

A lot of people (though not the majority) still walk the Camino for religious reasons: to make a pilgrimage to the burial site of St James, one of the 12 Apostles. James spent time in Spain, preaching the Gospel, and legend has it that after his death (beheaded by King Herod in 44 AD, the first Apostle to be martyred), his body was carried on a boat steered by angels, and landed on the coast of Galicia, near Finisterre. His body was then carried inland to where it was buried, forgotten until the 9th century when a hermit was led by a vision to the site of the grave. A chapel was built over the remains, James became the patron saint of (what would become) Spain, word got out, and people began walking. Eventually a cathedral was built in place of the chapel, and more and more people walked the Camino de Santiago- The Way of St James.

The pilgrimage was in its heyday in the 12th century; the guidebook in those days was the Codex Calixtinus, pilgrims wore a scallop shell (the symbol of St James) to gain free meals and to sleep in churches. They walked for a penance; to be forgiven for their sins. And they walked because they were believers.

I didn’t decide to walk the Camino de Santiago because I wanted to make a pilgrimage. I have other reasons (start here). But in walking the Camino de Santiago, I will make a pilgrimage. I will have a destination, and I will have a goal. When I arrive in Santiago, I will enter the cathedral and touch the statue of St. James, where a groove has been left in the stone from the hands of millions of pilgrims.

I think this will be a powerful experience.

This past weekend, I celebrated Easter with my family. I grew up going to an Eastern Orthodox church, and as a kid, I developed a strong faith and belief in God. But my faith has always been very personal to me. At some points in my life I have attended church regularly, and at other times, only on major religious holidays.

On Saturday night, as I stood in a darkened church with candlelight slowly spreading through the congregation, I thought about the miracle of Jesus’ Resurrection. I thought about my family and the traditions of our faith at this time of the year. Of helping my mom bake 12 loaves of pascha bread in tin coffee cans, of the basket of meats and eggs and cheeses that we bring to church to be blessed, of standing in a pew with my father on Good Friday, singing the Lamentations.

And I thought about the Camino. I thought about my own faith, and wondered how much of a part it would play in my journey this summer.

And I have no idea. I can’t predict what kind of meaning this entire experience will have for me. I’m not doing this long walk for religious reasons- it’s for my own personal, spiritual journey- but I can’t say that religion will have no part in this.

I’m excited to pass through small villages and to peer inside churches. I’m excited to learn more about the history of this path, and I can’t wait to stand before the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and to know that I’ve made a pilgrimage.

Pascha basket, Easter

LIVING (part two)

I wrote the first part of this post (LIVING (part one)), thinking that I had sufficiently explained how and why ‘living’ is a reason that I am going to walk the Camino this summer. I published the post and then instantly thought, “I would need to write a book to explain the importance of ‘living’ to my journey this summer.”

So this is part two, but I know that nothing I can say here will explain the depth of what it means to me to live.

Lines from a poem by Walt Whitman have been circling in my head. I’m pretty sure I first heard of the poem after watching the movie Dead Poet’s Society (and just mentioning the name of this movie makes me want to drop everything and watch it again, right now).

Oh Me! Oh Life! (Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass)

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.


These lines: “That you are here- that life exists and identity…” These words are simple and gripping. We are here, our lives exist. We exist. And “that the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” A friend wrote this line in my yearbook, on the last day of my senior year of high school. I remember studying those words, feeling their strength and thinking I understood them.

How well do I understand them, even now? That the powerful play goes on? How aware am I that my life exists, that I get to live all of my days, these incredible and heartbreaking and bitter and glorious and fleeting and everlasting and mundane and precious days?

There have been moments- periods- when I’ve felt acutely aware of the value of my life. Of life and of my existence. But there are also so many ordinary days. Days that slip by, days when I think only of the past, or the future. Or when I am simply bogged down in the routines of my days.

Going to Spain to walk the Camino is a response to my existence and to the powerful play of my life. And it’s an attempt, in some way, to contribute a verse. Man, I could write a book about this, too. All I can say and all that I know is that I am in the process of contributing a verse… I’m writing it now, I’m living it now, and will continue to write it and live it.

There are so many different ways to live, ways that feel small and large and powerful and delicate. I feel life today when I look out my window at the falling snow, and as I listen to music that I love, as I drink a mug of milky espresso, as I craft my words into a blog post. It’s the awareness of all of these things that equals living. I could live in any number of ways this summer, but this summer I choose to live on the Camino.

February snowfall

LIVING (part one)

Last month, I was talking to a colleague at the school I work in. He and I are acquaintances, our conversations always centered on the kids we work with rather than details about our own lives.

But there was something different about that particular conversation. We had started talking about our summers off- in the way that many school employees do in the middle of winter.

“What do you usually do with your time off?” he asked.

“Oh, hang out, spend time with family and friends.” I paused. I hadn’t yet decided that I was going to walk the Camino at that point, but I knew that I’d be traveling somewhere in the summer. “Last year I spent a month in France… and I want to do something again this summer. Something big.”

I wasn’t sure what his response would be. When I went to France last summer, I got a lot of mixed reactions from people my age. Just about everyone thought it was a great idea, and many were thrilled for me. But often there was something else in the response. Sometimes it was unspoken- just a look in their eye- but other times it was voiced. “Wow, must be nice,” they would say. Or, “I wish I had the money to do that,” or “With kids, my traveling opportunities are pretty limited.”

It’s not that I felt judged at those times, not exactly. It was more like I felt that I had to defend my lifestyle and the choices I was making for myself.

I’m in my early thirties and a lot of people my age are married and starting families. I’m not. This automatically gives me a very different lifestyle, but sometimes- especially when it involves exciting European travel- I have to be careful how I explain myself.

I didn’t know how that conversation with my co-worker would go. I looked at him, trying to guess what his reaction would be. I continued on. “I’m not married yet, I don’t have kids, but I hope to, someday. And I know that I won’t always have this time, all for myself. So… I don’t want to waste it.”

He stared at me for a long moment, then his face broke into a wide grin and his eyes lit up. “That,” he said, “is awesome. It’s awesome. Go to Europe, go to Asia. Oh man, you’ve got to travel everywhere.”

He started talking about his early twenties, when he spent a year abroad. He talked about the amazing experiences he had and the places he still wants to go. Then he talked about his wife and kids, about his upcoming trip to Disney World- how he learned to develop a happy acceptance of what vacationing with kids meant.

But again he looked at me, and there was so much life in his eyes when he said- “Go for us. Go for all of us who are married and have kids and spend our summers at the shore. Go roam around Europe.”

He’d become animated. “Send me a postcard when you’re there. Please, promise me you will. I want you to send me a postcard with a single word written across it: LIVING.”

And this is why I’m going to Spain this summer, why I’m walking across the country. This- this– is my life. I’ve got to live it.

To be very honest, I look at my friends who are in wonderful relationships and raising children and I feel some envy. They, too, are living. And so often, it’s the very kind of living that I want to be doing. I want to build a family and take my kids camping and to the beach and to Disney World and, well, everywhere. And maybe one day I will.

But now, what I have is this time and this summer and a choice on how I want to spend it. And I’m going to spend it walking across Spain and living.

Walking 500 Miles.

Why am I walking the Camino? Every day I think of new reasons, and at times I think that I must have 500: a reason for every mile I will walk.

I started this blog to share my story of walking the Camino, but in these early stages, I’m struggling to know what to share. It doesn’t feel very exciting to talk about all of my pre-planning and my thoughts and my fears. I’m sure I’ll get into it all, and I suspect that as the summer approaches I will have Camino fever and want to write every day. But today? It’s a cold day in the middle of January and the Camino is still a far-off dream. It doesn’t feel real.

I think about the days I will be spending, walking through a hot summer in Spain, and I can start to feel the heat of the sun and the burn in my legs, the weight on my back and the plates of food I’ll devour at night. I think about why I’ve decided to do this, why these images are in my head. And for the beginning of a blog, I can’t see a better place to start with than at why.

Reason #1 for walking this Camino is a big one: lots and lots of walking. I’m doing this Camino so I can walk. Walk every day, walk for hours, walk across a country. I love to walk and I love to hike. I don’t have a lot of hiking experience- I’m not a backpacker and don’t even have hiking boots. I don’t really know that much: nothing about elevation or gear or trail etiquette. But maybe that’s why I love hiking: you don’t need to know or have much to go for a walk in the woods.

It’s not just the woods, either. Most days, I throw on some sneakers and head out my door to take a 30 minute walk through my neighborhood. I walk the same streets, day after day. I pass the same houses and the same neighbors, the same dogs who bound through their yard as I approach. I wave to the same mailman and jump over the same small puddle on the days when it’s rained. I thought I would have gotten bored years ago, but I haven’t. There is something therapeutic about being able to walk through a place I know so well, to know what my exact steps will be, to know where my legs will carry me.

The Camino is going to be a different path every day, but I have a feeling there will be some consistency and routine in the walking. At the very least, there will be the routine of waking every morning, putting on my shoes, and stepping outside for a walk.

Walking clears my head and it clears my lungs. I think when I walk, and I zone out when I walk. I listen to music, I listen to nothing, sometimes I listen to my own voice as I talk out loud. I nearly always feel better after I’ve gone on a walk or a hike. I feel alive and invigorated, but also settled and calm. Good, good feelings.

Hikers in France