“So how far are you going?” a common question pilgrims ask one another on the Camino de Santiago.
“Well, I was planning on just hiking 10 days and then continuing on my journey of five months of world travel,” I’d reply. “But there’s something here, something about this place, and I want to come back.”
So many people, so many stories, so many reasons for moving one foot in front of the other with a backpack strapped around your waist and shoulders. The motivations were different. One man had a stroke and felt like this was his wake up call to today, to answer to the nudgings on his heart. Some to find God, or what feels like God, or to walk away from a God they no longer believed in. Some to celebrate: retirement, growth, a new way of life to separate themselves from a past they no longer recognize. And like so many that I relate to, some of us don’t know; we simply just had to be here and maybe we’d discover why along the way.
It’s easy to compare. Compare journeys, distance, speed; the competitive athlete in me fighting the desire to make this walk as physically challenging as possible, as if to dismiss the call to sit on rocks with my journal underneath a blue sky. Besides, the 22 kg backpack I’ve been carrying around was enough of a work out in and of itself, right knee slowly aching, reminding me every step to be conscious of what I’m carrying, physically and internally.
The hardest thing for me not to compare was distance. “I’m going all the way to Compostela.” “I’m ending in Compostela.” “I’m not stopping until I reach Compostela,” a refrain of many pilgrims, or peregrinos as we are called. I began imagining the sun shining on cathedrals in Santiago, illuminating the sanctuaries I’ve found with my eyes and those I’ve found through my heart. How cool would it be to say I finished, too? The “Santiago 790 km” sign that I posed in front of back on Day 2 somehow felt more genuine at the prospect of completing the Camino.
As my 10 day adventure waned, I mused with others about the idea of coming back. My travel plans afterwards included scheduled trips to Barcelona and Zurich, but I am fortunate enough to be in some 28-year-old-living-off-cheap-cans-of-tuna-sabbatical-of-sorts world travel stage in which my professional development includes lessons on blister management and how to listen to the sound of sheep and horses, as if to be mindful, alert, present, when my mind would rather remind me of my stupidity in thinking worn running shoes were appropriate footwear for a pilgrimage.
I talked to other peregrinos who were completing the whole 826 kms about considering coming back to where I left off to complete more miles, something many pilgrims, especially those who reside in Europe, do. “The thing is, the Camino is meant to be spiritual, physical, and mental,” one pilgrim told me. “The first week is all physical, and you’ve now adjusted to the challenge physically,” she explained. “If you break and come back, you begin back at the physical, and never fully delve into the spiritual and mental.”
She had a point. So I played around with dates in my head, instead of paying attention to sunshine and mountains, losing myself in the anxiety of how to fit in another 616 kms plus visits to friends in nearby countries all before fulfilling a six-week volunteer commitment in India. If you come back, I warned myself, only come back if you can finish the whole thing. The go-hard-or-go-home competitor who swam over 20 hours a week in college took over, anxiety washing over my once at-peace brain. Should I even come back to a country I’ve already been too? I asked myself, as one who lusts after seeing more, filling passports, placing flags on countries I’ve been to on the map hanging up in my room. The older I get, though, the more I crave authenticity, deepness. There is no right or wrong way to travel. And there is no right or wrong way to Camino, something all pilgrims know in truth, though our head and heart might incongruently forget.
As pilgrims, we share a lot with each other. Moleskin. Food. Wisdom. Dreams. We spread a lot of good. But walking 22+ kms a day on this same path together, it’s easy to absorb, too. And not just the good stuff, but the stuff that doesn’t belong to you. Like the guy who I buddied up with one day, who asked me to walk faster, and the next day, I had to say, “Sorry, but I need to walk alone today.” Somewhere along the path, I discovered, I absorbed the dream of completing the whole thing by foot, something that was never my intention.
And so we try on dreams like clothes, looking for ones that feel right. Sometimes we choose dreams that feel too big and chase our own enormous reveries, only to discover they weren’t too big; they were the right size after all. Others seem to fit right initially, only we discover they were too small, shrunken from the size of our courage having swelled larger. So we try on coats of many colors until our souls are clothed in dreams that fit just right- tight enough to keep us warm when chilling winds snap at our own fortitude, loose enough to feel the warm breeze kiss our skin through valleys, and long, dry paths that see no end, just leading out to the horizon.
I tried on this dream of completing the whole Camino by foot. Only it didn’t fit. It felt like a too-tight compression shirt; a constricting collar with buttons squeezing my throat. A noose around my neck with feet on top of quicksand slowly sinking into my own devices of perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking. I probably would have continued standing in the quicksand, if the light and mountains hadn’t brought me back to my senses.
Have you missed the point? Have you come all the way to this place, only to leave unchanged? Have the mountains not sang to you, the forest winds not whispered to you, God not spoken to you of another way? Have the trail blazes not guided you, sunrises and sunsets not lit the way, the sanctuary of dirt, cement and pebble passages not led you toward peace?
Try on dreams, yes, but, wrap them around you loosely enough to untie knots, instead creating openings, to shed the dreams that don’t belong to you.
Boarding a bus to Barcelona, tears welled in my eyes. I’m sure it was from the exhaustion of sleeping in hostels with sonorous snorers, sleep interrupted by the desire to kick the pilgrim next to me who was sawing not just wood, but an entire forest. But no, my tears were beyond this. The mountains, the paths, the light, the independence and interdependence, the fields, the morning dew, the “Holy shit, can you get any more beautiful?” With that, I booked my return ticket back to Spain from Zurich.
I’m coming back to the Camino to pick up where I left off. I will be lighter physically, from having ditched items like the stupid bottle of dish soap I unnecessarily bought, but most importantly, the heavy weight of perfectionism. I’ve given myself permission to take buses to paths further down the road if I run out of time rather than kill myself by harrying through more miles. It was time to learn some new lessons and re-learn some old ones. You see, when I was 18 years old, I fell asleep at the wheel, and realized for the first time that it’s possible I may die before I want to. But rather than slowing down to savor every heartbeat, I tried to do more, quicker. The next several years of the “do more, quicker,” mentality resulted in debilitating anxiety. I thought I learned how to stop living erratically, but it turns out I am forever learning. Forever learning something about patience, about seasons, about the beauty that comes from leaving question marks in sentences instead of shoving periods where they don’t belong, all in an attempt to rid the air of uncertainty.
I’m coming back for pilgrimage having returned the dreams that aren’t mine to their respectful owners. I discarded the layers of perfectionism, the tall orders and demands I put on myself, back to wearing a lightweight t-shirt that was starting to feel like a down jacket on a snowy day. There is a time and place for pushing yourself to “go hard or go home,” and for me, that’s in triathlon races, not pilgrimage. And when I start to forget, start to forget why I came back, I will guide myself toward light just like these steeples and treetops. Because maybe pilgrimage is less about the distance covered, less about walking there instead of here, and more about a mindset of open palms, open eyes, open ears.
I’ll open myself, going back to singing my theme song of U2’s “Walk On,” in which Bono sings of a place “that has to be believed to be seen.” It’s funny, I passed some writing on a fence while walking that read, “I see it when I believe it.” The more I walk, the more I see this space in my heart and in the world that I believe in. A place in which peace dwells both in my heart and in the world, and that peace feels like God. Peace from dreams that are truly our own. The peace we share in affirming each other’s freedom to walk our own strides. The peace of rivers, mountains, a timely word of encouragement, rainbows after drenching rains that leave you in gratitude for your duct-taped together poncho.
So those dreams that are no longer yours? Let’s leave ’em behind.