Sliding off my boots, gently peeling away my sweaty socks, I examined my aching and blistered feet. The first day of my trek to Santiago de Compostela proved to be all I had hoped for – a test in fortitude with a side order of self-reliance. I was in Spain to walk the Via de la Plata, hoping to reach the site where the remains of St. James were discovered in 813 A.D., forever transforming that hillside as a holy place for pilgrims.
The route begins in Seville and continues north to Zamora, then wraps west around Portugal until reaching Santiago de Compostela in the northwestern corner of Spain – 650 miles.
I first heard of this pilgrimage from a friend who casually mentioned it over coffee. At 25, I was already feeling discontent with my life’s direction. I felt stuck in a holding pattern, circling life’s meaning in a blinding fog, obedient to a numbing consistency that was already molding my future.
I wanted to break that pattern and pursue some fundamental lessons in life; simple lessons often lost in our technologically advanced society. I wanted to embark on a journey of sheer simplicity.
So here I was, only 12 miles outside of Seville – a pilgrim hoping to rediscover life one step at a time.
My family and friends had plenty of questions: Why would you want to walk that far? You’re not taking an iPod? How will you wash your clothes? Do you even speak Spanish?
Although the questions raised self-doubts, searching for the answers enticed me. I had to trust I would discover them along the way.
The pilgrimage to Santiago – the Camino de Santiago, or “Way of St. James” – is a walk through time. The Via de la Plata (“Silver Route”) took me forty-three days, following endless yellow arrows painted on everything from backs of street signs to large rocks.
I followed those arrows 650 miles, from Seville to Santiago. I averaged 15 miles a day; the distance depended on the next possible place to sleep. Often I would pass several tiny hamlets over a 10-mile span, although a few days I walked more than 25 miles just to reach the next village that offered lodging.
Accommodations, known as “albergues” and designated specifically for pilgrims, can be found in most villages.
Not all villages have taken equal efforts with their albergue; I spent a few sleepless nights on cold gym floors. But in general, villages along the Via de la Plata have made great efforts to accommodate pilgrims with the basic comforts of a bed and running water.
Each morning I spent a few minutes on a local park bench sorting out travel plans for that day. Setting off early from the albergue, I was often greeted by picturesque castle ruins from centuries ago soaking in the first rays of sunshine.
Rolling farmlands spread out over the beginning of my trip, gradually giving way to mountain passes with lush green forests.
History was my travel companion as my steps followed parts of an ancient Roman road. Famous battlefields surrounded me as I entered historical cities such as Salamanca. A 60-arch Roman bridge was my entrance into Merida, one of the largest cities ever built by the Romans.
Timeless traditions define the spirit of Spain, whether it was watching a religious procession during Semana Santa, a glorious Easter week celebration, or standing in early morning lines for a warm bag of churros – addictive deep-fried pastries typically served with an incredibly thick hot chocolate perfect for dipping.
Evenings in the albergues were the only consistent times I had to converse with other pilgrims. We would trickle in, each of us arriving at our own pace.
I noticed common themes dominated our conversations. First we discussed the weather – that day’s conditions, but more importantly, the next day’s forecast. Then we usually compared the distance we traveled in relation to the time we spent walking, a topic with competitive undertones I often tried to avoid.
Every so often the conversation would break open when I would meet a wise, experienced pilgrim.
One afternoon, when I was furiously working to clean my other set of clothes for the following day, I met a fellow pilgrim from the northwestern coastal town of A Coruña. In a conversation that traveled from the washbasin to the dinner table and back to the albergue, he shared stories that filled me with inspiration.
After we selected our respective bunk beds he sat across from me and removed his boots and socks. He began examining his blisters while he described his passion for the Camino de Santiago.
When he caught me staring at the field of white pockets scattered across his foot, he smiled.
“Take thread and needle and run it through the blister,” he instructed, “and tie knots on either end so it stays. Then place disinfectant cream on each end of the thread.”
Grabbing the ends, he demonstrated how to transfer the cream inside the blister without removing the skin. “It burns” he said, grimacing.
On the morning I was to reach Santiago, I awoke to the familiar sight of pilgrims stuffing their earthly belongings into their backpacks. Lying back down, savoring the moment, I thought not about the impending end but instead, returned to memories of my travels.
I remembered moments that tested my determination and reaffirmed my resolve: when the soles of my boots began to crack and eventually fell off. When unrelenting rain poured down on me for hours. When a cafe owner and fellow patrons bellowed out “happy birthday” in Spanish upon seeing my date of birth on my passport.
I reflected how far I had come physically as well.
The painful pinch that lived between my shoulder blades had eventually turned to muscle. My feet were now coarse, like leather, and my heels were as hard as stones. Tender markings of old and new blisters told the story of every mile.
The faint glow of daybreak spread across the countryside as I left the albergue. Following a dimly lit path, I was surrounded by the forceful scent of eucalyptus trees towering above me. The sound of my feet treading over dry leaves echoed in the quiet solitude.
With a slow, simple rhythm, I walked in tune with nature’s song. Although it was my last day as a pilgrim, I knew the lessons I had learned along the way would carry me far beyond Santiago de Compostela.
As I settled into my seat on the jet that would take me home, I remembered the words an experienced pilgrim shared with me: “You walk the Camino with your feet and your mind; when you reach Santiago your feet will stop but your mind will continue.”
As the plane lifted into the sky, leaving Santiago at a speed inconceivable to any pilgrim, I rejoiced in his words. My body and mind had truly experienced a world disconnected from the confines of modern society.
I had gathered lessons from the search engine of life, collecting intangible moments not found by Google. When you walk in relative solitude that far for that long, you learn lessons in determination, patience, discipline and simplicity.
At the start of my pilgrimage my goal was to reach Santiago, believing that at the end I would discover a fundamental truth about my life and the world around me. I was hoping for an epiphany.
That never happened. The value of my pilgrimage was not in reaching the end, but rather somewhere in the middle.
In an afternoon when the sun was warm on my neck and a woman smiled as she hung her laundry to dry in the breeze, I followed the dirt road out of her town, realizing that some of what life has to teach us is best learned by simply putting one foot in front of the other.