I walked into Santiago over a month ago… a month! I traveled for a few more weeks after that, but even so: how has it already been a month since the end of my pilgrimage? Since returning home I’ve thought about the Camino every day. At first it was all I could do to just settle back into life and catch up on sleep and see friends and family and adjust to being home. The Camino- and everything it entailed- was sort of a hazy presence that I knew I would get to, eventually.
And I’ve been trying to get to it lately- go back and sort it all out in my head, wrap my mind around what it meant, what it continues to mean, what it will mean for my future. But it will probably take years to sort out and by that time I’ll have walked another Camino and will need to figure that one out… it’s going to be a lifelong process, I think.
That being said, I’ve been doing some good, solid post-Camino thinking. The other night I got together with a friend who walked the Camino Frances six years ago, and I had a million questions for her. At first they were fairly standard: how heavy was your pack, what was your experience like in this town, etc. But then I started to get to what was really on my mind: how and when did you form friendships? Did they last throughout the Camino or did you break away? Did you find that the Camino gave you what you needed?
This is a big one, it’s the question that’s occupied most of my post-Camino thoughts. “The Camino provides” was a phrase that I often heard during my walk, and one that I’ve used myself from time to time. Nervous at the airport in JFK, wondering what I was getting myself into… and then right away I meet Julie, who is also walking the Camino, also a bit nervous, and so happy to talk to me. The Camino provides. Our flight is delayed, we are stuck in Iceland overnight, by the time I make it to St Jean I am a day behind schedule. Had I started on June 26th, as planned, it would have been a wet, gray, rain-soaked walk through the Pyrenees. But June 27th, the day I started? Clear blue skies, views for miles, sunshine and a cool breeze. The Camino provides. I worried about meeting people and making friends, and while I was so glad to walk that first day alone, I couldn’t help but notice other pilgrims linking up and walking together. On the last hour of the descent to Roncesvalles I met Mirra, from San Francisco. We ended up sticking together until she left in Burgos, and I couldn’t have imagined a better person to spend the first half of my Camino with. The Camino provides.
And this was just the first few days of my trip. There are countless other examples of how the Camino provided something to me when I needed it. Small stuff: an open bar when I was desperate for coffee. A snore free night when I most needed sleep. But the bigger stuff, too: companionship when I felt the most alone. Guidance when I felt lost and uncertain.
And then, well, there was my entire Camino. I’ve wondered- while I was walking and now, a month after I’ve finished- why everyone had the Camino experience that they did. Why was my Camino so, so good? Why was I so lucky, so blessed? Why did I avoid injury and pain? How did I escape the bed bugs and the notorious snorers? How did I always get a bed, and sometimes the last bed? How did I avoid walking in the rain? How did I meet the most incredible people, always at just the right times? How did I have so much fun?
Something we started saying towards the end of the walk was- “Oh, Camino.” and “Why Camino, why??” It’s like we realized- for good or bad- that this experience was a bit out of our control. The Camino was going to give us the experience we were supposed to have, and we could question it but in the end, the only thing we could really do was accept it.
Why, for instance, did Susie, after an injury riddled walk, get bed bugs on her last night in Finisterre? Why did Joe and Adele, ready to relax and celebrate, get food poisoning the night they arrived in Santiago? Why did Laura, the Italian mother, get a huge blister on her heel three days before the end of the walk?
I think about these examples, of the pain and struggle at the very end of the pilgrimage, and I wonder why. Why does anyone have to experience pain? Why them, and not me? Was it for Susie to prove, once and for all, that she was far stronger than she ever could have imagined? That Joe and Adele, on their honeymoon, were able to support each other- truly- through the good and bad? That Laura could put a smile on her face and continue to walk and be the best possible example for her 12- year old daughter?
I don’t know. It’s what I saw, and I suppose that the meaning of any life experience- Camino or not- is what we make of it.
And this is what I saw, in part, on my Camino: the Camino gave me joy and life and fun. I came to walk the Camino for many reasons, but the timing of it was because I needed to move towards something. The serious relationship I’d been in had ended 6 months before and the better part of the last year had been very difficult for me. I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t having fun, I was just getting through my days in order to get to a better time. Even though I knew I would find it again, I couldn’t feel the joy in life.
Why does anyone experience pain? I don’t know, but I do know that the contrast of such incredible highs after difficult lows is a thing of beauty. It’s life: we feel pain, but we can also feel joy. We can also feel great joy. I came to the Camino, in part, to feel life again, all of the beauty and magic and hope and joy of life, and I was flooded by it all.
My Camino wasn’t perfect, or totally pain free. Sometimes it felt difficult. But most of the time, it seemed like all I could see and feel was beauty and magic and joy.
The Camino provides.