I first heard about El Camino de Santiago in 1977 when I attended a Cursillo Retreat in northern Idaho. (I’m sure some professor mentioned pilgrimages when I was in college, maybe when I was wallowing through Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in Middle English; but who would know?) When I heard about young men walking on a pilgrimage while getting their “short course” in Christianity, the idea appealed to me. Not the catechism; the actual walking.
From early in my life, whenever I went somewhere, I came back by a different route. To retrace the same path raised in me a sense of restlessness. By the time I entered the Army, the habit of finding a different way home was engrained in me. I discovered that when our morning conditioning runs took us along new routes, I did not feel as tired.
About 8 years ago, I found a DVD online about a couple’s preparation and trek along The Way. I ordered a copy and watched it all the way through. After a few months, Sandy sat down with me and we watched it together. But it was clear that her level of enthusiasm for the journey was far lower than my own. At the time, she was enjoying her job at our parish and was heavily involved in the project of building a new church. So I let the idea of pilgrimage fade away.
As I wrote earlier, I had laid out several trips to celebrate my “real” retirement from the workplace, including a road trip to Alaska. I could see how part of the journey would not be a return on the same road; but much of it would be. And I noticed myself losing interest in an experience that I had wanted to have for decades.
During my last several years of work, I had been logging about 13-15 hours of windshield time every week, traveling to work with clients all over south central Texas and the coastal bend along the Gulf of Mexico. My back hurt, my knees ached, my waistline blew up; I was a mess. When I retired I gained back all the time I used to spend driving, so I started walking. We live about a half-mile from the Scooter Store headquarters, and I was determined to not be a future customer. The more I walked, the better I felt; and it began to occur to me that as long as I was walking so much, I might want to be going somewhere.
Then three things happened in quick succession; and the pilgrimage took root in my soul. First, we received a delayed Christmas letter from a dear friend in Kansas. His wife had died a few years ago, and he could not get used to being without her. He described in his letter how he walked the Camino and how it changed his view of life. Then a DVD of the Emilio Estevez’ movie, The Way, was delivered to the door. I had pre-ordered it on Amazon when it was realeased. Sandy and I watched it twice; and we watched it a third time with my best friend. Finally, the new issue of National Geographic came in the mail. Sandy opened it to a photo and description of El Camino.
I was already thinking that I wanted to return to Europe and visit places at the macro level. I wanted to walk into small villages, eat at local cafes, and stay wherever I found myself at the end of the day. After a few days, Sandy said, “I think I want to walk the Camino.” For the past four months, we have been immersed in the preparations for the journey: trying new hiking boots; planning extensive walks/hikes as we travel this summer; reading about other people’s experiences along The Way.
Thoreau wrote that “Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” I believe I approached travel that way. I loved to go places and see new things; but I didn’t really experience them. That’s why I intend this to be an inner journey. I have no particular devotion to St. James. I have no religious sentiment about the pilgrimage. But I do have a deep desire to allow the pilgrimage to “walk me” as I go.