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A 500 Mile Meditation

A 500 Mile Walk Along the Camino de Santiago

by Michele Mattix

Hiking in nature can be its own form of meditation, especially when on a pilgrimage.  In the fall of 2000, I flew to Spain to walk 500 miles along the Camino de Santiago – an ancient pilgrimage route – to help me clear my head and make an important transition.  Today’s blog article is a story I wrote when I returned home.
 

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Along with Jerusalem and Rome, Santiago de Compostela in Spain was a primary pilgrimage site during the Middle Ages. Today, people of all nationalities and faiths journey to Spain for the challenge and reward of walking 500 miles in pilgrimage. In the fall of 2000, I was among them.

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Sitting in front of Rex’ computer screen, a network of multicolored lines representing heavenly bodies shot from my place of birth to form intricate wavy patterns across the map of the world.

“Where’d you say you’re going?” the astrologer asked me.

“Spain,” I told him, “the northern part of Spain.”

I watched as he zoomed in until the outline of Spain filled the screen.

“Wow,” he said, “you couldn’t have chosen a better place to go.” He described the fortuitous placement of the three vertical lines running parallel through the country — the sun, moon and north node. “Of all the places you could have chosen to go, you – your Higher Self – picked one of your most powerful places on Earth.” My stomach twittered with pre-trip butterflies.

“When did you say you were leaving?” Rex asked.

“Tomorrow.”

“New moon. You couldn’t have picked a better time.”

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About the Camino de Santiago

From its beginning high in the Pyrenees to the end at the famous cathedral in Santiago, the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St James, routes pilgrims along a spiritual journey adorned with lush vineyards, ruined castles, spectacular Gothic cathedrals, medieval bridges, hilltop villages, and leafy forests heralding the end of the way. It is a richly seasoned mix of miracles and legends overwhelming pilgrims with the feeling that they walk to the rhythm of some timeless spiritual dance whose magic comes alive for those en route.

Following Jesus’ crucifixion, James, the apostle, went to Iberia, modern day Spain, to spread the teachings. Apparently, he didn’t win many converts, decided to return to Judea, and was eventually martyred. Fearing the Jewish leaders who had arranged James’ death, his handful of followers put their master’s body on a small boat with neither captain nor rudder. According to the legend, the boat found its way to the shores of Galicia in northwestern Spain where the apostle’s body was entombed. Hundreds of years passed – the holy tomb long forgotten – before a local peasant received a miraculous message describing the exact location of St. James’ burial site.

 

Soon after, around the year 840 AD, a modest church was built over the tomb site. Special blessings were offered by the pope to those who journeyed to the church and it quickly developed into a major pilgrimage site. Several churches came and went until 1075 when work began on the present cathedral which was consecrated in 1211. Called Santiago de Compostela, the cathedral is dedicated to St James who is known as Santiago in Spanish. Back then, every year saw some half-a-million peasants, merchants and royalty don pilgrim’s attire — walking staff, water gourd, and burlap robes – to undertake the arduous journey to Santiago which could take the better part of a year. Some noteworthy pilgrims through the years include St Francis of Assisi, El Cid, King Philip II, and Shirley MacClaine. The Camino – or road – to Santiago, was not just one road but a network of various trails cutting through Europe like an intricate system of rivers all converging at Santiago.

By the mid 16th century, the Camino de Santiago began fading into disuse and eventually into history. Only recently – the past 20 years or so – has the Camino begun its renaissance. Though forever shrouded in its Catholic heritage, today’s pilgrims undertake the journey for a variety of reasons. For most, it is primarily a spiritual quest, a time to reflect on one’s life and gain clarity. Most of my fellow pilgrims were at a crossroads in life – recently divorced, widowed, graduated, or retired, facing a serious health issue such as cancer, or simply confused about their path in life. They were Catholics and Christians of all sorts, Jews, agnostics, and a few New-Agers.

Second to spirituality is the appeal of history and the romance of walking back into the Medieval days. Walking the Camino de Santiago is the next best thing to time travel. And it satisfies the modern traveler’s desire to incorporate physical activity into their trip; a chance to get into shape while meeting people from all over the world. The Camino delivers all of this with the bonus of being extremely inexpensive and surprisingly comfortable. An excellent network of refugios – dorm-like bunk houses with bathrooms and kitchens – along with the many small villages and restaurants along the way sets the Camino apart from other long treks, like the Appalachian Trail, which require a high degree of outdoors savvy.

Beginning the Journey

I began my pilgrimage on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees in the town of Roncesvalles. Surrounded by forests of oak and beech wood, the first few days of the Camino Frances – the refurbished branch of the old trail network on which I was walking – offer spectacular mountainside views of fertile valleys below. The finest grapes grown in Spain were only a few days shy of harvest. Medieval bridges with their graceful arches span across clear streams draining from the Pyrenees and carry modern pilgrims into towns that once hosted their predecessors from the Middle Ages.

Stopping for a snack of fruit and cheese, I watch as three German pilgrims sample violet grapes plucked directly from heavy vines. With sticky hands they pass the remains of the jeweled bundle to a nearby group of English pilgrims – identifiable by the tea cups attached to their packs. I am two hours outside of Pamplona – famous for the Running of the Bulls – and my feet feel like they’ve been trampled by a stampede.

I am certain that I left my socks in the refugio at Los Arcos. Having brought only two pairs of hiking socks, I couldn’t afford to lose one. Before going to bed in Los Arcos, I had brought my not-quite dry socks in from the clothesline and hung them on the metal bar at the foot of my bed so I wouldn’t forget them in the morning. I was seven miles from Los Arcos the next morning before I remembered the socks. Visions of my bunk mate’s shirt flashed through my mind. She had hung it as I had my socks the night before and I must have looked at it a dozen times that morning wondering if she left it on purpose in her pre-sunrise departure.   Why didn’t I hear the reminder not to forget my socks? In Viana, I emptied everything from my backpack only to confirm what I already knew – no socks.   Healthy feet are everything on a 500 mile walk and I’d never find anything close to the same quality socks in the tiny village shops.

The last words written in my journal that night were I call forth a pair of good hiking socks. When I groggily reached into my backpack the next morning, the first thing my hand touched – the thing right on top in the pack I had emptied and re-packed the night before – was my forgotten pair of socks! This will be forever known as The Miracle of the Missing Socks. Like so many monuments along the Camino commemorating some bygone miracle, I like to imagine a bronze in front of the Viana refugio depicting my groggy yet stunned expression, arm in backpack, the moment I realized my left-behind hiking socks had miraculously re-appeared in my pack.

Forever Landscapes

A week later my body has adjusted to the rigors of the walk and the scenery has changed completely. Gone are the mountains and vineyards of the Navarra region. Now the Camino offers a meditation on forever landscapes of waving grain fields. It feels at once desolate and ethereal and I lose myself in the dreaminess for days on end.

The wheat stalks have already been cut and the pungent aroma of burning foliage accompanies me as I progress in my pilgrimage. One day, descending the steep Mostelares hill into the fertile river valley below, I see the farmers in action. They are playing chaperone to gigantic reddish orange flames that devour the dry fields like frenzied coyotes on a lame deer. I reach for my camera, but the flames have transformed into billowing clouds of endless gray smoke.

I wonder if such smoke irritated the eyes of whoever inhabited the handful of ruined castles along the way. In Monjardin, the 10th century castle of St Stephen continues to grace the same hilltop climbed by Charlemagne and his army when they took the castle in battle. Other hilltop castles exist in ruins along the Camino but the most impressive is also the most accessible: the Templar Castle.

Situated amidst the town of Ponferrada, the Templar Castle is among the oldest of Spain’s military architecture. With standing towers and a working drawbridge, the castle was a work-in-progress from the 12th through the 18th centuries. It is thought to have been built by the mysterious Order of the Templars whose duty was to protect pilgrims bound for Santiago. I paid the admittance fee then played like a medieval knight peeking through tiny look-out slots to the passers-by below.

It is the churches, however, that form the heart of every village and town along the Camino. A few house the legacy of the miraculous. In Nájera, just off to the side of the altar in the Church of Santa María la Real is a cave. In 1052, a local king was out hunting with his falcon one day when the bird flew into a cave to pursue a dove. When the king entered the cave, he found a statue of Mother Mary softly lit by a lamp and surrounded by a sea of Madonna lilies. The king immediately had the church built around the sacred cave where the statue, lamp, and lilies have remained ever since.

Miracles Abound

Even more unexpected are two live, white chickens which reside in a coop built into the wall of the church in Santo Domingo de la Calzada. They commemorate The Miracle of the Roasted Cock. When a local girl’s sexual advances were rejected by a virtuous pilgrim, the scorned lass hid a silver goblet in the pilgrim’s satchel and had him arrested and hanged for thievery. The boy’s parents heard their son’s voice telling them, posthumously, that he was still alive. The couple went to the judge who was just sitting down to dinner and told him what they had heard. The judge, laughing, told the couple that their son was no more alive than were the roasted hen and cock on his dinner plate, at which point the birds jumped off of his plate, grew new feathers and proceeded to run around the kitchen.

Support from Strangers

On my way to León I went through one of my many bouts of discouragement. The knee I had injured a few weeks earlier had started hurting again. A noisy snorer had kept me awake most of the previous night. The Camino ran parallel to a busy highway for the second day in a row. I was frustrated and angry so I sat on a rock and let myself cry. Anyone who tells you that walking 500 miles is easy isn’t telling the whole story.   Sometimes it is easy, like a long walk in the park. Other times it’s hell, each step a painful exercise in drudgery. I was wiping my eyes when a carful of Spaniards passed and one of them yelled: Ultreia! – the traditional morale booster for Santiago pilgrims. I waved, picked myself up, and did the only thing there was to do – kept walking.

Of the dozen or so cathedrals along the Camino, the most beautiful is in León. Exhausted from walking twenty five miles in one day – a miracle in itself, the sight of the cathedral from a nearby hilltop infused me with the energy I needed to make it to León. Dubbed the Jewel of León, the cathedral is a masterpiece. Gothic in style and French in design, the interior is ethereally illuminated by more than one hundred stained glass windows. Pilgrims forget about their aching feet and are uplifted by the bright, airy interior and the ten thousand colorful mosaic pieces scattered on the floor like so many beams of light.

The Romanesque cathedral in Santiago matters most, however, for here ends the pilgrimage. One of its most impressive sites is the botafumeiro – a gigantic incense chamber which is swung across the transept of the church by a system of ropes, pulleys, and eight devoted monks. The smoking, silver capsule soars over the heads of hundreds of awe-struck pilgrims then nearly brushes the ceiling of the cathedral while swinging its way from one side of the transept to the other – a distance of one hundred and fifty feet. In the Middle Ages incense was burned continuously for ritual as well as to cover the odor of arriving pilgrims. Today, thanks to soap and running water, the botafumeiro is used on special occasions and masses said during holy years.

 The Destination

Arriving in Santiago is the culmination of a 500 mile journey on foot, it is the raison d-être of the pilgrimage, what all of the blisters, sore muscles, and sleeping amidst snorers was for. How does it feel to finally stand before this much awaited destination? Quite ordinary. Somehow, you expect the mayor to rush out and greet you with a key to the city, for the entire town to let off fireworks and hold a party in your honor, or at least for an expanded state of consciousness to flood you with congratulations. Instead, it’s just another town. The last town.   It’s not about the destination – remember?   It’s about the journey. Fortunately, I had read about how this disappointment is common among arriving pilgrims and had prepared myself for it ahead of time. Still, the journey was over and I didn’t quite feel ready for it to end.

A few days after my arrival, I was in my Santiago hotel room looking at myself in the mirror – something I had little opportunity to do over the past month. My eyes were brighter and clearer than I had seen them in a long, long time. Smiling back at me was a radiant being who looked strong, alive, and very happy.

“What next?” I ask the Radiant One.

“Does it matter?” she answered.

There was really only one thing to do, the only thing there ever is to do – keep walking along my own Camino and go wherever it leads.

Ultreia, chica!