Thursday, May 1, 2014

Camino de Santiago

Walking is not a pastime for the majority of Canadians. We enjoy outdoor sports, even in the coldest depths of winter, but Canada is a huge country and before there were automobiles, there were horses. Canadians drive to work (or occasionally bike if it’s close and the weather is decent), to the stores, to their holidays. Most of us learn to drive as soon as we turn old enough and never look back.

Part of that is a horrible public transportation system, which doesn’t encourage leaving the car at home. Mostly though, it’s just that everything is a lot further away than in Europe. Canada is wider across than the entirety of the European continent, from west Ireland all the way to eastern Ukraine. Even the grocery store is a long way away from my house.

I heard about the Camino in 2005, when Heather Dale released Road to Santiago. I learned that Santiago was a place in Spain, that it was a pilgrimage site, that it was old, and that it was part of a much larger world of a time in Europe when nearly everyone walked everywhere. At the time I thought it interesting, but not particularly intriguing. I did a brief search on Santiago and the pilgrimages of old and then…put it out of my mind. In 2005 I didn’t walk anywhere, much less across an entire country.

In 2011, Emilio Estevez released The Way, but I didn’t see it until February 2012 when I rented it off iTunes. I rented it because it was Martin Sheen and James Nesbitt and I’m easy like that. I could watch those two in practically any movie and enjoy it. But I remember, from the first few minutes of the film that something about it spoke to me. I usually go in for action or maybe rom-com, but this one grabbed me from the start. I find most dramatic movies overly sappy and can’t get invested in them. This one, for whatever reason, was different. From the DVD menu with its map background and the first few humorous moments of the film, I was hooked. Even the music was perfect.

I watch it now and even the first notes of the soundtrack bring me to tears. It is beautiful and perfect, in a way so understated as to be almost ignored by the world. But this little film has changed so many people’s lives. So many people I have met have seen this film and made a choice that will forever shape their existence. How many films can say that? It did not set out to do that. It set out only to tell the story of a father and son, but somewhere along the way it told the story of the Camino too. And people flocked to it.

From the opening credits sequence to the last stirrings of the piano on the shores of Finisterre, it is beautiful.

And so was the Camino. Amidst pain and suffering there was joy and beauty. Life, in but a snapshot of time. Time to live each moment and to reflect each day. And perhaps the entirety of the Camino is very simple; perhaps the need and chance to walk it, is the only true miracle.

There is no other experience like walking across a country. An afternoon’s hike, or a weekend walking holiday do not compare. They are holidays, they are enjoyment and peace and involve little sacrifice, little suffering. Otherwise why would anyone do them? They are choices. The Camino is, in many ways, not a choice. It was not for me. I did not choose to walk it; I simply knew I had to. One clear moment of understanding in my life. I was meant to do this. Whether by fate or a higher power or simply by the desire to experience life that drives us all, this was always going to be my way.

Spain is a beautiful country. From north to south, east to west, it is in turns stunning and sad, breathtaking and unassuming. I had never been before. I may never go again. The Camino is part of Spain and yet not part. Those that walk the way are not visitors to Spain; they are not the tourists of Madrid and Barcelona. They are not there for a holiday. They are not even really there to experience Spain. They are there to experience the Camino and the Camino is not Spain. It flows through the country like the Mississippi flows through America, but it does not define Spain. It existed before modern Spain existed and it will exist, in some ways, long after Spain is gone. It sits in a time apart.

The Camino is not characterized by politics, or these days even religion. It does not care what your creed is, or your birth, your social standing or your mistakes. The Camino simply is. It is a line through the sand, but not a border. It is there only in your mind as a challenge and a task. Each day, each moment, something to be experienced and overcome. Each moment treasured before it is put aside in favour of the next. But the moments never pass entirely, only flow one into another, one mile into another, until the end. But the end is not really the end. You emerge in Santiago a different person from when you started, and you will forever be such. You carry the Camino with you each moment of the rest of your life, in memories and friends, and in your own self.

The Camino is a life changing experience. It cannot be otherwise. There is nothing quite like it, no other walking trail in the world quite the same as this one, as they are not the same to others. Each person walks their own Camino. There is no single path, but through every footfall that you take, you carve your own, leaving behind a trail to guide others.

At no other time in your life, except for on hiking expeditions, will you wake up in a new place each day. Nowhere else will you see a landscape change below your feet with each step you take. No other way will you experience hunger and exhaustion, pain and struggle on such monumental scales and revel in them.

It has been twelve months since I set off on my Camino. Not a day goes by that I do not wish I was on it again. Even on the worst days there were moments worth remembering. I do not know if my life will ever allow for another Camino, but I know that whether it does easily or not, I must walk another. It is a desire that sits in my heart and always will. There are some once in a lifetime experience that should never happen just once. This is one of them.

Perhaps I will see you on the Way.

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