Last summer, I undertook walking the thousand-year old pilgrimage route in France and Spain known as the Camino de Santiago. Over the course of 30 days in June I covered 500 miles on foot and eventually arrived at the city of Santiago de Compostela, where the relics of Saint James are said to lie under the city’s cathedral. Although incredibly beautiful, the route tested me with blisters, tendonitis, bed bugs, poor sleep, sunburn, and aching muscles and feet, and offered a mental and emotional challenge that I had never before experienced. The accumulation of hardships ensures that less than half who begin finish the route.
In short time a few of us on the pilgrimage of began walking together, then the party grew and changed every so often as someone joined or left our “camino community.” I got to know these other pilgrims as well as I would my own family members and made life-long friendships. For many, the Camino is a spiritual journey, but for others the pilgrimage is a time to reflect on transitions one is experiencing in life. We talked about our motivations for taking such a punishing trip and forged mutual trust that let us reveal our innermost struggles and feelings. We supported and cared for each other; we laughed, cried, cursed the pain and took in the sublime Iberian landscapes we walked through. The Camino will be one of the most powerful and memorable moments in my life.
I teach a unit in Spanish II based on the Camino de Santiago, and will be supplementing the curriculum this year with personal experiences, observations, photographs, realia collected on the way, and video interviews with native Spanish speakers who either walked or assisted those who did. In class we’ll learn about the history, reasons for doing a pilgrimage and living conditions on the Camino as a way to learn how to talk about travel and lodging in Spanish.
The Camino unit is also a moment to talk about what it means to experience process and what you learn on the way rather than being focused on the goal. Something every pilgrim eventually realizes is that the journey itself is the destination. Reaching Santiago and completing the Camino was gratifying, but it also meant the end of a complicated relationship with the pilgrimage and a unique journey with a set of fellow wanderers that can never be brought back, much like life itself.