After I graduate I am going to become a pilgrim. This is what I have decided after the three-day trip along the Camino de Santiago in the Navarra region of Spain. The Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, is a spiritual hike starting in St. Jean Pied de Port, France (Camino Frances) or Seville, Spain (Via de la Plata) and ending at Santiago de Compostela near the Atlantic coast. At Santiago de Compostela, tradition has it that you must throw your clothes into the ocean and rejoice. It is here that Saint James’ body was buried after it was lost at sea. It turned up on the coast undamaged and covered in scallops. Now the shells are the official symbol of the Camino, with scallop placards guiding the way along the trail and through the towns. For more than 1,000 years pilgrims have been walking the trail to give thanks to St. James, find their own spiritual path, or just take a break from society.
Packing is light. The idea is not to be bogged down with the most high-tech backpacking gear and lots of food, but to just enjoy the trip. We would come into the town to refuel on food, and stay at an “albergues”, a hostel solely for pilgrims. We didn’t even take sleeping bags. The albergues are cheap and most run by volunteers. In order to stay in an Alburges you need a pilgrim passport (free and easily obtained) for the hosts to stamp to show where you’ve been. The idea behind the stamps is that at the end of the Camino you present your passport and receive a certificate saying you have completed the pilgrimage.
Juniors Ellie Poley, Andrea Johnston, Alison Smith, Julia Sourikoff from Barnard, and I would be taking a bus to Pamplona, walking to Puente la Reina, 25 km away, and then ending in Estella the next day, another 25 km away. From there we would catch a bus the next afternoon headed back to Pamplona, and then another to Barcelona.
Thursday night we caught the late night bus out of Sants Station Barcelona. Our plan was to sleep on the six hour long bus ride and begin our trip in Pamplona at six the next morning. Unsure of where the beginning of the Camino actually was, once we arrived in Pamplona we wandered around the dark city looking for someone who could point us in the right direction. We became dismayed. Then, as we passed a closed church, a woman suddenly poked her head out. We explained we were pilgrims looking for the entrance and she ushered us inside for stamps, coffee, and a map. This was our first miracle.
After breakfast and the creation of smurf-blue, trash bag raincoats, we headed out. The trail went through the city, through a university, and then out of the town to the Pamplona farms. The sun was rising and many people were starting their day.
We walked past old castles and farmers plowing the rocky soil. Today’s journey would be uphill, climbing 300 feet up a mountain. Along the way we met other pilgrims from Canada, England, and Spain, and picked fresh figs, trying them wild for the first time. Reaching the windy peak we settled in for lunch, and afterwards practiced some yoga and pretended to be birds.
The climb down the mountain was rough, but we had seen the city we were headed to from the top and went down motivated. We added to the growing cairns along the trail and paused to think about the difficulties of being some of the first pilgrims walking the trail, without the handy shell markers and yellow arrows, as they went to pay their respects to St. James.
Near the end of the day we took a side path to visit an old church, and, as it was growing late and Puente la Reina was still a few kilometers away, we took some advice from a local and pursued a short cut to the city.
We arrived exhausted in Puente la Reina, only to discover the albergue was on the top of another steep, mile long hill. Our feet ached but we made it up. We were the only ones staying there that night. The pilgrim dinner they served was simple, but there was a lot of it and we packed down the carbohydrates of a warm cooked meal, thankful for something other than nuts and dried fruit.
The next morning we set out early again. This day would be an easier climb and a few kilometers shorter. It followed the highway for a bit and then started to change to vineyards; this was wine country. We ate lunch outside a church and then continued on, wanting to arrive in Estella before dark. Along the way we saw a flock of sheep and a shepherd and I decided I wanted to live there along the Camino and serve pilgrims hot food and water, even if that meant fixing up one of the run down workhouses.
In Estella we walked around a bit, listened to a talented youth drumcore bard, and found a restaurant serving a pilgrim meal. Back at the hostel we met other pilgrims. The people that walk the trail are of all ages and dispositions. Some like it quiet and calm, others are excited to meet new people. That night one elderly man even sung Andrea to sleep while resting his head on her bed.
The next morning was Sunday, and we got up early to attend church service nearby before catching the bus back home. Though none of us are practicing Catholics, we decided to attend for the cultural experience. The members of the church, mostly elderly women, greeted us kindly and explained what to do. The younger priest was also happy to have us there, giving us a copy of their song in English and good luck pilgrim cards on the way out. They all wished us a good trip.
So now I’m back in Barcelona, with the many people and the cars and all these things I own, but my mind is still out there on the trail.