- Hape Kerkeling
The Way of St. James or the Camino de Santiago is about to get a lot busier with the recent release of the Emilio Estevez directed film, The Way. I became fascinated with The Way when I stumbled across Shirley MacLaine’s book, The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit. While I never read it, the idea of this spiritual journey stayed with me. I recently finished Hape Kerkeling’s funny account of walking the Camino in, I’m Off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago.
What Is The Way?
A path of illumination. A spiritual journey that people of all faiths and backgrounds have walked for over a thousand years. It was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times. Legend says that St. James’s remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem to Northern Spain where he was buried on the site of what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela.
There are a number of routes leading to Santiago, but the most popular one is the Camino Frances, starting in St. Jean Pied de Port, France and crossing the Pyrenees Mountains into Northern Spain. Lines of energy (called ley lines) are said to be aligned with the Milky Way along the entire trail.
Facts About The Camino
- The Camino Frances covers 800 kilometers/500 miles across the countryside of Northern Spain.
- Pilgrims usually walk about 12 – 15 miles per day reaching Santiago within 6 to 8 weeks, but everyone’s journey varies.
- You can bike, walk, and travel by bus or horse, but to truly say you completed the Camino, you must walk it in its entirety.
- You are considered to have completed the pilgrimage if you can show you walked the final 62 miles to Santiago de Compostela on foot or the final 124 miles by bicycle or horseback.
- When you start your journey, you are given a pilgrim’s passport which needs to be stamped in each town to obtain a compostela, a certificate of completion.
- The trial is marked by flecha amarilla (yellow arrows) and/or the vieria (scallop symbol).
- The scallop shell is the pilgrim’s insignia and most pilgrims will wear a shell or have one attached to their backpack.
- The Catholic Church forgives the sins of people who complete a pilgrimage to Santiago.
Why Walk The Way?
People walk the Way for a variety of reasons, some are seeking enlightenment, others are seeking penance and some just for the adventure. Many people walk the trail when they are at a major crossroads in their life. Thousands of passports are issued each year, but only 15% are actually stamped in Santiago, attesting to the difficult journey. Everyone eventually gets to the point of bursting into tears somewhere along the route.
“A pilgrimage has to be completed alone, or at least begun alone. Along the trail, I keep running into couples arguing loudly, or people who tell me that they have separated from their partners on the Camino. Some people grouchily match their partners’ incompatible rhythms for miles until they brim over with resentment. Good friends decide on impulse to go their separate ways. In the end, nearly all pilgrims who are in it for the long haul walk alone. I virtually never see groups. Rhythm and pace are what separate most people on the trail. It is hard to find someone who dances to a similar beat. If you hike in a slow waltz, the way I do, you can’t join up with a speedy flamenco pilgrim. Once you’re quite sure of your own pace, you might be able to link up with someone. The pilgrims’ walking styles reflect their feelings and thoughts and their very essence.”
Where Do You Sleep?
You are allowed to stay one night in each refugio. Your stay is free but donations are welcome. Many people will hike at night or early in the morning, so they can make sure a bed at a refugio is available. After reading enough refugio descriptions, where pilgrims are packed into one room like sardines, I know that if I ever walk this trail, I will be looking for the nearest bed and breakfast.
“I will never again sleep in a monastery or on the ground-unless I have to. I’d rather stay awake or sleep outdoors on a bench. I simply can’t believe that Shirley MacLaine spent even a single night in these refugios. And if she did, she’s nuts.”
Guidance On The Way
Throughout Hape Kerkeling’s book, there are funny accounts of larger forces at work.
“I am on the verge of cutting short my pilgrimage. While I’m absorbed in thoughts of this kind, the waiter suddenly appears before me, and I read this saying on his T-shirt: Keep on Running! I figure this is probably a Spanish tourist office ploy, but–numbskull of a pilgrim that I am–I fall for it.”
The butterflies seem to be aligned with the Milky Way as well.
“I realize that every time I deviate in the slightest from the path, the butterflies disappear. No sooner am I back on the pilgrims’ trail that I see swarms of colorful butterflies…Did the Spanish tourist office engineer this? Twice I nearly miss the yellow arrows, but at just the right moment, a butterfly settles on a faded yellow arrow at the side of the trial and catches my eye. Don’t worry-I am not calling that a mystical miracle, but I am duly impressed.”
The Final Stretch
The town of Villafrance del Bierzo is entered through the Puerta del Perdon (Portal of Pardon). Frail or ailing pilgrims unable to make the final climb to Santiago can receive the indulgence they would otherwise get in Santigo de Compostela here in the local St. James Church known as Little Compostela.
Many pilgrims drop out in the final stage. The trail offers hikers two routes. The longer one is a ridiculously steep trail over the mountains, known as the hard way or the Camino duro. The other route, described in hair raising detail in the book, takes you along the N6 freeway with trucks and cars flying by within arm’s reach.
The Camino Is Calling
On my drive back home after seeing The Way, I was lost in thought. I looked up at one point, and blaring at me was the neon yellow scallop shell from the Shell station. As I drove on, the next street I passed was called Santiago. As I got closer to home, the announcer on the radio mentioned the song that just played was El Camino. I seem destined to walk the Camino.
Have you ever been called to a particular place or to travel off the beaten path?