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One year after walking the Camino: What gifts remain?

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Stones left by pilgrims on the Camino transform a simple rock into an impromptu cairn.

Exactly one year after starting the Camino pilgrimage alone, I was curious to read my journal responses to a questionnaire about the journey. In a Pamplona hotel room on May 27, 2013, I had filled out a self-assessment in John Brierley’s guidebook Camino de Santiago. Since then, I haven’t looked at my responses.

I certainly remember my fears before starting the Camino. One was of wild dogs. In her book about walking the Camino, Shirley MacLaine describes roving gangs of wild dogs that attacked pilgrims. She had to fight them off with her walking stick.

That threatening image stayed with me for more than a decade. It was likely heightened by my memory of watching the movie The Hound of the Baskervilles as a child. In this Sherlock Holmes tale, a deadly dog, supposedly otherworldly, attacks and kills people.

As an adult, even while attending a day-long series of presentations by people who had walked the Camino, I asked one of them if he had had any confrontations with dogs. He had, but it was with one that was chained. He reassured me that most dogs along The Way just barked and almost all were tied up. He didn’t encounter any wild ones.

“Worry is a prayer for what you don’t want,” wrote one pilgrim in an albergue book. I copied this phrase, mentioned in my guidebook, in my journal. On that day in Pamplona, a year ago, I also wrote: “This trip is ultimately going to be about my ATTITUDE . . . My biggest challenge on the El Camino will be not succumbing to negativity and pessimism. That is my tendency when things are not going well.”

Like life itself, the Camino is a journey of the mind, body, and spirit. Fear can play an overwhelming role or just a bit part. Besides initial concerns about theft along the route, I feared that my joints, a previously injured knee and ankle, would give out. In retrospect, none of my fears proved true. What lesson can I learn from this? Fear can be a cautioning ally or a terrorizing tyrant: the choice is mine.

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The Camino bears many forms of crossing a threshold,
such as walking under bridges like this one.

In response to the question “How do you differentiate pilgrimage from a long-distance walk?” I wrote: “A pilgrimage has an intention of inner searching and divine connection, deepening one’s relationship with one’s divine essence . . . A long-distance walk can become a solo pilgrimage, but doesn’t have the same collective archetypal significance. A pilgrimage is more about how the journey is made rather than the destination itself.”

In reply to the question “What do you see as the primary purpose of your life?” I wrote the following: “to live from my truest, deepest Self, by opening to as much self-love and acceptance as possible, and sharing this with others through love and compassion [now I would add “kindness.”]. I added “using words and imagery through writing, editing and teaching to help others and inspire them on their own spiritual journey.”

I liked that for each day of walking the Camino, Brierley, author of my guidebook, addressed both what he called “the practical path” and “the mystical path.” Under the latter heading, he always included some inspirational story or prompt to consider a deeper intention or more soulful perspective to mundane events. This blending of grace and grit, so to speak, was a perfect metaphor for The Way and again, for life itself.

Yet I still struggle to integrate the often-conflicting desires of my head and heart. My ego seeks validation, recognition or status (separateness or individuation) while my heart or soulful Self searches to reconnect with peace, joy and contentment (oneness or interconnectedness). Walking the Camino confronted me with those choices on a daily basis: tap into the innate energetic stillness of nature, of which I am a part, or strive ahead with worry and concern about how, when or where to reach the next destination.

As part of his self-assessment questionnaire or what he calls “inner waymarks,” Brierley asks: “How will you recognize resistance to any changes that might be necessary?” I wrote: “Fear and worry are my resistance . . .when my motivation might be to prove my worth to myself and others, rather than coming from a deeper place. When I am motivated by a desire for SECURITY and SAFETY, rather than risk and testing the Unknown. SELF-DOUBT and NEGATIVITY.”

When I review my list of factors in response to “What appears to be blocking any change from happening?” it seems like a familiar litany: impatience; self-doubt; lack of trust and faith; sense of unworthiness; difficulty in letting things unfold; desire for control, and so on. Yet I recognize that I sit in the director’s chair for the movie of my life. Each of these qualities, like characters, can play a lead role or not be in the cast at all. The choice is up to me.

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Elke and Pam of Langley, BC were among those
I created heartfelt friendships with along The Camino.

One year after walking the Camino, it is still tough for me to embrace the journey itself rather than the destination or goal. Yet I continue to learn to let go more easily and to trust the Unknown, especially as I continue in the path of self-employment. I am still a work-in-progress and always will be.

How did completing the 800-kilometre route change me? It allowed me to overcome fears; to rediscover and reinforce the power of resilience and perseverance; to open to new and lasting friendships; to strengthen a sense of innate Oneness; and discover the joy and satisfaction of fulfilling a life’s dream. That’s more than enough for now.

May 28, 2014 at 8:22 am
1 comment »
  • May 28, 2014 at 10:57 pmGlo McArter


    Such a poignant piece you have written here. I love how you describe “pilgrimage” and how you inspire the reflective experience. Although I am not walking the Camino, you help me wonder about HOW I make my journey of daily living, rather than the destination, with my intention of “inner searching and divine connection”. THANKS for bringing the Camino to me and inspiring my curiosity about how I choose to direct my life.

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