The Camino de Santiago – the Way of St James – is the only long distance pilgrimage walk to be awarded United Nations World Heritage status for it’s historical and spiritual significance and consists of more than a dozen routes across Spain that have been walked by pilgrims for many centuries.
Each person walks for his or her personal reasons, be they religious, spiritual, historical or simply for the challenge, but the Camino’s ability to transform and elevate human consciousness seems in little doubt to the thousands who walk in search of deeper meaning to their lives.
For all, the journey is as important as the destination – the fabled city of Santiago where the remains of St James, one of the disciples of Jesus Christ, are believed to be buried. And for many, the journey doesn’t end there but follows in the footsteps of early Celtic pilgrims who followed the stars of the Milky Way to Finisterre, the ‘End of the World’, where Spain’s landmass meets the sea.
Funnily enough I was first attracted to the idea of walking the Camino around 15 years ago and many years before I’d had any serious thoughts about being the change I wished to see in the world and walking with a message about treading lightly upon the Earth. A book by American screen legend Shirley Maclaine whetted the appetite, as did another by Paulo Coelho who described the magic and mystery of this journey.
For me – an Earth Pilgrim in training – I saw it as a chance to fullfill a dream and sharpen the focus of what is emerging as my new life, free of materialism, with an emphasis on sustainable living and living simply so that others might simply live.
My idea was to walk the classical Camino Frances from St Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago and on to Finisterre, an 883km (550 mile) pilgrimage that normally takes around five weeks. But because of the last-minute arrival of an Australian friend from Findhorn, I found myself crossing the Pyrenees twice, heading from Roncesvalles to St Jean and then back again. Knowing that my pal Merryn Black had never attempted anything like this before, I thought we could begin together and share the path for at least the first couple of days.
Setting off an hour before sunrise with my headtorch lighting my way I was amused to spot two pilgrims storming off in the wrong direction. “Wrong way, Pilgrims,” I called out, and they sheepishly retraced their steps, leaving me alone under the stars in the early morning chill.
It would be several hours before I met pilgrims who’d started off from St Jean, one Frenchman discovering I planned to turn around and retrace my steps. “Are you crazy?” he demanded. His friend seemed more impressed with the idea and wished me “Bon Courage!”
Inevitably some asked if I was going the right way, while others were fascinated by my Gorilla Feet in their Vibram FiveFingers, pausing to chat and ask questions about the next best thing to being barefoot on the rocky trail.
Climbing ever higher I looked back on Roncesvalles and delighted at the scene, gentle pink and blue pastels hinting at a beautiful sunrise to come, while the wind sighed through the treetops releasing flurries of autumn leaves like some heavenly gift.
Still I climbed higher and the wind gained in intensity until I had to stop and don all my sponsored K-Way clothing, including gloves and beanie. At times the wind gusted so hard I struggled to maintain my balance, steadying myself with my trekking poles. I felt energised and exhilarated and remembered the same feeling in the high Himalayas on the way to Everest Base Camp, delighting in Buddhist prayer flags fluttering wildly and sending their messages of love and peace out into a troubled world.
Sunrise, when it eventually happened, was spectacular and utterly memorable and I shouted my delighted thanks for the blessing of this incredible morning, the wind whipping away my gratitudes to wherever these things go.
When I saw an eagle soaring above I knew my Camino was going to be blessed with an amazing inner and outer journey.
Thanks you, thank you, thank you!