When in doubt, just take the next small step.
There’s nothing like a good, long walk to clear the head and put everything into perspective, making it abundantly obvious what really matters. It definitely isn’t about money and materialism, as so many wiser people before me have observed.
Walking the Trail to Salamanca and exploring the Great Mountain Corridor that links four major European mountain ranges is taking me on a meandering path between the majesty of high peaks, tumbling waterfalls, and breathtaking landscapes, while celebrating the remarkable tenacity of nature and the survival against all odds of pockets of wildness and wilderness.
I see it in the flowers growing through cracks in the concrete or asphalt; and in the mostly unseen presence of bears, wolves and other iconic species that are staging a triumphant comeback in areas where they were once ruthlessly hunted to extinction.
And whenever my path threads its way through towns and villages, as it has done in recent days as I’ve walked a section of the centuries-old Camino de Santiago, or Way of St James, it is often a reminder of the beauty and inherent goodness of people themselves.
Rounding a bend in the trail the tiny hamlet of Arres suddenly reveals itself as an oasis of cool in the sweltering heat. A figure detaches from the shady doorway of the pilgrim hostel and starts gesticulating enthusiastically, inviting us over.
“Welcome, welcome!” Juan Marin Valcarrel is all radiant smiles and insists: “You are home here. We are here to serve you. Please make yourself comfortable, have a shower and you will join us for dinner and breakfast, of course.”
I’ve begun replenishing my depleted water supply from the nearby village fountain and he’s adamant: “No, no. Have some cold water. A cup of tea? Some chilled gazpacho perhaps?”
My mind immediately questions: Why is he being so friendly? What does he want? Is he trying to steer us into his hostel and away from a possibly nicer place on the top of the hill?
I down three glasses of cold water and then sip the delicious tomato-based gazpacho soup that is a personal favourite. What follows is a priceless Camino experience to be cherished always: we crowd into two modest rooms with bunk beds, are given a guided tour of the cool interior of the ancient village church, enjoy an animated dinner with a score of other peregrinos and then all troop to a rocky outcrop to enjoy the last of the sunset and panoramic views as night falls.
We’re all pleasantly tired but are reluctant for the magic to end, sitting in a circle under the stars and introducing ourselves one by one as we explain what has brought us to the Way of St James and the time-honoured practice of pilgrimage.
John is choked with emotion and declares: “Never before have I been made to feel so welcome by a group of complete strangers.” Eighteen-year-old Marina Sanchez Pavilla, who is heading for Santiago with her parents, is studying to be a translator and repeats John’s words in Spanish for the benefit of the group. Our host says humbly, by way of explanation: “We love you!”
I explain why I’m walking from Geneva to Salamanca and show a short video about WILD10 and its theme of Making the World a Wilder Place. Most of the audience find the messages and wildlife images deeply moving, but perhaps the most poignant moments are when Manuel confides that his father was so profoundly touched by his own Camino experience that he helped establish the hostel we’re staying in, also serving there as a volunteer before his sudden death with meningitis. To honour his father’s memory and example, Manuel too has walked the Camino and now serves as a volunteer.
Amazing friendships are being forged in an informal circle beneath the heavens. It seems we all appreciate that life is a pilgrimage and that we are each walking our individual paths, and yet there is a common thread and a shared destiny that binds us together.
None of us knows exactly where this journey will lead and perhaps the most important thing about walking to Santiago is that inevitably you meet yourself along the way. To quote former Beatle George Harrison: “When you’ve seen beyond yourself, you may find peace of mind is waiting there.”