Man is a creature who walks in two worlds and traces upon the walls of his cave the wonders and the nightmare experiences of his spiritual pilgrimage.
Like a moth to a flame, the scallop shell symbol of the legendary Way of St James has been drawing me towards the fabled city of Santiago de Compostela until it’s pull was utterly irresistible … making a sudden detour from my preplanned route to Salamanca and the WILD10 congress I found myself again standing in front of the famous cathedral that’s origins date back more than 900 years.
All around me were pilgrims young and old, the excited chatter in more than a dozen languages as they posed unselfconsciously, mobile phone cameras and iPads clicking away and freezing the moment in time. For 35 Euros you could even have your triumphant arrival professionally filmed, as you limped or hobbled into the famous Obradoiro Square like a conquering hero. (To be truthful I didn’t see anyone invest in the rent-a-paparazzi option!)
Pedal-powered bicigrinos were in abundance, their machines scattered on the cobblestones among the hordes of foot-powered peregrinos, although I looked in vain to see any horses or donkeys that are also deemed to be appropriate pilgrim transport.
For some it is a lifelong dream, a religious or spiritual pilgrimage, while for others it is simply a great adventure or an affordable holiday. For many it is a life-changing experience to follow in the footsteps of the millions over the centuries who have converged on the reputed burial place of St James, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ.
Each person makes the journey for personal reasons and for some the real gifts only emerge later with more introspection. Walking across Spain on the Camino path you meet yourself and that can be both scary and inspiring, depending on individual choices and insights.
A queue had formed in the street outside Santiago’s pilgrim office where new arrivals receive their Compostela certificate and when I investigated I learned that 163,601 pilgrims had already been accredited this year, significantly up on last year despite a beleaguered national economy. It’s obvious that the tally will be above 200,000 for all of 2013, although below the record of 272,412 in 2010 which was regarded as a Holy Year.
The next Holy Year when the Day of St James – July 25 – falls on a Sunday is 2021, so you have plenty of time to prepare yourself for a long walk.
The lady who helpfully delved into computer records for me said the gruelling journey across the entirety of the 791km French Route from St Jean Pied de Port had been made by some as young as six or seven, while the oldest was a 92-year-old German, with a 90-year-old Korean also managing this remarkable feat.
Two years ago I’d completed the same pilgrimage as a way of ritualising my transformation from tourist to pilgrim and from one who simply takes from the Earth to one who sees it and all life forms as sacred, all the while wondering how I might make a contribution and a difference.
This time I feel I have greater clarity and a clearer goal, Santiago being but a signpost along the pioneering Trail to Salamanca which explores and celebrates wildness and wilderness in Europe, the route through six countries and four major mountain ranges following loosely in the spoor of migrating wolves along what is becoming known as the Great Mountain Corridor.
At a sanctuary in France a few weeks ago I looked deep into the eyes of a wolf and heard the mournful howl that is the signature call of the species, feeling something primal stirring within me. These beautiful creatures are not vermin to be ruthlessly hunted to extinction, but apex predators with a vital role to fulfil in maintaining and restoring the delicate balance of nature.
I’m told that at the WILD10 conference in Salamanca in October there will be those who have observed how their return to places like Yellowstone National Park in the United States has had a profoundly beneficial impact on the landscape, even affecting the vegetation and helping shape the meandering path of rivers in positive ways.
During the past fortnight I’ve been lucky enough to encounter endangered European bison that are part of an ambitious rewilding programme and glimpsed brown bears in the wilds of Somiedo Natural Park.
Now, my dream and one I’ve cherished for many months since joining the WILD10 team, is to bear witness to the fact that many wolves are roaming free in a natural habitat in north-western Spain and northern Portugal.
All of humanity has evolved in the presence of predators and it seems that they are important to us in ways we’re just beginning to understand.
“Restoring wolves to the West was more than just implementation of a law or the fine-tuning of an ecosystem, it was our nation grappling with its complicated relationship with the wild … bringing wolves back to Yellowstone was an act of raw faith, of abandon, of hope … it was an act of giving back something we had taken, not just from the land or our first national park but from our souls.”
If the universe smiles on my journey, I hope to report seeing them soon…