The 800 kilometer El Camino dirt path is also known as the world's longest psychiatric highway.
For 44 days, I walked El Camino de Santiago de Compostella. "The
way to Santiago along the field of stars."
The standard icebreaker along the dirt path is simply, expectedly, "Why are you walking?"
I walked because after earning my doctorate in clinical psychology, I found unemployment. Pilgrimage seemed a good option. En route to Spain, I read a quote from the philosopher Mark Kingwell, "Genuine idling is never an evasion of work; it is instead, as Aristotle argued long ago, cultivation of the most divine element in us through the exercise of leisure: spirited but serious reflection on who we are and what we are up to, free from the base demands of mere usefulness." I was ready for idle walking.
"I told them, you're not beggars, you're young men."
Arriving in St. Pierre at the foot of the French Pyrenees, I knew nothing of the journey upon which I set out. I found out this is a Catholic pilgrimage to honor St. James the Apostle. I discover that I need to wear a scallop shell, which reflects the Camino's pagan roots of fertility. I receive a pilgrim passport that needs a stamp from every church along the way. I learn that we literally will follow the Milky Way to Finnistere, known in medieval times as the end of the earth. I always wondered Where the Sidewalk Ends. In Spain, it turns out.
Rebecca Solnit author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking, writes, "Walking itself is the intentional act chosen to the unwilled rhythms of the body to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing." I walk. I eat bread with chorizo and cheese. Churches offer free warm meals and the cold floor for sleep.
I come lexpecting silence, but find people instead. I discover that over 180,000 of us walk every year. I walk right into the pages of Canterbury Tales where pilgrims share their stories.
I find many Spaniards also on unemployment pilgrimage. Along the dirt path with yellow painted arrows, I meet Francisco.
"Where are you coming from?" I ask.
"Rome," he says.
After walking together a few hours in silence, he shares, "During the housing boom in Spain, I had lots of construction work. About three years ago it all dried up. I did not know what to do and so I started walking." He walks and works in exchange for food and lodging. Francisco shares his chorizo and bread with everyone around. While unemployed, he reminds me that one can have dignity.
Later that evening, I meet his two walking companions. "I met these two," says Francisco, "begging on the streets of Madrid. I told them, you're not beggars, you're young men. Get up and walk with me." One of them planned to walk with Francisco back to Rome. The other one planned to walk to Germany to look for work. We all enter Pamplona together and see young people protesting, camped out in the plaza, holding signs demanding a better economy. The plaza holds wandering dogs, a wine fountain and conversation. In spite of the crisis, Spaniards display resiliency and know how to have a good time.
In the province of Burgos, I find an abandoned Jewish settlement with only one house left. Miguel welcomes pilgrims here. He cooks us paella and over chirping grasshoppers, shares his story.
"I had never even seen the moon before I walked the Camino," he says. "I'm from Leon. I did well in school and went to work as a stock broker in London." He shares about a London life of large paychecks and business parties with prostitutes. "I was miserable," he concludes.
In a moment of deep depression, he left it all to walk the Camino. After completing the journey, he went back to his father's pueblo in the mountains of León to rebuild his father's farm. In his late twenties, he is the only resident there under the age of 65. With his green eyes growing bigger, he says, "I taught them how a mouse can move on the computer screen and they taught me how to watch a potato grow. "
On the Camino, everything slows down. It takes an hour to move four kilometers. Time is marked by church bells and a sharing of stories.
In Castilla, of the wide wheat fields and big skies, I meet Alfredo. He runs a museum of sacred walks from around the world. Every November, for the last thirty years, he has walked the Camino.
"November is a wonderful time to walk," he tells me. "It is cold, sometimes snowing. Many who walk during this time walk to come to terms with their end of life. They know they have a terminal illness. Last year I walked with a man who had multiple sclerosis. He died a week later."