On the 28th day of my journey on the Camino de Santiago, I was reviewing my life’s burdens, one by one. My thirty-year marriage had ended, my younger daughter was angry with me because I divorced her father, I was 62 years old and I had no idea where my life was going. I had been walking for 340 miles, and now was my chance to finally leave these burdens behind, but could I?
People have been walking the Camino since the 9th century, seeking cures from the apostle Saint James for illnesses such as tuberculosis, typhoid and influenza. The walk’s purpose has evolved since then: from seeking cures to searching for the meaning of life. In 2011, over 100,000 people walked the Camino, and I was one of them.
El Camino de Santiago, The Way of Saint James, is a 500 mile pilgrimage located in northern Spain. It begins in St. Jean Pied-de-Port in the foothills of the Pyrenees on the French border and ends in Santiago de Compostela, almost to the Atlantic Ocean. People who walk this journey are referred to as pilgrims as they are on a mission to touch the tomb of Saint James to receive a sense of comfort. Saint James was the apostle beheaded in Jerusalem by King Herod, and as the story goes was buried by his disciples in what is now known as Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims spend each night in albergues, similar to hostels after their long days.
A few months before I left for the Camino, I read blogs to help with preparations. Walking twelve miles a day for thirty-eight days with everything I needed on my back seemed extreme. I was practically a senior citizen. Walking was my favorite pastime, but 500 miles? I had to do something. I was no stranger to the Camino. My older daughter and I spent five days walking it in 2006. After those blissful days, we felt rejuvenated and peaceful all at once. My current life situation needed more of that.
I was a successful consultant and by all appearances happy with my new life. I put a new kitchen in the house; I went out to dinner with friends and spent time with my children. The truth is I was on autopilot. I was asleep. Filling my time with so many activities, I was seldom in touch with myself or my feelings. I kept saying, just keep moving forward. And that usually worked until I was alone. One Saturday afternoon I was refinishing my kitchen cabinets and started to panic because I didn’t have plans for the weekend. I called my brother, “Hey, I know Dorothy’s away. Do you want to come to Ipswich tonight for the river illumination celebration?”
He said, “Sorry honey, it’s been a big day and I’m too tired to drive up there tonight.”
I called at least four other people but had to leave messages. Then I called my daughter in Oregon just to talk to someone and said, “I can’t call anyone else, they’ll think I’m desperate at five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon.”
She said, “Mom, your friends never think you’re desperate.”
I didn’t call anyone else.
Have you ever been so lonely, you could scream? Well, I did scream, many times. Where was I going? What was the purpose of my life? When I was twenty-three I had two posters on the wall in my bedroom, “What if They had a War and Nobody Came?” and “Will it Matter that I Was?” I’m still waiting for the first to happen, and my two wonderful daughters and grandson have answered the second. I’m just wondering about other reasons for being on this earth. Like making it a better place and leaving some kind of legacy. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Reading the newspaper obituaries, you wouldn’t think any women ever died because they only write about the men. Hmm.
I was only sixty-two. Life couldn’t be over yet. I was scared that mine was. Something had to change. So, I continued preparing my body for the Camino. According to one blog, maintaining your feet was key to a walker’s success. This advice came from a twenty-three-year-old: “Apply body glide entirely over feet and ankles before walking and again at lunch. Change socks at lunch. Wear light hiking boots in the morning and running shoes in the afternoon.”
Growing up Catholic helps when you need to follow directions; I was faithful to this plan every day and as pilgrims all around me were nursing blisters, I never got one. Of course, the downside was that a second pair of shoes in my pack meant leaving something behind. My shoulders could only handle ten pounds at the time. Could I get on with one set of clothes for walking and some yoga pants and top for after walking and sleeping? Some pilgrims had their packs transported from one albergue to the next. Would that make sense for me?
I wanted to walk by myself, feel the breeze, see the sunsets, meet other pilgrims and learn their stories. I needed alone time, but being a woman prevented me from feeling comfortable walking alone through the isolated areas of a country so far from home. I was afraid. Even the pepper spray I bought wasn’t enough to make me comfortable walking alone. It didn’t occur to me that having other people along would alter my experience.
A group email resulted in four people offering to walk with me for a week or two each: Lynn, a friend from choir would start with me; David, a retired friend from Ipswich, my hometown, would join me in Logrono; my cousin from Canada would arrive in Leon; and my older daughter, Meg, would finish with me. That would leave some days walking alone, which I didn’t realize I would treasure.
“You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing called ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down.”
Lynn and I started the Camino de Santiago on September 5th, 2011. Our spirits were high and we were ready for adventure. The first mountain was over 3,000 feet. This was not gentle hill country. It was high, mountainous and beautifully scenic. Food was scarce. The guide book had identified cafes along the way, but some were closed or had limited hours after the high summer season. Our stomachs were growling! As we rested on a bridge, Lynn said, “Is that a vending machine over there?”
We rushed over to find that it only had Coke and beer! After that we were never without food again!
By day three, we were dragging our feet under the weight of our packs. I had trained four days a week for three months, walking with my pack six to ten miles each time, but this was an arduous journey, averaging twelve miles every day.
Outside of Pamplona, on a deserted riverbank we were taking a break when a hysterical woman and her daughter came by. The mother said, “Did you see that man in the red shirt?”
“Yes,” we said.
“He was making inappropriate comments and eyes at my daughter,” she said.
“Rest with us for a while.”
Lynn and I had seen the man walk past. He was talking to himself and gesturing, but didn’t seem like a threat, at least to us. Our new friends, Gabi and her daughter Laura, were from Germany, walking the Camino before Laura went off to college. We continued on together, each carrying a weapon of sorts: 2 knives, a pen, and pepper spray. We were prepared for trouble. The man in the red shirt was standing down by the river masturbating. A Camino lesson: you only need to worry about strangers on the Camino that don’t carry a pack! After a while, we lost track of Gabi and Laura, which often happens on the Camino. People walk faster or slower or take a rest day. I hoped that our paths would cross again.
There are churches in every town along the Camino with the evening rosary starting at 7:30 and a Pilgrim Mass at 8:00. The older ladies can be heard all over town chanting Santa Maria. Mary is the center of all the churches. Christ is there, but Santa Maria is the matriarch! Even though I no longer practiced Catholicism, mass was a memorable ritual for me along The Way.
“Without forgiveness, there’s no future.”
We climbed Alto del Perdón, or Mt. Forgiveness, 1,000 feet to the summit. On the way up Mt. Forgiveness, I thought about all the people I needed forgiveness from and prayed that I would receive it. On the way down, I thought about all the people that I should forgive and prayed that I would give it.
I needed forgiveness from my children for divorcing their father. My older daughter Meg seemed to be accepting. She recently told me she wondered why it took me so long. Her sister Anna was only 18 at the time and it hit her harder. I’m hoping time and love will help her. And I needed to forgive myself. I thought I had destroyed the family by being selfish and needing to fulfill my life. Learning to forgive can help us heal, and I needed healing in order to move forward. I was lonely and sad and was becoming a poor role model for my daughters. This was not the way life should be. Being asleep was easy. No introspection. No soul-searching. No deep feelings. But I needed more. I hoped that forgiving myself would be the first step.
The descent from Mt. Forgiveness was full of loose stones, making going down quite tricky. Lynn was suffering from the heat and terrain so we sang show tunes to keep our spirits up until her part of the journey ended.
There are three ways to travel the Camino: by foot, bike or horseback. So far I’ve seen many walkers, a couple of bikers, but no pilgrims on horseback. We did meet Pepe, a self-appointed Camino angel, who had done the Camino twice, the first time on a white horse, the second time on foot. Now he parks his truck full of coffee and water and berries and other treats along deserted parts of The Way for hungry pilgrims.
On the way to Villamayor de Monjardin I met a couple from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Diane and René. They were singing, so of course I joined right in. Both were retired school teachers taking a break from life. We arrived at our albergue in the early afternoon and spent the rest of the day on a garden terrace off our room. All around us there were mountains, villages, farms and churches under a sunny sky. A Japanese couple who didn’t speak English arrived when René and I were trying to remember the words to the song The Times They are a Changin’. The man pulled out an mp3 player and played the song. We invited them to sit with us.
The hosts of the albergue were volunteers from a Dutch ecumenical group. They had a short prayer time in the evening, which some pilgrims found a bit pushy, but five days in, I was open to the experiences the Camino was offering. I didn’t know where my life was going and that’s why I was there. I thought I would be thinking more about my life, but the truth is I was focused on getting to the next albergue to rest my feet and back. What I was most aware of was the freedom. As I walked, the encumbrances of life drifted away. Freedom from lists. Freedom from work projects. Freedom from commitments. Freedom from people that knew me. Just walking in the beauty of this romantic country.
Back in the room, I dragged my mattress out onto the terrace and slept under the stars. Sleep came easily.
On day seven David arrived from Ipswich and we stayed in the Inglesia de Santiago church house, an albergue that relied on donations and floor mats for sleeping. Most albergues charged between 6 and 10 euros, or $7.50 and $12, which made the trip more affordable. Later that evening I noticed I’d lost my Camino passport at the last stop on the way into Logroño. The passport is stamped at albergues and churches along The Way as proof that one walked the Camino. I thought about going back for the passport, but since the Camino is about moving forward, I got a new passport and went on.
We stopped in Navarrette where there is a 16th century Church of the Assumption with a gold leaf alter that covered the entire front wall of the church. Mary, as always, was center stage. As luck would have it, we ran into Gabi and Laura. We embraced like sisters! The Camino is a journey where pilgrims move forward at their own pace and reunions are hoped for but not always guaranteed.
We gathered around a dinner of ensalada, potatoes, bacon, and wine cooked by a young German man. He was financing his way along the Camino by making dinner for pilgrims. That evening we received a pilgrim blessing in the gold church. The Mass was in Spanish and Latin. I remembered a little Spanish from college and Latin from Catholic school, but it didn’t matter, for the spirit of the message was clear: safe journey. When the priest gave the Pilgrim Blessing, he asked us for our native languages, and blessed us in each one. There were many languages that night. Along The Way I met pilgrims from twenty four countries.
A few days later we ran into Franklin Pierce College students up on a meseta, “a table top above the world,” on the road to Hornillos del Camino. They were following a maze designed by a creative pilgrim. They called it a curlicue. I probably would not have walked it myself if not for their incredible enthusiasm. As I walked in large circles my mind wandered inward to places it hadn’t been before. After a year of therapy and many sleepless nights, I still wondered how marriages failed. I always thought that people didn’t work hard enough, but now I knew that wasn’t always the case. Now I think people grow in different directions and don’t know how to, or don’t want to bring each other along.
I stayed by myself on the meseta, had lunch and thought mostly about my daughters, how they were getting on and how I could be a more positive and loving part of their lives. I sang and wondered, among many things, if I would ever experience love again. An afternoon nap came easily. We all went back up to the meseta that night and saw the Milky Way, Orion and the Big Dipper in the same sky we see at home.
A brass plaque on the wall outside the San Esteban albergue was orally translated by Benny, a Camino veteran:
“The Camino de Santiago is not a marathon or a gym. It is a bank of challenges for your humility and your real lesson in spiritual and human possibilities. The authentic Camino is what each person does inside themselves, which means you could meet yourself and transform your life. It is necessary to understand that time is a teacher. The important equipment is your attitude of searching. Open your eyes to the beauty of the countryside and art. To those who give you hospitality with generosity, offer them gratitude.”
My mind was racing trying to write down each word and contemplate its meaning. I read the Camino message each day for the rest of the journey. How much time would it take? Would I know when my life was starting to change? For the better? What did that even mean? I needed to spend more quiet time writing in my journal and contemplating life, or at least the message in the plaque. It felt like I was starting to wake up. To look at each day with more intentionality. The passing of time has made me question how I spend my days and hours. Time will slip away if I don’t use it wisely. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “I want to be all used up when I die.” I needed to slow down to assess how I would do this. Walking the Camino was certainly the first step. Now I needed to figure out the second one. What was worthy of my time?
After David went home, I had concerns about the dark mornings. I waited until other pilgrims were leaving the albergue and “offered” to walk with them. If it was a male, I had to push myself to keep up until sunrise. This was not working. I wasn’t supposed be to rushing. I needed to slow down, partly for my body, but mostly because this is the contemplative time of the walk. Hurrying to get up before sunrise and get to the next albergue overshadows the meditation and purpose of this pilgrimage. Day nineteen I rose at a normal morning hour and walked alone for the first time.
“If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
In Calsadilla de Cueza, I came upon an albergue with a pool and stopped in the early afternoon after only 10 miles. A pilgrim I had met a few days before had the same idea. Christina is a relief worker for Catholic Relief Services and had been to Pakistan and Sri Lanka helping victims after the earthquakes. We sat with our feet in the pool that afternoon sipping wine and sharing our life stories. We talked about our mothers and planned vacations with them. That evening I was sitting alone on a bench surrounded by sunflowers and wheat fields. The moon shared its light with me. I remember thinking about cooking more with my daughter Anna. One of my best days so far.
After a vibrant morning discussion about work and how to separate it from our personal life, Christina and I agreed to walk in silence for the afternoon. I mostly thought about my relationship with Anna and how to improve it. I’m going to pay more attention to meals with her and their preparation. I hope this will support her busy schedule with college and work. Maybe we’ll even cook together! Later that day, I found a wonderful albergue with hot showers and toilets with seats. Anna would love this!
“I GOT NOBODY TO BLAME BUT MYSELF”
Day twenty-two began with a panoramic sunrise of oranges, blues, and pinks. I stood looking out at the low horizon. There were distant mountains to the north overlooking the Bay of Biscay; otherwise, it was completely flat farmland. It felt like the sky came down to my knees. Instead of feeling like a speck in the universe, I felt like a person of the universe.
With pepper spray in my pocket, I was getting used to walking alone. Then my cousin arrived from Canada. I told her about the ritual of talking for a while and then walking in silence. She thought that was a good idea, and it sort of worked while we were catching up on family news. My family had cautioned me against walking with her, not just because she’s seriously independent, but her connections to people are weak.
On our third day together it happened. She abandoned me. We were walking through Astorga and she took off walking on her own. It was more than a little bit awkward. I wish she had told me and it would have been fine, but just taking off like that was disconcerting. I’m trying to be at peace with nature and myself, and this incident threw me off track. Luckily, the Camino helped. It always helps because it leads you in the right direction. I ran into another pilgrim who walked at my pace, and I didn’t think about “cuz” for the rest of the day. We found an oasis along the route that had food and massages. It welcomed us with a hammock and burning incense and herbs for sale. The scene reminded me of the sixties. People seemed to gravitate to this spot for many reasons: some were walking the Camino, some were squatting and others were farming there. We enjoyed shoulder massages and moved on. The rest of the walk that day was flat and long. After showering and washing my clothes at the albergue, I found “cuz” there in the courtyard drinking beer with her new Camino friends. She yelled, “Hey Elizabeth, come meet my new friends!”
These happened to be people I had walked with before. An unnecessary and uncomfortable competition was brewing between us. I was the one who invited her on this trip, so I had no one to blame but myself.
STONES IN MY POCKET
The next morning I rose early and let my cousin know that I was leaving for Cruz de Ferro and would see her there. While walking, I kept holding the different stones in my pocket that I picked up along The Way. These stones represented burdens that belonged to other pilgrims. The ritual on the Camino is to think about your burdens as you walk. Hold a stone for each burden in your hand and when you’re ready to ask for help carrying a burden, you can put the stone on a Camino marker, a three foot high pillar placed along The Way. As other pilgrims pass by, they will pick up your burdens and carry them for you to Cruz de Ferro, a cross at 5,000 feet, the highest point on the Camino. By now, I had other people’s burdens in each pocket and wondered who had mine. They must be very heavy by now.
When I arrived at Cruz de Ferro that day, it was the 28th day of my journey. I placed the other pilgrims’ stones at the foot of the cross along with my own burdens, mostly the failed marriage, and ran down the hill. Physical and emotional lightness engulfed me the second these burdens left my hands. The rest of the hike that day was resplendent!
Now with my burdens behind me, I could focus on the future. I had ten days left to ponder: “What will be important in my new life?”
A sign appeared. There were boards of blue and red and yellow for each destination:
Roma 2475 Kilometers
Jerusalem 5000 Kilometers
Santiago de Compostela 222 Kilometers.
On to Santiago!
Day thirty one I climbed to O’Cebreiro with heavy feet and heavy pack. It took me all day to reach the top of the mountain! In order to take a rest along the way I had to climb over mounds of dirt and bushes just to sit down. There were many rests. I felt like an old lady that day, but the trip was worth it. The views were consuming; mountains and farmland and windmills as far as I could see. Shades of blue and orange drew the sunset closer. The clouds were new and brought a coolness in the heat of the day.
O’Cebreiro is home to the oldest church in Spain. Ironically, it had a PowerPoint in four languages to follow the hymns. Hymns are my way of praying. Being at 4,265 feet brings you closer to god, any god. Peaceful wonderful evening. The walk down the next day was difficult, but the grass was green and the playful goats were entertaining. Near the bottom, the sun was out and there were scattered clouds but it was comfortable. I was definitely in the Galicia region, the final leg of the pilgrimage. The villages were small and quaint, lots of farm animals and their aroma. A dirt track led the way. Mountains are gone, and replaced with rolling hills. A camera could not capture this beauty, only the heart. I was walking solo and feeling the power. I had no idea where my cousin was. She left early this morning and I never saw her again. Sometimes problems actually do solve themselves. My daughter Meg will arrive in a few days when I get to Sarria. The Spirit portion of the Camino had begun.
The joy of spending 24 hours a day with an adult child awakens your heart and soul. We walked on tree covered dirt paths in perfect Galicia weather and caught up on her plans for law school and my experiences on the Camino. Farm animals traveled the same paths and a herd of cattle approached us. I panicked. The sides of the path were thick hedges. There was no place to go. The herder told us to stay still and let the cows go around us. Even in Spanish, I understood that instruction. Trying to remember that cows won’t hurt you while their 1500-pound sweaty bodies are rubbing up against you on all sides is near impossible. The herd passed and we remained intact. The rest of the day was comparably uneventful. We stayed in a 14th century monastery that night. It was raining. I was looking for a cup of hot tea but instead was offered a bottle of wine to pass around among strangers. Sleep came easily.
The next day our path was weaving through cool forests with oak and pine trees. An unfamiliar scent lead us to a Eucalyptus farm. Perfect straight lines of trees and a beautiful aroma. We stayed awhile to ponder those who came before us. So many of them suffered from illness and misfortune. The numerous hospitals and shrines along the path could tell their stories. Why were they walking the Camino? Why were we? Was it time to wake up and change my life? What would I do if I were awake?
From San Marcos, we could see the outline of Santiago de Compostela. The outskirts looked like an average Franco era style city, with white pedestrian stucco apartment buildings and red clay roofs. Saint James cathedral was inside the walls of the old city. It’s 246’ high and 230’ wide, with a striking blend of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque style architecture which represented the year of each addition. I entered with a sense of accomplishment and wonder.
Yes, I had just walked 500 miles. It had taken 38 days.
Was I a different person? Did I find the meaning of life? Would I know how to proceed? I didn’t ask myself these questions on that last day. I was relieved and excited to finish walking and to get that pack off my back.
Meg and I sat and took in the ritual during the noon celebration of the Pilgrim Mass and received our final blessing. We showed our Camino passport and received our certificate of completion, known as the Compostela, at the Pilgrim Office. We stayed in a former Camino hospital in Cathedral Square, which had been renovated by the Spanish Paradores. The luxury was appreciated.
“It is solved by walking”
“The authentic Camino is what each person does inside themselves which means you could meet yourself and transform your life. It is necessary to understand that time is a teacher.”
It turns out my Camino had three purposes. Proving myself through physical endurance. Proving myself by letting go of my burdens. And the less tangible purpose of figuring out the future of my life.
As I walked slowly through the wall surrounding the old city of Santiago the cathedral burst into view and I knew my life was entering a new chapter. The past just seemed to melt away. I was tired but felt like celebrating.
On the Camino I did meet myself and realized that I’m in charge of myself, and only I can make the changes I want in my life and have deeper, more meaningful experiences. Coming to that realization and living every day as this new person are two entirely different things. I have a long history of habits and feelings that define me and a posse of family and friends who are familiar with that me. Trying to change within this environment has been uncomfortable.
Upon arriving home from the Camino I immediately went back to work. Lynn and David and I had a big Camino party within a week of me touching down in Boston. I returned to my regular routine except for presentations about the walk at the local churches and libraries. I was still walking regularly but change was coming more slowly than I expected.
Writing about my journey years later is creating more understanding and thought than I experienced during the walk. Partly because my body was still vulnerable to the daily walking and partly because I wasn’t used to contemplating life. I am still seeking a deeper meaning to my life.
More and more each day I am treating my experiences with intentionality and love. I am enjoying my daughters who are pursuing their own dreams, and doing a fabulous job. I want to love my new husband with my whole heart and attention. I want to enjoy my retirement and not schedule every minute. I will never again say that I am too busy. I’m prioritizing my time according to those things that are worthy of my time, such as a long walk by myself or with a friend, Skyping with my grandson or…writing this very story.
October 10, 2018
ELIZABETH KILCOYNE grew up in Massachusetts. She holds a Bachelor’s in mathematics from Worcester State University and a Master’s in public administration from Suffolk University. After a career in public finance, Elizabeth began traveling with purpose and writing about her adventures. Her suitcase is always packed to go. You can contact Elizabeth through her website ElizabethKilcoyne.Net.