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Discovering the joy of long-distance pilgrimage walking and why one camino is never enough.

Sandy Brown reflects on the importance of a camino. Whether you walk the camino for religious, spiritual, adventurous or other reasons, the camino is sure to have a profound impact. Such an impact that Sandy now completes his camino annually - and still finds meaning and joy along the way.

I had no idea that my quick read in 1992 of Paolo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage would drag me off my couch and launch me on an annual pilgrimage trek in Europe. I just couldn’t get it – the walk – out of my mind. Coelho’s book mixed together the right amounts of mysticism, religion, travel writing and adventure to make the Camino de Santiago irresistible.

So, the daydream turned into a dream-dream, which turned into an idea that became a goal, then a plan and, finally, after 16 years of yearning, an impassioned fixation. In May 2008 there I was, on a train, winding up the foothills of the French Pyrenees, heading to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, where my first of 10 annual pilgrim treks would begin.

I was looking to the Camino as a way to recharge my energy with some ‘me’ time...

As the train lurched its way up the valley, I remember seeing other riders wearing hiking pants and boots, with backpacks and walking sticks. Dammit, I thought. They’re invading my private pilgrimage.

In my day job of helping people and leading volunteers I’d bumped up against the point of burn-out in the past few years, so I was looking to the Camino as a way to recharge my energy with some ‘me’ time, alone in what I’d pictured as a mystical endurance walk of meditation and solitude. These intruder pilgrim people would want to talk or would need help, and their very presence was certain to distract me from the purity of what I’d planned to endure for the next 35 days, on my way, like Paolo Coelho, along the Camino Frances to Santiago de Compostela.

The next day I came to realize I’d had it very wrong. After an hour of solitary walking up, up and further up the pass toward the summit of the Pyrenees and the border with Spain, I was already hungry for companionship. As he passed me, striding effortlessly uphill, an Italian pilgrim asked me if I’d met the ‘American girls’ yet. What American girls, I wondered. At the first stop, the mountainside gîte at Orisson, I heard the surprisingly welcome sound of American English. It was four freshly graduated, devoutly Catholic coeds from St Louis. As it turned out, we’d walk together for the next four days. We talked a mile-a-minute for the upcoming minutes and miles and I helped them fend off the advances of a couple of buffed up and salty South African men. Then, after the four women outpaced us all, I walked the next week with those same South Africans, a little tamer when they learned they were in the company of an American Methodist pastor. An injury and a work schedule forced them off the trail, and my next companions were an American software engineer and a German policewoman.

And on it went. An endless parade of friendships that were dropped into the lap of the fellow who had been convinced the pilgrim trail was a solitary, spiritual way.

After arriving at Santiago de Compostela a month later, I knew one pilgrim walk would never be enough. I paid my son’s way the next year so he could enjoy it, too, and I walked with him vicariously each step of his journey. The following year — 2010 — I was back, this time on the Camino Sanabres to arrive at Santiago in time for the special festivities of the Holy Year, which arrives whenever St James Day (25 July) lands on a Sunday. Once again, the trail provided a companion — a wiry Estonian who loved to talk theology. We laughed as we walked, danced with the revelers in Santiago, and waved hello to the King of Spain as he entered the Santiago cathedral on the city’s holiest day.

By 2011 pilgrim walking had become a habit.

That year, on the Camino Frances again, I met the Austrian, German, English, Swiss and Brazilian pilgrims who would become my permanent ‘Camino Family’.

A portion of our 2011 Camino Family as we arrive outside the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela. (Camino Frances of the Camino de Santiago)
A portion of our 2011 Camino Family as we arrive outside the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela. (Camino Frances of the Camino de Santiago)

After walking to Santiago de Compostela, over the next years various groupings of us would walk the Camino del Norte, the Way of St Francis/Via di Francesco in Italy and parts of the Via Francigena in Switzerland and Italy. Jacqueline, my Austrian pilgrim friend, would be instrumental in helping me write the first English language guidebook to the Way of St Francis, a Cicerone volume that covers the lovely 550km trek from Florence to Assisi and Rome.

Last year we all took a few days off and met in Munich for beers and stories from our pilgrim walks together. We even slept in a single room, crowding men and women together on bunk beds, which reminded us of our nights of communal sleeping in between our days of walking, talking, eating, laughing and loving together on pilgrim trails.

10 years of pilgrim walking

Thanks to these 10 years of pilgrim walks I’ve kissed the head of the statue of St James at Santiago de Compostela, I’ve sipped orujo on a cliffside over an Atlantic Ocean sunset at Finisterre, I’ve danced with locals at the main square in Pamplona, and I’ve wandered the tombs of kings and queens at Navarette. I’ve inspected an old robe of St Francis at Santuario della Verna, gazed at the Iguvine Tablets at Gubbio, clicked photos in the no-photos zones of the Basilica di San Francesco at Assisi, summited the Alps in an August snowstorm at the Col San Bernardo, sipped the bubbly red wine and tasted the salty focaccia bread of Liguria, and tested the echoes of the Duomo in Siena. And thanks to these pilgrim walks I’ve caught mist on my face at Cascata delle Marmore, delighted in the 10th century sculptures at Abbazia San Pietro in Valle, sheltered under the Beech Tree of St Francis and lovingly rubbed the foot of St Peter under Michelangelo’s dome in Vatican City.

10 years of challenge, scenery, wine and friendship

In pilgrim walking it could be the scenery that brings you back. Or the challenge of endurance over many hundreds of kilometers of trails and roads. Or it might be the food or the wine or the culture or the architecture or the surprise of forgotten villages or the challenge of languages. It could be the call of Spirit, luring you into the unknown where you’ll have to rely on a strength greater than your own to persevere through innumerable miles under hot sun or shivering rain. But I think for me it’s actually the friendships. I love the laughter and tears in the long talks and the shared stories told over many, many miles.

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