This summer I completed 150 miles of the Camino to Santiago in northern Spain with a group of college students. And when you spend 10 days walking with 19-year-olds, it is hard not to ask over and over, “Why?” Why do I organize this program? Why do they sign up for it? What do we think we are going to get out of walking through blazing sun, torrential downpours, and this year, even a little hail? Why. Do. We. Walk? And then, why do we walk again? And again? And again?
It all began in 813, when a curious Christian hermit followed music and twinkling stars to a remote hillside in Galicia, Spain. Legend tells us that the bones he found at Campus Stella (Compostela) were those of the Apostle St. James, or Santiago as he is known by Spanish Christians. By the end of the ninth century, Christian authorities had declared St. James the patron saint of Spain, and a shrine was built inside the cathedral of the city eventually named after him: Santiago de Compostela. A network of routes developed across Europe that the faithful traveled by foot in order to perform a set of rituals at the shrine of St. James. These routes are known today as the Camino de Santiago de Compostela or St. James’ Way. Together with pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem, the Camino is one of three pilgrimages for which a plenary indulgence (the full remission of all temporal punishment) can be earned from the Catholic Church. Today, more than 200,000 arrive by foot into Santiago each year.
But the Camino is more than a walking path to a charming Galician city. Many pilgrims, whether Christian or not, begin this journey in the hope it will change their life in some meaningful way. This raises an interesting question for Enhancing Life Studies:
Can we actually enhance our lives through an intentional short-term journey?
The funny thing is, I think we can. It happens to me. This year was the third time I walked the Camino with students and I end the journey raw every time. I mean this literally: my blistered feet are raw, and my back and shins hurt. By the end I average four cups of coffee a day just to make it through the walk, class prep, and discussion.
But I’m emotionally raw as well. Remember, I walk with 19-year-olds, and when you’re 19, everything is dramatic and intense and important. As the Camino begins to break them down, I become not only teacher, but mentor and friend. I hear about recent breakups, anxiety about majors, anger at loved ones who have let them down, grief for others who are gone. And at some point their words become messy and disorganized. That unsettles me but it is meaningful for them. I am wonderfully out of control when I walk the Camino with students. It is by far the best teaching experience I have. That enhances my life.
I see it happen to them as well. They cry when they arrive. They form friendships that endure. They allow themselves to think about loved ones who have recently passed. They make important decisions. They feel weak. They feel strong. Many of my former students describe the pilgrimage as one of the most important experiences of their college career. They think the experience enhances their life. And this year, after we arrived in Santiago, I asked why. This is what we concluded:
The Camino is hard.
It’s hard to walk 150 miles. During our two weeks of pilgrimage we get blisters, sore muscles, inflamed tendons, and something called the pilgrim flu, which is a nasty combination of food poisoning, exhaustion, and fever. It’s hard. It’s supposed to be hard. And it is the difficulty that makes it meaningful. The students who felt the most accomplished once we reached Santiago were the ones who at some point were not sure they would make it. Enhancement of life often involves overcoming challenges.
The Camino creates community.
On the Camino, pilgrims are rarely alone on the trail, which is a good thing because it’s easier to walk with others than alone. I require everyone on my trip to complete a five-mile section of the Camino in silence. Those two hours are some of hardest because there is no one to distract us from the mundane repetition of the walk. Within a few days of walking, very deep friendships are formed out of sheer necessity: those friendships are what keep us going on hard days. The social character of pilgrimage encourages us to consider how collective rituals enhance our lives.
The Camino is an alternative reality.
The experience of moving through a foreign terrain creates a feeling of displacement, as does being disconnected from family and friends back home. But there is something more intense about the type of alternative reality the Camino fosters. For instance, in a very real way, I feel like my 19-year-old self while on the Camino. By temporarily taking me out of my life, and helping me see myself in my students’ place, the Camino allows me to think about how specific decisions or arbitrary circumstances that have created my reality at home, what is important to me about that reality, and what is not.
The Camino is in control.
The students often complain that Manuel, our local Galician guide, provides terrible directions. And there is some truth to that. But what their complaints (and at times mine) are really about is frustration over a lack of control. We do not know where we going, what the weather will be, or when we will eat lunch. We don’t know if our knees will feel better or worse today, how long the walk will take, or if the hotel will have hot water. The Camino is in control. I don’t like it, but at some point I give into it, and stop counting miles, ignore my steps on the FitBit I wear around my wrist, and just walk.