by Elyn Aviva
I first heard about the Camino de Santiago in 1981 from my friend Michael, when I was looking for a topic for my Ph.D. in cultural anthropology. Michael idly mentioned there had been an important medieval pilgrimage road in Spain and suggested I look for it—I might find its art and architecture of some interest.
In the summer of 1981 I arrived in Spain, still looking for a topic for anthropological fieldwork. I ended up in Sahagún, a small town in the north-central province of León, where I stayed at the Benedictine nuns’ guesthouse.
I didn’t have to look for the Camino de Santiago—it found me. Sahagún was on the pilgrimage road. Pilgrims came to the door of the guesthouse, passport-size pilgrimage credentials in their outstretched hands, seeking shelter for the night. The Benedictinas, observing millennium-old customs of hospitality, gave them a place to sleep and food to eat. I realized that the Camino wasn’t an historic artifact—pilgrims were still walking it.
I was fascinated by these pilgrims and soon captivated by the Camino. I learned that it stretched 500 miles across northern Spain, from the Pyrenees in the east to Santiago de Compostela in the west, the purported burial place of St. James the Greater, the first martyred apostle. The pilgrimage had begun after the rediscovery of the tomb in the 800s.
As in a vision, I saw before me a grand panorama of people in movement, spanning the centuries, traveling across the outer landscape of Europe, traveling through the inner landscape of the soul. I had found my research topic. I knew I had to walk the Camino.
I told my parents, who were horrified. I had had polio when I was a child and I had never had much stamina. How could I possibly walk 500 miles across Spain? One step at a time, I said smugly, one step at a time. They were also puzzled. I had been raised in a non-religious household: why was I attracted to pilgrimage? I muttered something about anthropological fieldwork.
My friend Michael decided to go with me. Together we made plans to explore not only the pilgrimage but also our relationship. Too busy studying, we had no time to prepare physically for our undertaking, but we did buy sleeping bags, suitcases that converted into backpacks, and tennis shoes.
We began walking, on the hottest day of the summer of 1982, from Saint Jean Pied de Port (St. Jean, Foot of the Pass) on the French side of the Pyrenees. After an early lunch, we headed out of town on the route that would take us 15 miles up into the mountains and over into Spain. Hours passed but we made little progress. The road was steep, and I had to stop every few hundred feet to rest and take off my heavy-laden backpack.
At last it became too dark to walk. Exhausted, we stopped by the side of the country lane, pulled out our sleeping bags, and slept on a cow path. I worried whether cattle would trample us in the night, but I was too tired to move.
Overhead, the Milky Way (the symbolic name for the Camino de Santiago) shown bright and distant. For millennia pilgrims had followed it to Santiago—or so the legends went.
We woke up in dense fog and started walking, barely able to see the pavement in front of us. I stumbled along, weakened by stomach flu and heat exhaustion. At last I collapsed by the side of the road. Several cars appeared out of and disappeared back into the fog. Michael chased after one, hoping we could hitch a ride up the mountain, and it stopped. Alan, the driver, was a physician. He took one look at me and told us I could not go on. Ignoring Michael’s protests, Alan took us back to his home in St. Jean to nurse me back to health.
After I had rested, I asked Alan what would have happened if he hadn’t stopped for us. He explained that eventually I would have been hauled out on a stretcher to the nearest hospital. Alan was on the mountain rescue team and probably would have been among the ones to find me. I knew that if that had happened, I would have been too traumatized to continue walking the Camino. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, Alan was Santiago in disguise, coming to the rescue of a desperate pilgrim. I can say that now, but then I was a person of little faith and less understanding.
Three days later Alan drove us up the mountain to the pass, and we started back on the Camino. Day by day I gained strength and endurance, and Michael and I slowly walked across Spain step by step, kilometer by kilometer.
As we walked, we met other pilgrims and heard their stories. There was a sense of camaraderie among us— we were pilgrims sharing a journey, not excursionists or holiday-walkers. We were pilgrims participating in an ancient rite during which we were invested with sacredness. Townspeople offered us something to eat or drink, or asked us to light a candle for them or to embrace the statue of the St. James when we reached the cathedral in Santiago. People thought our prayers meant more because we were pilgrims. We had embarked on a spiritual adventure, one filled with significance and gifts of grace.
In the small villages we would ask the priest, mayor, or vecinos for a place to stay, and they would open up an abandoned building or an empty schoolroom—or tell us to sleep in the fields. Once, in an isolated mountain village, we had run out of food and there were no shops. A kindly housewife made us a Spanish potato omelet and stuck it inside a baguette.
The yellow arrows that supposedly marked the Camino often failed at crucial junctures. Soon we understood our wanderings as metaphors for our lives, filled with wrong turns, dead ends, detours, being lost—and found. The poorly marked Way also provided numerous opportunities for us to rely on the generosity of strangers. We were all pilgrims and strangers on the Way of Life, I realized, regardless of our degree of faith or lack of it.
Six weeks after we had started, Michael and I reached Santiago. We entered a maelstrom. The town was overflowing with ebullient pilgrims who had arrived in organized bus excursions. We couldn’t even get inside the church for the pilgrims’ mass. “Santiago no está aquí—está por el Camino!” (“Santiago isn’t here, he’s on the Camino!”) we “foot” pilgrims told each other, overwhelmed with shock and disillusionment.
What had I expected, I wondered. I wasn’t a believer—I wasn’t even Christian—so why would I have thought that arriving in Santiago would mean anything to me? As my disappointment changed to insight, I realized that it was the Camino that mattered: the journey, not the destination. The pilgrimage had transformed my life. I had a new sense of myself, of my capacity to persevere, to push my physical and emotional limits—after all, I had walked across Spain! I had done things I never would have imagined possible. I had slept in abandoned buildings, wondered where I would find food and water, walked over mountains, and hugged the statue of the Apostle. I had walked in the footsteps of my ancestors—not my literal ancestors (they were Russian and Turkish Jews) but my ancestors nonetheless. I would never be the same.
After finishing my Ph.D., I thought I was ”over” the Camino. But you are never “over” it. Or at least I’m not. I’ve walked the Camino several more times (including a French route), and I’ve written books and articles about it. The Camino continues to reveal new aspects of itself as I delve below its surface, exploring its hidden meanings, its esoteric symbols, its inner teachings. More than 28 years later, I am still a pilgrim on the Camino. All I have to do is look up to the heavens to see its path, the Milky Way, spread across the night sky.
Elyn Aviva is a writer, fiber artist, and transformational traveler. A Spanish version of this essay will be published in Peregrinas por el Camino de Santiago. See www.Mujeresviajeras.com for details. Currently living in Girona (Catalonia), Spain, Aviva is co-author of Powerful Places on the Caminos de Santiago, Powerful Places in Scotland, and other books on pilgrimage and journey, including Following the Milky Way and Walking Through Cancer. To learn more, go to www.pilgrimsprocess.com and www.fiberalchemy.com