Camino de Santiago: On feet, faith & chosen family

June 18, 2014 in Europe, Spain


The meseta is long, and hot.

The Way stretches off, through endless waves of grain blown by oceans of invisible wind across the long miles of nowhere. The Pyrenees have passed out of sight behind us. The mighty Atlantic roars somewhere off to our right and there is nothing before us but the path.

It is said that the first third of the Camino is for the body, the second third is for the mind and the final third is for the spirit. Today marks the halfway point, and this has been our experience thus far.

The first two weeks I’ve had blisters and feet problems like I never have in my life. Without exaggeration, I have blisters 5×3 cm on the balls of both feet, two large blisters on each heel, blisters on eight of my toes and my two long toes are losing their nails. The tendon in my left ankle is not enjoying the journey and my right knee twinges on the downhill portions of the terrain. It’s a new experience for me. An opportunity to consider the contentment that is a general lack of pain and to meditate on how we allow pain to dictate our actions, our approach to life, or at very least how it affects the way we move through the world, literally and figuratively.

My daily routine centers around checking in on my feet. Betadine, bandaging, duct tape to hold it all together. It is not lovely. I am not, however, alone in my journey. Pierre-Paolo, who is also limping along, took one look at my feet over dinner in Burgos the other night (Yes, we look at one another’s feet over dinner) and lovingly yelled at me in a mix of Italian and English, admonishing me to thread the blisters and stop, religiously, every five kilometers to repackage my feet. He brandished his big bushy eyebrows at me and extracted a promise to do better.

Today we passed the halfway mark.

I walked ahead of Jade, as has become our pattern. We begin the day with fresh squeezed orange juice and a pastry and then walk the first kilometer or so together, talking, comparing notes and plans, and then I lengthen my stride and we walk alone, together, until the next shady spot.

I walked with Erik along the hottest, driest stretch today. He’s traveling with his fiancee, walking in honor of his mother who recently died and carrying the ashes of both of his parents, mingled in a hollow key around his neck. We talked about travel, family, and the serendipities of the Camino, and the condition of our feet, of course. He told me how he’d left his work in public policy, in Washington, to travel the world, do humanitarian work and make sure he really lived his life. The crucifix jammed into the side of his pack was his mother’s. He’s looking for just the right place to lay it down.

It has occurred to me, as we’ve walked, that the Camino best walked with the faith of a small child.

I’ve seen groups of little ones in museums or on the streets in numerous cities, following the lead of their teacher with complete trust, each one holding on to the knot of a special rope. The school mistress holds the end. Each child finds his place, and keeps it. Together, they walk. They learn as they go. They become friends with those before and behind them. They are headed in wildly different directions, up and out, and into the world to blaze trails that no one before them ever has. They are full of potential and purpose. They are the tiny seeds of the future that they will create for themselves out of nothing but their own brilliance.

So it is here.

We are walking, many of us with the faith and innocence of young children, along a path that has been followed for millennia. We find ourselves holding onto a thread that stretches back into history, carried by the ghosts of the Camino past and that stretches ahead of us, not just to Santiago, but into a future that we can’t imagine yet. I find myself holding hearts, and hands, and my knot in the thread with people I’d never have chosen as walking companions. We’ve become a rough hewn tribe of sorts, a chosen family for a finite instant in our shared history, here in the middle of an infinite universe. We’re all headed somewhere, none of us quite know where. We’ve all come to walk and to think and to learn. What is surprising us all is that we are, ourselves, one another’s teachers and The Way itself is our school mistress. We’re finding that we’ve all been called to our lessons, apparently together here, at this time, for this particular class, with these particular partners for a reason. I’m not big on the concept of fate, but it’s pretty hard to see it any other way.

If that sounds crazy, all I can say is, come walk it.