By Emily Dittmann
My walk begins on a single lane gravel road in St. Jean Pied du Port, France. Gradually the road turns into a dirt trail and crisscrosses a hillside studded with hikers wearing backpacks and swinging trekking poles. Singletons and groups leap-frog up the Pyrenees, saying “Buen Camino” in between labored breaths as they ascend a thigh-burning 30-degree pitch. Here and there along the route, people splay out in tufts of grass, leaning against backpacks, drying their feet, and resting. Cowbells clang in the wind.
I walk all day, crossing into Spain and stopping for the night at the Roncesvalles monastery, where I share the first of many “pilgrim meals” with travelers from around the world. The room is so crowded and boisterous that we lean in close to hear each other ask the question that will be the refrain of all our journeys: “Why are you walking the Camino?”
I offer an answer I will repeat a hundred times over the next six weeks. In the wake of my divorce, I sold my house, took a leave of absence from teaching, and set out for the Camino on my own. The idea of a pilgrimage, a spiritual journey to a meaningful place, had planted itself in my brain years before. Faced with the newfound freedom and heartache of a dissolved marriage, I decided to go on a long walk.
Walking has always been meditative to me. As a pre-teen I trudged miles along Pennsylvania canals, my dad saying “10 more minutes” half-a-dozen times until we reached the ice cream shop. When I worked on my college thesis, I walked to distill the meaning from hundreds of pages of notes and interview transcriptions. After college, I hiked in the Maine woods for recreation. As a newly single 35-year-old, I wanted the physical challenge, as well as the camaraderie of meeting other people also on a spiritual journey. Thousands have walked before me, thousands would come after.
Leaving the monastery’s cobblestone courtyard the next day before dawn, I search for the yellow arrows and scallop-shell trail markers with the beam of my headlamp—a ritual I will repeat the next 38 mornings. I walk the wooded path in the dark until the next town. There I have the first of many café con leches and meet my first walking companions, an American couple from Washington State. Soon to be empty nesters, they are exploring what the next chapter of life will mean for them as a couple.
Hundreds of thousands of people travel the Camino de Santiago each year. The route is actually a web of trails spanning Europe, because historically pilgrims left from their homes. I meet modern pilgrims who began by walking out their front door, including a Dutch couple who have hiked together for three months before encountering me. “And we still love each other!” they exclaim. “Trust in other people,” they add. “They are kind and want to help you. Also, don’t be in such a hurry.”
I chose the Camino Frances, the most popular and well-marked way. Medieval pilgrims sought healing miracles, court-ordered penance for crimes (the Camino was a prison alternative), or closeness to God. Pagan pilgrims once walked to Cape Finisterre, “the end of the earth,” to burn their clothes and start anew. Some contemporary pilgrims aim for Santiago de Compostela, where they will receive a certificate verifying their completion.
I want to walk all the way to Finisterre. For me, the natural ending is the ocean. I imagine finishing on rocks, staring at the swirling white foam and hearing the clap of water against the coast. I want to smell the air change.
When I was a kid, my family used to drive to the Jersey shore—my brother and I playing Go Fish in the backseat. I remember the moment when the smell of salt blew through the open windows. “We’re getting close!” I would say, seeing the fruit stands and stacks of tomatoes, Jersey corn, and honeydews, and then the rise of the causeway over the bay.
My pilgrimage routine is simple: walk, eat, wash, sleep. Each morning I walk until hungry, stop for breakfast, then continue until the next town. The pattern repeats until I find a hostel for the evening. At night I organize my backpack and clean out extra weight, receipts, and scraps of paper. The simple life makes it easy to appreciate little luxuries, like hooks by the bunk, a bathmat (rare), or a glass filled with ice.
One gray morning, after passing through a deserted town and a stretch of industrial barns, I pause to retrieve my just-in-case Peanut M&Ms when the first human in hours power-walks up the trail. This pole-pumping person is Andreas, from Germany. I meet his gait, and to my surprise we march together for the next 20 kilometers.
“In Germany we have an expression: to make a science,” Andreas says. “I have made a science of the Camino.”
Twice a day he stops to change socks, pinning the removed pair on his pack to dry. Whenever he feels something in his shoe, he stops and investigates. If necessary, he tapes his foot. He takes great pride in the absence of blisters.
He eats a Spanish tortilla, café con leche, and fresh-pressed orange juice each morning.
“My friend has a saying: When you want something on the Camino, just think of it, and it will appear,” he remarks. “Not a car of course,” he adds. “But a bench, a companion, a café.”
Sure enough, a picnic area presents itself a few minutes later and we take a break.
Sharing our favorite moments, he tells me about visiting a church where verses for pilgrims had been written in German on flyers. With the help of an app, he translates his favorite: “Blessed are you, pilgrim, when your backpack gets lighter and your heart is so full it doesn’t know where to put all the feelings.”
Days later, after parting with Andreas, I meet Francois, from Quebec. He asks why I am walking, and jokes that he’s had “one conversation with 50 people.” We muse about the honesty of pilgrims. On the Camino, he says, “Nobody knows you, so I might as well be myself.”
We part when I pause to talk to another traveler. Francois holds my hand, blows a kiss on the top, says his best Camino conversations are cut short, and turns to keep moving.
The night before the Cruz de Ferro, the iron cross where pilgrims traditionally leave a rock symbolizing their struggles, I run into a man from day three. We had shared a meal outside of Pamplona, and now, weeks later, we stand analyzing a map in the hostel hallway. But he doesn’t recognize me.
He insists that he’d met a different woman from Maine. This woman, he says, had completed an apprenticeship in wooden boat building.
“That’s me!” I exclaim.
“Wow,” he says. “The Camino has changed you.”
The next day, with another walking partner, a Minnesotan named Jenna, I climb a 50-foot pile of stones left by pilgrims.
I sit on these rocks—a small mountain of discarded weights and worries crowned by a thin spire bearing a delicate metal cross. Knees pulled into my chest, I think about what I wanted when I set out on this walk: to leave the sadness from my ended marriage behind. My mom had always taught me never to quit. At moments when I wanted to—like when I was 10, struggling through a terrible soccer season colored by the constant yelling of a red-faced coach—she would say, “You made a commitment.”
I place a stone on the pile.
My mind wanders to a pilgrim mass I had attended a couple of weeks before. Nuns had sung, and a priest had prayed that “all pilgrims may find what they are looking for.” I had looked around the church. It held 50-some seekers. People from Brazil, South Korea, Spain, South Africa, Croatia, New Zealand, Italy, France, Bulgaria, Australia, Mexico, Japan, Holland, Germany—all hoping for something, known or unknown.
And now, suddenly, I realize why I am walking. I need to forgive myself. This path is a path toward a new life. Before the Camino I hadn’t known that I needed forgiveness. I knew only that I needed to walk.
When I reach the ocean, after 40 days, it is October. I inhale the salty air and I remember a moment from several weeks before, on the flat plains in the middle section of the Camino.
I had been sitting on a hostel terrace at the end of a day, sharing a green plastic table with another stranger. Above us was an endless blue sky, a majestic vault over the wheat fields and rolling hills of Hontanas, a region known for unbroken stretches of meditative cropland.
Another pilgrim looked at us and asked, “Are you two traveling together?”
My companion answered, “Well, we all are.”