5 Elements of the Camino Our Country Could Really Use Right Now

On many hiking days, hiding in the safety of the Camino de Santiago often offset the incessant pain of walking 15-18 miles a day, though it was hard not to feel guilty about turning a blind eye to the news back home. With spotty wifi connections and a goal to, you know, focus on the spiritual pilgrimage, we usually allowed ourselves the privilege to only check in about the news with family, opposed to falling down the Facebook rabbit hole every afternoon. Having family members as a filter was a gift, but there is only so long one can run to the mountains and ignore what’s going on.

Adjusting back to real life has been odd, to say the least, as it was after my first Camino in 2009. Not only does your body go into walking-withdrawal, but the mental transformation of a 500-mile hike comes in strange and often-confusing waves of mood swings and the urge to hide under the covers and never come out.

The biggest shock, however, is the urge to try and spread what you see and experience when a group of strangers embarks on an ancient pilgrimage together. It is the “great adventure” we dream of as kids, the outlet for that nervous energy you feeling sitting at a desk as an adult. There are few words for it. What happens between a group with the same common goal–a goal to understand themselves better through a ridiculous physical feat–is a part of human nature we’ve suppressed. But the world needs the lessons of the Camino right now. So, I will do my best.

1. Celebration of Our Differences

One of the biggest shocks was returning to a confused country, one that often ignores the beauty of our diversity. Hanging out in Western Europe is all well and good, but I have to say I took a sigh of relief when I landed at JFK airport and saw people of different skin tones, religions, and origins. I can now walk down the street in my NJ suburb and order food inspired by Italian, Thai, French, Peruvian, and Brazilian cultures. My body rejoiced!

This post popped into my head while swiping my card at Pret a Manger in Midtown. The card reader asked me to choose Spanish or English when checking out.  I almost yelped with joy. Most countries throughout the world are multilingual, ours technically has 422 languages between immigrant and indigenous languages spoken. In Spain, with languages changing literally as you walk across the country, it was rare to meet a Spanish hiker that had not been required to learn several as a young child. As my Spanish began to improve toward the end of our trip, fellow pilgrims told me, “Now you can go home and practice with all the Spanish speakers you have in the US!”  And of course they’re right, I have plenty of friends who speak Spanish. But is it common practice to learn both? No. Which is a shame. It is disgusting how often I overhear the phrase “They can barely speak English,” as if that is some denotation for intelligence.  Language is a collection of tools to express the beauty of life. And obsessing over the idea that we are an English-speaking country ONLY limits our means of expression and connection.

One evening, while sitting at a long wooden table with hikers from Poland, England, Australia and Spain, a fellow pilgrim taught me about the Spanish word luchar. He explained that there was no direct translation other than “to strive, to struggle, to fight for something greater than yourself.” (Also, Spanish speakers–please correct me if I’ve gotten this wrong, I was drinking that night).

Having that “where did your family come from” chat is not common in other countries. What we have is a gift. Our immigration past (and present) is a gift. It is a joining of the minds. You see this on the Camino and you should see it in our melting pot of a country. We have the opportunity to celebrate, and we are missing it.

2. Respect for Ritual

There is a level of astonishment when you begin the Camino. For some reason, we all just picked up from home one day and decided to walk toward one particular city. Yes, there are most concrete reasons–personal growth, a call in a personal Chrisitan faith, a call to a different spiritual faith, the desire to be healthier, the goal to prove you can do it, or even a bucket list item. But why the Camino? Why this action? Every morning for 30-40 days, people from childhood (yes there are children who walk with their parents) to men and women in the 80s and 90s, wake up at 6am, stumble into the bathroom, get changed, and then wander out into the dark morning to just walk west.  Again and again and again.

At the end of the the hike from St. Jean Pied du Port to Roncesvalles, a traditional first-day for many pilgrims, this 27-kilometer trial-by-fire over the Pyrenees Mountains is the hardest day on the trail for many. The first 10k follows an incline so steep that you can touch the ground with your fingers ahead of you. I hit particular rock bottom on this Camino’s trek over the Pyrenees. I felt so desperate for rest in the final moments that an enraged cry started to swell up in my mind. If I couldn’t get through this day, how could I get through the next 33?

But we made it, along with the other 182 pilgrims the 12th-century church held that night. Now, based on my Buddhist beliefs, I have no business in a Catholic church. Nor do half the people walking the Camino (since many non-Catholics are drawn to it). And yet, the mass held in Roncesvalles on the evening of your hike is a representation of our human ability to find comfort in ritual, in the company of our fellow hikers, in the words of a teacher. The priest at this mass gives the Pilgrim blessing in every language that is represented in the church that night. It is breathtaking. Your legs shake and you usually have to hold yourself up on the pew to stand, if you can stand. But at the end, you all walk forward as the priest wishes you a safe walk to your destination. It’s rare to see a dry eye in the house.  At that point, you will take any divine intervention and words of support, because the pain you feel is other-worldly.

The rituals–both in and outside the church of the Camino–supersede religious upbringing and belief. Nuns welcome everyone, priests will talk to people of all walks of life, and most importantly, your fellow pilgrims spread their own rituals through every group meal, every afternoon beer, and ever 6-hour chat on the road, with only a fraction of language between you.  There is no “you must believe this!” only, “I believe this, what do you believe?”  It is the spreading of rituals, stories, and means to human connection that makes me miss my fellow pilgrims the most.

3. Gender Equality

I had a strange interaction with a pilgrim from the US one afternoon, quite unexpectedly. He happened to be a big Trump supporter and picked a fight with me about climate change. I got flustered and respectively left the conversation. We bumped into him and a few other similar middle-aged, ex-businessmen on the trail, several of which were proud conservatives. I struggled with the question–how did the end up on something like this? I concluded that their call to the road was just as confusing as my own, so there is no reason to judge. What mattered is that we were there.

When I come across men like this at home, there is often a disconnect in our conversation, one I try to push past, but often do so unsuccessfully. It is the toxic masculinity wall. The “I am a man and will speak louder than you because I am self-conscious about myself” wall. It’s the glazed-over look of “WOMAN IS SPEAKING” they get because they are somehow physically superior to me in their gender (pulling the 1000-miles in Spain card is fun with this one, but shouldn’t be necessary).

Anyway, no one has time for that baloney on the Camino. No man is carrying my bag for my delicate back, carrying me over puddles, or bandaging my feet. When talking to a guy on the Camino, we were all covered in the same dusty dirt, had the same sunburn on the one sides of our faces, both walked 20-something-K from who-knows-where that day, and both knew how to stick a sewing needle through our blisters without getting an infection. Once that “I am stronger than you” BS is out of the way, all genders can have real conversations.

I realized that a lot of my anger that arose while speaking to Trump-supporting pilgrim came from his initial urge to speak over me that same way certain men did at home. But each time we crossed paths after that talk, I gave him a knowing nod, a call of “Buen Camino,” and trusted that the road–the great equalizer–would diffuse his fear of the opposite gender (and who knows what else).

We must see each other here as fellow pilgrims, not as genders. We are all strong, we are all weak, and we all walk in the same direction.

4. Some Gosh Darn Peace and Quiet

In Doll’s House Part II, a show recently on Broadway, Nora returns home and talks about her life away from the chains of early-20th-century marriage. Without spoiling the plot, she has a monologue about why she stopped speaking for two years while she was away. To paraphrase: she had to stay silent to remember what her own voice sounded like. With only a few weeks until the Camino, I nearly lost it in the theatre at this line. How many other people in that room felt the same way?

Silence can be scary. Every day in my writing life, I come across blog titles talking about “new, fast and easy ways to get the benefits of meditation with meditating!”  But that’s just it, my friends. The silence, the stillness, the monotony of breath–or in my case, footsteps–is supposed to be hard. Quieting the mind requires slowly chipping away at the chatter-filled rooms we’ve built up around our psyche.

And it’s not always easy. I had these romanticized dreams of meditating each day in a Spanish field of flowers after my hike. Did I do that once?  Yes, I did that once–in a room that looked over a field of flowers. But otherwise, I struggled through the silence. One day, when I felt hopelessly alone and, to be honest, bored, in a long stretch of the desertlike Meseta, I listened to the entirety of the Broadway Bridges of Madison County album while twirling around my walking stick like a baton and acting out all the parts. I only stopped when the stick came flying around with so much force toward my forehead that it almost left a mark.  I look around in embarrassment, only to see that my audience was made up of snails and birds.

It was my walking stick saying, “Ginny! Just walk!” So I turned off my music and focused on my trusty horizon. Without the option to turn on the internet, read a book, or even talk to anyone else for hours, I was forced to just entertain myself, or not entertain myself.  This is when I started to push through the wall.

How do we accomplish this here? How do we fully walk away from the noise for even an hour without feeling the pull of guilt?  But without this time, we cannot work through the mental contradictions that build up when we’re too busy to organize our brain’s file folders. So we make bad decisions, we speak without thinking, we walk through the clutter like drifts of snow and fear the moment when we have to clean it all up, or worse, read through all the mess at once.

I keep asking, if and when this terrifying time in our country settles down–when Trump has fallen into obscurity, when party lines have finally been skewed, when we have to face the anger, how will we do this without self-reflection? What will we do this without terrible pain?

5. Pilgrimage

Toward the end of the Camino, graffiti becomes more and more prominent on kilometer markers. One piece of graffiti I saw read, “Pilgrimage is a religion.” I sat with this one for a while. All of the things I just mentioned–long talks that bridge cultures and backgrounds, respect for gender and racial differences, a celebration of ritual and gathering, facing the silence in yourself–these are Pilgrimage to me. And I would think, this is what religion originally meant as well.

The Camino is an act of empathy. It is an act of human connection. It is an act of connection with nature. And most importantly, it is an act of personal compassion.

Pilgrimages are gaining steam again. The Camino itself has grown almost to absurd levels in the past 20 years. Little old ladies greet you in the streets with kisses as you pass in excitement. A museum in Santiago taught us about the growing popularity of pilgrimages across other continents, from all backgrounds. More people are running mud races, marathons, and trekking up the AT and PCT. We suddenly are returning to the call of Pilgrimage as a religion.

Pilgrimage is different than setting a goal in the traditional middle-school, career-based sense.  You don’t reach the end financially better off or with something for your resume. You go because you must. It is an answer to an honest call that has no monetary reward.

So how do we incorporate these things into our divided, terrified country?  I don’t have the answers, but I hope that more people will seek their pilgrimage, literal or not. It is a slow, painful, beautiful, heartbreaking way to open again, even after the world told us to stay closed.

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