The trip was to Spain for the purpose of completing a pilgrimage called El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, which translated means The Way of St. James. It refers to St. James the Greater, one of the apostles of Jesus. There are 10 different routes of the Camino, with the most popular being the Camino Frances or the French Way. This Camino starts in St. Jean Pied de Port, just over the French side of the France-Spain border by the Pyrenees mountains. The various Caminos are said to be the routes undertaken by St. James when he was preaching the story of Jesus to the masses in Spain. All of the Caminos end in Santiago de Compostela. On each day at noon, the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela holds a pilgrims mass for all the pilgrims that have arrived within the past day. The Camino Frances is about 480 miles long. Most people will walk this – and it takes roughly five weeks to do so. We decided that we would do this on bicycles, which would take two weeks. My wife, Janie, and I were joined by our good friends, Mark and Karen House, and their adult children, Rebecca and Steven. When you go on the Camino, you obtain a credential de Peregrino – or pilgrim’s credentials. This is similar to a passport, which you get stamped all along the way by restaurants, hotels, and other establishments to show your travels and places you passed through. At the end of the pilgrimage, you receive a Compostela – or certificate of completion – which is in Latin. We rented our bicycles from a company in Spain. Because they do not deliver out of the country, we began our pilgrimage in Pamplona, which took about 30 miles of the total mileage, leaving 450 miles for us to complete. The entire route is marked by two particular symbols – a scallop seashell, which is associated with a particular miracle attributed to St. James, and a yellow arrow. The route is incredibly well marked. The pilgrimage is one that is completed by about 250,000 persons each year. The most popular way to complete it is on foot, followed by bicycling and riding a donkey (although this one is rarely utilized). We passed probably 2,000 or 2,500 people during the course of our 10 days on the Camino. Amazingly enough, I would say that 15% to 20% of the people were in their mid-60s or older.
I got the idea from a movie called “The Way,” which was released in October 2011. The movie really resonated with me, and I bought it so Janie could see it (she was out of town when I originally saw it). Quite simply put, and without ruining the movie, a father (Martin Sheen) travels to St. Jean Pied de Port after his son (Emilio Estevez) dies in an accident on the first day of walking the Camino. The father decides to walk it for the two of them. I actually started doing research on the trip in the spring of 2012. A year later, we decided to see about putting together a biking trip and looked into the route, the hotels, and everything else. It really started coming together in June 2013, when Janie bought me a bike for my birthday. We were telling our friends about it and they decided to join us. All in all, I think it took a good 12 to 14 months for planning and training.
As I got more and more involved with the planning of the trip, it became more important to me as a personal growth experience and a spiritual experience. When we got on the Camino, I was really hit by the spiritual aspect of it, especially seeing all these people walking it and doing it for many different reasons. It ended up being an intensely inspirational experience. I truly cannot explain the residual effect that it has had on me. However, I also know that it would not have meant as much if Janie and our friends were not there. I learned a lot about my wife during this trip, including the fact that she is one tough lady. I think another favorite part of this was attending the Pilgrims Mass at the completion of the Camino. It was amazing. There is a scene in the movie where they show this, and there is a giant incense burner that requires 6 to 8 men to lift, and it swings back and forth over the crowd at the conclusion of the mass. Seeing it in person, after seeing it so many times in the movie, was surreal.
I would say the camaraderie that is developed along the Camino was my favorite part. The combined recognition of all the peregrinos (pilgrims) that they are all doing the same thing, regardless of the reason behind their individual effort. All of you going through the same journey, climbing the same inclines, traversing the same descents, sharing your stories along the way. When you run into people from your country and other countries and talk about why you are doing this, it just brought out a feeling I had not experienced much of in 53 years. Of course, getting a “Go Gators!” on the Camino was pretty cool – as I was wearing Gator gear the entire trip. But you would be amazed at how many countries were represented during our brief time on the Camino. While there were many stories that we heard along the Way, one that I wanted to share was of these three men in their 60’s from Holland. We met them on the second to last day of cycling. We had stopped for lunch, and they stopped at the same location on the side of the road. One of them sat next to us at the Pilgrims Mass two days later. We were talking at that time, and I had asked him what got them inspired to do the Camino. He said a good friend of theirs had walked it years ago. That friend died of a long illness in December and asked his friends to complete the Camino in his memory. It was very touching. I asked where they had started the Camino. This is because in order to get your Compostela (certificate) you need to walk at least 100 kilometers or bike 200 kilometers. He responded that they were from Holland. I told him I remembered that from the other day. When he saw I misunderstood him, he responded that they rode the entire way from Holland, some 2,000 miles at 100 kilometers per day for 34 days. This was one of the many amazing stories that we heard on our trip.
Spain was incredible. It was one of the cleanest countries I have ever been to. The people were amazing and very helpful when we needed it. The experience, as a whole, was one of the best things I have ever done in my life. I will be returning in 7 years to walk the Camino. Why 7 years? St. James is the patron saint of Spain. St. James Day is on August 25 each year and is a large festival time, especially in Santiago de Compostela. When St. James Day falls on a Sunday, it is a Holy year. The next Holy year is in 2021– in 7 years. This will also coincide with my 60th birthday. I plan to walk the Camino at that time. I cannot even fathom the camaraderie that you experience walking this pilgrimage as opposed to riding it. Buen Camino.