Dec 14, Bryant Stamford. Article originally published at www.courier-journal.com/
As Christmas approaches, we are reminded of the arduous journey Mary and Joseph were forced to make to Bethlehem. With this in mind, a friend of mine, Cheri Powell, dropped me a note that read, “You often write about the whole person — health, spirit and emotion — and how it all works together. A pilgrimage combines them all.”
She went on to tell me about her experiences on the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage trail in Spain rich with legend and history.
After Jesus was crucified, one of his disciples, James, went to what is now Spain and preached to convert the local people. After that, he returned to Jerusalem, and there he was beheaded by King Herod.
Legend has it that the followers of James gathered up his remains and returned to Spain and buried him. The burial site is believed to be at the end of the Camino de Santiago, which means “the Way of Saint James.”
It’s a 500-mile walking journey that for centuries has attracted pilgrims like Shirley MacLaine, who wrote about it in her book “The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit” (Atria Books, 2000). There is also a new film called “The Way” (2010) with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez.
The popularity of the Camino has grown tremendously, and an estimated 200,000 people attempted the trek last year.
The word “attempted” suggests that not everyone is successful. That’s not surprising, given the distance, the challenging terrain, the hot and humid weather in Spain for much of the year, the very rustic accommodations along the trail, the need to carry everything you need on your back, etc.
More than the Grand Canyon
My wife, Anita, and I once hiked the Grand Canyon in July. It was 115 degrees at the time, and the six-mile uphill climb coming out of the canyon was brutal and one of the physically most demanding challenges I’ve ever encountered. All told, the hike took about 14 hours.
When we hiked the Grand Canyon, we did it without planning. We simply visited the canyon and saw folks taking off from the top and decided, what the heck, let’s go. Thankfully, we had some trail mix for food and water bottles to keep us hydrated along the way.
The message I got from Powell was that if you think you might want to tackle the Camino, don’t approach it the way we approached the Grand Canyon. Do so only with your eyes completely open and with plenty of planning.
On her journey, Powell witnessed successful pilgrims who maximized the experience in every way. She also saw those who were ill-prepared physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually and had to give up their goal early on.
With this in mind, Powell decided to share her experience from the perspective of what you need to know beforehand in a book titled “Seven Tips to Make the Most of the Camino de Santiago” (R.C. Linnell Publishing, 2010).
Powell is an accomplished writer who poses thought-provoking questions on everything from the history of the Camino to reasonable expectation of the journey, daily goals and — most important — what to take and what to leave behind.
This is critical, because carrying just a couple of excess pounds over 500 miles can be the difference between success and failure.
There are also extremely helpful practical guidelines for how to get there, proper etiquette (how to conduct yourself on the trail) and how to stay healthy.
I was intrigued when I read Shirley MacLaine’s book years ago, especially knowing that she was in her sixth decade when she walked 20 miles a day, day after day, over the Camino trail. Powell’s book has revitalized my interest in hiking the Camino, and I’ve added it to my “bucket list.”