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I Walked into Santiago Two Years Ago Today

[Anna-Marie and Sonya entering Santiago]

Me and Sonya, a Canadian pilgrim I walked with for a few weeks, entering Santiago.

I’d thought it might feel like any other Camino day, but it didn’t.

For the first time in all my weeks on the Camino, I woke up on my own before my alarm beeped. Usually, I went through the hour of each day in a fog. This day I was wide awake and ready to leap from my bunk bed the moment I woke up.

On the Chemin du Puy in France, I’d walked alone a lot, and passed some of the time memorizing bits of poetry and quotations that moved me. Now a line from C. P. Cavafy’s “Ithaka” described how I felt perfectly: “a rare excitement stirs your spirit and your body.”

It was the way I used to feel as a little girl on Christmas morning—and not because of the presents, or at least not entirely. The tingling excitement came from knowing this was a special day, removed from ordinary time.

It was something I hadn’t felt in years before that day, two years ago, when I walked into Santiago.

Chemin du Puy sign

One of the intermittent and sometimes contradictory signs along the Chemin du Puy, giving the distance to Santiago.

I’ve read that for a walking pilgrim, the pilgrimage is more about the journey than the destination. It’s true, too. But at for me, anyway, that doesn’t mean the destination wasn’t important.

I had been walking toward Santiago for more than 11 weeks. From my first day of walking, I’d been passing signs giving the distance to Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, and then Santiago de Compostela. On the Chemin du Puy, where so many people were walking for two-week stints, we constantly asked each other how far we were walking. “Je vais jus’que Saint-Jacques”—I’m going to Santiago—became one of my most fluent sentences in French.

Like the French walkers, in France I started referring to the Chemin de Saint-Jacques as the GR or the GR-65, one of the Chemins de Grandes Randonées (long-distance paths) across France. And then one day, as I approached the Pyrenees, I stopped to talk to a young farmer.

I hadn’t seen a waymark in a while and was starting to get a little worried. “C’est la GR?” I asked the farmer, indicating the road I was on. Is this the GR?

“C’est le Chemin de Compostelle,” he said with a smile. It’s the Camino to [Santiago de] Compostela.

[Pilgrim Feet in the Praza do Obradoiro]

Pilgrim Feet in the Praza do Obradoiro in front of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela

A rare excitement stirred me at his words. I was really a pilgrim. I was truly following in the footsteps of so many pilgrims before me to Santiago.

I guess that’s why I have this crazy desire to walk every pilgrimage route I’ve heard of, but not to walk other, non-pilgrim trails. I want a journey—preferably a long one—but I like having a goal, a destination that so many people before me have struggled to reach. A city that has been important for centuries, and not only because it happens to be the end of a trail.

As I was walking, I tried not to expect too much of Santiago. Like Ithaka in the poem, it’s the excuse for the journey:

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

From my reading I had a picture in my mind of Santiago as not a particularly nice city, and as I walked into it with friends, passing the plain “Santiago” sign on an overpass with cars speeding by, I thought this impression was justified.

The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, where the bones of Saint James are supposed to lie.

Then we walked into the pretty medieval centre, and the cars and the speed of the modern city melted away. We passed through an archway where a bagpiper was playing, walked out into the Praza do Obradoiro, and collapsed in front of the cathedral.

I’d seen pictures of the Cathedral de Santiago before and thought it rather gaudy. But in that moment, in the city I had walked so far to reach, it was perfect.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 1:31 pm
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Pilgrimage as Story

[Cross and birds]Walking the Camino de Santiago was possibly the most intense, the most real experience I’ve ever had. I suspect there are a number of reasons for this, and I’ll write about some more of them later. But I just had a revelation about one of the reasons, and that’s the one I want to write about today.

But first, bear with me as I detour away from the Camino, as I walk away from the yellow arrows to start. I promise it’ll all come together in the end.

I’m partway through reading a non-fiction book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life by Donald Miller. (Note: The book is classified as a Christian book, but you can get a lot out of it whether you’re Christian or not. At least, I’m not exactly Christian, and I’m already convinced it has life-changing potential.)

The book follows Miller as he helps write a screenplay based on a memoir he’d written. In the process, he becomes convinced that the guidelines for writing a good story are the same as those for living a good life. As his roommate sums up, after a seminar on story with creative writing instructor Robert McKee: “A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”

Looking back at my life (all thirty years of it so far), I realize I haven’t really had a lot of serious goals—things I wanted and overcame conflict to get. There have been things I kind of sort of wanted to do, at the moment, but nothing I’ve seriously gone after despite all obstacles.

The longest time I’ve dedicated to anything in my adult life was four years of working toward a B.A. in history. But really, I didn’t do that because I really wanted a history degree for any particular reason. It was because I didn’t know what else to do, and I sometimes enjoyed studying history.

Walking over 1,500 kilometres from Le Puy-en-Velay to Santiago de Compostela was one of the few serious goals I’ve had. One of the few things I’ve been determined to do despite all obstacles. One of the few times I’ve lived my life as a story. I knew when I got my Compostela certificate that it meant more to me than my university diploma. I didn’t know why—but now it’s beginning to make sense.

Almost every day on the Camino, I was (quite literally) taking a few more steps toward my goal.

Having a Direction

Toward the end of my Camino journey, I had to get a second pilgrim’s passport for stamps from the refugios along the way. I was talking to a friend as I filled out the basic information. All the instructions were in Spanish, and one of the fields said “dirección.”

“Direction?” I said to my friend. I had already been walking for two months. “Santiago—where else?”

And then I remembered that in Spanish, dirección means address, and we laughed.

But it just goes to show that while I was walking, I knew where I was going. I was following the yellow arrows to Santiago.

Bringing the Experience Home

I felt totally alive on the Camino—not all the time, but much more than I ever have in the rest of my life.

If I can understand why that was, maybe I can bring some of whatever-it-was back into my life in the ordinary world.

I imagine it’s somewhat different for every pilgrim. What each finds on the Camino depends on her own life, on what he’s lacking.

This is a new thought, in relation to the Camino, but it makes sense to me. Maybe one of the things the Camino tried to teach me—if I’d only been listening—is that I need a goal, something to pursue despite all obstacles, something that matters.

I need to live my life as if it’s a story, not just on the Camino, but at home, too.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 9:20 pm
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