Arriving in St. Jean-Pied-De-Port, France, I was as anxiety ridden as I’d been walking into the first day of middle school. I was there to start my journey along the 500-mile Camino de Santiago. The Camino is a pilgrimage trail that stretches across Europe and culminates in Santiago de Compostella, Spain.
After months of prep, a few Covid-19 setbacks, and a couple of days of traveling, I was exiting the last mode of transportation I would enjoy for six weeks. Would the group of people exiting the train with me know that my backpack was new? Would they realize I had no earthly idea what I was doing? Would I be able to walk alone for six weeks and find purpose for the next chapter in my life? After locating the Pilgrim’s Office to register my start, I was about to find out.
Before the Camino
The beauty of the Camino is that every pilgrim is seeking what they need. I desperately needed to understand why I fell in love with food. The last few years made me question being a cook, a restaurateur, an employer. These questions had began bleeding into my personal relationships.
My wife Sarah noticed that I was seeking something before it became apparent to me and booked me a one-way, non-refundable ticket to Paris. Her brother had walked the Camino and she could see it was what I needed. She not only pushed me onto the Camino, but also took on being a single parent of a rising middle schooler. Sarah ran our business without my help and made sure I had what I needed to walk, handling it with grace and beauty.
BEGINNING THE EXPEDITION
In line at the Pilgrim’s Office, I spoke with a young man from Israel and a gentleman in his 50s from Germany. The German asked me where I would be staying that night. Upon hearing the name of my hotel, he quickly informed me that I was not a real pilgrim because I wasn’t spending my first night in a hostel. I hadn’t even taken a step toward enlightenment and I was already doing it incorrectly. Everyone would I know I was a sham! I was thankful when he walked away, allowing me to rethink my existence as a pilgrim.
I registered, checked into my hotel, and went in search of my first Camino meal. Of the ten restaurants in town, all ten displayed signs alerted me that they were full. This was a blessing in disguise from the Camino gods (maybe for having to endure the heckling from my new German “friend”). I located what may have been the best ham and butter baguette in the world. It was the first of many unassuming meals that would make me rethink the world of food I had spent years building up in my mind.
Walk Your Own Camino
The next morning, I woke at 4 am and repacked my backpack for the tenth time since arriving. It was still dark and cold outside, but I couldn’t wait to begin. I calmed myself until I heard a group of hiking sticks clicking the cobblestone—that’s when I knew I could head out.
I made it a quarter of a mile before the intoxicating smell of baguettes overcame my gusto for walking over the Pyrenees into Spain. I located the source of the smell, and quickly bought my last French croissant plus a baguette for later (Now that I’m home, I really want to bring back a habit of pocket baguettes). I only got lost twice before dawn, then started hiking up a mountain.
Within two hours I was passing the group that I’d heard outside my window. “Buen Camino” I said for the first time ever and heard their Irish accents in reply. My quest for “going the Camino alone” lasted a grand total of two hours and four minutes. But, I have never been so grateful for the company.
Walking together, we exchanged our reasons for choosing to walk, chasing yellow arrows toward Santiago for the next several weeks. Our conversations became meaningful and deep, in ways that often take months of friendship back in the US. This was the first of many along the way. I realized how quickly I appreciated my new friends when we passed the German. Without hesitation, they told him to “walk your own Camino.” This became my second Camino lesson (I’ll get to the first one soon). Every one of us is walking through life in our own way, none of which are the way.
THE CAMINO PROVIDES
My Irish friends and I walked together until we reached Pamplona. I had scheduled a rest day there, which allowed me to enjoy a couple of insanely great Michelin-starred meals. When I was ready to start again, I reconnected with an American who my Irish friends had introduced me to. He would become one of my closest friends on the Camino. My quest to walk alone seemed futile at this point, with new conversations filling each of my days.
At one point, I saw a Canadian flag on a backpack and struck up a conversation with the wearer and another traveler. After a few hours, I realized that one, the Spanish gentleman, was actually a was actually a paid guide. I apologized for intruding and was blessed with my third lesson of the Camino—that the Camino provides.
In everyday life, I tend to lean on myself to figure everything out. But that doesn’t leave a lot of room for magic to happen. In this case, connecting with this pair gave me an opportunity to learn the history of the Camino, where to get the best “stamps” along the way, and where to find the best food and wine.
By the end of week two, the other pilgrims traveling with and around me began to form a pack. While we weren’t all in relationships with one another, we were becoming a community of individuals. We were working toward a goal of enlightenment, completion, and overcoming our constant fear of blisters.
Whenever we would finish our daily trek, we’d gather in a town square and catch up. We’d ask about the pilgrims we had not seen, fearing that some may have left the Camino for one reason or another. Where was San Francisco Anne? What about the Republican from Texas? Where was the Italian guy who looked like a mummy from the knees down because of his poor-fitting shoes? After our updates, we’d walk around the town, learn from each other about what the Camino could teach us, and most importantly, look for a place to eat lunch.
I met pilgrims who were seeking the existence of something bigger than themselves. Beautiful souls looking for peace and learning how to continue with life after the loss of a spouse. Brave warriors challenging themselves after tough medical conditions. Young explorers questioning the meaning of love.
Finding Purpose in The Camino
For three weeks, my American friend and I departed before dawn because we enjoyed the silence and the sunrise. Many days, we heard a stern gentleman behind us yelling to turn our headlamps off. His distaste for us reached a new high when, with the help of our headlamps, we led him down a dead-end road in the fog. I do not speak German, but I know I should not repeat the words that came out of his mouth that morning.
One day, I noticed he was no longer behind us. After a few mornings, I found myself missing his grumbling, and was hopeful he was still walking. While I was eating dinner alone a few nights before the end of the Camino, he appeared in the restaurant courtyard. I waved and offered a seat. We shared a meal together and I asked what brought him to the Camino. He talked about overcoming prostate cancer, which doctors thought would claim his life. When he beat the odds, his wife asked where he would like to celebrate. He quickly told her Spain.
They ended up in Santiago de Compostela where he saw a line of people. Not knowing anything of the Camino, he asked why everyone was in line. It was the line to apply for the Compostela, or the accreditation for finishing the Camino. Every single person in line had a sparkle in their eye, a look of purpose, he said—a look he’d never had himself. He told his wife that day he would complete the Camino.
Always Choose Wine
I finished my own Camino with my new friends, and we sat around many tables over the following days sharing our experiences. I didn’t fully answer the questions I walked with. In fact, I came home with more questions than when I began. Though I am still “walking my Camino,” attempting to answer these questions back home in Nashville, I do remember why I fell in love with food.
When I shared a pocket baguette with my Irish friends and shared a table with the Republican, an atheist, and a devout Jewish guy from Israel, we found the beauty of what we have in common. When I sat with the German who despised walking behind my light in the mornings, we connected. We laughed, we cried, and we left the table better humans than when we sat down.
I dream of the next time I am able to walk again. I long for a chance to become a better human. To not just see a country, but to move through it slowly enough to enjoy. Until then, I hope to hold onto that sparkle in my eye, and know my new German friend will hold onto his. And I hope I never forget the very first Camino lesson I learned from my brother-in-law who first inspired my walk: Never choose water when wine is available.
- by Erin Byers Murray
- by Hannah Lee Leidy
- by Lia Grabowski
- by Erin Byers Murray