Walking the Camino

Jack Karolewski

© Copyright 2020 by Jack Karolewski

Photo of Jack.                                 

Follow the yellow arrows. Carry the bare minimum on your back. Pay full attention to your feet. This was the advice I was given as I set out on one of the most extraordinary travel adventures of my life.

The Way of St. James, also known as the Camino de Santiago, is a walking pilgrimage route that has been traveled by millions of people over the last 900 years. It begins in France and ends in northwest Spain at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of St. James the Apostle --- the patron saint of Spain --- are entombed. Recently, I and my two best friends (Rick McKay and Joe Masonick) walked the final part of this historic path from Astorga, Spain to Santiago, doing about 200 miles of the 750 mile route. All three of us had retired from teaching after thirty years, and we were ready for three weeks of reflection and rejuvenation.

We scoured the Internet for websites and read all the recommended books. We trained over the summer, logging over 300 miles both with and without 20 lb. backpacks. But our training was on relatively flat terrain, and it took sometime to adjust to the ups and downs of the actual Camino trail. The route goes through mountain passes, river valleys, forests and hilly farmlands. It passes through major cities and small villages, many built of grey stone. You see cathedrals, monasteries, castles, and chapels dating from the 11th century. Time slows down as you walk 12-15 miles a day, everyday, with all you need snug in your backpack. You notice subtle shifts in light and color. You hear birds and farm animals. You feel the sun and the wind. You smell flowers and fresh manure. You see corn, grapes and other crops ready for harvest. You sense the spirits of the many that have walked this same route before you: kings and queens, saints and sinners, the rich and the poor. You feel peaceful and always safe. Others would be walking ahead or behind you, though time might pass without seeing anyone for 20-30 minutes. By following the yellow arrows (painted on cobbled streets, walls, or trees) and other signposts, you stay on the ever-westward path of the pilgrim, or “peregrino.”
We met men and women from all over the world, mostly in their 20’s or 50’s. The young were finishing college, and contemplating what to do with their futures regarding jobs or marriage. The older were also introspective while pondering new challenges or past regrets. Some pilgrims were couples, some came in larger groups, or some walked alone. During the heat of the summer season, the Camino is crowded with teenagers and families with children. While only 2% of the pilgrims are typically from the United States, we did meet fellow citizens from Colorado, the Pacific Northwest, California, Illinois and New York. But most of the pilgrims were from Spain, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Austria and Italy. Others came from Mexico and Brazil. Knowing a little basic Spanish was helpful, but not essential. We talked freely with people from Ireland, England, Australia and Canada. About two-thirds of the pilgrims we saw were men, and one-third were women. Some were walking for the physical exercise, a test of endurance. Some were purely enjoying the art and architecture of Europe’s cultural heritage. Some were in a “let’s party” mood. Some were in a state of prayer or meditation, to fulfill a promise, or to give thanks to God or ask for a blessing. All those walking for a religious or spiritual reason would be entitled to a “Compostela” pilgrimage certificate by the Catholic Church, providing they walked a minimum of 100 km. (62 miles), or bicycled 200km. (You were even allowed to ride horseback, but driving parallel to the route by car made you ineligible.) For believers, the certificate ensured that one-third of your life’s sins were eliminated. If you died on the Camino, however, it was said that your soul went immediately to heaven.

Towns along the Camino are spaced regularly so that services such as food, water, and lodgings are readily available after a typical day’s walking. (It is actually a law in Spain that pilgrims are to be given every courtesy and not hassled.) My friends and I enjoyed excellent health regarding food and water on the Camino. (I even ate “pulpo”, which is fresh octopus chopped into bite-sized chunks, fried in olive oil, and dusted with red pepper and marine salt.) The fine meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, cheeses, breads and wines were delicious wherever we went. As for lodging, as an official pilgrim you are given a free “peregrino passport” at your starting point on the Camino, which entitles you to lodgings at public or private albergues or refugios. These are mostly large, dormitory-size buildings with bunk-beds, showers, toilets, a kitchen, a laundry area, and volunteer staffs to help. (Some even had Internet access, and almost everywhere we stopped for the evening had an inexpensive Internet Café available to keep in touch with families at home.) Some of the albergues/refugios are free (donations accepted), while other were a nominal 4-5 euros, about $4.80-$6.00 U.S. Some of these lodgings are excellent and clean, but others sadly can be overcrowded, noisy, lacking hot showers, or filled with loud snoring at night from both the men and the women. Bathrooms were usually segregated by sex, but the sleeping areas were unisex. If you preferred, you could also stay at a hotel, a hostel, a pensione, or other rented room available in each town or city. (ATM machines were common for obtaining cash too.) In any case, you got your pilgrim passport stamped at each overnight site, proving that you were there for Compostela purposes upon arrival in Santiago.

Did I forget to tell you about blisters and foot care? Each day we communicated our aches and pains in minute detail, with some days worse than others. While I was lucky and only suffered some nasty blisters and two bruised toenails, I saw pilgrim foot disasters that shocked me: feet covered with bandages and tape, some with dried blood; people limping with sore feet, joints, tendons and muscles; infected feet causing some people to rest under doctor’s orders for several days before continuing; and pilgrims actually sewing up each others foot sores with needle and thread! The importance of well-fitting shoes and pre-pilgrimage physical training cannot be over-emphasized. Also, lighten your backpack to the absolute necessity level. You need only two changes of clothing: one to wear and one in reserve. You do hand laundry every night. If it doesn’t dry by morning, attach it to your backpack with safety pins and it will dry while you walk. Laundromats are also available with washers and dryers in most places, if you prefer. We enjoyed outstanding weather during our trip, with only thirty minutes of light rain, but bring raingear because the green hills of Galicia in northwestern Spain usually get substantial rain every 3 days or so on average.

When we finally arrived in Santiago de Compostela, we were tired but fit and joyous. The cathedral there is massive, and was the third biggest pilgrimage goal in the Middle Ages after Rome and Jerusalem. We re-united with many of our new friends we had met on the Camino. We saw the remains of St. James in a silver reliquary under the main golden Baroque altar, and hugged the famous statue of the apostle from behind, as countless other pilgrims had done over the centuries. We put our five fingers in the Tree of Jesse, a marble column which has grooves where countless pilgrims have grasped it upon arrival. We next went to an office to receive our Compostela certificate. Each day at noon, a special Mass is held for all peregrinos, and your country is named aloud at the altar, as well as the place where you began your walk. A gigantic incense burner is lit at the conclusion of the Mass, and is hoisted and swung by six priests a hundred feet over the heads of the congregation for several minutes. On St. James’ Feast Day (July 25) the cathedral and outside square are packed with thousands of people, with celebrations, music and evening fireworks --- all broadcast on national TV, with the King of Spain (Juan Carlos)in attendance.

As our pilgrimage ended, however, I felt that we had been a part of an incredible, unbroken tradition stretching back in time. Being home now, I strangely miss the daily physical challenge, the uninterrupted time to think and contemplate, the simple routine of walking through northern Spain’s spectacular scenery, the sharing of encouragements with a newly-met mobile world community of pilgrims, each unique yet each the same, wearing the scallop shell which is the symbol of St. James, smiling in the sun, unworried and unhurried, slightly scruffy, blessed, free.

I grew up on Chicago's South Side, and moved to Davis, California in 1988 with my wife, Alice, who is now a retired radiologist.

Our outstanding daughter, Jennifer ("Jen") was born in 1993. She graduated from Cal Tech, and is now completing her doctorate in Chemical Oceanography at M.I.T.

I attended Northern Illinois University, where I earned an undergraduate degree in Education, and two graduate degrees in History. I retired from a thirty-year teaching career in 2005. Since then, I have been enjoying a second, part-time career as a reference librarian and an active community volunteer at six different venues. I also run a library book club and movie club.

I have visited 114 foreign countries so far, as well as all fifty states. I am keenly interested in reading, writing, movies, music, art, history, travel, photography, comparative religions, hiking, bicycling, nature, collecting, and museums.

Any questions or comments are always welcomed: explorerjack8138@gmail.com

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