A note for readers: This is the first in a series of articles intended to describe my experience of walking two of the many pilgrimage routes that make up Spain’s Camino de Santiago. Although I documented those experiences on Facebook as they were unfolding in October 2023, this is a much deeper look into their implications.
It always begins in the mind, the place where the influence of the spirit meets the good labor of the flesh. A thought comes to suggest it’s time for another saunter. This is the idea: Two walks, two intentions, minimal distractions. My beloved Spain and its Camino are calling me once more. Surely some good must come of this. A route comes to mind, and on the heels of that a gentle suggestion arrives from a friend about a different kind of route. The heart sings. And now it seems there are mountains involved. With the mountains comes the fear, the unknown. And just like that, all the elements of a pilgrimage are in place.
I had trekked across another route of the Camino once before, walking 500 miles over 39 days from southern France to the Atlantic coast of Spain. That was the outer journey, a mere reflection of the inner one. As the result of them both, everything had changed. I’d been delivered, deposited if you will, into another way of life. A book was born of that one, and in 300 pages and almost 100,000 words, I was never able to fully articulate just how it all came to be. Some things, it could be said, need to remain silent and secret. But that was then, and life moves forward.
The Camino San Salvador begins at the base of a statue found on Plaza San Marcos in Leon, Spain, depicting an exhausted medieval pilgrim at rest. The pilgrim faces the Parador Hotel, one of a chain known for an utterly absurd level of luxury. God, how I love irony. From here the route maintains a northerly course, which, over six uniquely difficult stages, arrives at its end point, the Catedral de San Salvador in the beautiful city of Oviedo. Here again, I refer to the outer journey, the mere reflection.
I’ve come to believe the inner pilgrimage is best undertaken with an intention in mind ̶ ̶ a movement of thought toward one’s center, something to ponder, resolve, or surrender. Could be anything, really. The pilgrimage as an extension of the Divine will have its way with whatever is offered. My intention for the Camino San Salvador was to probe the depths of the shadows, the darker aspects of how I have lived through nearly seven decades. It was to be undertaken with an attitude of quiet penitence, an act of walking in contrition for the times in this life when I’ve missed the mark, or, as they say in archery, when I have sinned.
The outer route promised the perfect expression of this with the hard and dangerous work of climbing and descending nearly 10,000 feet over the length of the route, all the while surrounded by the breathtaking, rugged scenery of the Cantabrian Mountains. Largely isolated, and silent save for the wind, it’s the kind of place to go when the time has come to remember, reflect, and sort some things out.
On a crisp and chilly autumn morning, I left my hotel in Leon and walked the short distance to a nearly deserted Plaza San Marcos just as night was yielding to the dawn. The pack felt good on my back, and my heart was full of optimism along with a good measure of excitement as I made my way to the pilgrim statue. Sitting at its feet, I prayerfully centered myself for what lay ahead both inwardly and along the road, that I may honor my intention in each step that would follow. It’s always good to begin this way.
I’ve come to love the poetic moments that Grace will so often allow in this life we live, moments when we come to know there is an intelligence beyond our understanding looking after things, silently expressing its perfection. As I took my first steps away from the statue, I knew I was not alone, for the date was October 4... the 13th anniversary of my son Keith’s death by suicide.
Next: The walk to La Robla and beyond into the Cantabrian Mountains.