An Excerpt From: Estrellas: Moments of Illumination Along El Camino de Santiago
By Suzanne Maggio

An excerpt from: Estrellas: Moments of Illumination Along El Camino de Santiago

Despite evidence to the contrary, I do not think of myself as a particularly courageous soul. I am not content to bask in my accomplishments nor do I spend much time tooting my own horn. I wasn’t raised that way. I was taught to downplay my successes. To steer clear of vanity. I was raised to be humble. So, as I sit down to write this, I hope you’ll forgive me for saying something completely out of character, but I feel the need to tell you that 779 kilometers is a long way to walk - and I took every single step.

The bus pulled up to the curb in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. I stepped off, the hiss of the opening door still ringing in my ears and surveyed my surroundings. The old walled town, with white-washed buildings and red tile rooves, recalled a Cezanne painting. Tourists clambered across an old stone bridge. The waters of the Nive River glistened in the afternoon light and the streets were abuzz with people.

On any given day, hundreds of pilgrims carrying backpacks come to this place in the French Pyrenees. Strangers who have traveled from all around the world, from Hong Kong and Germany, Sweden and Australia, India and South Korea. They flood the streets, purchasing scallop shells and sampling their first pilgrim meal before bunking down for the night. In the morning, before the sun sits high in the sky, they will begin their journey. They have come to walk the Camino de Santiago.

I don’t remember the first time I heard about the Camino. Perhaps like me you’ve watched Emilio Estevez’ poignant film The Way, the story of a man who travels to this small town on the French border to retrieve the ashes of his son who died while crossing the Pyrenees mountains. The father decides to complete the journey his son began, to the sacred cathedral in Santiago where the bones of St. James the Apostle are believed to be buried.

There are several routes to Santiago, through Spain and Portugal. The route I walked, the 779-kilometer Camino Frances, is the longest. Fashioned in the 1980s by a priest, Father Elias Valiña from the Galician village of O Cebreiro, it is marked with directional indicators of blue and yellow shells. 

As I wandered along, it was difficult not to imagine the hundreds of thousands who had walked these same roads. In the air I breathed and the dust that stuck to my shoes. In the warm embrace of the sun or the cool kiss of an afternoon shower.  I would feel their presence rustling in the fields of wheat and hear their voices in the quiet stillness of a morning on the meseta.

The Camino is often walked as a spiritual quest. But not everyone who walks does so with religious intent. I’d been raised Catholic and certainly was no stranger to the notion of a pilgrimage, but like many of the people I met, spiritual transformation was far from my mind when I set off on my journey. 

I’d come for an adventure, one that would tax my physical capabilities and push me to explore my resolve. I’d set about preparing as one does for a trip. I bought supplies, made the necessary arrangements, and packed my bag. I visualized that first climb through the Pyrenees, the most difficult of the whole Camino. I imagined the sense of accomplishment, the triumph of those final steps into Santiago.

Walked in stages, the entire journey took a month or more to complete. Travelers, known as pilgrims, followed a series of shell markers and yellow arrows, crossing through cities and towns, over rocky mountain paths and through lush green vineyards, across sun baked fields and rain-soaked hills. While many walked the full route, others completed only a part of it.  Most made the journey on foot, but it was possible to cycle as well.

Many pilgrims carry their belongings in a pack on their back, mindful to take only what they will need.  Some send their bags from town to town, opting to walk without the extra weight. Each carry a small passport called a credencial and collect ink stamps from various places to mark their progress. Two stamps per day are required to collect your compostela, the Certificate of Completion, upon arrival in the town of Santiago.

The days are long. You rise early in the morning, sometimes before the sun, and walk until mid to late afternoon, stopping for breakfast and lunch along the way. Food along the Camino is plentiful. There are cafes and restaurants, small grocery stores and outdoor markets.  The meals are simple. Tortilla, a Spanish omelet of sorts made with egg, potato and onion, and bocadillos, ham and cheese sandwiches on crusty bread, are daily indulgences, as is café con leche (coffee with steamed milk), cerveza (beer) and vino (wine). In the evenings many albergues (simple shared lodgings) offer pilgrim meals served communal style for a few euro.

At night you fall into bed, equal parts exhausted and exhilarated, your feet throbbing. Sleeping accommodations are varied — traditional albergues; simple, dormitory style rooms with bunk beds and shared bathrooms, as well as hotels and hostals (simple, family-run accommodations) for those nights when the creature comforts of a private room, a comfortable bed and a relaxed, hot shower will do

Despite a myriad of advice and recommendations, there is no correct way to walk the Camino. Those who walk are fond of reciting the familiar refrain, “You walk your own Camino.” What that is, is left for you to determine. Discovery is part of the journey.

But, when I stepped off that bus and made my way into town, I could never have predicted the journey I was about to embark on. Now, as I look back, I realize that the questions I had were the easy ones, the ones whose answers could be found within the pages of a guidebook or traveler’s blog. What I did not know, was that harder questions awaited me. Questions I could not predict. Questions that could not be answered by others. Questions yet to reveal themselves to me.

The journey does not end in Santiago.  One must return home after their pilgrimage and it is often in the days, weeks, and months after that the questions emerge, when the feet heal, and the pack has been emptied. When the pictures are sorted, and the stories shared. It is in those moments that the journey comes back to you. When the sound of church bells or the smell of Scotch Broom leaves you with a sense of longing. And it is then that you begin to understand, a kind of understanding that cannot be had in the present moment. One that requires a looking back, as you begin to connect the dots and realize where you have been.

And then there are the people.

What does the word family mean to you? If you had asked me that question many years ago, my answer would have been simple. Family is the people I am related to by blood. That’s the way things were in the tight knit, Italian American family that I grew up in.

But the Camino would challenge that understanding. In the days and weeks that followed I would begin to build a different kind of family filled with people whose experiences, expectations and beliefs were different than mine. A family of choice rather than blood, and, like my own family, I would come to depend on them.

In all families there are exits and entrances. Individuals come and go. Sons and daughters get married and have children. People we love die. The same would be true on the Camino. Not everyone walks the full route. Some who intend to, cannot continue. While you may share the entire journey with several, you may see others only once. Over the course of my walk, I would say goodbye many times. I was not prepared for that. Goodbyes have always been hard for me. But there were also hellos. No sooner had I said goodbye to one, I would meet another. A new person. A different story. Another friend.

You will meet some of them in the pages that follow. In the days ahead we would laugh and cry, sing and dance and share an experience that would change us in ways we could not yet imagine. Although we came from all the corners of the world with histories we did not share, we would find connection on a journey that, like a family, would bind us together long after we returned home.

In its simplest form, the Camino is a walk, a journey from one point to another. But as is true with all journeys, it has the potential to be so much more. Buried inside the wrapping of the Camino is an invitation to pay attention to the things we so often take for granted. To walk is to slow down. In the deliberate pace, in the kilometers of quiet, there is an opportunity to settle deep into the experience. To be curious. To stand in wonder.

The opportunity to reflect is perhaps the greatest gift of the Camino. It is a journey that can lead you to a place that will stay with you long after you finish walking. But one does not need to travel far away from home to be able to journey inward. It can be done wherever we are.

Take the opportunity to explore the spaces around you. Notice the way the sunshine peeks through the leaves of the dogwood tree. Listen to the gentle whirr of the wings of the hummingbird. Smell the salt in the sea air. Use your senses. Pay attention to the things that we are often too busy to see. To hear. To smell. Let them take you inward. See where the path leads you.

Buen Camino.


Suzanne Maggio is the award-winning author of Estrellas: Moments of Illumination Along El Camino de Santiago, The Cardinal Club: A Daughter’s Journey to Acceptance and the host of the podcast, from Sparks to LIGHT. She tells stories about ordinary people who find deep and unexpected connections with others and within themselves.


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