Just a few days from now, my oldest and my youngest daughters and I will leave for Spain. We are going for a little walk, I like to say, just a little walk. If you don’t hear from us, we’re fine. If you don’t see us on Facebook or Twitter or any of my other Internet haunts, we’re good. As much as I hate the phrase “going off the grid,” that’s exactly what we are doing. We will be walking the last 202 miles of a 500 mile pilgrimage to to visit the tomb of James, one of the Twelve Apostles.
More than a thousand years ago, pilgrims started walking across Northern Spain along what started as a simple footpath that would take them to the ends of the earth in the far northwest corner of Galicia. Much of that footpath remains and it stretches from the Pyrenees onward for 800 kilometers until you reach the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and the tomb of the Apostle James. James took Jesus’ words quite literally and he preached to the ends of the earth. After his death, his remains, according to the stories, miraculously found their way back to Spain where they were interred. How it became appropriate to walk there, I am not sure. How it became appropriate for me to walk there, I know quite well.
I studied the history of Romanesque sculpture in the many churches and monasteries along the road when I was in college. I was fascinated with the idea of itinerant artisans, making their living by traveling from one building site to the next as pilgrims became a chief support of the local economy in the 11th and 12th centuries. While I was in school, it never occurred to me that modern people would take this walk seriously, but they do, and since the road was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, many more thousands of pilgrims have made the trip. You are told, if you make your Confession within two weeks either before or after the completion of the trek, your sins will be forgiven.
This will be my third trip along the road, the Camino. I am looking forward to spending time away from the 39 E-mails that are waiting for me every day when I come into my office. I long for the solitude of walking through forests and farms. I miss the fresh scent of the Spanish countryside and don’t get me started about the ham or the wines. I wonder what this trip must have been like before down and Heat Tech clothing and modern hiking boots. I can’t even imagine walking without GPS or maps. But until very recently, devout people from all over the world took this trek with little more than the clothes on their backs, asking for refuge in tiny villages and towns along the way.
In some way, I am running away from the stress of holidays here in New York; the constant “Merry” “Happy” “Most Wonderful Time of the Year” greetings you hear every day now. I don’t think that’s lovely, I think that creates stress, stress to be happier than you are, stress to get bigger presents, stress to see too much, do too much, and certainly to eat too much.
How delightfully opposite my Christmas will be this year. I’ll have my water bottle, a couple of credit cards, a change of clothes, and my Pilgrim’s Passport which will be stamped everywhere we stop along the way. And the reward for over two weeks walking? We will each receive a certificate that says that we did it and we will be able to offer prayers for the people we love at the tomb of the Apostle.
The last time I did this walk, I completed the last 110 kilometers. When I got to the Cathedral, I met a wonderful woman who had walked the entire route who said to me, “Isn’t this great? We are all clean now.” I like that. I look forward to being all clean.