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  • Tim Mathis

Running the Camino de Santiago, or A Poor Excuse for a Religious Pilgrim

Updated: May 7


Pyrenees, Running the Camino Frances

If you're interested in the Camino de Santiago, check out my book "The Camino for the Rest of Us." This is the story of my first pilgrimage.



Running the Camino de Santiago isn't the most obvious way to process when you're leaving behind religion, but it works.


St. Francis of Assisi, the Buddha, and Gandhi all went on religious pilgrimage, wandering hundreds of miles on foot in search of enlightenment. Then again, so did I. You don't have to get all sanctimonious about it.


The first time I remember hearing about the Camino de Santiago, I was in the process of trying to become an Episcopal priest. Someone at my church had just gotten back. It sounded exotic - a month-long walk through medieval Spain, on a trail that terminates at a cathedral housing an ancient saint’s bones. St. James. One of Jesus’ friends it’s said. It also sounded religious, clearly. She was religious. She did religious things along the way and gave PowerPoint presentations about the religious stuff to the religious people at church. 


This was early in my adult life - my mid-twenties. My wife Angel and I were still getting our feet under ourselves. We’d just moved to a new city - Seattle. She was in grad school. I’d finished a theology degree and had joined the Episcopal Church after leaving behind my evangelical upbringing. I couldn’t find a church job so I packed bottles into boxes in a warehouse, staring out through a bay door at a skeezy meth hotel every morning, through persistent Pacific Northwest drizzle. 


The church wasn’t a great fit. Actually, life wasn’t great in general. I forgot about the Camino in the blur of broken bottles and existential dread.


Seven years later, the Camino came up again when I was doing something that surely would have disappointed my childhood pastor - officiating a wedding for a couple of lesbian friends. After spending my 20’s trying to become a priest, Angel and I had left the church. I’d recently written a book announcing my loss of faith. (Histrionic, I know.) They’ll ordain you online these days though, so I could still marry my friends. (In your face, religious bureaucracy.) 


When we were planning for the ceremony, our friends mentioned that they were thinking about walking the Camino after the wedding. I don’t remember who suggested it. I’d like to think we weren’t the type of people who’d invite ourselves along on another couple’s honeymoon, but who knows? At some point Angel and I decided to join.


Our friends weren’t Catholic, or Christian of any sort actually. They just liked Europe. We ate pizza and watched the Martin Sheen film The Way together. It was a bit saccharine but it made the Camino seem approachable. I read up on it. There were a few of those online types who insisted that to be a true pilgrim you had to be a Christian. That isn’t the Church’s position, and most people on the Camino these days don’t go for religious reasons. The Spanish Catholics who ran the show didn’t sound intrusive. It seemed like it would be like visiting a cathedral. You can go in and look around but you don’t have to join the faith. It seemed like the Camino would be fine.



We had a year to plan, and it turned into a whole thing. We were originally going to walk, tagging along with our friends like a normal person would. But when you leave the church as a minister it creates all sorts of neuroses. Running through the woods is an efficient way to cope with them, so we’d been doing that a lot. The winter before our trip, we signed up for a 100 mile ultramarathon scheduled for a month after our Camino. We were meant to be at the peak of our training during the time we’d be on trail. 


We decided that we could use the Camino to get fit for the 100 if we ran it instead of walking. It was a win-win, but it would require us to become questionable friends and only spend the first few days with the couple who’d come up with the idea. In life you try to balance your priorities and regulate your emotions and pursue your goals and sometimes you come out feeling low grade shitty, or at least rude. I don’t know. I don’t know what the etiquette is for going on someone else’s honeymoon, and how much space you should give them. It seemed like they were okay with it. It doesn’t matter now, that’s what we did.



The Way starts in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a small French town hugging the border with Spain on the edge of the Pyrenees. It feels like old Europe there. A compact little town nestled along the River Nive at the base of the mountains, it’s all narrow alleys, and rows of stucco and stone houses. We didn’t see livestock in the street, but they wouldn’t have been out of place. When we arrived it was drizzling. There was smoke rising from chimneys even with summer well-underway. 


We waited in line with a crowd of others to pick up our pilgrim credentials from an office that felt like a church basement, volunteers sitting behind flimsy desks under fluorescent lights. On the Camino you carry this paper folder and collect stamps along the way to prove that you’ve completed the journey when you get to Santiago. You can get them lots of places, but if you pick it up in St. Jean, the guy behind the table asks you if you’re walking with spiritual motives. I’m not sure what that means anymore, so I just said yes.


The Pilgrim office didn’t have much atmosphere, but our hostel did - a dark old albergue with rough stone walls, wooden bunks, and scratchy wool blankets. In the damp chill it felt medieval, like it should. In my memory our room was lit by candlelight, but I’m sure that isn’t right. We checked in before going out for our only French dinner of the trip, then met our friends who arrived shortly after. I couldn’t sleep because jetlag on the flight to Europe is always the worst, and because contemplating the Camino is exciting.


On trail the first morning, the international crowd didn’t feel like ascetic religious types. We headed out of St. Jean with a herd of retirees in zip-off pants and rain ponchos. A few backpackers with man buns and harem pants were scattered in. We were the only ones in short shorts and tiny running packs, but the crowd was diverse enough that it was hard to feel like you stood out. 


The first day on the Camino Frances is meant to be the hardest of them all, and you go up and over Roncevaux Pass through a majestic, rolling section of the Pyrenees. We started in fog but it burned off as we ascended through the morning. When we reached the pass after a few hours it was picturesque. Blue skies, with a few remaining clouds hugging deep green hills, dotted with sheep and cattle. There’s this famous statue of the Virgin Mary on the way up, a blessing for pilgrims commencing their journey. Emilio Estevez’s character in The Way gets lost in a storm and dies nearby. That makes pilgrims nervous these days, but it was June. In summer there’s really nothing to get worked up about.


The Camino is full of these kinds of places, where you know it’s supposed to be a liminal place where magical things happen. You go in expecting that, so you experience it that way - like you’re participating in an ancient myth. At Roncevaux Pass it’s easy, because there’s so much history. Along with 1200 years worth of pilgrims, the pass featured prominently in The Song of Roland, one of Europe’s oldest pieces of literature. In the epic poem, Roland was one of Charlemagne’s bravest warriors. In a lot of local Basque legend, he’s transformed into something like an abusive ogre. Pardon my French, but there’s still a strong sense of “joan zaitez” here. If Google translate is to be trusted, that’s Basque for “fuck off.” Basque country is independent culturally if not politically.  


The point is, you don’t just feel like you’re visiting Spain. You feel yourself becoming a part of the story, another soul passing through the portal into Camino legend.


—-


The first night we stayed in a giant albergue at Roncesvalles - not so much a town as a pilgrim refuge. There are 250 bunks, a chapel, and a few places to get some food. There’s been a hostel here since the 12th century. It’s the first of many places along the Camino that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the pilgrims. 


The old building was recently remodeled. There was new tan carpet. The check-in desk felt almost like a hotel, and there were dozens of people milling in the shared spaces. Angel and I sat down with our friends at this glass table. Another group of pilgrims inserted themselves into our conversation. 


“Hey you guys! Are you Americans too? We’re from Florida! Why are you walking? Are you religious? We’re not religious!” 


Everyone’s anxious to figure out their place in this strange new world that we’ve all just wandered into. Still, why are Americans like this? 


We went to sleep that night in bunks all shoved together - 250 of us packed in to a big warehouse space. There were smelly pilgrims. Really smelly. It’s hard to understand how body odor could’ve gotten this bad in one day. You realize straight away that you’re going to have to strategize to avoid the stink and the snoring.


At a cafe on our way into Pamplona, we ordered the fresh squeezed orange juice and the cafe con leche that you can get everywhere, and sat down outside on a square. The tables were full, and this priest came up and asked to sit down. There are all sorts of pastors, monks, and ministers on the Camino. Most are fine, but you can tell that you’re in for it when they’re walking in their black shirts and collars. There’s no reason to do that in the hot sun unless you’re desperate for people to know that you’re a priest. It turns out he was an Episcopalian - from Louisiana I think, or one of those other Southern states. 


I told him I’d been an Episcopalian too, but I was lapsed. It’s hard to be a lapsed Episcopalian, because they don’t hold you to much of a standard. Anyway though, I didn’t want to talk about it. Angel and I tried to steer the conversation away from religion, but the priest kept going probing us about whether we had spiritual reasons for walking.


In retrospect I don’t think he knew any other way of relating, and I’m sure he found his people quickly enough on the Camino. He just represented a lot of baggage to me. We didn’t pursue the relationship.


Instead, we discovered the clear advantage of running the Camino. We said our goodbyes, and ran away from the conversation. It was thrilling, even if just for the symbolism of it all. I was an apostate on this ostensibly religious walk, literally running away from religion. 


If you think I’m being disrespectful, it also felt appropriate. They’re around, and they could be loud, but the sanctimonious priests and the keen proselytizers were the ones out of place on the Camino. We weren’t the only ones grumbling about the people insisting others listen to their spiritual opinions. People go looking for things on the Camino, but they aren’t looking to be converted or told that they’re doing it wrong. The official stance of the Catholic Church is that the Camino is meant to be a place where non-religious people are welcomed and the devout provide a witness through hospitality. But it’s not a place for spiritual pressure. The Way can speak for itself.


We said goodbye to our friends shortly after Pamplona, and pushed ahead while they enjoyed their honeymoon.



What do you do when you run the Camino? 


If you’re like us, you try not to overdo it because you have to keep this up for a month. You stop for coffee and these delicious salty, crunchy sandwiches called bocadillos. You stop at cafes when you’re hot and you drink a Coke or some orange juice. You take pictures of landscapes and cows and little stone villages. 


Running across a country sounds tough. You’d think it would be exhausting. The secret though is that it mostly wasn’t. We ran what we could and we walked what we couldn’t. It was like being a child in summer again - playing outside, doing what you want, only coming in for snacktime and sleep.


Suffering Jesus during our experience running the Camino de Santiago


We would regularly stop in to the ancient churches that line the way. Prior to this trip, I’m not sure that I’d been in a church in three years. Maybe once or twice? 


It wasn’t like home though in the States. The churches were ancient, and felt like a nice refuge. The weather warmed rapidly after the Pyrenees but the churches were cool in the heat. They were dark wood and gray stone and shiny brass. Each had its own sculpted image of Jesus crucified on the cross, in various stages of agony. Most had icons or statues or stained glass renderings of St. James. Sometimes St. James was portrayed as Matamoros  - St. James the Moor Killer. He’s Spain’s patron saint, and for a time he was often presented as a warrior leading the charge against Muslim invaders. There were times when it was just us and the bloody Jesuses and the warrior St. Jameses so you’d be there in total silence. It’s a strange emotion, being alone in a big ornate room with poor tortured Jesus and raging St. James. 


I’d spent 30 years being told weekly that these sorts of crucifixion images portrayed the most important event in history, and telling others the same. I believed it for most of that time, but when you leave church and stop that regular reinforcement those ideas slip away. It just feels shocking, the violence. The religious might say that this is why regular church attendance is important, so you don’t lose faith in the transformative importance of Christ’s suffering. I don’t think that says good things about the belief system. When you lose social pressure to believe, the ideas fade away and you’re just left with uneasy feelings. 


I had a Masters degree in this stuff. More importantly I had felt it in my heart for years. But here it was foreign. It was Spanish and Catholic. It was also disconnected from who I was now. I was part of this but I didn’t have to feign uncritical acceptance anymore. I didn’t have to justify or apologize for it. 


Anyway, on the Camino, this is the history that you enter into. It feels uncomfortable, but every story has its problems - any stream of human history you choose to identify with. 


The more entertaining part of the religious culture in Spain are the festivals. San Fermin in Pamplona is the most famous (thanks Hemingway). It commemorates a saint who was martyred by being drug behind a bull. Every town has a festival though, and along the Camino you come up on bonfires and fireworks and marching bands celebrating somebody’s ancient miracles or violent death. The stories are there, but my impression is that it’s the parties that matter. Most people are only vaguely aware of the myths. That’s mostly what religion is like in Europe these days, right?


We passed through Pamplona before San Fermin so we didn’t go ourselves, but during the festival they’d broadcast updates from the running of the bulls on the televisions in the cafes. It was all scenes of terrified crowds being voluntarily trampled and gored. During basketball games on ESPN they have those little headline tickers at the bottom of the screen with running scores. Here, the tickers kept tally of how many people had been maimed that day and how. 


The first time we attended a formal service, we went to this ancient little chapel with weathered plaster and faded icons on the walls. There were monks chanting. Honestly, I don’t remember where it was along the trail, or if they were even monks. Maybe it was just a men’s choir in robes? In any case, it was evening prayer so it was nothing scary. Just singing in Latin. There was no sermon and it was only 30 minutes. Catholics keep to a schedule, unlike the evangelicals and the pentecostals I was raised with. Those guys keep going until they break you down, and convince you to confess that you’re a sinner and repent. You end up in tears. Otherwise they’ll never shut up with their tongues and their shouting. 


I didn’t understand anything the monks were saying. I could feel whatever I wanted then, and can remember it however I want to now. It was voices echoing off walls, blessing a room full of pilgrims as we prepared to go to sleep for the night. The timelessness of all of this. It was what had shaped me. That I could be here, and be at peace, and not feel connected to it. Or feel connected to it but not oppressed by it. Not controlled by it. This is a thousand years old, this tradition. But it’s also boring. It’s just a couple of guys who, lets be honest, are probably kind of weird, shouting in tune in an old room. But that is magic somehow. Weird guys have been doing boring chants here for a thousand years. People like me have been wondering if it actually means anything for a thousand years. 


I had to wipe a few tears away, but I don’t know if it’s because I was connecting with God. It there is a God, I do think that this is what they’re like. I think you find them in those moments where you can’t fully conceptualize what’s going on, but you feel the connection to things bigger than yourself. If there is a God, they stay so hidden as to be invisible. So invisible that you wouldn’t know for sure that they exist, even if you might suspect it sometimes in moments of transcendence like when those weird guys are chanting. 


Mostly, this is what God is like on the Camino. I’d been right that you could ignore the religious part. Not that you could ignore it actually, but that it wouldn’t be forced on you. You could take it at your own pace. We didn’t have to go into churches, and we didn’t have to listen to guys chanting. We could’ve run with the bulls if we wanted, but we didn’t.


Still, there is an unavoidable ritual to the Camino, which some people might think of as religious. You get up in the morning, eat, run, eat, run, walk, eat, stop, shower, eat, drink, chat, sleep. You pass through woods and towns and across fields and over dozens and dozens of stone bridges on streams and rivers. Religion and history provide you with a stream of aesthetic experiences and stories. 


There are stone crosses everywhere but the only symbols you can’t tune out are the scallop shells and the bright yellow arrows. Those mark the trail and reassure you you’re on track, every few hundred meters the entire way. 


The arrows aren’t spiritual symbols. They’re a pragmatic tool, which were first painted along the way by an intrepid priest in the 1980s. Nowadays they’re kept up by spirited locals. 


The shells might be a pre-Christian symbol, but it’s not clear. There are these old stories about saints being raised from the sea after shipwrecks covered in scallop shells. Those stories seem like they must be syncretistic Christian myths blended with pagan legends. I don’t have any proof of that. The first documented association between scallop shells and the Camino was during the Middle Ages. During that time the shells had a few practical uses for pilgrims. You could use them for scooping drinking water. You could show them to your friends back home to prove that you’d made it to Santiago and had your sins forgiven. You could hang them around your neck to identify yourself as a pilgrim to the god-fearing bandits who’d be spooked by that sort of thing. 


Now people buy them at souvenir shops and hang them on their bags the way emo kids used to hang little stuffed animals. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


After a few weeks, we attended a pilgrim mass in a grand old church. I was uncomfortable walking in. but it seemed like a part of the experience. I was an observer, or the type of participant I’d be if I were in one of those ornate Taoist temples in China, with all of the gold dragons. All pilgrims are welcome at the mass, but I didn’t go up for communion. That’s the symbol of church membership. They don’t screen you and the priest isn’t going to tell you no, but it wasn’t just about them. Staying seated during the eucharist meant something to me. 



Along the way you pass through different regions and different climates. You’re chilly at times in the Pyrenees, but it’s vibrant, with its green hills and farms and dozens of quaint little villages. Then your skin dries out and you start to chafe as the path levels in the Meseta - Spain’s central plains. It can feel like a desert at times there with the hot sun and the sparse villages. 


You spend days walking through major cities along the way in Pamplona, Burgos and Leon. You end the trail amidst farms and soggy green hills in Galicia. There are historic Celtic cultural connections there, and it feels like it, unexpectedly enough.


We ran, but we didn’t pass through these experiences any faster than if we’d been walking. We did the same stages that the walkers follow. We just spent less time moving every day because we were going at twice the pace. 


This sort of running is a life hack on the Camino because you can be the last to leave the albergue, stop a lot, and still avoid moving during the heat of the day. It was cool in the morning, and by the time it got hot, we’d be drinking cheap beer and socializing at our destination. 


I’d worried that running would be isolating. In fact it was a good way to meet people. You pass everyone because you’re moving faster. If you like them you can slow down and chat. You stand out so people remember you and talk about you and have a place to begin a conversation. You get to town early and post up at a bar. Beer’s cheap so you can shout friends a round for a euro after they arrive, or they can shout you one. It wasn’t intentional but running created community for us. 


You meet people, and most of them aren’t religious. For Spaniards the Camino is a cultural rite of passage. For young Americans and Koreans and Argentinians, it’s a grand adventure. For Europeans it’s a cheap means of exploration. For retirees it’s a marker of a transition into a new life.


The friends we made were international. There were a couple of Hungarian guys who were on a big holiday. One had lived in Ohio for a time, working for a pet food company. The other didn’t speak any English or Spanish - only Hungarian. We walked with him for a week and never communicated verbally. (These days Google translate would change that dynamic.) There was a teacher from Michigan, out on the biggest adventure of his life and hoping to get back some of the fitness of his youth. There was a young Italian guy. He’d been a professional footballer but had sustained a career ending injury. He’d also just broken up with his girlfriend and was trying to sort out what to do now. There was this 20-year-old Austrian kid with blond hair and an infectious smile. He was walking the Camino hoping that afterwards he’d go travel the world. There was a mom from California, walking incredibly slowly and hoping to bond with her longsuffering teenage son before he went off to college. She’d take six hours longer than us to cover the same distances and always seemed to be in pain. I’ve never met a teenager with more patience than her son. 


We met this woman from New York. In the Meseta, she slept in a sketchy albergue and woke up covered in bedbug bites. She had a severe reaction and developed painful nickel-sized boils on her cheeks and neck. She walked with her face covered in cloth to protect from the sun, looking like a medieval leper. It added to the atmosphere.


On our way into Burgos, we got inspired and ran 50 km straight into the city. Feeling both exhausted and proud of ourselves, we struck up conversation with a smiling Norwegian man who told us he was 77. He was walking to commemorate the 10 year anniversary of his son’s passing, and told us, in bright spirits, that he’d walked 45 kilometers that day. 


On the way into Galicia we ran this legendary and poorly marked alternate called the Dragonte Route, which passes through some proper mountain terrain. It was our hardest, most beautiful day. We were finishing it off with an ascent to O Cebreiro, a traditional old town that marked the gateway into the mountains in Galicia. We stopped in a cafe a few kilometers before our hostel, and this Scottish guy trotted up, one of only two other runners we’d met on the way. He told us he hadn’t been a runner before he started, but was on Camino to see what he was capable of. We drank seven beers together and shared adventure stories before he bounded up the hill and carried on past town. He messaged us later and told us he’d run 70 more kilometers the evening after we split, fuelled by Estrella Galicia.


On the Camino, there are these old stories about pilgrims encountering supernatural figures - saints, angels, and devils. We were Facebook friends, so I’m pretty sure this guy existed, but years later he’s become mythical in my mind - a Celtic angel we entertained on the doorsteps of Galicia, inspiring us to keep pushing ahead.


You meet all of these people and they’re maybe not religious but they’re all out looking for something. It’s the spiritual thing about the Camino. A lot of people start with intentions, so even if you don’t, you begin to process things that matter.



After three and a half weeks of this - running, eating, sleeping, socializing, and absorbing Camino myths - we were just a few days from Santiago. 


I’d felt for some time that running had replaced religion for me. As soon as we left the Church, Angel and I took up running. It gave us routine and a sense of transcendence from time to time, and it provided us with an avenue to build a new group of friends. 


Along the Camino the metaphor was obvious. I was running through this religious pilgrimage en route to a new life. I was transitioning out of one stage and entering into another.


That kind of thinking puts a lot of pressure on running. When I was young I thought religion was my salvation. If running was going to replace that, it had big shoes to fill.


Along the Camino, a lot of days it felt like it was working. The endorphins and endocannabinoids and whatever other chemicals that vigorous exercise produces pulled my spirit right up into the sky. It made my feel like I was being absorbed into an eternity of pilgrimage history and legend.


So I was sad, and maybe I overreacted a bit, when I pulled a quadricep just outside of Melide. 


Melide is this little town that’s known for its pulpo, which is what the Spaniards call octopus. My injury came on slowly - there was nothing traumatic. Maybe there was a little pull, and a stabbing sort of pain just gradually developed in the muscly part of my upper left leg. I slowed to a walk and I started to limp.


“GODDAMMIT!” 


(Like a lot of ex-evangelicals, I cursed a lot in those early days. It’s a way of saying “I’m not like that anymore. I’m free now.”)


Angel asked me what I was shouting about. It really was a bit much. It didn’t even hurt when I walked. 


We got into town and Angel suggested we stop for the evening. I insisted dramatically that I didn’t want to stop, because I wanted to make it to Santiago the next day. 


Angel laughed. “Why do we need to get to Santiago tomorrow?! It’s 30 miles away and we’re days ahead of schedule.” 


“I want to do it. I want to do a marathon tomorrow to finish this off.” 


“We’re not doing that. You’re hurt. We’re going to eat some food and rest, and see how you feel when we get up tomorrow.”


I don’t even like seafood, but we went to this place called Pulperia Eziquiel. They had these purple, football-sized octopus boiling in big silver vats. They’d chop them up with giant scissors and sprinkle them with paprika and a bit of olive oil. We asked for a small order and they brought out an overflowing plate, more meat than any two people should consume in one sitting. 


The restaurant was packed. I sat in the booth trying not to cry. Angel told me to get it together. Nothing makes me want to be dramatic like someone telling me not to. I sipped red wine and choked down as much pulpo as I could, stabbing at hunks of tentacle with a toothpick. 


The thing is, it wasn’t just about the injury.


The other thing is, you don’t need to replace religion. You can just let running be what it is, and take a break if you hurt your leg. 


After a month of running, for the next two days we walked the rest of the way to Santiago de Compostela.



There are a few things that everyone does when they get to Santiago. 


You go to the Pilgrim Office and you pick up your Compostela - a certificate that officially states that you’ve finished the Camino.


You wait in line at the Cathedral so you can walk past the silver ossuary that contains the Saint’s purported bones, and then you hug a statue of St. James that sits behind the altar. 


And you go to a Pilgrim Mass, where people from around the world pray together in the Cathedral. If you’re lucky they swing the botafumeiro - this 300 pound incense burner that hangs on a rope from the ceiling and was supposedly developed to de-stink the cathedral due to all of the smelly pilgrims.


There was only a short line at the Pilgrim Office. It felt strangely governmental. Not quite the DMV, but also not the guru-in-the-cave-on-the-mountaintop experience you’d imagine. They do write your name on the certificate in Latin in this funny way. Timotheum Mathius or something like that.


When I hugged the Saint, it felt okay. He was big and old and covered in jewels and you hug him from behind. It didn’t feel like hugging a real saint. It felt like embracing the Camino and saying thanks for the experience and all of the history and the good stories. It didn’t bother me that those weren’t his bones. It felt like everyone reasonable knew this and the “wink wink nudge nudge” of it all wasn’t really hurting anyone. 


We went to the Pilgrim Mass and didn’t understand a word. You’re sitting there, surrounded by all of this gold in a cathedral that’s been there for a thousand years while the priest says things in Spanish. They’re singing and ringing bells and you’re standing and sitting following the crowd. There were these weird golden angels holding up the altar above us, each as tall as I am. They were realistic but gave off lifeless vibes, like mannequins in department store windows. I wondered how long they’d been there. I wondered how many people have thought that they look weird through the centuries. Were they normal when they were installed, or awe-inspiring even? These days mannequins are a dime a dozen but what about 400 years ago? I thought about the cost and manipulation and false belief behind all of this. But I also thought about the faith. This cathedral was created by people banding together for centuries to build something beautiful. People have believed in this experience, and invested in it. And it’s worked. Millions have been transformed on the Camino, and here in this cathedral. Religion drives that. But those still aren’t actually St. James’ bones. 


I don’t remember them swinging the botafumeiro at the end of the service, but Angel insists that they did. I can imagine the wafting smoke and the smell of the incense filling the cathedral. It’s frankincense, like the wise men delivered to the baby Jesus in the Bible.


After three years away from religion, church didn’t trigger the same sorts of emotions that it did when I was quitting. It didn’t have the power to make me cringe anymore, or to make me angry. It didn’t have the power to make me feel guilty or embarrassed, or like those guys in the robes are anything special.  


And thankfully, my history with religion didn’t have the power to ruin this for me. To make me feel like it wasn’t important just because it was painted with a spiritual veneer that I could see through now in a way I couldn’t before. 


I’d made it through a religious pilgrimage, and I liked it.



The other thing that everyone does in Santiago isn’t a formal ritual, but it just happens. You sit in the Cathedral square - the Praza de Obradoiro - and you watch other pilgrims come in. You sit there for hours, laying on the bricks in the shade, under the grand cathedral and the venerable old ecclesiastical structures. Maybe you tear up, because you see people from all over the world accomplishing their dreams. A lot of them are achieving something that they didn’t know was possible. All of them are concluding an experience that they’ll remember forever. 


Lots of people come in crying or laughing. Probably a lot of locals get annoyed with the crowds. If you can fight back the cynicism it also has to be moving, even if you live here. These aren’t just tourists, right, they’re pilgrims? 


—-


There are a few things you’re supposed to do on a pilgrimage. You’re supposed to set your intentions and choose your destination. You’re supposed to do the hard bits, the journey itself. You’re supposed to say your prayers and leave your offerings. At the end though, the last thing you’re supposed to do is to go back home. You have to exit the portal, and take the things you learned back to your normal life. 


After the Camino, a lot of people start that process by going on another, shorter trip - the walk from Santiago to the Atlantic of the Camino FInisterre. It makes sense. On this 55 mile mini-pilgrimage, you walk away from Santiago towards the coast and I suppose more natural, less spiritually significant places. They’re definitely less Christian places. Finisterre was long believed to be the westernmost point in Europe, and therefore the end of the earth. It was a pre-Christian sacred site, where Celts performed their rites and worshiped the sun. People still do that, sort of. The tradition now is to finish your journey by watching the sunset over the ocean at the lighthouse there.



Sunset at Finisterre, after running the Camino de Santiago


Throughout our trip, Angel and I had a plan to take a few days’ rest in Santiago and then attempt to run the Camino Finisterre in a day. It would be a challenge, and a key piece of training before our 100 miler. It would also do the same thing it does for everyone. It’d signal the end of our journey and facilitate our transition to our new life after the pilgrimage.


By the morning of our planned departure, my leg had been pain-free for a day. The trail passes through rolling terrain, but there isn't a terrible amount of elevation change. I figured that if I could run half of it, we could still finish within 12 - 13 hours.  


We started at 5:30 am from our hostel next to the cathedral, optimistic. For the first part of the day, we had no problems. It was dark, and we were moving at a comfortable pace. By 8 am we'd made it out of Santiago and into the countryside. We’d covered a half-marathon, and arrived in Negreira, the first town with an open cafe. 


The good feelings didn’t last long. I had a chocolate croissant and some coffee. I stood up, and I felt the quad pull again. 


My stomach dropped, I cursed under my breath, and I cycled through the stages of grief. We paid our bill, and by the time we made it back to the trail, I was limping and couldn't bend my leg without pain. After a couple of minutes I told Angel. 


We'd discussed our plan in Santiago, and had agreed that if I couldn't run, she would go on ahead. I could either move at my own pace or take a night in an albergue to let things heal. 


When I told her I couldn't continue running, she said she would stay with me for a few hours to see how things went, so we hiked for 5 miles, mostly in silence.


Eventually, she turned to me, kissed me, and asked "So, what's the plan?"  


I saw her lip quiver. She started to cry, and so did I. We hiked on together another mile, mostly silent.  


Once we'd composed ourselves I told her that I thought I would be able to finish the day walking. I told her that if she wanted to carry on running, I'd keep moving as quickly as I could, and either stop at a hostel if I needed to, or meet her at the room we'd booked in Finisterre that night.


She said that if I really thought that I would make it, she'd stay with me.  


With that, the idea of walking 35 more miles became irrationally important. Almost religiously so. It was like how those guys drag wooden crosses through town on Easter weekend. It was my burden to bear in service of this pilgrimage. 


The pain was manageable when I was walking, so for a big portion of the day our spirits were high enough.  We'd turned a minor injury into a shared struggle. Angel paced ahead, and I tried to stay positive and remind her how much it meant that she'd decided to finish this together. We’re all we have, each other.


By 2 o'clock, we were on the longest dry section of the trail  - 8 miles through a rocky, shade-free canyon. Temperatures were hovering near 90 degrees. I’d run out of water. Angel was pushing ahead, or I was lagging behind. We passed over a creek and I contemplated filling my bottle. You can’t do that when there are farms all around, can you? I remember there was this one tree providing a bit of shade. I just wanted to stay there. 


I don’t know what heatstroke feels like, but by the time we reached an albergue at the exit of the canyon, my feet were swollen and blistering. I was lightheaded. I couldn’t cool myself down. I had a strange rash on my legs. I was nauseous. It was 8 more miles to the next albergue. I had quietly decided that I couldn't safely continue. 


The worst part of the heat had passed though. The afternoon was shifting into evening, and the sun was getting lower in the sky. Angel went to the bar to buy drinks. I found a garden hose that I used to soak myself to get my body temperature down. I was showering in a cafe courtyard but you do what you have to. I drank a Coke and two cans of this Spanish sports drink called Aquarius


While I was contemplating death, staring vacantly into the void, this older American pilgrim approached me. I knew he was American because of the t-shirt that said “Texas Bible College,” the zip off pants, and the sunhat. 


"Hey! What part of Brooklyn are you from?! My kids live in Brooklyn! What do you guys do there?! I'm a Bible professor! How's the walk going?! You want to walk this next section together?! I’m not sure if you can keep up with me! I'm really moving fast today but I’d love some company!"  


We weren’t from Brooklyn. We were from Seattle. I don’t know why he insisted that we were from Brooklyn.


Angel looked at me and gestured to get going.


I thought, “Screw it.”


The professor went to the bar, and we rushed away, moving as quickly as we could to establish a lead. We started to pick up our pace after the slow slog through the canyon. We crested a hill and moved along a busy highway as the air began to feel slightly cooler - comfortable almost in clothes that were still soaked from the garden hose. 


The Bible professor wasn't lying - he really was a fast walker. After a few kilometers he was just a few hundred hundred meters behind, and gaining on us. There was one more shop before we set out on another hot, exposed section with no water sources. We were at the turnoff. 


In the distance behind us, the professor shouted something that we couldn't quite make out: "Hey Brooklyn!! Hmmphmph hmohphre wait up?!!”  


It was a risk, but it was also clear what we needed to do. We skipped the shop. I swear I could hear the theme from Halloween playing in the distance as we waved the professor off and started pushing through an uphill as quickly as we could. At the top, I realized that for the first time in hours that the pain was manageable enough to jog.


We could hear him shouting behind, “Hey Brooklyn! Shop’s here! Wrong way!”


I didn't run for long, but we did make it far enough to distance ourselves from the Texas Bible professor and everything he represented. 


It was a Camino miracle. 


We hobbled in to our hotel in Finisterre at 9 pm.  


We were meant to have a pat finish that night, watching the sunset over the ocean. That’s not what happened. We’d covered more than 50 miles and it was a few more to the lighthouse. We found the closest restaurant, ate burgers, and went back to the hotel to collapse into bed. We spent most of the next  24 hours laying in our room, watching the only English channel on television. It aired a continuous stream of episodes of an educational show called “How It’s Made.” 


That second night, we did walk to the lighthouse for sunset, for a traditional end to our Camino, looking out over the Atlantic. It’s a place that was sacred for centuries prior to the Christianization of Europe. It’s not the real finis terre, but it is true. There is something about it. It does feel like the end of the world, or the beginning.


I don’t know when the professor made it to Finisterre, because the next morning we bussed back to spend one last night in Santiago. 


By then most of the people that we’d met along the way had made it to the finish. Our friends from the States were still a few days out, but the Hungarians and the Italian footballer and the Austrian kid and the bedbug-bite leper and the Michigan teacher were all in Santiago. We saw the slow-walking mom and her teenage son, both of whom seemed equally relieved to be finished. A bunch of us went out to celebrate, bouncing between a series of bars packed with recently arrived pilgrims. I had too much to drink. Worse, I mixed beer, wine, and liquor. 


We went back to our hotel, and I spent my last night on pilgrimage crouched over a Spanish toilet, vomiting. That’s probably not how St. Francis or Buddha or Gandhi would’ve done it, but then again I’m not them. Plus, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. The bars were overflowing in Santiago. And anyway, it’s nothing to deny or lie about or even mythologize. We went back home. We finished our 100 a month later. I’ve only been to church a few times since that trip. It’s what real pilgrimage is like.


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