Najera, northwestern Spain – Preparation for a lengthy pilgrimage walk is essential. After eight days of walking many pilgrims are arriving at the Municipal Albergue in Najera with badly blistered feet and hurting knees.
Most people, who walk the Camino Frances to Santiago de Compostela, start in the French town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. It takes the hiker up a steep climb of the Pyrenees mountains to the Spanish town of Roncesvalles. It is a good 24 kilometer or seven to nine-hour walk. Even for trained hikers, this is no mean feat.
However, if you are wearing new boots and carrying a backpack full of unnecessary clutter, your walk will soon become a chore. The Camino is not only a physical challenge but even more so an emotional challenge. Much of the first few days of walking can rekindle old stuff you thought you had dealt with years ago. It is then comforting to know that there will always be other pilgrims walking with you, going through much of the same process.
Three parts of the Camino
Some hikers describe the first stage of the Camino as the “path of crucifixion”, the second as the transition or the walk through the “valley of death” in the heat and dust of the Meseta between Burgos and Leon. Several guide books describe this section as boring and recommend that the hiker skip the section by taking a bus. Most people who have walked it, however, describe it as a crucial part of the Camino that they would want to have missed. A absolutely agree.
A path of rebirth
I would describe the first two sections as the mindful preparation for the last section-the “path of rebirth or resurrection”. It is when the pilgrim has moments of absolute euphoria, gratitude, and joy. It is the feeling of accomplishment after transmuting the old stuff into revived energy. The three parts of the Camino however, can be experienced in some form or other each day. Getting up early in the morning after a bad night’s sleep in a crowded Albergue is a challenge where the mood can be at rock bottom. This could all change an hour later when experiencing a beautiful sunrise on a mountain top with a bird of prey circling overhead.
Having walked the Camino more than a dozen times, I decided this year to give something back in serving as a volunteer in an Albergue or pilgrims’ hostel for two weeks. There are between 50-70 pilgrims arriving here each day. It is an enormous privilege to hear the stories of why and how they are doing the Camino. Some are doing the path the third, fourth or fifth time. Most are walking the Camino for the first time.
It is a joy to observe people from many different nationalities and cultural backgrounds bond in this shared experience of the Camino. They mostly don’t understand each other’s language. But the language of shared experience shared meals, and shared emotional ups-and-downs are universal.
Reino Gevers – Author, Mentor, and Consultant