Melissa's Travels

Walking the Camino: The Way of the Traveler

Indagare founder Melissa Biggs Bradley shares her insights and inspiration discovered while walking the ancient Camino de Santiago trail on a recent Indagare Insider Journey.

In the midst of our walking the Camino de Santiago, my friend, the author Elizabeth Lesser, declared “I feel like I could walk forever. I feel like I am walking with my heart. Not my feet.” I knew what she meant because even though we were walking 10 to 20 miles a day, I was feeling the same. Like I was floating along the trail, part of the spring breeze—like we were woven into the fabric of nature and of the universe, and of all the peregrinos who had come before us.

Related: Melissa’s Camino de Santiago Learnings

Walking the Camino has become a holy grail of travel, a mythic goal, a pilgrim’s journey on which one is primed for epiphanies—and a trip fraught with expectations. It literally follows the trail of the bones of Saint James (one of the 12 apostles), and it comes with its own passport, a Credencial del Peregrino booklet to collect stamps at churches, bars, hotels, police checkpoints and other spots; my favorite was from a bagpipe player with a white beard and Birkenstocks, selling scallop shells in the woods.

Just before Elizabeth and I and a handful of guests set off for our first Indagare Camino Insider Journey this spring, I interviewed the actor (Pretty in Pink and St. Elmo’s Fire) and travel writer Andrew McCarthy for my Sirius XM podcast Passport to Everywhere. His newest book, Walking with Sam: A Father, A Son and 500 Miles Across Spain, is about traveling the Camino with his 19-year-old son, Sam. They walked the full 500-plus miles from St. Jean Pied-du-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and they carried their belongings on their backs the whole way.

They walked for five weeks, and while we both loved the experience, his Camino was not mine, I readily confess. In his book, Andrew infers that those who walk only a portion of the trail or ride in a car to a hotel at the end of the day are “Camino cheaters.” Andrew’s walk with his son was not his first Camino. He had walked it alone (even purer) years before, and then, instead of sharing hotel rooms with his son, he slept in communal quarters in pilgrims’ hostels. I didn’t have five weeks, nor did I want to risk bed bugs in a bunk room, and thankfully, for my first Camino, I traveled with Elizabeth and a group of open-minded Camino virgins.

On our first day, we shared anxieties and stories of the Camino-shaming we had endured by trail purists. Fortunately, our guide, a Spanish woman who was so knowing and thoughtful that we nicknamed her the Sage of Santiago, told us, “There’s no one Camino.” The scallop shell, which marks the Camino trail, is said to signify the many paths that lead to Santiago as well as to commemorate the shells that early pilgrims carried to ask for small scoops of water or food. (It has also long been a symbol of a pilgrim’s path to heaven.) “It isn’t about how many kilometers you walk, but how you walk the kilometers,” she said. “Are you present and awake? Are you taking it all in and letting the Camino work on you rather than you work on it? Do your own Camino.”

She also advised that we spend time walking alone. After gathering in Tui, the first of four towns in Spain’s Galicia region, where we would stay, we took our first steps together, heading into town for dinner. A sign on the way read “Ultreia,” which is how, in the Middle Ages, people hailed Camino walkers; today’s common greeting is “Buen Camino.Ultreia meant, “Go further.” Yes, I thought, I want to go further.

The next morning, we crossed the Minho River from Spain into Portugal and traveled an hour back in time as we crossed time zones as well. In the walled town of Valenca, a riot of spring wildflowers climbed the austere 17th-century stone walls. We passed buildings clad entirely in blue and white azulejo tiles and visited our first church of many; this one contained a rare portrait of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding Jesus. To return to Spain, we crossed an iron lattice bridge inspired by Gustave Eiffel in the 1880s. It was the first time I have traveled by foot across a time zone, and as we crossed the bridge, seagulls wheeling overhead and a pair of rowers gliding on the river beneath us, I realized that on this bridge, we were suspended between earth and sky but also between clocks and countries. From there, after the first part of our morning walk, we drove to the coast and climbed an Atlantic bluff studded with dozens of wind-worn stone crosses and the rock remains of an ancient Celtic settlement before following a coastal trail to a seaside restaurant for lunch.

That night at dinner, as we reviewed the days’ varied and stunning scenery and remarked on the comfort of our hotel, we exulted in our “impure” Camino. Our guides had cherry-picked scenic sections of the trails to prep us for the 60-mile stretch of the walk that would lead us to Santiago. We hadn’t stumbled on a lunch spot but had tables with a view reserved for us just as we would the next day. By removing the anxiety of having to map the trail and plot our stops, we could focus—really focus—on our steps, our physical and mental momentum. “We can’t call this the Princess’s Camino,” I said, acknowledging that two in our group of 15 were men, “so we’ll call it the Royal Camino.” The group laughed, and one of the men suggested that we add a James Bond element, and instead dub our journey “Camino Royale.” We went to bed wrapped in the warmth of deep gratitude and burgeoning camaraderie.

Elizabeth, who has studied spiritual seeking in her writings and as co-founder of Omega Institute, offered intention-setting sessions each morning before we set off. She shared Thich Nhat Hanh’s principles of walking meditation and invited us to be mindful walkers. “Each mindful breath, each mindful step, reminds us that we are alive on this beautiful planet,” she said, quoting the Vietnamese Buddhist monk. “We don’t need anything else. It is wonderful enough just to be alive, to breathe in, and to make one step. We have arrived at where real life is available—the present moment.”

On the second day, Elizabeth and I, who were the trip’s official leaders, got lost together. We emerged from the trail in a town with traffic lights and at a roundabout, we couldn’t spot any of the yellow arrows or shell symbols that mark the Camino ways. A kind stranger, with whom we shared no common language, pointed us up a narrow residential street that led us back on track. We’d been marveling at everything—from a pair of ducks bathing in an ancient washing well to a dance studio offering lessons in twerking and pole dancing. We may have technically lost our way, but actually we had found ourselves fully alive in the moment.

Just being in the fields and smelling the jasmine, pines, eucalyptus, roses… hearing the bird songs, the buzzing of bugs, the wind through the beech trees and the rumble of tires on the highway… I felt plugged into earth’s thrumming energy. We were as connected to the ancient peregrinos who had walked the same trail for centuries as we were to the lichen growing on the stone walls we passed and to the candles we lit in the chapels for loved ones who needed healing back home. We flowed in sync with all we saw from the flowers laid in the many small cemeteries lining our path to the grapes beginning to emerge on trellised vines and the cats sleeping on sun-drenched stone steps. We were all part of the same tapestry, and we were exactly where we should be.

Sometimes it felt that as we paid more attention to our surroundings, it was winking back at us. At one farm, two horses nuzzled next to each other, the picture of physical harmony, against a field ablaze with deep purple flowers. Trees seemed to twist their massive trunks and roots toward us as if beckoning for us to rest in their shade—and sometimes we did. I found myself stretching my hands out to feel tall grasses or moss-covered walls. As we walked our way into nature’s rhythm, we started noticing frogs, a slug on a rock, a snail inching along in the dirt.

Of course, we also met people: pilgrims who had started their walks in Porto or in France; a hermit, yes they still exist, who granted blessings outside his one-room chapel; and others playing music, settling in the grass for a picnic or selling snacks. Three young girls, who may have been eight or nine, had set up a stand in their front yard. They were selling bananas and lemonade with a handwritten sign declaring: “Pay the Will.” They beamed when I gave them five euros for a banana and two glasses of lemonade. “Cambio?” they asked. No, I shook my head, my will was done, in seeing their smiles. At one bend, a mother and daughter, who had been walking for three weeks, were soaking their feet in a cold stream. We joined them for an icy foot plunge, and I took a photo for them to send by email to a digital frame that the mom’s 96-year-old mother kept by her bed. I had never heard of this technology, Frameo, but it will certainly bring daily joy to my own technologically challenged mother when her children and grandchildren send new photos. Discovering this new way to connect with family was just one of so many surprising gifts on this journey.

Whether you walk the “purist’s” Camino or an abbreviated one, if you arrive at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, you receive a Camino certificate. I had to depart before our group reached Santiago, so I didn’t get one this year. But I knew on day two that this would not be my only Camino. As I said to one of my fellow walkers, just as you can sometimes recognize when you first meet someone that you will be great friends, I can often tell when I first arrive in a place, whether it will be a brief, one-time affair or the beginning of a long and beautiful relationship. I hope to make many Camino walks and maybe next year to arrive in Santiago de Compostela and receive a certificate, but the experience I had already is richer than anything that could be captured in a form. Our Indagare Camino-ers walked with open minds and open hearts and, in so doing, arrived in the present, where as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, “real life is available.” That’s the way of the true traveler.

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