Robert Frost concluded a famous poem with the words,
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that made all the difference.
I recently emulated Frost. Seven years, I began by hiking 500 miles across Spain on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (Frances) and followed it up with a 500-mile trek on the Camino del Norte, which hugs the northern coast of Spain along clifftops, beaches and coastal villages.
Walking is a wonderful way to reflect, pray, clear one’s head, learn from nature, let go, disconnect from the cyber world and see life as a journey. Along the way I have met angels disguised as strangers, had countless epiphanies and have been blessed by the grace of God.
The ancient Peripatetic School of Philosophy in Greece was developed in the 3rd century. It was inspired by Aristotle and believed that we did our best philosophizing while walking. They believed that we reach our potential for reflecting and thinking while walking at a steady pace.
We see people every day in our neighborhoods, parks and woods walking alone or with a friend or family member, absorbing the spiritual benefits of walking, which centers the mind and blesses the body.
In her wonderful book Walk in a Relaxed Manner, spiritual writer Joyce Rupp describes how at the age of 60 she took a 47-day walking pilgrimage on the Camino. A priest friend who had previously walked it offered one piece of advice. “Walk in a relaxed manner,” he said, noting that when a person walks to the rhythm of his or her own body grace and wisdom are revealed.
Last year, over 320,000 people walked a portion of the Camino. There are caminos that start in almost every European country, which eventually lead to Santiago de Compostela – a city in the northwest corner of Spain where the relics of St. James the Apostle of Jesus (or Santiago in Spanish) are reportedly buried. There are 26 such caminos in Spain alone.
Most people walk the Camino Frances. The first day starts in St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France and takes you over the Pyrenees into Spain on one of the world’s most break-taking 26-kilometer walks, where pilgrims arrive at the medieval monastery of Roncesvalles. Along the way, trekkers can spend the night in albuergues, hostels, private homes, country inns or hotels.
Further along the camino, pilgrims pass through Pamplona, Leon, Burgos, Ponferrada and Astorga before reaching Santiago. You can ride by bicycle in two weeks or less or take 28 days to three-months to walk at whatever pace works best for your body and schedule.
Today, some parts of the heavily-traveled Camino Frances are 98-percent saturated at peak walking times. It has become the road well-traveled, but still it’s a moveable feast of fun and international encounters. This past August, I chose to take the road less traveled.
I walked a new camino called the Camino de Dos Faros or the Lighthouse Way. It is an eight-day journey full of twists and turns, mountain ascents and descents, walking along clifftops and across secluded beaches for 123 miles. I did an extra 13 miles for a half-day warm-up walk. The trail runs from towns of Malpica to Finesterre in Spain, along the Costa da Morta or Coast of Death, named after the hundreds of shipwrecks that occurred along the rugged coast.
In eight days, I came across five fellow hikers on my journey. Granted I started daily hike late after other walkers may have begun their nine or ten hour walk. On most days, there were no stores, restaurants or villages along the way in which to stop, eat or get fresh water.
It was start and finish with perhaps a swim or two along the way on a secluded beach in the freezing but stunning Atlantic Ocean. Unlike the Camino Frances there were no options to stop along the way or shorten your day’s walk and end early. It was rigorous, but doable.
I love meeting people, having significant conversations in Spanish, French or my struggling Italian, listening, learning and making new friends. Hikers on the Camino Frances are an interesting selective group. They figure that they will never see each other again, so they are incredibly honest about their lives. They wear no masks, pretense or fake personas. Everyone is equal, walking side by side, sharing stories, laughing and talking about life.
I used Wikilocs, a digital app for trekking that uses GPS to match your location to the path. Often the path diverges and this app sounds an electronic alert if you wander more than 30 feet off the trail. It’s a godsend that I wished I had had on earlier long-distance walks.
It also allowed me to see that over the course of eight and a half days or hiking I walked 163 miles of which 135.7 were on the trail, making 16,890 feet of ascents and 16,863 of descents or climbing and descending 1,474 floors along tight, jagged, mountainous trails with scrub brush slashing my shins. I ascended and descended over half the height of Mt. Everest in eight days!
The solitude taught me many lessons. At 59, my runway gets shorter with each year. I have lots of energy and working years left, but the solitude and silence reminded me that what matters most is not what I do, but who I am. What matters most is to serve God and to be loved by my family, friends and others and to love them in return. All else is simply windfall.
There are various agencies that can help you organize a walk on the Camino de Dos Faros – a Spanish agency called Travel Finesterre, which I used, and an English outfit called On Foot. Both transport your backpack or luggage each day so that you can hike with a simple daypack.
Hiking reminds us how little we need in life to sustain ourselves and find joy. Travel lightly through life unencumbered by too many possessions is a good thing. Stopping to take in the vistas, to pause, breath, look, listen, wonder and thank God for creating such extraordinary beauty is as spiritually renewing an exercise as I know and it cleanses the soul.
We have no story in the Bible of Jesus ever running or hurrying to get somewhere. Wherever Jesus went, he went on foot. Jesus taught as he walked and opened the eyes of his disciples to the wonders of a life as they walked side by side.
Nine years ago, four men reportedly entered a bar in Galicia – the northwestern providence of Spain – and dreamed of connecting a series of hiking paths along the coast. They named it the Camino de Dos Faros. They created a road less traveled, for walking it makes all the difference.
With love and prayers from Spain,
If you wish to learn more about the Camino de Santiago and consider hiking it and learn also about the Friends of the Anglican Pilgrim Centre plans to create an Anglican pilgrim center of welcome, worship and hospitality in Santiago de Compostela.
Save the date!
Join our Rector for an evening of Spanish food and libations:
Wednesday, December 4
Come meet Bishop Carlos Lopez, Bishop of the Reformed Episcopal Church of Spain. Nancy Hoxie Mead, who has walked over 5,000 miles as a pilgrim across Europe, will give a slide presentation of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.