Eventually you will cry on the Camino. That's a given. It's just a matter of when.
For joy, for sadness and when you eat one too many churros dipped in thick Spanish hot chocolate.
The "Camino" is the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage that dates back a thousand years and ends at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. It's so magnificent that you will want to go to church whether you believe or not. It is reputed to be the final resting place of St. James, one of the 12 apostles.
More than 350,000 people a year try some version of the 400-plus-mile trek on foot, bike or from a comfortable seat inside an air-conditioned coach, while saying things like, "Those people look like they are suffering. What possibly could they have been thinking?"
We chose the nine-day version — our 14-person group dubbed it Camino Light — and it was 62 miles long and included trails, footpaths and dirt roads (all marked by the ubiquitous yellow scallop shell) weaving through rolling green hillsides, with soaring vistas (otherwise known as ABV or "another beautiful view"), alongside streams, under chestnut tree-covered canopies, through pastures filled with happy cows and by ancient Romanesque churches and moss-covered stone walls that were so picturesque, it could have been a Hollywood set. We wondered if they folded them up after we'd gone through.
The hikes, planned by David Atela, an energetic tour guide and native of Bilbao, Spain, were designed to eliminate many of the dismal, dreary and dangerous sections of the Camino trail that include four-lane highways with their share of crazed Spanish truck drivers barreling within inches of walkers at 140 kilometers per hour.
Pilgrims carry the pilgrim's passport, a small booklet filled with blank squares. The idea is to obtain stamps from churches (otherwise known as ABC, "another beautiful church"), bars and restaurants on the way and eventually get the grand finale stamp from the official office in Santiago. Acquiring stamps can be a competitive sport and sometimes are unfairly earned because rather than hiking up a steep mountain, all you've done is wake up in the morning at your comfortable hotel and padded into the lobby wearing your room slippers.
Our version of the pilgrim's path was long and hard enough to expose potential knee and hip replacements as well as to allow time for some soul-searching, which is what the Camino, or the Way (as in the Way of St. James) is good for.
The Camino or any walk. How many times have you started walking in a rotten mood and after settling into a nice rhythm, after getting out of whatever loop your brain is in, like the spin cycle on the dryer, has the walk improved your spirits and made it seem possible that life was better than you gave it credit for?
The gnarly pilgrims do five times the hiking. However, the nine days we did, in addition to hitting the wall, the walk allows for great conversations with people inside your group but others, too. There were the two English nurses (one of whose father was a retired naval officer and is now an usher to the royal family and appeared in all of the photos during the queen's funeral celebration) who'd been friends since grade school and who take a trip a year together to renew their friendship.
There is something wonderful about people walking on the same path. "Wonderful" because as my dad said about farmers, "They can't agree on lunch." Normally, humanity is splintered in a thousand directions and ways. We can barely watch the same shows on Netflix.
Conversations can get deep quickly, thus the adage that eventually everybody will break down on the Camino. For Melissa Knapp, a former hairdresser from Bakersfield who now lives in Ventura, the moment came at the simple, beautiful church at El Cebreiro. In contrast to the cathedrals in Leon, Burgos and Madrid that looked like they had been designed by God, built by slaves and attended by royalty, it gave the impression of being a church where regular people baptized their children, worshipped and received their last rites.
The entrance to the church was encircled by a low stone wall next to which walkers, pilgrims or local residents had left photos of children, relatives and friends, as well as painted rocks inscribed with names and messages.
"I want to leave one of the rocks I painted for Lindsey," Melissa said, remembering the daughter of Becky and Steve Sinclare. "I feel Lindsey's presence here."
The rock had Becky's email address on it, so if somebody picked it up and carried it somewhere else they could email Becky and tell her where they left it.
"Lindsey loved to hike and now she'll be a part of the Way."
That's the Camino. People go to remember, go to forget and go because you can do both in a way that is often challenging when we are swept up in the relentless flow of life.
I walked into the church. To the left of the altar was a large framed poster of the Pilgrim's prayer. Next to it was a simple, low wooden table backlit by a row of candles. Written in Italian, French, German and English was "To all the pilgrims who walk in eternity."
I bought a candle for Dad. He was worth a euro. I lit it and placed it next to rows of candles on the low, inner stone wall. I like to think he is walking in eternity and one day we might walk together again.
We could talk about the hot chocolate, Federer's closing bow and his 18 grandchildren that he loved more than anything.
Chocolate, churches and cortados (espresso with milk, which we'd have in the morning and then another two hours later that our guide, David, called the intermediate coffee), in the end, it's all about the people. Our group was from Monterey, Carmel, Israel, Dallas and England.
Fellow pilgrims included Melissa and her husband, Wes; Sue; my cousin Bea; Sally; Beth; Georgina; Tam; Sharon; Dianne; Mark; Ze-ev; Jennifer; and our guides David (pronounced Da-veed), Rob and Sophia. We got to know them, fall in love with them and eventually say goodbye to them.
Nine days is also good because we can tell our best stories and not forget that we've told them and end up telling them again. We can present the most favorable versions of ourselves before people begin to suspect that we've embellished, exaggerated or just plain made it up.
When some of them first saw we were from Bakersfield, they thought, "Oh no, what are we getting into?"
Given how many stories I was spinning, they probably had reason to worry but that's where the Camino is good. Setting old notions aside. Not holding fast to first impressions. Giving people second and third chances because God forbid, you might be wrong.
The Camino is good for finding out who you are, or at least asking the question.
Then, the end. The square and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The Door of Glory.
We watched the pilgrims, dirty, sweaty, limping with knee and ankle braces who had walked the 450 miles.
They wept, hugged, hugged again, hugged and kept hugging. Tears like when you finish a marathon except this was 10 marathons and no aid stations with sliced oranges and people saying, "Good job."
They had done something, we had done something, it was just a different kind of something.
Beth Espinoza, a practicing Catholic, and I went to Mass that morning. The priest had a velvety voice, a soft, quiet one you'd lean in for if you were having a conversation with him. At the end of the service, five strong men swung the incense burner, called the botafumeiro, across the length of the nave of the cathedral. If one cramped, and dropped it, somebody would need another miracle.
The next day we took our coach to the ocean at Finisterre, which is one way to crown the jewel that is the Camino. I jumped in the ocean along with Mark, a fellow pilgrim from Monterey. We collected shells, walked barefoot in the sand. I tried my pilgrim best not to look at the Spanish sunbathers, many of whom were topless.
It is traditional to leave your walking shoes at the base of the pole close to the lighthouse and Melissa left hers.
We said goodbye to our group the next morning at our parador in Santiago. You can't take the people with you but you can take the conversations and laughs.
Some were flying home, others continuing trips to Portugal and London. Beth was returning home to meet Dominic, her new grandson, born shortly after she'd started the Camino.
A few days before the end of the trip, Sharon, who'd lost her husband of 50 years several months ago, and had left some of his ashes at the Iron Cross, had a dream. Her husband had said, "Let the sun shine again."
A good walk will do that.