It’s my happy place, hey. The Camino de Santiago. That mythical, well-trodden, world-famous network of well-marked roads that criss-cross Europe but ultimately lead you to the sacred shrine of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. A place where, legend has it, the bones of St James are kept.
I try to go back every few years. It’s a place where I rediscovered how to be fully present in my life, a path where I realized I no longer wanted to go it alone, and a road that led me to reassess my choices and leave one of my greatest vices behind. It’s been significant and instrumental and glorious and lonely and disappointing and hard and easy and I can’t wait to go back.
At the time of writing, it is 2022. For reasons of global pandemics, I have not made my pilgrimage in 4 years. I know this number, because my younger son just turned 3, and he was conceived shortly after I got back from my last trip out there, to walk the wonderful Camino Norte from San Sebastian to Bilbao.
On that trip, I sat at the bus stop in Bilbao, at 11 am in the morning, nursing a beer and lighting a cigarette. And, in a flash of insight, realized that smoking, a habit that I had intermittently enjoyed for years and years, no longer served me. And just like that, I quit.
I’ll write more about that trip next time, but I want to tell you about the Camino Primitivo.
Four months after my dad passed away, and six weeks after I met Caroline, I went on an epic Eurotrip. World Cup Rugby in Birmingham, a week in Iceland pretending I’m Walter Mitty, and a week revisiting the Camino. But this time, I did it on a bike.
The Camino Primitivo is a lesser-known trail to Santiago, that links in from the northern coast through the spectacular Asturian and Cantabrian mountains and countryside. It is hilly, challenging, and sparsely visited. This makes it very different from the well-trodden Camino Frances, and I decided to tackle this challenge by bicycle.
It was awesome, hey. But in a lonely kind of way. I wanted the physical exercise, and did huge distances every day, did thousands of metres of climbing on dirt and tar roads…and loved it. But this time, I had my audiobook for company, and I lost out on the magical relationships that you form with other pilgrims by walking.
The experience of going it alone had utility, though. I could enjoy the spectacular scenery, the ancient forts and ramparts, the exquisite food, and the wonderful hospitality all by myself. But for the first time, I felt that the Camino was maybe less fun by myself, and could be more fun with Caroline by my side. I had never felt that way before, and it was one of the early indicators that this time, I might have found a keeper.
You see, it’s all about defining your winning condition. When I walked the Camino Frances 11 years ago, the winning condition was being fully present. Connecting with myself and the other pilgrims, and taking the time and space to let go of the past and stop fussing over the future.
The next time I was there, I was arguably distracted. It was a short walk to the coast, but I was not fully present, and it would be the least memorable of my experiences. I will write about that in more detail some other time too.
But this time, I was clear on what I was there to do. Cycle hard. Train for a race I was doing in a few months, but enjoy the place and the people while I was there. My winning condition was not forming deep friendships or tapping the joy of the Camino Connection, but rather challenging myself physically while chalking up some new and wonderful experiences.
Whether it is to be fully present and connected or to be focused on the goal, I think they both have merit. The Camino, for me, is better enjoyed in the former…but still has great value in the latter. But it does demand that you make the choice upfront about the kind of experience you want to have.
And it asks you to listen to the lessons, and take them home with you.
This year, I still won’t go back. And it’s a choice. A different kind of Camino awaits – the mountains of the Eastern Cape and the challenge of the Amatola. I’ll tell you one thing that will be the same though: I look forward to being deeply connected.