El Camino de Santiago de Compostela is an ancient pilgrimage trail, a 500-mile long walk across northern Spain. The name can be translated as: The Way of St. James of the Campus of the Stars. The path winds directly under the Milky Way (the campus of the stars). One may begin to walk the Camino from many locations throughout Europe. The official culmination point is either:

  1. The Cathedral in the city of Santiago de Compostela, a repository of the relics of St. James (this is the Catholic version, from the 11th and 12th centuries) OR
  2. Finisterre (End of the Earth), a much earlier Celtic pilgrimage trail that continues on past Santiago to the Atlantic coast.

Either version, both versions, called to me… from the first moment I heard about them.

I first learned of the Catholic pilgrimage route to the city of Santiago de Compostela when I read Shirley MacLaine’s book about her Camino pilgrimage. I don’t know exactly what it was that intrigued me so about her story, but I felt a strong pull to walk the Camino myself. Being raised in the Jewish faith, and feeling more an agnostic/atheist in my 20s, 30s, and 40s, I knew it was NOT the Catholic version of walking penance, walking off one’s sins, that called to me. Having begun personal spiritual growth studies in my 50s, I suspected the Camino was calling to me with spiritual growth opportunities of some sort.

For ten years I thought fondly, eagerly, expectantly about walking the Camino. I wanted to walk the Camino Frances, the route that begins on the French side of the Pyrenees mountain range. This route starts with a one or two day climb up and over the Pyrenees, and then a walk across most of Northern Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela, about 500 miles in total.

I thought often of the Camino. I read books on it (they would “show up” at the library, at garage sales). I read on related topics: other pilgrimage trails, the Knights Templar. It turned out I knew people who had been to the city of Santiago. I knew people who knew people who had been on pilgrimage to Santiago. I asked detailed questions, took down phone numbers of pilgrims. What I did not do was make any real world plans. I never took the next step: never started saving for the trip, never began to train for the rigors of the road. I enjoyed the thought of being a pilgrim, of walking silently on ancient trails, of feeling the energies of all who had walked these paths before me. But I never made a single plan to go. How could I go? I was focused on surviving. I was a single parent, self-employed, and busy building a business. I had no resources to spare for travel. People were counting on me. I had work to do here.

In 2007, after 11 years, I closed my retail picture framing business and decided to work from home. I had been craving more flexibility and solitude in my life. I am an Introvert on the Meyers-Briggs Personality Inventory scale, meaning that, although I love people, I need time alone to recharge my batteries. For eleven years I had been around people every day in my shop, at their whim, at their beck and call and I was worn thin. I wanted to make each day my own, to plan my day’s schedule ahead of time, to work by appointment only, to have time for gardening, for art, for spiritual growth work.

Once the business was moved to my home I made good use of my new flex-schedule: I began reading and doing the work of “The Artist’s Way, A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity” by Julia Cameron. I wrote the three Artist’s Way journal pages religiously each morning and I began the Week 1 (out of 12 weeks) homework with gusto! But, I never got past Week 1. I did a part of the work, but not the whole shee-bang. Soon I decided to invite a group to join me to do“ The Artist’s Way” together, to hold each other’s feet to the fire.

I met my good friend Alex through this first Artist’s Way Group. His wife of many years had recently died and a mutual friend had suggested that he might benefit from being part of the group. Besides “The Artist’s Way” Alex was also dealing with his grief by going on silent retreats. He shared what his retreat experiences were like: the quiet, the contemplation. I was so jealous! I really craved those. But, I didn’t think I could go. As always, a money (or lack of money) issue.

I remained in this place of “lack” for four years, always earning enough to make ends meet. The house payment was made, utilities, food, car gas, needed repairs, etc., all were covered. But, I never got ahead, never saved, never even considered that having more might be possible until January of 2011, the year I would turn 60.

I was writing my “morning pages” (the daily Artists’ Way journal writing) one cold January morning. I was settled comfortably on the living room sofa with my cup of hot tea when, from nowhere, came the thought, “If I do not walk the Camino during this, my sixtieth year, I will never go, and MY LIFE WILL BE FORFEIT!” This thought actually came from outside of me… I was not its thinker. It was clear to me that this did not mean that I would die if I didn’t walk the Camino in 2011, but rather, I would fail to fulfill my life’s purpose. I would not create whatever it was that I came to this life to create.

The stakes felt very high. “OK” I thought, “How can I make this happen? I know, I will begin by writing it in my calendar, telling God that I am serious.” When I went to write my anticipated Camino dates in my 2011 pocket calendar, the 2010 calendar, which was rubber-banded to it, fell open to a name and phone number I’d been given eleven months before of a man who had walked the Camino! “Way to go God!” I definitely was ready for this timely reminder! I called the man at once and three days later we were sitting at a coffee shop talking Camino!

From there it was a series of struggles: How to raise the funds? How to keep the home fires burning while I was away? How to make sure my son’s needs were met in my absence? How to acquire all the gear I would need? How to get my physical body in shape? And, how to keep from chickening out… letting fear get the best of me? There were multiple chances to move past fear, to step out of my comfort zone, and (thank God), there were miracles!

Because I wanted this Big Dream so desperately, my first step out of my comfort zone was to ask for help. On February 13th, I asked 230 friends and family members to help me in any way they comfortably could. I sent them all a heart-felt email request. The emails went out in batches of fifty and I said a prayer each time I pushed “send”. I had never felt so open, so exposed, in my life. All my deepest thoughts, my most heart-felt desires were now in the in-boxes of 230 people.

Beginning the very next day, Valentine’s Day, I began to receive offers of help and love! The monies needed arrived from various sources including gifts, extra work, and payments in advance for work to be done upon my return. The airline fare was paid with frequent flyer miles given by three dear friends/relatives. All the gear I needed was lent to me or monies arrived to cover its purchase. People walked with me and I made a commitment to daily training whatever the weather. I pushed myself because I would need to be in great shape for the 12-15 mile per day walks on the Camino.

It all worked! In mid April of 2011 I was on a plane to France where I would begin my journey up and over the Pyrenees and into Spain. I was scared senseless. Would I be able to do the entire 500-mile long walk? Would I get lost (in an airport, in a train station, on a trail)? Would I be lonely? Would I have enough money?

I was just barely well prepared enough. I crossed the Pyrenees on foot, up and over incredibly rocky terrain, in higher altitudes than I’d ever been, and made it, exhausted, into Spain. What followed was a series of life lessons on the topic of trust. As it turned out, I was on the Camino to learn about trusting myself, trusting others, trusting that I would always be provided for, and in general, trusting God.

Over 100,000 people from all over the world walk all or part of the Camino every year. I was blessed to meet great people from every continent. I immediately loved the other pilgrims and the immensely kind Spanish people. The locals would go far out of their way to help us with directions. If we stopped to look at a map in a public place, people would rush over to assist us with directions. When the albergues [hostels] were over-full because of heavy Holy Week traffic (the week before Easter), we were housed in overflow housing: a school gymnasium or a church’s teen recreation room. If we didn’t understand the Spanish offerings on the “Pilgrims’ Menu” at a restaurant, the waitress would make the appropriate animal noises to describe the type of meat. The Spanish people were endlessly hospitable, kind, and friendly.

I walked with, ate with, and bunked with my new friends from all over the world: England, Canada, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, Japan, Ireland, Greece, South Korea, New Zealand and more. I enjoyed the company of my “Amigos del Camino” (Camino friends), an interesting, fun, intelligent, and loving group. I walked with them for most of the first month of my trip. Then, the introvert in me was in need of time alone.

I was learning that I needed to trust myself, that I could trust myself: to walk when I felt ready, to go at the pace that best suited my body, to stop and rest when and where I wished, to eat when I was hungry. I was also learning that I could find my way by myself, that I would not get lost or, at least, not remain lost. I was learning to read the “signs” that directed Pilgrims, the way-markers, and to trust that I would find those signs.

My biggest lesson still to learn centered on trusting that I would always be provided for, that money would be available when I needed it.

While in Spain I found out the hard way that I was not able to get monies out of the ATM machine on credit (borrowing on my credit card). This is what I had originally planned to do when my cash reserves ran out. To get cash required a pin code. I guess I had a pin code somewhere, but not with me. It was most likely hidden in some file drawer back home. When this problem came up I was still walking with my group of Camino friends. Before I could go into total money-panic mode, a pilgrim friend from Brazil came to my rescue. He suggested that the group put our evening meal on my credit card (I could use the credit card to charge expenses in restaurants just fine, but the hostels and café/bars in smaller towns did not take charge cards, just cash). I willingly agreed to charge our meal and everyone agreed to pay me back in cash. All my friends were happy to help, all so loving and caring. All my heroes!

But now, after instituting the credit-card-to-cash solution, I had walked away from these dear Camino friends craving solitude. My monies were dwindling. I was beginning to worry about how I might manage.

I was walking this particular morning on a lovely tree-lined path in cool shade. While I walked I decided to meditate on a spiritual question to take my mind off my worries: What if there is a Higher Power directing my path? I had been walking with wonderful people only days before, but all skeptics. I had begun to feel their skepticism infecting my hard won spiritual reserves. Skeptical thoughts from my younger years were popping back into my head unbidden.

What if there is a Higher Power directing my path? I asked it over and over again. Up ahead, about 20 feet, I saw a small, brown bird standing on the path. I repeated my question as I walked towards the little bird. What if there is a Higher Power directing my path? The bird did not budge until I was within about 2 feet of him. Then, a fast walking pilgrim came rushing up from behind me and scared my little friend off into the brush. “Thanks, God,” I thought, “A sweet sign, the bird waiting for me.”

I continued along the path. What if there is a Higher Power directing my path? After a few kilometers I came to an old gentleman farmer, pitchfork in hand, standing with his dog in the middle of the road. I smiled at him and said “Hola” (hello). I had decided before I came to the Camino that I would smile at everyone I met, and everyone had smiled back… lovely! The farmer began to speak to me. Some of what he said I understood courtesy of my high school Spanish from 40-plus years before, but some I just understood. I didn’t know the vocabulary, but I knew what he was saying.

Está una peregrina?” He asked if I was a pilgrim. I said, “Sí,” Yes. He asked if I was going to Santiago. I said “yes.” He asked if I would pray for him when I got to the Cathedral in Santiago. I said, “Yes!” He told me his name was Dyonisius. He reached into his pocket and gave me an orange, which I gratefully accepted. Fresh fruit on the Camino is always a welcome treat. “How perfect to receive fruit from one named for the God of wine,” I thought. “Muchas gracias!” I said. We smiled at each other, said “Adios” and “Buen Camino” (goodbye and have a good Camino) and I was on my path again. I had already begun to pray for Dyonisius. “What a sweet man,” I thought.

As I walked further, I became aware of worry creeping back into my mind: more money fears. What if there is a Higher Power directing my path? Over and over… I had seen a sign for the next albergue ((hostel) in Ferrerios, which would cost me 15 Euro. Way more than I wanted to spend on lodging. I had been calculating how I might best manage with my limited cash reserves, whether to spend the night in Ferrerios or to walk on to the next city on the map, Portomarín. What if there is a Higher Power directing my path?

About 10 kilometers further I said “Buenos días” (good day) to an older woman standing at her courtyard gate trying to coax her little dog back into the yard. She asked in Spanish if I was a pilgrim and where was I planning to spend the night. I told her that I was a pilgrim and that I was planning to spend the night in Ferrerios. She asked me to wait and went briefly into her house, returning with a small flyer in Spanish for a restaurant about one kilometer past Ferrerios in Mirallos. “Sounds like miracle?” I thought. She kept talking to me in Spanish but I just wasn’t understanding her words. Finally, she pointed down to the flyer, where it said “Dormir Gratis!” (Sleep Free!) I finally “got it.” I understood what this wonderful woman was handing me: information on a free albergue! I was filled with joy! She could see that I was moved to tears. We hugged and exchanged kisses on the cheek.

“And so, there it is, “ I thought. “Should I choose to accept this bounty of gifts: sweet, welcoming creatures of the nature kingdom, people who remind me that my prayers do make a difference, and ‘angels’ who magically appear to meet my needs (and I do choose to accept these gifts), then I can conclude that there is a Higher Power at work here. This is the perfect way for a skeptically trained mind to be contacted by the Divine. We need proof!”

Later, sitting in front of the free albergue in Mirallos, speaking with Natalia, the Spanish owner/operator/cook/waitress, I asked her why she chose to offer lodging in her albergue for free. She told me that she appreciates her quality of life: living in a beautiful area of the world, raising her own farm-fresh foods and cooking with them. She told me that she makes money from the restaurant and just wants “to give back, to see the Pilgrims smile.” “Yes, all kinds of miracles!” I thought. “All of these kind-hearted people… the Divine working through them….” My heart felt full. I could trust in a kind and loving Higher Power again.

There were other moments still to come on the Camino when my funding (my lack of funding) was again a concern. At the end of my Camino, having walked the 500 miles to Santiago and having received my Compostela, my certificate of completion, I still had a few days left before my flight home. I decided to catch the bus to Finisterre (the name translates as “the end of the Earth”) where I had agreed to meet up with my Camino friend Sophie from Cornwall.

I spent much of the three hour bus ride convincing myself to trust that Sophie, would indeed be there, that we would find each other with no problem, that she would be willing and able to help me out with cash – that I would pay with my credit card and that she would be willing and able to reimburse me with cash. I had to repeatedly remind myself that I had been provided for every step of the way throughout the Camino, and in life, generally, and that I would always be provided for. Even with all the earlier Camino experiences of Divine support, guidance, and protection, I still had to keep “talking myself down from the ledge.”

Sophie and I found each other easily in Finisterre We had a marvelous time looking out into the Atlantic Ocean, understanding why earlier peoples would have thought the earth ended there. It is easy to imagine falling off, as all you can see is ocean until the curvature of the earth causes even that to disappear. And, of course my money issues worked out just fine.

Spain, my Camino, my 60th birthday on the Camino, all were more than I could ever have imagined. The Camino is time out of ordinary time and it produced a shift in me. I did learn to trust: to trust in the kindness of friends and strangers, to trust in myself, and to trust that there is a Higher Power guiding my path. What I continue to learn is that my level of trusting is only as high as I allow it to be. If I fill my mind with self-defeating thoughts and worries, my level of trust goes down, down, down. For me, trusting is a very conscious process of remembering all the good that has come to me over and over and over. Trust has not become second nature to me, but a close friend I can call on at any time by choosing to remember all the gifts of my Camino.

A post Camino note: I arrived home seven weeks after my original departure, just in time for a full-on family reunion: oodles of relatives, no time alone, smack back into real life and ordinary time. But, there were two checks waiting for me. Money was provided. Home bills were paid. Since then, opportunities to practice trusting myself have been plentiful: trusting myself to decide what I want and then to act on that. Best of all, from walking the Camino, my life path is becoming clearer: sharing my life-lessons with others, writing and teaching now call to me. My life is NOT forfeit!