Camino de Santiago

John Stephens, MD, MBA, CFA, CFP®

Jul 2, 2017

High in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Pont is alive with purpose. Backpackers of all ages, holding their pilgrim’s passports, fill the streets. By tradition, this medieval village is a starting point for the Way of St. James, a 500-mile sacred route across northern Spain. For over a thousand years, people from all over the world have made their way here to begin a walk of a million steps. In May, I was one of them.

The Camino de Santiago de Compostela, as it is called in Spanish, has been a well-trod trail since the Crusades. Some 250,000 undertake the journey every year. For some, the trek is a test of physical and mental endurance. Hunger, thirst and fatigue are part of the experience. For others, it is a spiritual quest, a chance to ponder life’s big questions while hiking through mountains, vineyards and farmlands.

For me, it was that rare opportunity to enjoy an epic adventure with my 21-year-old daughter, Delaney, now a senior in college. Six years ago, Delaney came home from high school excited about a movie she’d seenin Spanish class. “The Way,” starring Martin Sheen, was about a middle-aged man’s journey of self-discovery walking the Camino after the tragic death of his son. “Dad,” Delaney said impulsively after we’d watched it together that evening, “we should do that sometime.”

Her proposal intrigued me. As a student at Stanford University, I’d spent part of my junior year studying in Salamanca, a city rich in history and architecture.  I’d fallen in love with the people, the food, and the culture of Spain. Walking the Camino would allow me to reconnect with a place and people that had been so important to me in my youth. And it offered the tantalizing prospect of seeing some of my old classmates again. Some 35 years had passed since we drank espresso at a café in the Plaza Mayor.

Suddenly, I wanted to see them – and Spain – again. Even more importantly, the walk would give me the chance to spend time with my daughter on the threshold of adulthood. After giving it some thought, we put it on the calendar for 2017.

Legend says the Camino abounds with lessons and mysteries. Among them is the belief that whatever you need to learn in life, the journey will teach you. My education started early, even before we heaved our backpacks over our shoulders in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Pont.

For two years before the trip, I had tried to find a classmate who had been one of my closest friends in Salamanca. Using Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and What’s App, I looked for Melqui, with no luck. By the time our flight landed in Spain, I’d given up hope of a reunion.

Delaney and I made our way by train from Madrid to Pamplona, then hired a taxi for the last few kilometers to the starting point, Saint-Jean. The mountainous scenery was breathtaking, but we were stuck behind a lumbering bus and the drive was maddeningly slow. Jetlagged and weary, I found myself staring vacantly at the back of the bus. Suddenly, the logo came into focus: the Seoane Bus Co.

Seoane? I was jolted awake. I realized I’d been misspelling my friend’s last name all along. As soon as we arrived in Saint- Jean, I resumed my detective work and found him. I left a message on his answering machine asking him to call me on my cell phone: “Melqui, this is John from Salamanca, 35 years ago.”

No response. Delaney urged me to try again two days later.  This time, Melqui answered. (Like many of us, he hadn’t checked his voicemail.)

I recognized his voice immediately.  He and his wife dropped everything to drive two hours to meet us for dinner. Over chocolate and churros, then tapas and beer, the years melted away and we talked for hours, renewing our friendship.

Lesson  #1:  The Camino  delivers miracles, large and small.  Sometimes, these gifts are hidden in plain sight. Consider the odds of finding an old friend because his last name, unusual in Spain, is splashed across the backside of a bus? (Melqui is not related to the owner of the bus company.) Slow down. Pay attention. Don’t give up hope.

Delaney and I stayed at a small hostel our first night on the Camino. The first person I met was the aptly named Big Mike.  Large in personality and in girth, Mike was a

60-something educator, recently retired, from Alabama. That was an odd coincidence as fewer than 10% of pilgrims each year are Americans. Stranger still, Big Mike was a huge fan of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide; Delaney attends Alabama’s biggest football rival, Auburn University. Bonded by a friendly rivalry, we spent a fun evening together that night.

When he set off by himself the next morning, Delaney and I somehow felt invested in his journey, and he in ours. That’s part of the magic of the Camino: the people you meet along the way. Getting to know them and the stories of their pilgrimages creates a sense of connection and community. Young or old, athlete or not, we were all walking the same path, a notion that was humbling and uplifting at the same time.

Whatever happened to Big Mike? Two weeks after we got home, we got a text and a photo of him, beaming proudly amidst new friends at the end of the sacred route. The trek had tested him and transformed him.  He’d walked every step of those 500 miles to Santiago de Compostela, shedding 50 pounds along the way.

Lesson #2: Camino wisdom holds that you’ll meet yourself on the road to Santiago de Compostela. You’ll also befriend strangers who will enrich your life in memorable ways if you open your heart to the experience.

Meeting yourself isn’t always a pleasant experience, though. After a couple of days on the road, I found myself getting anxious about finding lodging after a day of walking; I didn’t want us to end up in a fleabag for the night. Planning– such as booking rooms in advance – is antithetical to the pilgrim’s philosophy. “The Camino will provide” is a mantra oft-repeated by veterans of the Way, and it’s meant to foster a sense of trust and confidence in the journey.

I tried to quell my anxieties. But I’m a planner by nature. The Camino was teaching me to accept the vagaries of weather, food and terrain. But I like some control, especially when there’s a possibility of no room at the inn and the alternative might be sleeping in a field by the side of the road. So, after a bit of self- examination, I decided to allow myself one small concession – booking lodging for the next night – so I could relax and enjoy the walk.

Apparently, though, I still had more to learn about letting go. Days into the walk, I found myself worrying out loud about potential problems. What if our pace was too slow? What if my knees got sore? (Though I’ve never had knee pain, I’d tucked a brace in my backpack just in case.) After listening to me for a while, Delaney offered some of her own wisdom. “Dad,” she said patiently, “trust me– we’ve got this. If there’s a problem, we’ll spend ten minutes on it and we’ll solve it. Why worry now?” (She also tossed the knee brace, lightening my load in more ways than weight.)

Lesson #3:  Live in the present. Leaning back into the past or forward into the future is a prescription for an unbalanced life.

A month of walking puts most everything into perspective.  The Camino is, at once, urgent and timeless. Pilgrims get hungry and thirsty, but, as promised, the Camino provides: Bodegas Irache, a vineyard, invites pilgrims to quench their thirst freely at a wine fountain on the Way, a simple but somehow extraordinary gesture of hospitality. At every turn, though, there are reminders of the route’s long history. Inscribed over the door of a bakery in one village is the price of wheat – in 1789.

The Way is a great leveler. Egos dissolve. We are all pilgrims, some days striding, some days faltering. We don’t have nearly as much control over our lives as we imagine. The future holds unpredictable crises and opportunities – but with a trusted circle of family, friends, and advisors you will chart a course. Following the footsteps of innumerable peasants, priests, Roman soldiers and knights of the Crusades, I felt myself a tiny part of a much larger universe.

Lesson #4: The Camino is a school of patience and humility. I am neither the greatest nor the least. It’s not about me; it’s about the journey.

After 36 days of walking, our walk ended in Santiago de Compostela.  Long ago, pilgrims would burn their tattered clothes and shoes to symbolize a new beginning. That’s discouraged now by authorities, but Delaney and I fulfilled the ancient tradition in our own way, lightening our load by emptying the backpacks of items we didn’t need anymore. As promised, the Camino had provided: food, lodging, friends old and new, a few lessons and some wisdom. In Compostela, I read with a new appreciation a famous Spanish poem about the Camino: Los principios dan miedo. Los finales son triste. Pero lo que importa es El Camino. Roughly translated, it says “Beginnings are scary. Endings are sad. What matters is the journey.” Having taken more than a million steps in a foreign land, I have a deeper understanding of what that means. Just start walking. Have faith. Take one step at a time.  

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