I learned an important thing last summer. Everyone walks their own Camino.
Daughter Mae has been living and working in Prague, Czech Republic for the past two years. She’s been teaching English and, in my view, attending a kind of finishing school. It wasn’t an easy transition, but she figured out housing, transportation and work in a foreign country, all on her own. See what I mean about “finishing school?”
She’d been there a year when Sister Mary and I flew in for a month-long sojourn in her territory. Our itinerary was wide open with a few items on our must-do bucket list. We saw Prague, a beautiful European city with everything Americans love; castles, bridges and enough sausage and beer to bookend hot days of sightseeing.
Years ago in college, I took a course in Medieval Studies; I read The Song of Roland, which tells the story of Roland and Oliver and their epic battle against the pagan Saracens. I had a great teacher, a Dominican nun who read the song so beautifully that I wanted to walk over the Pyrenees and see for myself, “High were the peaks, and the valleys deep, The mountains wondrous dark and steep…”.
In that class we also learned about pilgrimages and how important they were to all classes of people in the Middle-Ages. It was in that course that we studied the Camino de Santiago or “The Walk of St. James,” a trek that crosses Spain and ends in the beautiful medieval city of Santiago.
Life has a way of intervening and dreams go unrealized. There are student loans to pay off, marriage, children, jobs, but often in those exciting and busy years, those words came back to me as I gazed on my own mountains here in Siskiyou County, California. The Carroll side of my family are walkers and I inherited those sturdy legs but a knee injury last year made me realize that if I was going to ever walk the Camino, it had better be soon and well before I needed a home-health aide to assist me to the bathroom. And what better time than when a competent daughter was available to help negotiate map directions in a foreign language?
After adventures in Paris and Biarritz, we traveled to the foot of the fabled Pyrenees Mountains in the French town of St. Jean Pied du Port. St. Jean is the official starting point of the Frances Route on the historic Camino de Santiago. I wanted to walk over the Pyrenees and see those deep valleys and steep, dark mountains for myself.
In Europe and in every other major country in the world, the metric system rules. Did you know that the U.S. is in the same tippy boat as Myanmar and Liberia which still uses its own “customary” system of inches, feet, yards and miles? For a while, kilometers meant nothing to me, until I walked twenty-seven of them in one day carrying an ill-fitting backpack and enough water for a caravan of camels. After that first day of hiking the Pyrenees, I got really interested in kilometers and found I could make the conversion to miles in my sleep.
Arriving that evening to the thirteenth century-castle-turned pilgrimage-hostel of Roncesvalles, I had a more reality-tinged appreciation for what it must have been like for Roland and Oliver after they battled those Saracens. The Pyrenees were probably beautiful, but all I could see was one hiking boot shuffling in front of another hiking boot. Repeat that for about ten hours and the hostel, filled with the promise of a bed in a room with dozens of other tired, worn out pilgrims, was Valhalla. When I took off those hiking boots, I thought I would never, ever walk again. Mae was hardly fazed by the hike, but she’s young and her Carroll legs are in top shape. Mary, on the other hand, backpacks a lot and even she was pondering why she was spending her hard-earned vacation with a sister who was fulfilling an old college dream. I know “family first” and all that, but really? Fog-shrouded mountains in Spain worrying your “older” sister is going to die on the same trail where Roland bit the dust centuries ago? This is fun?
Well, the trip was fun, but not the kind of fun you have on the beaches of Biarritz. It was fun because after conquering the Pyrenees and after jettisoning the ill-fitting backpack we hit our stride and experienced a Camino that was uniquely ours.
The Frances Route is around 780 kilometers which, to the metric challenged, is almost 500 miles and takes about a month to hike. We didn’t have a month but we earned our “Compostella” in Santiago by hiking about a quarter of that and taking trains and buses to burn up distance. A “Compostella” is a document awarded to pilgrims in Santiago who complete at least 100 kilometers and we, by golly, did that.
The trip was fun for a lot more reasons. The “we ate here, and slept there” travel diaries are tedious for everyone except the traveler, so I’ll leave you with this. A “Camino” is a road or a way. To walk your Camino is to walk your own path, navigate your own life in your own way. Throughout our trip, our mantra became “Everyone walks their own Camino.” We reminded each other that taking a bus to shorten a distance or buying a new backpack to ease the journey was all part of walking our own walk. Spending two years in a foreign country learning about your capabilities as Mae has done in Prague will always be a key journey on her lifetime Camino. Similarly for Mary and me, we learned it’s never too late to step onto an unfamiliar Camino and continue the journey wherever it leads.
Madeleine DeAndreis-Ayres lives in Siskiyou County and wishes all a Buen Camino, especially her dad, Joe DeAndreis, who just celebrated 90 years of walking his own road.