Today my cousin asked me some questions about why I am going to walk El Camino. Let me share with you what I wrote to her.
Nosy? Hardly. Let me see what I can write about this decision. I've not done this so far - but I've talked about it with some friends but have not really tried to put it altogether.
El Camino de Santiago de Compostela has been whispering in my ears for years. I'm not sure when I first heard it, but each time it would come up, I would pretty quickly dismiss it as curiously interesting but not for me - too late for me and not really consistent with my untraditional beliefs. Still, it would whisper from time to time. I spoke with some people who had done it, and I let it go.
About the time I retired, I was hosting a grooms party for a friend of mine who was getting married. At this event, I ran into two men I had known from a distance while I was teaching at UNCC. We had a very animated conversation, energized by learning that each of us was retiring. I suggested we meet for coffee in a few weeks, and that started a conversation that has happened monthly for the past seven years! Jeff and Denny are both quakers, and Jeff had taught in the Religious Studies Department. As one who pretty constantly reflects on spiritual experience, I was stimulated especially when our discussion turned to spiritual life. Absent a community of others who share my spiritual questions, I began to think about some sort of pilgrimage where I might grow in my understanding of my own spiritual experience. Both of them have made some pilgrimages over the years but mostly of shorter distance than El Camino.
The Camino continued to whisper. Only it began to ask me to walk it alone.
Alone is one of the things that is really scary to me. It is one of my BIG FEARS! How could I possibly take those fears with me on such a demanding task? Why would I want to do that (Besides the fact that I do not know anyone who would be silly enough to put up with my grumbling for over a month).
All the while, I have also been reflecting on my own experience of aging. I miss the possibility of youth - even that of being 50 or 60. Somehow at 70, the possibilities do not seem so compelling. "Is that part of my life over?" I wondered. As I experience some physical decline, "Am I on the slope that just goes down until I die?" My brother, Ed, said to me, "Boo, after you turn 70, it is all downhill." Did I believe that, or even accept it? I think I began to act as if that was my trajectory, and I sort of began rocking into my old age, not happy about what was happening, but feeling like it is inevitable. Glaucoma had taken some of my vision, lack of exercise had added some weight, and fatigue was abundant. For a while I tried to return to running, but as much as I tried, I felt like I was shuffling along (ruffling I called it), and I wondered when I would go fast enough to really call it running. I felt so foolish going so slow and eventually just started walking.
The whispers of the Camino seemed even more silly then. It was TOO LATE I would yell back. I am TOO OLD. Why do you want me to do this ALONE! I do not know anyone else who would attempt something as foolish as this!
Last winter, I mentioned my curiosity about El Camino to my friend Mary. She encouraged me to get in touch with her friend Kevin who had walked it last September when he retired. I had met Kevin a few times, mostly when I was thinking about buying his house, across the street from Mary and her husband, Phil. So Kevin and I had coffee. And do you know what he did?
He kicked me right out of my rocking chair! He said something like, "The Camino is obviously not going to leave you alone. You'd best go and do it so it will get quiet!" And, he said "OLD? You are NOT too old to do this."
"Well, maybe not?" "Why not?"
I began to think about it and to walk a bit. I even mentioned it to my college buddy with whom I had shared many preposterous adventures over the years. Bill Davidson said "Doggone it! I have waited until I am too old to do this. Good for you! I am so jealous!" Hmmmmm
The whisper got louder and began to direct me towards action. I met with Kevin again, and he had the nerve to bring me walking sticks, as if I were actually going to do this! Through our conversations, I gradually began to meet others who were wondering about the same thing. And we started meeting monthly. The group grew....some who had done it, some who were planning, and some who were wondering (I was now in the planning group). I began to see this as both a spiritual and physical event. Another good friend said, "Just tell people you are a spiritual being doing a physical task." That sounds pretty right on target for me, even though my spiritual life is certainly not in the mainstream, and not really well developed, mostly just "felt" off and on.
As I started walking around Charlotte, I was really mortified. I felt like I looked like some sort of nut case or terrorist with my big red backpack and walking sticks. Surely people thought I was escaping from some sort of institution. But, you know what happened? People started stopping and asking me what I was up to (maybe a sanity check?). And they listened when I would talk a bit about it. One woman ran out of the auto inspection store on South Boulevard shouting "Sir! Sir! Would you stop for a minute? I see you walking all of town and just want to know what you are doing!" Another young man stopped me as I was walking into Freedom Park and asked the same thing. As we chatted, he told me that he was going hiking in the Grand Canyon soon. Weeks later as I was pilgriming earnestly along Willow Oak Dr, a car came up, slowed down, and the window went down, and there he was, wanting to know how I was doing and eager to tell me about his trip to the Canyon! All these people - always encouraging, always interested, also supportive and curious - never acting like I am some sort of nut case! And the others who were now meeting monthly at a nearby REI store? EXACTLY the same. I had stumbled into a community I did not know existed - one that is real and local, and another that is virtual (American Pilgrims on the Camino - APOC). Astonishing!
I've walked well over 700 miles since the end of August. Sometimes my feet hurt, and sometimes I kick over my camino worry box and freak out! I have learned that I am most anxious when I am trying to control and experience that cannot be controlled. I have learned that I do best when I get prepared but leave my expectations unformed. I have learned that many believe the Camino will provide whatever is needed, and that some things are going to challenge me. However, other things are going to excite me beyond measure. I will be walking along with the millions who have walked before me over the past 1000 years. How often does one have a chance to do that? To experience (in a different form of course) something that they also experienced? I have learned that people along the camino tend to be very kind (one writers suggests they are so kind because everyone's feet hurt - i.e. that our suffering is similar so kindness is understood and expressed more directly).
My life feels renewed - energized - connected. While I still wonder how it will be to walk away from my grandson and his wife in Pamplona, I know that I will not really be alone. There will be other pilgrims all around me. And there will be five from the Charlotte Pilgrim group behind me. And my friend, Bill Davidson? He has organized a group from Memphis that will walk the last 100 K - not too far ahead of me - and may also come back and meet me as I near Santiago! I guess he is too old to do the whole thing (he is only four months older than me), but not too old to celebrate with me. I will be surrounded by this new community, people I am connected with in a very unique way.
So, there you go. An attempt to express some of the experience of El Camino. I used to think the camino would begin when I get to France. Now I know that it began years ago, more intensely in the past few months, and that it stretches out in front of me, still beckoning but no longer whispering.