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Trail Turns Hike into Pilgrimage

Rolling hills of wheat stretched as far as we could see. Not a single tree broke the curve of the horizon. No shade here from the heat of a windless day. But it was beautiful, and I was happy.

We could have been trekking through the wheat fields of central Oregon, an outing from the farm in The Dalles where my husband grew up. Instead, this walk had taken us to northern Spain.

Many pilgrims on the popular Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail dislike this section. The vast distances and openness of the high “meseta” challenge walkers with few villages and sparse shelter. My husband and I loved it. We were moving along an ancient path that pulled us into our own history.

Pilgrimage is sometimes defined as a journey that takes you out of a familiar environment and brings you home to yourself. Many walkers may travel the path, but each person’s journey is his or her own.

For most of a month, Dean and I shared the trail with a stream of travelers from around the world, all of us seeking individual goals, none of us escaping the reverberations of history, commitment, silence, and spirit that permeate the Camino de Santiago (St. James Way).

We walked in the footsteps of seekers who have journeyed these paths for 1,200 years to reach the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela and the tomb of St. James (Santiago), patron saint of Spain.

Popularized by the movie “The Way,” and by books like Paulo Coelho’s “Pilgrimage,” the Camino has seen a surge of pilgrims in recent years. Last year 215,880 people from around the world hiked, biked, or rode horses and donkeys to complete the pilgrimage and register at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Of those who registered, 15 percent were over 60.

The most popular route begins in France nearly 500 miles from Santiago de Compostela. But pilgrims set out from many points along the trail, choosing distances that suit fitness and time limits. Many join the Camino near the end to walk the final 60 miles, the minimum required to achieve the “Compostela” certificate of pilgrimage completion.

Somewhere along the trail

I transitioned from tourist to pilgrim.

Ten years ago, Dean and I trekked sections of this same trail—tourists, really, drawn to the Camino de Santiago by the appeal of a long walk. We logged about 120 miles that year but didn’t follow guidelines for achievement of the “Compostela.” We didn’t think a certificate mattered.

When we left, I knew that I’d go back. Somewhere along the trail, I’d transitioned from tourist to pilgrim. Not Catholic. Not seeking forgiveness or healing or a free pass from hell. A pilgrim engaged in the history and mystery of this spiritual tradition.

I wanted the “Compostela” certificate as confirmation of my participation in a time-honored quest.

For our return, we planned 20 walking days with five rest days spread between. We chose hotels over hostels and arranged a transport service for luggage. We began in Pamplona, not in France.

Still we encountered hurdles aplenty, both physical and spiritual, as we traveled 273 miles on foot, along trails that were sometimes country roads, sometimes steep, sometimes rocky, sometimes paved with stones that Romans set in place.

On the path, we walked beside pilgrims young and old, fit and unfit, alone and with companions.

Some, like the group of men from Valencia, walk the Camino one week at a time, traveling a section together each year. Some, like the retired Irish headmaster, set out to cover the full distance alone in transition to a new stage of life. We met empty-nest moms and a newly divorced dad. We met retires pursuing dreams put aside when goals were shaped by families and jobs.

By the close of our 13th day of walking, we’d logged 177 miles. We were ready to call it a day when we reached our lodging for the night, a rural posada in a village with half a dozen houses and two inns.

Surrender, Sacrifice and Service

With an element of Surprise

All afternoon I’d felt the insistent heat of the blister on my left foot, I pulled off my boots and fell on the bed of our small room in surrender. Tears of disappointment swelled in my eyes.My foot was red and swollen. Even I could see that I would need a day of rest, and perhaps medical attention as well. The fear of failure weighed heavy on my spirit.

We consoled ourselves with wine on a quiet patio as we contemplated options. Fellow pilgrims straggled in for the evening and two unlikely guests arrived by car. Stylish women with clean clothing and large suitcases.

At dinner, the women appeared in bright dresses and strappy high-heels—a sharp contrast to the tee shirts and sturdy sandals of pilgrims. I was intrigued and stopped at their table after eating. They were, I learned, friends from New Zealand. Professional women on vacation from families and careers. One of them was a physician.

Intrigue turned to amazement. A vacationing doctor in this small, pilgrims’ posada? A doctor with antibiotics in her bag? All I know is her first name: Angela! An angel who plucked me from despair with pills and a prescription to stay off the trail for a day.

Traditional interpretations of pilgrimage suggest that the classic components of a spiritual journey include surrender, sacrifice and service. Somewhere, these components must also include the capacity for surprise and wonder.

Surprise stayed close throughout our journey—so close that we coined “The Santiago Effect” to describe unexpected turns of fortune. The presence of a doctor at the next table. The storm that held off until we’d reached our hotel and then let loose with a fury that blew out electricity and flooded trails.

And then there was the unexpected reward picked up in the litter that dotted this venerable path. Even before we packed our bags, I decided that I would walk the Camino with the respect and appreciation I take to local trails. Here, I often carry a plastic bag and pick up stray bits of trash. It’s an act of service that makes me feel good.

As we prepared for this trip, I collected 20 of the long narrow plastic bags that our paper carrier uses to protect The Register-Guard. One bag a day as I walked, picking up trailside debris as a gesture of gratitude for health and time and resources to make a journey like this.

The "Santiago Effect" works wonders,

Transforming litter into a dividend

The project didn’t start well. The first day out, instead of gratitude, I felt the rage of righteous indignation. I was furious at pilgrims who’d come before me, strewing litter at every turn. Leaving the trail in disgrace!

Instead of respectful, I felt self-conscious and embarrassed. Before and behind me, walkers moved steadily along the trail. How must I look to them? An old lady picking up tissues, toilet paper and candy wrappers? In 30 minutes, my bag was full. I tied it to my daypack and surrendered to reality: I couldn’t clean it all and make my mileage goals.

On the following days, I battled the chaos in myself—outrage at extensive litter, anxiety about my bag-lady image, and the strong pull of my own commitment. Eventually, in the quiet, meditative openness that emerges on long walks, I remembered days when throwing beer cans into the ocean was common practice on family fishing trips. Tossing burger wrappers out the car window raised no eyebrows.

Gently, compassion softened my outrage. Not everyone grows up in nature, as I have. Not everyone has had opportunities to view cathedrals in the forest and altars in the mountains. Before long, I was allotting myself three bags a day-–filling the bag once and then emptying it in village trash cans as we passed. I’d refill the bag a bit later and dump again. No more than three bags a day in order to maintain an itinerary that averaged 14 miles of walking daily.

The litter ritual deepened my connection with the path. When I was fresh and energized, it gave me joy. When I was tired, it brought focus. The Santiago Effect or the impact of endorphins? All I can say for certain is that the litter picker picked up a new attitude.

“What you are doing is admirable,” acknowledged a walker who had stopped for a break beside the path one day. His voice was weary and his English deeply accented. “But, it’s useless, I’m sorry to say. It will be back tomorrow.”

“Useless?” I asked, looking up at him. “No. It’s not useless to me.”

Carolyn Scott Kortge is a former Register-Guard writer and editor

and author of "The Spirited Walker."Contact her at

Not the Retiring Type

by Carolyn Kortge

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