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Lost and found: Walking 500 miles on the Camino de Santiago

On the hiking trail of the Camino de Santiago, 2010. (Courtesy Anne Gardner)
On the hiking trail of the Camino de Santiago, 2010. (Courtesy Anne Gardner)

“Just an hour,” we gently coaxed. “Just for an hour.”

In front of me stood six of my 14-year-old students. We had traveled to Spain during an early heatwave in June to hike the final 71 miles (115 kilometers) of the famed Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile path that winds its way through some of the country’s most scenic and rugged terrain.

Wide-eyed and eager, my gaggle of ramblers had made quick work of the first few days on the trail. But by the midway point, they had started to wilt. The hills, the temperature and the weight of their bulging backpacks were beginning to take a toll.

I recognized this same emotional precipice with a weary familiarity, for 12 years prior I had come to Spain with the intention of walking the Camino in its entirety. That decision had all the hallmarks of a full-blown midlife crisis. I was on the cusp of turning 50. My mother had died a few months earlier. Suddenly the trajectory of my life felt predictable and staid. Overwhelmed with sadness and missing the cornerstone on which I had always relied, I was like a fish out of water, flailing and gasping for air. But instead of turning to Botox, or indulging in shopping sprees or distracting myself with work, I told my wife I wanted to walk 500 miles.

Somehow, she knew enough not to try and talk me out of it.

The author walking outside Pamplona, Spain, 2010. (Courtesy Anne Gardner)
The author walking outside Pamplona, Spain, 2010. (Courtesy Anne Gardner)

The created world has always been my compass. When I needed clarity or solace, I turned to the woods. I swam in the ocean. In the silence of the wilderness, the answers I sought made themselves known. And now, at a crossroad of such significance, I felt as if I needed an adventure of epic proportions to find my way back.

For 37 days I walked the Camino with a small tribe of hikers. I had always found ambulation to be a peaceful and meditative practice. But the punishing climbs and searing heat set me back on my heels. As one day blurred into the next, I felt like I was bleeding to death from paper cuts, slowly drained of my resolve.

Surprisingly, it was not my body that betrayed me; it acclimated to the physical demands of the pilgrimage with relative ease. No, it was an emotional war the Camino called upon me to wage. The silence I so often craved was now deafening, filled with an endless hum of grief and regret. Until the day I decided, I had carried it all for long enough. It just took a little space to find my way there.

A wooded trail sheltered by Eucalyptus trees, outside Melide, Spain, June 2022. (Courtesy Anne Gardner)
A wooded trail sheltered by Eucalyptus trees, outside Melide, Spain, June 2022. (Courtesy Anne Gardner)

So, when I saw my students begin to flounder, I reached into my well-worn toolbox for my oldest trick. Up until that point, the group had largely walked together. Like a slow-moving amoeba, they traversed the miles hip to hip, as teenagers do, never wanting to be far from the social center. But another dynamic also seemed to be at play. Governed by parents who frequently accessed their texts, their emails, even tracked their location, those in the group didn’t seem to wonder what it might feel like to be untethered. They were so accustomed to being watched, even by those with the best of intentions, they had given over to their invisible cages without much of a fight.

The next morning, we announced they would each be hiking on their own. Just for an hour. Separated by a 15-minute staggered start, each would have a chance to experience the trail in solitude. Our announcement was met with both disbelief and discomfort. We were in uncharted waters now. Raised in a world of hyper-connectivity, I might as well have told them they were being sent to the moon.

At the end of our experiment, though, it was clear a shift had occurred. A gleam of confidence imbued their complexions. Even the most reticent asked if they could walk other stretches of the trail alone. Like fairy dust, all of that silence had worked its magic, just as it had always done for me.

It can be hard to hear the wisdom of one’s interior life in the cacophony of our contemporary world. So much of what surrounds us seems broken beyond repair, blaring its call of distress by way of our cell phones and televisions and social media accounts.

But what might happen if, just for an hour, all of us took a step away from our globe’s swirling cyclone of worry and gave ourselves over to beauty, and adventure, and silence?

Maybe that’s all we need to find our very own sliver of magic.

The end of the Camino, where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, Finisterre, Spain. June 2022. (Courtesy Anne Gardner)
The end of the Camino, where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, Finisterre, Spain. June 2022. (Courtesy Anne Gardner)

Anne Gardner's debut book, "And So I Walked: Reflections on Chance, Choice, and the Camino de Santiago," (Adelaide Books, NY/Lisbon), was published in March 2022.

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Related:

Anne Gardner Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Anne Gardner is an Episcopal minister and author of "And So I Walked: Reflections on Chance, Choice, and the Camino de Santiago."

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