Faces, that’s all. Perfectly ordinary strangers. Besides their oversized backpacks and walking sticks, little else seemed worth noting about the line of individuals waiting at the pilgrim’s office in Santiago de Compostela that morning. They were not fascinating and neither was I as we kept to ourselves, each awaiting our official document from a desk at the end of the hall. All I knew was that these ordinary strangers had, in some fashion, completed a journey that I had yet to begin.
The line moved slowly as I waited with my colleague Andrew and the couple we had come to visit, Nate and Faith Walter. “That’s the Compostela right there,” said Nate at one point, motioning toward a one page official-looking document in the hands of a beaming traveler. “It’s what each pilgrim gets when they finish the Camino de Santiago.” I nodded as Nate continued to look about at the other pilgrims in line and Faith chatted with the traveler behind us. It struck me suddenly that Nate and Faith were keenly interested in these nameless individuals I had so quickly disregarded. These were no ordinary Camino pilgrims that surrounded us, because to Nate and Faith Walter, there is no such thing.
Our conversation from the previous day came flooding back into my mind as we waited. While sitting in their living room overlooking the city of Santiago, the Walters had shared the vision that caused them to leave Chicago five years ago and resettle their young family in the northwestern corner of Spain. “We really have a heart for travelers,” Nate explained as we sipped coffee together. “Those who are voluntarily displaced in some way. The reality is that most people walk the Camino because they are searching in one way or another; they’re at a kind of crossroad in life or hurting in some way. We want to reach out to that community and Santiago is really a perfect place to do that.”
As Nate said it, I wondered what he meant by “perfect place,” but Faith was a step ahead of me with a set of numbers. “Over the past 20 years the Camino de Santiago has really grown in popularity,” She explained. “Last year, 180,000 walked the trail, and in 2010, which was a holy year, it was 270,000. So, people from about 130 countries around the world come through Santiago every year.” I sat there slack-jawed for a moment. Who would have guessed this sleepy, rainy town in northern Spain would be a place where far-flung worlds collide every day?
“A lot of people don’t even know the basic history of the Camino though,” Nate added. So Andrew and I listened as the couple briefly explained the tale that started this well-known journey some 1,200 yeas ago. As the story goes, Saint James, the first recorded martyr in the Bible, was killed in Jerusalem and his body placed in a stone boat on the Mediterranean. According to legend, the boat floated from Jerusalem to the northwestern coast of Spain where the disciples of St. James discovered the body and buried it further inland. However, the tradition of pilgrimage did not officially begin until the early 9th century when his remains were again discovered in what has since become the city of Santiago de Compostela.
“For a lot of people, it’s not necessarily a religious journey,” Nate said. “But it seems like there’s always some element of searching that happens on the Camino. People are just open and that’s exciting to us.”
That reality has brought the Walters to the doorstep of a new venture: opening a welcome center called the Terra Nova Pilgrim House in the heart of the city this spring and eventually a hostel in the following years. “Right now there is little that welcomes and celebrates the pilgrims coming into Santiago,” said Nate. “It can be a real let down at the end of a life-changing journey. So we want there to be a place here where pilgrims can come together and celebrate. To rest, pray, process their experience, and find a little bit of home.”
A nudge from Nate and the voice of the elderly gentleman motioning us forward suddenly brought me back from my own thoughts to the line at the pilgrim office that morning. We approached the attendant behind the counter as Faith explained in Spanish how Andrew and I would be walking the Camino for seven days and needed our pilgrim credentials. “You get stamps from hostels, churches, and cafes all along the way,” Faith explained as I looked at the booklet questioningly. “You’ll bring it back here at the end to get your Compostela like all these other people.” I glanced back at the line of ordinary travelers behind us and realized their booklets were full. Maybe that alone made them not so ordinary.
As we prepared to leave, the attendant smiled at us and said two words that no Camino pilgrim ever forgets: “Buen Camino!”
* * *
Our first day on the Camino began in the lingering wane of moonlight, as we soon found most days did. The sleepy mountaintop town of O Cebreiro melted into the twilight as we set off down the path in a string of other pilgrims. “You’ll meet so many different people and have so many great conversations,” Nate and Faith had assured us. But as we took those first steps down the mountain, I wondered how that would happen. I didn’t have to wonder long.
We met Eugene after just 20 minutes. Pulling up to the tall, solitary man wearing a bucket hat, we said our traditional “Buen Camino’s,” but Eugene wanted more. “So what brings you two out on the Camino?” he asked as we evened our paces. We explained a bit and then turned the question back to him. Eugene sighed as if he was simply continuing some train of thought, something he was pulling together piece by piece. “Well, I’ve lived three quarters of my life now and I’ve got one to go,” he said matter-of-factly. “I keep asking myself if I want things to look the same and the answer I keep getting is no. Definitely no.”
He paused for a minute before continuing. “I’m tired and I guess that’s why I’m out here. Just to think. I go into all the churches in the towns along the way, get down on my knees and pray to whatever being is up there. I guess I believe there’s got to be a god, whoever he is.”
It wasn’t your average 10 minute conversation, and at first I assumed it was just Eugene. But I was wrong. It’s the Camino.
I spent the next day walking with a young girl from Finland named Jonna. As the road wound through towns, forests, and cornfields, so did our conversation. From politics to food to faith, we chatted and helped each other forget the blisters and aches that any pilgrim comes to know so well. This was Jonna’s fifth week on the Camino and at one point near the end of the day I asked her if any parts of the journey stood out. “I’ll remember more when I look at all the pictures,” she said with a laugh. And then after a moment, added, “You know, it’s funny how we never take pictures of the hardest parts. But those have meant a lot too.”
Jonna’s words stayed with me over the next few days. The more I walked, the more I realized that the Camino is very much a reflection of life itself: It’s a journey and most of it has nothing to do with the high points and scenic vistas that we put in our photo albums. It’s about plodding onward, facing the seemingly endless stretches, day after day, nursing wounds, and battling the demons we fruitlessly fight with the weak sword of distraction. We tend to hide our struggles because they don’t have a place in our photo albums. But somehow the there is no fear of struggle on the Camino. It binds pilgrims together and makes for beautiful, genuine, honest community. Because in reality, the struggle is what makes the journey precious.
By the fourth day, we had formed our own misfit band of pilgrims hailing from America, Holland, and Germany. We walked together and laughed much, talked deeply, soaked in silence, and even sang at times. At night, we bandaged each other’s feet, cooked each other meals, swapped stories, and shared our thoughts from the day. Some were on the Camino for the adventure, some were hurting for one reason or another, others had lost a loved one, but all had a story. And once we saw that, we became a part of each other’s story.
There was a hush about us all on the day we walked into Santiago. For Andrew and me, the journey had lasted just one week, but for most of our friends, it had been over a month and this strange but beautiful pattern of a new life was coming to an end. No one quite knew what to say as we neared the front of the iconic cathedral that marks the Camino’s close. Michelle flopped to the ground with tears of joy and sadness streaming down her face. Jeff just stood there with his eyes closed. Tim shook his head and smiled.
But then slowly, each person drifted his or her own way. Without a designated place to gather, it simply happened and as it did, I remembered Nate’s words: “The end can be anticlimactic in a way.” In that moment, I realized how truly beautiful and powerful Nate and Faith’s pilgrim house would be. A place to gather, a place to laugh and reminisce, a place to share and think, a place to pray and process. That was what I craved in that moment and I’m sure most pilgrims do. Because in the days following the Camino, every pilgrim returns to normal life in one way or another, but few return the same person. That delicate point of transition is where Nate and Faith want to reach out to travelers and be a blessing when they just might need it most.
Later that day, Andrew and I found ourselves once again waiting in line at the pilgrim’s office where we had been just eight days earlier. The same disheveled strangers lined the hall with the same oversized backpacks and walking sticks. But this time it was different. This time I saw what Nate and Faith saw and what drives their vision for serving in Santiago. There was nothing ordinary about the people around us because we had all walked the same road. And now, in some small way, we shared a bit of the same story. I suppose once you realize we all walk the same road in this life, you begin to see people in a whole new way.
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Please pray for Nate and Faith Walter and their team, that the Terra Nova Pilgrim House would have a smooth launch this spring and that pilgrims from around the world would be blessed by it. Also, the Walters are eager to talk with those who are interested in partnering with them, through prayer, financial support, or short term teams. Please don’t hesitate to contact them HERE any time and be sure to check out their website HERE to learn more about their work.
Take a tour of the Camino yourself through these photos