Contributed by CHCA '14 Alumni, Ellie Coggins. Ellie graduated in April 2018 summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from the University of Cincinnati and is now pursuing her Master of Arts in multimedia journalism from Syracuse University, where she'll graduate in spring 2019.
The first morning of my month-long hike was both breathtaking - beautiful mountain vistas overlooking plots of vast green farmland - and completely painful for me, as I followed the yellow arrows that were marked on the ground and painted onto tree trunks. My feet ached from the hiking boots that I should've worked harder to break in before I left home, and my back wasn't yet used to the extra weight of 15 pounds - everything I would need for the next five weeks - in a single backpack.
My muscles were already beginning to tire and my breathing became more shallow as I started the upward climb from the small, quaint town of St. Jean Pied-de-Port, located in southern France and one of the most popular starting points for the famous pilgrimage, into the Pyrenees Mountains.
The Camino, also known as the Way of St. James, has deep and significant historical roots, dating back to the middle ages. People from all over Europe would start from their doorsteps and make their way to Santiago on foot or by donkey, seeking Santiago, Spain, where the remains of the apostle James are believed to be housed at the cathedral. It used to be known for its danger, from the unpredictable weather of the Pyrenees to thieves who were waiting to prey on unsuspecting pilgrims. But for these pilgrims, this walk meant salvation, allowing them to be expunged of their sins when they reached Santiago.
Nowadays, people from all over the globe go on this hike for a variety of reasons, including a desire to renew their faith and to travel, and it's much safer than it once was. Thousands of people embark on this journey each year. From St. Jean, it's about 500 miles on foot if one follows the yellow arrows that guide the way to Santiago.
Since I was 15-years-old and sitting in my Christian studies class, I knew that this hike was something that I wanted to do one day. Mr. Bacon, my teacher at the time, showed us a movie in class called The Way, in which Martin Sheen's character goes on this famous walk to honor the death of his adventurous son who died while crossing the Pyrenees. Sheen's character was someone who never ventured outside of his comfort zone, and that resonated with me, especially as I was nearing the end of my college career. I had grown comfortable, even lazy to some degree, in my studies, relationships, and faith - and that scared me.
I decided to make that dream a reality, so over Christmas break of my senior year, I made the decision that I was going to hike the Camino after graduation. On April 30th of this year, three days after receiving my diploma, I was on a plane to Paris by myself, the scariest thing I've done in my life.
On that first day, I honestly regretted doing it. I felt alone and unsure of myself and realized how physically unprepared I was. Not only was the first stretch through the Pyrenees one of the longer days, but it was also mostly steep uphill with a short but sharp downhill at the end, the perfect recipe for painful joints. To make matters worse, I didn't realize there would be only one stop during the 17-mile first day of unpredictable weather. It started out sunny, but throughout eight hours, went through cycles of rain, fog, hail, snow, and wind - the only place I've ever experienced more weather changes in a short period of time than Ohio. I didn't pack food and was so weak and cold that two women found me crying next to the trail and stopped to help me make it to the end, giving me energy bars and gloves.
"You don't leave a pilgrim behind," one said to me. "It's not in the Camino spirit."
That night as I lay in bed, surrounded by 150 other people who had also completed their first day on the Camino, I held back tears as I thought about quitting and flying home. I refused to message home that night, scared that if I did, I would get homesick and want to quit even more. I decided to give it another day. It wasn't so much that I didn't want others to think I had failed; I couldn't bear the thought of carrying the knowledge that I had given up so quickly. I deserved more than quitting, so I decided to stay, for at least one more day.
The next morning, I woke up to singing and gentle guitar strumming from the Dutch volunteers that ran the albergue. "Good morning," their voices rang. "God bless you along the Way."
I had survived the hardest day, and their melody filled my soul with some needed warmth to get me out of bed. It also dawned on me that I was now in Spain; if I could walk from France to Spain, then I could handle at least one more day.
Shortly into the morning, I ended up running into a few familiar faces from the previous day. There were Jen and Francesca from England, and Whitlam from Australia. On a pilgrimage that is mostly middle-aged people, few of whom spoke English, meeting them provided incredible comfort, as probably some of the only young English-speakers who started the day as me. We even ran into Sam again, also from Australia, who joined us for the rest of the day's hike. That evening, we stayed at the same albergue and ended the night laughing at the insanity of the first day in the mountains.
From that point on, we spent literally every waking - and sleeping - moment together, getting up at 6 a.m. to start walking, reaching our destination around 3 p.m. after about 15 miles, then spending the rest of the evening eating dinner, wandering around the town we were in, napping, and hanging out in our albergues, usually sharing stories from back home over a bottle of Spanish red wine.
On the Camino, it's normal to walk with a group, but those groups are often fluid, adding individuals or losing some as pilgrims decide to take time to walk solo or meet others. We were a strange situation, having met so early yet settling into a solid group. We couldn't have been more different, from our personalities to our backgrounds, but somehow, we worked.
One woman we met near the end of the hike shared with us that this was her fourth Camino. When we told her that we had been together for almost four weeks, her smile radiated. "These people will become your Camino family," she assured us. "They'll be in your lives forever. I promise."
She was correct. The four of us became so close that they became more like family than friends.
Our time together was filled with so much joy that happy memories far outweigh the ones of painful blisters and sunburn. We raced down hills, usually Sam at the lead. We rated our daily orange juice and tortilla, a Spanish omelette. We'd each order different desserts so we could try one another's. We had blister popping "parties" every night, a gross but necessary activity, that became somewhat fun as we laughed at how gross our feet were. We sang with nuns at one of our albergues. When Francesca's boyfriend Dan and friend Josh from home joined us came the birth of the "Camino Games," silly guessing games that helped pass the time while walking. On our very last day, Sam blasted "I Would Walk 500 Miles" on her phone, and we laughed at the literalness and relatability of that song as we neared the end of our journey.
Amidst all the fun, we were also there for each other's lows. We suffered blisters, boredom, tears, and sickness together. One night I got food poisoning, and Francesca and Whitlam sat on the floor of the bathroom until I was better. We said an emotional goodbye to Francesca, Dan, and Josh as they had to leave early.
We all shared stories of struggles, from broken relationships to feelings of failure, with one another. At the beginning of the trip, before any of us knew the power of the Camino, we could never have imagined sharing so much of our lives with people who were practically strangers. But in an experience like the Camino, it felt only natural to do so. We couldn't have been four more different people, but on a journey like this one, all walls are torn down and differences bring you closer together, not farther apart.
The Camino is the trip for the "in-betweener" in life: the person between jobs or school, the person who experienced heartbreak, the person who just retired, the person wanting to see the world, the person looking for God. Most importantly, we all had the need to discover - or rediscover - our identities and purpose, the common thread that ties all pilgrims together.
In my daily life back home, I was so consumed by work, school, social life, family, and a whole host of other distractions that I had forgotten what it meant just to sit back and reflect. The Camino was the perfect opportunity to look back and examine my life to see what I had been missing because I was too busy to stop, be quiet, and think. There was no internet, Netflix, or social media to distract me, only the stillness of nature and the welcomed monotony of putting one foot in front of the other.
When I finally arrived in Santiago with my friends 34 days after beginning our journey, it was a bittersweet moment. It felt like the end of a dream. Rather than being thrilled that I could finally wash my clothes properly, sleep in, and take off my now well-worn hiking boots for good, I was sad that everything was over.
In retrospect, I realize that the end of the physical journey was actually just the beginning of my internal one. The dream that was planted in my mind in that class seven years ago isn't nearly over. I came out of my trip with a renewed faith, a yearning to be a lifelong traveler and student of the world, and a confidence I had never known before. I am thankful that I didn't listen to that little voice in my head that told me I was too weak to walk 500 miles or that I wasn't brave enough to go alone.
As incredible as it was to walk the historic streets of Pamplona, explore Gaudi-designed architecture, traverse through stunning vineyards, or look up in awe at the cathedral in Santiago, the most amazing part of my Camino was opening up my heart to others and recognizing the courage within me, even if it's only a single ounce of courage that will push me to take a step towards something - or someone - new.
At a church I stopped in along the way (I couldn't tell you where exactly, only that it was nestled on a hill and is the only church on the Camino that invites its visitors to ring its bells), a nun shared with me the blessing of the Way. Essentially, it describes the "Camino spirit," which guided us along our hike: live with less, be willing to help your neighbor, search for truth, be grateful, seek fellowship with others, and recognize that the journey is more important than the destination. Most importantly, slow down. Pause. Contemplate. Be quiet. Listen. And be amazed by all that surrounds you.