Sunday, August 3, 2014

Under the Spell of Santiago

    Almost 30 years ago, I spent a month trekking in Nepal with a group of travelers from Eugene. It was my first long-distance hiking experience and it was hard. I don't remember exactly how many days we walked or how many miles we covered. I do remember the rain, the leeches, the yak butter tea.
Camino de Santiago 2014

    And I remember the dove gray mist rolling into the high Himalayan village of Namche Bazaar at 3 pm. It moved swiftly and silently over the ridge where our tents were pitched, blanketing the village in stillness. I returned from that trip with hazy ribbons of mist still muffling my responses to the questions of family and friends: How was it? Did you like it? Did you see Everest? 

    I didn't know how to answer in simple phrases. My thoughts seemed wrapped in gauze. With two weeks remaining on the leave of absence I had taken from my newspaper reporting position, I retreated to the bedroom. I took along a can of paint. The bedroom needed an update and I wanted time alone for reflection.
      For a week, I brushed a quiet Himalayan mist across the walls of the room. Until I stepped back to view the project as I finished, I didn't realize what I had done. The soft gray shade I'd selected seemed to confirm an unrecognized yearning to linger a little longer in the contemplative quiet of the trek. 

    A similar yearning accompanied my return last month from 25 days on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. I haven't picked up a paint brush, but the rhythm of walking still courses in my body. After a month of re-entry, I'm still reluctant to break the spell. 

    The decades between these two walks--Nepal in 1985 and Spain in 2014--delivered many memorable trips and several distance walks. But these two evoked a contemplative stillness that goes deeper. I'm wondering if this experience reveals the impact of place. 

    In Nepal, the presence of hope and faith is unmistakable as one treks past stones carved with prayers and over passes decked with prayer flags. In Spain, the rituals of Christian theology created the Camino de Santiago (St. James' Way.) Symbols of devotion preside over the path today in monuments and lore. 

    I like to think it's possible, in Nepal and on the Camino, that a heritage of faith, or hope, or ritual, seeps up from sole to soul, day after day, to fuel a spiritual journey for walkers.

    All long walks deliver challenges and renewal for mind and body, whether the path is the Pacific Crest Trail, the Coast to Coast path in England, or the Camino de Santiago. Spirit, too, emerges. But there's a difference when the inner journey holds as much importance as the physical--the difference between a quest and a conquest. 

    If you are interested in reading more about my June walk on the Camino de Santiago, it's the topic of my  current "Not the Retiring Type" column in The Register Guard newspaper. 


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