In six hours, I leave for a 500-mile pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, also known as The Way of St. James or just The Way.
I remember when I saw my first pilgrim in Santiago, the official end point of the Camino, back in 2011 when I was visiting the Spanish city for the weekend. I’d just finished a year of working in France and had spent several months exploring afterwards, including spending the summer in Spain. I’d never heard of the pilgrimage before, but I quickly learned all about it as a steady stream of pilgrims with large backpacks and walking sticks made their way to the center of the square at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.
I remember being able to feel their joy and relief in a secondhand kind of way, how their smiles were visible from the other side of the huge square, how some fell to their knees at the end point, faces in hands as their tears fell. Most of all, I remember the way I felt a clutch in my chest at the sight of this all, at the thought of their long journey there as I learned how many of these pilgrims had been walking to this point for weeks or months. Some did it for religious reasons, others spiritual, and others as an adventure, a way to get to know a place intimately, uniquely. I heard many were seeking answers or healing or trying to reconnect with themselves, their purpose in life, or just trying to find more peace than they’d had.
I told myself, I am absolutely going to walk this one day. What an adventure it’d be.
Ten years passed. I thought of the Camino here and there but never got close to seriously considering it. How could I, what with work and life and all it demands. I couldn’t just leave for a month or more, and neither could my partner, who was trapped in medical school and then residency for years.
But in 2021, my Pipi died, my beloved grandfather. We didn’t know he was sick for long before he was in hospice, and then he was gone. I barely had time to fly from California to Michigan so I could say goodbye, see him one last time. One of the last things he said to me was about the memoir I’d published just several months before, on his birthday, actually. A happy accident. He was only half with it given the amount of morphine in his system, his light blue eyes coming in and out of focus. In a brief moment of lucidity, I asked him what he thought of my book, though he’d already told me how much he’d enjoyed it several months before, back before any of us knew about the cancer, but I didn’t know what else to talk about in that moment. Couldn’t put it down, he’d said weakly, and then he was gone again, staring off into nothing. I held his hand, paper thin now with a map of veins covering his skin, while kneeling next to the hospital bed set up in his living room. It was the last time I saw him alive. I love you so much, I told him. The buzz of the TV on in the background nearly drowned out his whispered reply: I love you too, dear.
For over 20 years, my Pipi had walked four miles a day five days a week, even since his wife, my Mimi, had died rather unexpectedly and too early in her 60s. It wouldn’t be until I was an adult in my late 20s when I finally asked Pipi more about why he walked so much. We all knew it was what he did first thing in the morning, usually around his neighborhood, but he moved to the local mall to walk indoors when the weather got bad.
We don’t really talk about hard things in my family, but one day, I found myself asking him why he started doing those walks even though I had an inkling.
Well, when Mimi died, he told me, I just… I thought I’d go crazy. I didn’t know what else to do, so I started walking, and it kept me from going crazy. And that was that. I was surprised he revealed that much.
When he died, and when our family continued to not really talk about hard things, like death and grieving, I found myself keeping so much on my insides that I thought I’d go crazy. I had a partner with whom I could share my grief and pain, but I found myself unable to express myself around my own family during the week I was in Michigan when we all were saying our goodbyes and then preparing for the funeral and then attending it and then going through his things. We remained mostly tight-lipped, thinking strength meant keeping our pain to ourselves so as not to burden or worry others, just like my Pipi believed, but I’d spent several years at that point doing and believing the opposite—I believed that by allowing my insides out, by being vulnerable and honest, by telling my truth, that was strength. But when we’re in our hometowns and around those we grew up with, we tend to revert back to old ways. That’s exactly what I did, at least until my husband and I got into the car and drove to his parents house at the end of the day of the funeral, and when we pulled into the driveway, a torrent of tears poured forth. I cried for so long and so hard that my eyes were nearly swollen shut by the end.
I came back to California like a wrung sponge, empty. Having not processed enough or in a healthy way, I found myself taking to a local trail every morning for several weeks, walking four miles, just like my Pipi did. I felt his presence so strongly that I’d often cry as I walked and walked and walked, until the dry desert path below me absorbed every last tear.
Within a few months, I felt a kind of clutch in my chest, and it didn’t take me long to identify what was going on. The Camino was calling me; I felt it like a pull, a tug. I didn’t have many words for it at the time, but I soon knew I wanted to walk the Camino with and for my Pipi.
By the next summer, I’d made the plans, bought some things, read the guidebooks. With a month left before I was supposed to go, I got COVID, and it was awful. It took a couple of weeks before I could peel myself off the couch, and then I still felt the weakest I’d ever felt as an adult. I canceled my Camino as I doubted I could walk a few miles without passing out, let alone 15 daily for five weeks while carrying a large backpack.
A year has since passed, and I’m at the edge of my second attempt. I leave in just hours, and I’ll spend around 40 days on this journey of… of what?
See, that’s the thing. I don’t have a nice and tidy way to sum it up. While it still feels very much rooted in “for and with my Pipi,” it has also stretched and grown to encompass so much more. My Pipi was Catholic, and that’s how I was raised, and the Camino is rooted in Catholicism (though open to anyone of any faith or tradition who wishes to walk it for any reason). I’ve noticed over the past year that my mind and heart keep turning to faith and its role in my life. Unlike my grandfather and some of the rest of my family, I didn’t stay Catholic, or even Christian. I practically demanded that I stop having to go to mass as a teenager because it didn’t make sense to me. I moved on to different kinds of churches like Goldilocks trying to find one that was just right. I was told from the beginning until the end that my incessant asking of questions in order to understand was a lack of faith. When I finally had the courage to start talking about my depression and asking for help, I was told it was the devil or the way I prayed wasn’t right. I was told I couldn’t bring my gay friend to youth group again unless he changes. It took years for me to realize that I just didn’t really believe in God at all, at least not in the way I grew up learning about the concept, and so I started the work on coming to peace with that.
Pipi dying tore the lid off all of that though, and when I made the commitment to this Camino, it turned out to be a commitment to sorting through the contents within. They say your pilgrimage starts as soon as you decide to do it, not when you take your first step, and I’ve been living the truth of that these past months as questions continue to surface: what does it mean to be Catholic, to have left the church but still have the roots that I have? What does it mean to light candles in churches along the Way in memory of my loved ones and attend pilgrim’s mass and sit in the wooden pews and meditate but not identify anymore with the system of belief it represents? What does it mean that I want to participate in these rituals but “am not in good standing with the church?” Why do I feel so drawn to the place that ultimately rejected me when I questioned it too much? Will it help me feel closer to my Pipi and family and ancestors?
What am I really looking for in all of this?
In six hours, I’ll be buckling in on my flight to Paris. I’ll then strap on and tie my hiking shoes in the foothills of St. Jean Pied-de-Port. And then I’ll hope (will I pray?) that in 500 miles, I’ll find some answers, but I suspect more questions than answers will emerge. Perhaps it’s more about finding a sense of peace when it comes to the things we can’t get answers to… or maybe that’s the answer? We might not ever know some things, which I find very annoying, but it’s also very human.
Time to go.