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500 Miles: Hiking the Camino de Santiago

500 Miles: Hiking the Camino de Santiago

How a sedentary writer ended up walking across Spain -- on foot.


I?d never been camping. I spoke only enough Spanish to order the mild salsa. The most hiking I?d ever done was to walk Runyon Canyon in Hollywood with the porn actors and reality-TV starlets and their little rat-dogs. And yet I packed up my life and set off on an honest-to-Pete pilgrimage, an arduous spiritual and physical quest called the?Camino de Santiago. So how the hell did I blunder into a lonely pasture, covered in mud, hungry and sunburnt and surrounded by Spanish cows, with only a backpack, walking stick and a tattered, rain-soaked guidebook as my tools? (And this was?after?I got stuck on the side of a French -- or was it Spanish? -- mountain in a snowstorm.)

I undertook this adventure just as I was about to turn 40 and wanted to celebrate by doing something very out-of-the-box. That?s when I heard about the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage across Northern Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela and the mind-blowing, has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed?Catedral de Santiago de Compostela?where the bones of St. James, one of Jesus' 12 original apostles, are said to be buried. For more than 1000 years, the Camino has been a religious journey, with tens of thousands of pilgrims, or?peregrinos, from around the world walking it every year.

I was conflicted about the religious aspect, but the older I got the more I felt the need to ponder my spiritual growth and relationship to god -- small "g" or large "G" -- outside of a Roman Catholic hierarchy that rejected me long ago. And to be honest, I'd been ground down by 18 years of working as a freelance writer chasing after forever-beyond-my-reach dreams in an impossible city called Los Angeles. I had lost some essential spark and hoped to find it again as I trudged over hill and dale across Northern Spain.

But that was before I got stuck on the side of a mountain.

They warned me about the mountain. The volunteers in the adorable French village of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port who greet arriving pilgrims proffer a warning. If you can tackle this mountain at the start of your Camino adventure, the rest will be a snap. That?s what they told me. When they didn?t?tell me -- what these lovely volunteers could not possibly have known -- was that the Pyrenees were about to experience their coldest, wettest weather for the region in 130 years.

When I set off that morning, pre-sunrise, the rain was already falling. An hour later, it was a downpour. By midday I was delirious with altitude sickness, soaked to the bone and feeling very sorry for myself as I clambered over mile after endless mile of rock and gravel -- in a hailstorm. By late afternoon, it began to snow. I lost my footing and toppled backwards into a giant mud puddle and could not get up. Several pilgrims passed, chins tucked into their chests against the wind, oblivious to my cries for help.

A few pathetic tears trickled down my scalp as I lay there, flat on my back, in a snowstorm in the middle of a Tolkein-esque forest on the side of a mountain somewhere in France?or had I already crossed into Spain?

Once I extricated myself from the side of that mountain -- once I got beyond my humiliation, knocked the mud from my boots, drank some water and found my way back to the pathway -- I found a certain simplicity of living took over if I allowed it. It was the start of a pattern that would recur continuously over the next six weeks. I started focusing on what I was doing right-the-fuck-now. Not tonight, not tomorrow or next week or next year, but?now. What I was doing in that moment is all that mattered. It?s all that ever matters. And oddly -- don?t ask me how it happens, but it does -- I found the decisions I needed to make about those bills and deadlines and everything came more easily. My anxiety about the past and the future melted away in the heat of the moment?what I going to do about my back taxes when I returned home wasn?t as crucially important as the blisters on my feet and how I was going to get to the next town before nightfall.

Or, you know, how I was going to extricate myself from a slowly freezing mud puddle in the middle of a snowstorm on the side of a French mountain (or was I already in Spain?).

For a second there, I lived in the moment. In the first of many small epiphanies I would experience over the next six weeks, I was excited to see what would happen next.

Photos and text ? Benjamin Scuglia. His memoir?Moving: Breaking Down and Growing Up on the Camino de Santiago,?is forthcoming. Find him on Twitter: @500Turtles.

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