Stories from the Long Walk

A transcendent moment on a long, dusty road

Charlotte Fertey // Columnist

When I decided to join my mother on the long walk in Spain, known as the Camino de Santiago, I was excited to escape the damp autumn in Vancouver and spend it outside in the sun. Most of all, I was excited about the adventure. 

For many, the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage is about seeking or discovering or questing. Some walk as a way of remembering, those who are grieving. Some walk with a partner, others walk alone—sisters, widows, long-lost and life-long friends. People walk as part of their religious beliefs or for a spiritual experience. There are individuals in crisis, freshly out of a marriage, recently left  a high ranking job—it’s people who need to escape. In just over a month of walking 20 to 30 kilometres a day, I met all of these people. As for my mother and I, we just wanted to walk together.

The word “pilgrimage” usually suggests a religious or spiritual connotation to attain a closer connection with a higher being, or to encounter God. The Camino’s origin is both religious and spiritual, but that is not always what draws people. 

On the Camino, you will undoubtedly encounter a wide array of people such as the 19-year-old German girls ready to socialize over a few beers or the ever-quip-ready Irish folks laughing their way along the path. But ultimately, an air of reverence transcends the banter that happens along the way—most people had a quietness within them. There is something about walking all day, every day, only as fast as your feet can carry you, that brings moments of individual contemplation and bursts of pure, joyous laughter with others.

I opened them again to see a few plain wooden pews and a small stone altar covered with flowers and burning candles. Warm afternoon light from a small high window filtered in through the moted air. A light breeze tickled my face, and I breathed in the fragrance of incense and roses, feminine and soft.

I noticed those there with a purpose—to spread ashes along the Camino or on a personal spiritual journey—were quite serious. Given the physical nature of walking, it was remarkable how focused these individuals were. It was hard to comprehend not laughing or joining in for a glass of vino tinto and patatas bravas in a town square. It seemed those were the moments that made the long walk worth it; the socializing and the feeling of absolute satisfaction upon arrival in each town. 

Two weeks into walking, my mind slowed down to welcome every thought. My chest felt as if it had begun to open from the inside, and I could breathe more deeply. The air tasted sweeter. The blue chicory I walked by was seemingly bluer, and the pack on my back felt lighter.

This shift in my state of mind might have been a breakthrough but could easily be chalked up to sleep deprivation and genuine deliria from heat and all that walking.

After two weeks of walking, we came upon a fork in the road. There in the middle of nowhere, was an easily missed small stone chapel with its ancient stones crumbling at the edges.  My mother noted that the door had been locked both times she had walked by on previous trips. We walked across a small courtyard, under the terracotta tiled porch to peek in the small door window. To my mother’s delight, the heavy wooden door swung open. 

I left my backpack outside and stepped through the arched doorway onto the uneven stone floor. I stopped at the threshold—the atmosphere within was thick, palpable and heavy with the smell of incense and burning candles. The sweat on my back cooled with the absence of my pack. I closed my eyes and breathed. I opened them again to see a few plain wooden pews and a small stone altar covered with flowers and burning candles. Warm afternoon light from a small high window filtered in through the moted air. A light breeze tickled my face, and I breathed in the fragrance of incense and roses, feminine and soft.

Turning, I saw a tiny nun sitting in the chapel’s darkened back corner. She stood as I approached, took my hands in hers, and softly said a prayer in Spanish before laying her old, gentle hands on my head. After a few moments, she grasped a small medallion hung on a light blue thread and I bent down as she placed it around my neck.

She seemed to have stopped time with hardly a word spoken—the only time was now, the only place was here. I thanked her before turning back to the front of the chapel. I sat in the nearest pew as hot tears stung my face. I could not stop the tears. I did not know where this wave of emotion had come from. Had I needed to have a big cry or was I just tired? It felt like quietude.

Later, when my face finally dried, I tried to understand why I had such a reaction in the chapel.

I considered the size and grandiosity of the churches and cathedrals we had visited over the last several days. Ornate buildings with breathtakingly beautiful stained glass and high ceilings, majestic pipe organs and echoing apses. None of them met me in the way that humble stone church had. As we walked on, I kept returning to the idea that perhaps I had found the kind of spiritual quietness—if only for a brief, weepy moment—that so many people seek when they embark on a journey far from home.

I sometimes reflect upon that day in the chapel as I walk to work in the mornings or back home in the evenings. I want to remember that at any moment I might be gifted with a return to that feeling of what I’ve come to call the “chapel feeling.” To be open to the possibility of finding something I did not expect or seek. Something that was waiting for me, a gift, if only I would push open the door and enter. 

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