Soul searching on Spain’s Way of St. James

January 31, 2013
Alpine Living | Anna RamiaThe Way of St. James

Alpine Living | Anna Ramia

All routes on The Way of St. James lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.

Richard Rush was a recently graduated student without a plan. He was visiting friends in Paris when he read about an enticing adventure in Spain – a pilgrimage known as the Way of St. James.

Rush decided that he had to go.

The Way of St. James is a pilgrimage route in Spain to where the remains of Saint James are supposedly buried.  Traditionally, pilgrims would travel directly from their houses to the pilgrimage site.  Today, modern day pilgrims can take any of several routes from different cities in Spain – and even different countries.  All routes lead to the same place: the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, an autonomous community in northwestern Spain.  The pilgrimage in general is called the Camino, which means road.

Rush started his journey at Saint Jean Pied de Port in France, which is right on the edge of the Pyrenees Mountains.  He took the French Way, one of the most popular and well-travelled routes. Rush met two other men at his starting location, one from Canada and another from Spain, whom he traveled a majority of the pilgrimage with.  Being an Italian minor as an undergraduate, Rush was able to communicate with the Spaniard; he said the Canadian man was a monk in training and was practicing his vow of silence.

What started as a whim brought on by a lust for adventure, the journey ended up being a good way to spend a month in Spain.

“I thought to myself, I want to stay in Europe for as long as I can, so why don’t I go on this walk,” Rush said.  “I’ll end up saving money.

All in all, he ended up spending about $350 for the month it took him to walk the route.  The hostels he stayed at cost about $2 a night, he said, and sometimes he could even spend the night at churches along the way. He ate simply, usually getting a baguette and some cheese in the cities he traveled through.

“When you woke up in the morning, you didn’t know where you were going to stay that night,” Rush said.  “As far as eating, it’s not like I felt like I was skimping – nobody was lavish on the food.”

Not only did Rush spend very little money during his trek, but he was also able to see a varied view of the country he was visiting. He walked through cities – Roncesvalles, Pamplona, and Ponferarrada were some of his favorites.  In the cities along the pilgrimage, there are shell symbols on the sides of building that signify which way to go depending on the direction they are tilted.  In the countryside, seeing rocks painted blue means you’re heading in the right direction – red rocks mean you’re going the wrong way.

“It started as something fun to do, but half way through I realized it became more of a challenge,” Rush said.

Rush has also walked the Appalachian Trail, and he said that as far as difficulty goes, the Camino Trail was easier, aside from his first day walking up the Pyrenees.  The Camino winds through smaller cities and that are more spread out.  Rush said he felt safer camping out on the Camino trail.

“In my opinion, the scenery on the Camino is hands down better than the Appalachian Trail if for no other reason that it’s primarily through incredible old Spanish towns and farmlands,” Rush said.

Yet the distinction between the two trails is the reason for hiking them.  Rush said that when he hiked the Appalachian Trail, his goal was to see how many miles he could hike in a day.  The Way of St. James, being a religious pilgrimage, is meant to be just as much a spiritual journey as a physical one.

Instead of “huffing it’ the way he did when he hiked the Appalachian Trail, he took his time in Spain and averaged about 30 miles a day.

“The Appalachian Trail is about where can I get today,” Rush said.  “Over there it was about what am I getting out of the day.”

Rush said that about halfway through his trip, he began to get into the spiritual aspect of the pilgrimage.  He read his Bible he had with him and spent time in prayer.

“It’s a pilgrimage with a spiritual goal,” Rush said.  “Even if that’s not your primary goal, it kind of ends up being just because everyone that’s walking has that in mind, so it just creates an atmosphere that heightens your awareness to that sort of thing.”

When Rush got close to the end goal, the people of Galicia clapped for him.

“I guess they just assume this guy looks scraggly and has a backpack so he’s got to be on the walk,” Rush said.

Brandon Wilson, award-winning author, explorer, and self-proclaimed pilgrim, first made the Way of St. James pilgrimage in 1999.  He thought it would be something interesting to do.

Now, 14 years later, Wilson has made pilgrimages his purpose in life.  He has done pilgrimages in over 15 countries and has written books on the subject.

“It changes you,” Wilson said.  “You get out of it what you want to get out of it.  You find solace no matter what your beliefs are.”

Wilson’s experience was different from Rush’s in that he saw many pilgrims along the way.   He saw pilgrims from the age of 12 to about 75.  In the summer and fall, thousands of pilgrims can be expected along the trail.  He met people from as far away as Africa, Brazil and Japan.  You can choose to walk with newfound friends or alone, but Wilson said there is camaraderie at night, when everyone comes together to eat and sleep.

He added that more and more Americans are drawn to the Camino.  It has become a bit more mainstream, especially with the 2010 Martin Sheen movie, The Way.

One such instance is the group American Pilgrims on the Camino.  This is an organization for Camino enthusiasts, or those who are just interested.  Their website,, offers information such as news about national and international gatherings and how to obtain a credential, which is a passport that you can get stamped along the Camino.  The group also has a Facebook page that allows those who are interested to get instant feedback to their questions.

Another resource for people who are considering trekking the Camino is the Confraternity of St. James, an association that serves to educate.  They are the publisher of guidebooks in English for the many routes.

“The Confraternity is significant because it understands that being a pilgrim and experiencing the Camino is an important journey for anyone to make,” said Marion Marples, the secretary of the Confraternity.  “We hope to convey that the Camino is a pilgrimage, not just another long walk.”

Not only does the Confraternity help people before the journey, they also help them afterwards.

“We also help them interpret the feelings and emotions they have on arrival in Santiago and coming home, when they may feel unsettled and out of kilter with the life they left behind.”

Marples said that Spain is a religious country overall, but younger people are rejecting faith.  The Camino, she said, gives younger people an opportunity to participate in a cultural phenomenon well know as a rite of passage.

Marples has been a Camino pilgrim, and one of her regrets is that she didn’t spend enough time alone.

“The main tip is to travel light,” Marples said.  “Then to travel at your own speed and take time to wonder, observe, care at everything around.  Slow down.”

Wilson agrees with Marple’s advice.  He says traveling light is a metaphor for life.

“You realize how much is necessary in your life,” Wilson said.  “You can’t carry a lot with you, and the extra weight weighs you down.”

Wilson, who was once a business man in the corporate world, discovered an entirely new way to travel.  After walking it, he strove for something more meaningful in life, and he desired to inform others.  Instead of seeing the sights like a normal tourist, Wilson appreciated the intimacy of the Camino.

“The Camino is about traveling outside while traveling within,” Wilson said.  “They say your Camino starts when you reach Santiago – you come home a different person, and that’s when the journey really begins.”

Rush said that during his month-long hike, he had plenty of time to think in solitude and come up with a game plan for the rest of his life.

“I spent a lot of time thinking and praying and planning for the future,” Rush said.  “When I got to the end of the walk, I was ready to take the next step.”

From Santiago de Compostela, Rush walked to Finisterre, a city on the coast of Spain.  He stayed there for a night and watched the sun rise the next morning. He then caught a bus to Madrid to sightsee the rest of Spain.

“Overall, my trip through the Camino was my favorite part of my trip through Spain, if not my entire trip to Europe,” Rush said.  “It took motivation, provided an opportunity to get in touch with my spirituality and gave me time to think about the future and making plans for the months to come in my life.”