When Linda Davidson and David Gitlitz led a group of pilgrims on foot across northern Spain in 1974, they were considered a pretty exotic bunch. Spanish TV was eager to interview them. Complete strangers came up and hailed "the American pilgrims."
Local folks in one village after another pressed into their hands bits of paper with prayers scribbled on them to take to the shrine at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The cathedral is believed to house the remains of St. James the Apostle, who is credited with evangelizing much of the West.
How Ms. Davidson and Mr. Gitlitz and their group of seven pilgrims would get to Santiago was open to question. At that time, there were no maps, no guidebooks, no pilgrim lodges. They asked lots of questions, slept in haylofts, and depended upon the kindness of strangers.
"In two months, we didn't see one other pilgrim," says Davidson, shaking her head in disbelief at the changes wrought in a quarter century.
Those days of solitude on the historic medieval pilgrimage trail are over. Now, the 500-mile-long Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is flooded with pilgrims during the warm months.
In 1998, some 40,000 pilgrims from five continents walked all or part of the trail. The same number walked into Santiago de Compostela - normally a city of 95,000 - during the month of August alone last year, a holy year. It was so designated when St. James Day falls on a Sunday. There were solitary strollers and hordes of school kids. There were church groups from Mexico with flutes and flags, bicyclists from Paris, and mountaineers from Switzerland and Brazil. There were cofradis, or brotherhoods, carrying larger-than-life puppets and colored banners and marching to the beat of drums.
The atmosphere of the carnival that characterized Santiago de Compostela in August was worlds away from that quiet trip Davidson and Gitlitz took in 1974.
"Actually, the crowds and commotion on the trail now are more like the Middle Ages," says Gitlitz, who, like his wife, Davidson, teaches Spanish language and literature at the University of Rhode Island. "The solitary experience we had was an [historical] aberration."
During the Middle Ages, pilgrims milled about the trail for months at a time, and, like their modern counterparts, not necessarily for reasons of faith, but sometimes just for a change of scenery.
"In the Middle Ages, it was difficult to obtain a passage of safe conduct, permission to move anywhere," says Xose Ramon Pousa Estevez, a professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela and author of several books on the Camino. "The pilgrimage was one way out, a sort of medieval tourism."
Clothed in traditional cloak and hat adorned with a shell that identified them as pilgrims, medieval "tourists" could enjoy a lengthy spell away from home along a protected route.
But why the popularity of pilgrimage in the modern age, when most people are free to move about as they choose? Why spend day after day with a heavy load on one's back, putting one foot in front of the other? Americans, in particular, are not known for their love of walking.
Pilgrims give different explanations for taking to the trail. They range from the Camino's appealing simplicity ("All there is to do is walk," said one pilgrim) to the desire to work out life decisions. But most come back to the idea of a healing solitude and the chance for reflection.
"We have so little time alone," says James Novak, a purchaser for restaurants in Madison, Wis., who's walked the Camino twice. "It's when you're alone that you start meditating, you become self-reflective. You start getting rid of the garbage in your life. It's not possible for that not to happen on the Camino."
For many people, a long walk is a chance to bookend a major event in their lives before moving on to another. Marie-Thrse Gross, a Swiss nurse who's worked in Rwanda and Pakistan as well as emergency rooms in Geneva, had a question: Should she uproot herself to go overseas again? She gave herself a solid month of walking to hear her inner answer.
Some are not seeking answers on the walk, but expressing gratitude. A recovered heroin addict from Madrid, for example, wanted to give thanks to Santiago; she's been clean for five years. Every step she took, said Maravilla Delgado, made her feel stronger about her decision and more confident about the future.
Even nonreligious pilgrims accept the idea that pilgrimage is a sort of praying with the feet, a patient gathering of conviction about the proper path one should take - next month, next year, or for life.
The pilgrimage usually holds a special appeal for the middle-aged, says Linda Galea, a Californian who found the experience life-changing. "It's for people who've finished a certain phase in their lives."
It's also a walk that's been done by millions since the 9th century. "Every pilgrim who sets foot on the Camino is aware of this historical weight, that they're repeating the steps of those who've gone before," says medieval history professor Lopez Alsina, a native of Santiago. "The miracle of Santiago is that it's something from the first millennium that's still alive and vital. Who will have heard of Guadeloupe or Lourdes a thousand years from now?"
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society