In Spain, a 500-mile trek to self-discovery

Spain's 'El Camino de Santiago' pilgrimage teaches a college graduate important life lessons.

The strident chime of my wristwatch alarm slowly drags me to consciousness. Sighing, I turn off the alarm and look at my watch: 5:30 a.m. Time to get moving.

I cajole my weary body out of the sagging mattress and find the neighboring bunk in the darkness of the pilgrim's hostel, or refugio. Gently, I nudge the occupants of the top and bottom bunks. "Jamie, Kate. Time to get up," I whisper.

Kate answers with a low groan. "This is so not a vacation," she murmurs. Jamie and I chuckle, understanding her sentiments completely. Having just graduated from college, we are in the midst of a month-long foot journey across nearly 500 miles of northern Spain to the town of Santiago de Compostela, where the relics of the apostle St. James the Great rest in a medieval cathedral.

The path we follow, easily delineated by large yellow arrows pointing the way on buildings, signs, and the ground itself as we pass through the Spanish countryside, is known as El Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James. It was one of three major pilgrimage routes in medieval times (the other two being those to Rome and Jerusalem). Pilgrims have walked the Camino for more than a thousand years seeking reconciliation and enlightenment.

Today, the route is lined with communal hostels and annually traveled by some 100,000 pilgrims of different nationalities, ages, and religious beliefs. Most are motivated by religion, history, or simply a sense of adventure. For us, it is both a celebration of the completion of one life stage and a time to reflect and regroup before entering the next.

And so here we are, changing from pj's to trekking clothes by headlamp amid the surround-sound snoring of old French men and the gentle, early morning scuffle of travelers getting ready for another day's walk. I exchange pleasantries with those I have come to know over recent days, using a mix of English, my broken Spanish, and the 12 French words I know – or by smiles, nods, and "conversations" in Portuguese, Japanese, and Hungarian. You'd be surprised what two people can communicate without understanding a word coming out of the other's mouth.

Just before 6 a.m., we shoulder our packs and set off, eager to get as many miles ticked off as possible before the midday sun persuades us to adopt the local custom of siesta. Over the past weeks, we've walked over the Pyrenees, through woodlands, and past wheat fields and vineyards. Today will bring its own variation of the picturesque, lazy countryside of northern Spain.

By early afternoon, the sun is high in the open, blue sky, and the ground is baking. Jamie, Kate, and I arrive in another town and find the hostel, but not before indulging in our daily ice-cream bar (the modern Camino, while challenging, certainly has more comforts than it did in the medieval period). We shower, change into our second set of clothes, hand wash the day's dust-filled garments, and hang the clothes to dry in the afternoon sun.

For the rest of the day, we have nothing to do except rest, explore the quaint town, record our reflections in our journals, and converse with the pilgrims who trickle in throughout the afternoon. We end up outside, arrayed around a table with a gaggle of other walkers. There are seven countries represented, and conversations are flowing in a tangled web of three languages.

Planning this trip, I had expected to find many things on the journey: beautiful countryside and scenery, a slower pace of life, time to examine my life, maybe even spiritual enlightenment. But I didn't expect to find such wonderful people ready to share their lives with me.

We are all so different, but at the core, the differences fall away and there is only kinship and a connection that cannot be broken.

Kate was right. This is no vacation. A vacation is an escape from life, taking time out to relax. This is a journey deeper into life, learning more about the world, opening up to people and sharing your thoughts, your food, and your blister pads. It's about finding a universal language that people of all ages and nationalities can understand.

The Camino has its own lesson for each of us, and for me, it is this: In a world where our differences seem to be tearing us apart, there is more that unites us than divides us. We are more alike than we think.

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