On the day you awaken fifteen kilometers outside of a thousand-year-old holy site holding the remains of the apostle St. James, patron saint of Spain, you might have a headache. You have been imagining this day since months before you started your two-and-a-half-month pilgrimage, since before you became injured, since before you gave up the bragging rights of walking across two countries. You decided, about a month ago, in the border between France and Spain, to finally listen to an injured body, to give up your dream of a perfect pilgrimage and submit to the still-mysterious experience offered to you, taking busses some days, walking others, resting others. That’s the exact word–submission–to a storyline, it turns out, that you didn’t control. Every day, you had to wake up and make the decision again. And again, the next day. Some days, you whispered your intention in arching Gothic cathedrals. Some days, you silently cried about it over cups of espresso. Some days, you laughed about it with new injured, window-shopping, irreverent pilgrim friends. Some days, you mumbled sarcastically about it as you were rudely awakened by hasty hostel hosts turning the bunkroom lights on at six am and telling everybody to “get walking” when you couldn’t walk. Oh, the irony. Some days, others unknowingly reinforced its importance for you; a nun saying “you are not a hiker. You are a searcher for God;” a local woman in Leon blessing the statue of a fatigued pilgrim right in front of you on her way to work. So on the day when you will arrive at your destination, you not only have to make that decision for the day; you must make it for the whole pilgrimage, and for the way it colors the rest of your life. No coffee included.


It was Halloween morning. I was dressed as a modern pilgrim, complete with compression socks for my aching shins, and Santiago was on the day’s itinerary. I stuffed my two-pound sleeping bag into my blue pack, so small I’ve seen others use it as a schoolbag, and walked into the darkness of the morning to meet Lisa and Jay from Connecticut and Margaret and James from Las Vegas.

The air hung low as we walked through the forest with eucalyptus trees outside of the town we had stayed in that night. I had taken a short, quiet shower at the albergue early that morning in an attempt to “cleanse” myself for Santiago, but now the dampness of my hair just seemed to make the dawn moisture cling more readily to me. My head ached. The tiny cookies I had eaten for breakfast had not broken the fast. I was still wrestling with a last bit of self-doubt. Small talk of the others buzzed around and through me. All night, I had tossed and turned, woken up, tried to sleep.

An hour and a half in, we stopped for coffee. I started to tell Lisa my worry, which was that when I got to Santiago I wouldn’t recognize what I had just accomplished and would be too caught up in what I did wrong. Everybody said, “Rebecca! You are going to be proud. You have to be.”

Finally, after coffee, I talked. We were talking about “the power of the camino,” a big buzzword with these friends. The whole point, they said, of the term is that the Camino has more power than most people expect. Many people flee. And many people stay. For days, in my anxiety over the end of the way and my grief over the injured shins, I had stayed silent, convinced that I in no way embodied the power of the Camino. But on this morning, I finally wanted to give myself credit. I said to them that there comes a moment when you have to make a choice. You can either submit to what the world gives you or keep attempting to control your life. Controlling hurts. It is violent. Submitting, asking, experiencing–there, you find fulfillment. There, you find peace. At least, that’s how I saw it on the Camino.

The whole city of Santiago, the whole pilgrimage, commemorates St. James the apostle. You have to make a choice about what to think about him, too. Throughout the centuries in Spain, he was hailed as a mythical military hero in their efforts to drive out the moors. This story appeals less and less to pilgrims, especially as many grow increasingly saddened by a decade and a half of war. The story of St. James that gives me hope is another one. They say that, after coming to gain converts in Galicia, James went back to Jerusalem where he was beheaded. His followers brought his body back to Galicia in a tiny boat. James was a man who, despite the ultimate weakness–his own mortality–had gotten to Galicia, with the help of friends. To me, this was the ultimate lesson of the Camino. In weakness, in brokenness, in times of the death of our old understandings of our identities, something–friends, the promise of incense lighted mostly to please tourists, cosmic dust, God, our own sheer determination–takes us to where we ask to go.

I gasped the first time I even caught sight of the Cathedral. We must have walked for forty minutes through the outskirts of town, and finally there we were, around a corner and in front of the Cathedral. A bagpipe played, and people all around said hello and took pictures in the front square. I did cry. I did feel proud, even with the front of the Cathedral bandaged with scaffolding.

I ran into an Australian lady I had met two days before. “Well done, Rebecca,” she said, the second she saw me, mid sentence in a conversation with a man. “You’ll have this for the rest of your life.” She hugged me and looked at me with eyes of awe. I did not battle a life-threatening illness. I did not save a country. I did not even walk a thousand miles, as I set out to do. But on the Camino, the fabric of the world, the pattern of strings that weaves us together, sits right around all our shoulders, even as we battle exhaustion and confusion and loneliness. Victories, tragedies, inner battles, become visible to us and deepen themselves in us. And as they deepen inside of us, we begin to recognize them in others. Every world seems bigger, every life raw and rich and full of struggle. This lady saw my Camino. And so did I, finally.

We went to the pilgrims’ office and stood around waiting in line for our Compostela, the certificates of the completion of the Camino. It seemed like an ironic place for such an emotional moment, so clerical and formal and sterile. It reminded me of a similar moment, and I searched around for another time when I had cried in a drab and formal place. Then it came to me–I had been crying and shaking when I stepped into the airport in Missoula. That really made me cry. When I got my Compostela, they marked me as having come one thousand miles, all the way from Le Puy. No questions asked, no scrutiny, no judgment–only recognition of a long, hard, beautiful journey. 


Walking for Love of a Mother: Rocamadour

Fourteen days into my sojourn on a Camino de Santiago route starting from Le Puy (close to Lyon) in France, already stunned by language barriers and surprise blisters and a rainstorm, I decided to scare myself even more. I turned off the customary Camino route to take a six-day walking detour to the cliff-side city of Rocamadour. Essentially, I completed a pilgrimage within a pilgrimage.

Situated in a canyon on a tributary of the Dordogne river, in the midst of the region of France with prehistoric cave paintings every few miles, the tiny town of Rocamadour boasts a chateau, a Black Madonna, a sanctuary built into a cliff, many local legends and relics, famous goat cheese, and a huge crowd of international tourists. It is said to be the resting place of St. Amadour. According to legend, he was also St. Zacchaeus, the tax collector who climbed into a Sycamore tree to see Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. They say in Rocamadour that after his conversion, he came to France with his wife, St. Veronica. At the end of his life,  he became a hermit, renaming himself Amadour—lover—and coming to the canyon of Rocamadour to dwell in a cave.


“That sounds beautiful, Rebecca,” you might have told me, “but couldn’t you save that for another trip? I mean, you’re already hiking a zillion miles in a foreign place on a path with many other beautiful towns, all on your own. That’s already hard. You could just skip this place.”

I agree. It was crazy to go there, if you look at it practically. But I had far more important reasons to go there than just sightseeing or school.

In the December before my trip, I told my Grandmother, another lover of travel and stories and grappling with doubt and trust, about my plan to walk the Camino from Le Puy. She walked into the other room and brought out a guidebook for Rocamadour. “I went here,” she said, rattling off the history of the place. “Go here,” she said, as if in her sentimental stupor she had forgotten the other nine hundred miles of my journey. But I told her I would go.

Three weeks later, I stood in the hospital room as Grammie Lu, the traveler, laughed excitedly about her last journey—into ashes. She had a heart attack, and she sat on a hospital bed for three days, waiting for her children to come and say farewell. Her nine children, their spouses, and most of her eighteen grandchildren huddled around her, sobbing and staring, walking in and out, pacing the halls, mindlessly buying food from the cafeteria. On January 6th, the traditional date for Three Kings’ Day (also called the Epiphany), she faded out and went to join her stars. She died on what I think should be a favorite day for a pilgrim, because it celebrates one of the most significant pilgrimages in all Christian lore—the journey of three powerful and rich and wise men to a homely stable to visit the miraculous birth of a baby. When she died, the pilgrimage felt more than ever like something more than a school trip or vacation. It became a quest to fill the void that she left in all of us.

I was talking to my friend Jane the other day about our shared love of the Epiphany. She says she likes the three kings because they did not just cross territorial boundaries to see a tiny baby—they crossed faith boundaries. Pilgrimage is the ultimate experience of being an outsider, of crossing cultural and linguistic and territorial and often religious boundaries, and searching still for a feeling of attachment and home.

I came to Rocamadour, paradoxically, to find a home, doubting every moment and every turn in the trail. There is nothing like the pull of family and friends—the pull of  a birth, the black vortex of a death—that draws people into a quest. The Cid, however brutal and violent and filled with the hatred of his time for moors, ultimately sought an end to his exile and a home with his family. The Three Kings gave up all their riches simply in order to see a newborn child. Perceval sought to rectify his actions in living up to his knightly legacy and understanding his family’s story by searching for the Holy Grail. Margery Kempe, a fifteenth-century pilgrim and mystic, mainly meditated on scenes involving the relationship between Jesus and his mother as a way of finding ultimate spiritual comfort. John McFarlane, a British environmental writer who sought to map out in a book the remaining wild places in the British isles, dedicated a significant portion of his writing to commemorating not only his experience on various islands and heaths, but also his relationship with a deceased nature lover and colleague. His book not only maps out physical locations, but also outlines the relationships and stories that make those places meaningful to him. The core lesson of pilgrimage, of all journeys with any sort of meaning, is that we are meant to do more than walk this earth. We are meant to find in it love, meaning, an antidote to doubt and loneliness, and a deeper relationship with all creation.

The whole week on the Rocamadour detour, for me, was one of wrestling between the extremes of doubt and trust. I could write you a book of testimony advocating both. On the first night after walking off the normal Camino route, I arrived in Lacapelle-Marival, a sizable town that had once been a site of tremendous power and wealth—as shown through its castle—that now only has two restaurants. I was greeted by a true ghost town as I myself walked through the ghosts of my past. I walked with my three new hostel companions for an hour until we found an open pizza place on the outside of town. I ate the “pizza mexicaine,” with green peppers and beef, and yearned for true Mexican food. “Well, this isn’t very magical,” I said to my Grandmother, wherever she was. “This is just eerie.” Then I looked up, past the city limits, to see an understated but elegant pink sunset. I chatted with Agnes and Denis, a recently retired couple from Paris, and Marie, a woman working on a doctoral thesis on the philosophy of biology.


The sleepy town of Lacapelle-Marival boasts a chateau!

I realized also that evening that the pilgrim hostels I thought would be available on my walk out of Rocamadour, as they were everywhere else, were well beyond my budget. I had almost no French skills, no companion, and no guide for this section. The women at the tourist office spoke no English and knew of nothing beyond their town. I had every right to feel deserted.

Everything about the walk to Rocamadour reminded me of my grandmother. Perhaps I willed it out of sheer desire to find her. Perhaps I saw her there because I was walking to a place she loved. Regardless, it was what I needed. When I left the Camino route to start on the variant to Rocamadour, I was escorted to the turn by an eighty-six-year-old woman—the exact age my grandmother would have been. In the mornings, walking through misty pastures of sheep enclosed in old stone walls, I saw into the photographs of the same scenes she hung in her house.


On the walk to the next town, the owner of the donation-only pilgrim hostel where I was headed had hung little signs on the Camino beckoning us to his place. One read, “the joy of the search surpasses the pleasure of the conquest.” I imagined Grammie Lu meditating, collecting the peace that had met her in those final days, led her through the ultimate transition. I thought of my own search, looking for that same peace. When I arrived at the hostel, I was greeted by opera music and violin concertos. I imagined my grandmother in a seat at a concert hall, binoculars aimed at the silk-clad and cashmere-voiced soloist with singular attention.


The next day, on the final short walk to Rocamadour, I left excited and humming, walking alone, waving to the cows and horses and sheep that stared at me on the side of the path.  I did not expect the descent. That’s the only way I can describe it—a descent. As I went farther into the canyon outside Rocamadour, the route started to feel longer. I walked alone, shrouded by trees from the sky, past old abandoned mills and caves where early pilgrims might have slept. “Your grandmother is dead.” That is what the canyon told me.

I climbed out of the desolation and into the bustling park at the foot of the Rocamadour canyon. A crowd of motorcyclists revved their engines. Hordes of children ran from picnic tables to lawns. I climbed the stairs up into Rocamadour, staring at tourists from everywhere in Europe who in turn stared into leatherware and pottery and soap shops. My grandmother would have gone into every one of those shops, but I just sat down to eat. Some British tourists sat nearby as I took out my pear and Rocamadour cheese and salami and chocolate–treats, to celebrate my Grammie Lu day. I wanted to speak to them, to finally speak a language fluently, but I could not bring myself to speak. I had been silent and terrified for too many hours.

It was hours before I could check into my hostel. I wandered around the town, toting my backpack like the vagabond I was, images of abandoned windmills and the shaded canyon seared into my head. I collapsed onto the bed in my rare single room at the hostel and turned straight to the WiFi connection, breaking the three days of no contact from home that I thought I would find empowering.  I shook as I recounted the story over the phone, and listened as it sounded more and more abstract. “Nobody will get it,” I told myself. “You’re just alone in Europe, and scared, and freaking yourself out, and nobody will ever understand this.” I looked out the tiny skylight window.

Denis, from the night before, rapped lightly on the door. “Would you like to have dinner with me and my wife?” He asked. “We are preparing dinner here in the kitchen.” I was not invisible. We settled into a slow evening, Denis and Agnes and I, I with little French, they with a bit more English, and inaugurated a friendship that lasted past our destinatuon point of Santiago de Compostela and continues in email inboxes. Staring out the skylights at hot air balloons crossing the canyon, cooking spaghetti on an old match-lit gas stove, I came home for the night.


I woke up late the next day and put on the one light dress I had snuck into my pack. I sat through a French mass in the sanctuary that seemed vaguely to be about Mary and yearned to play the violin I heard in the back. I ate an omelette slowly, trying to write something meaningful at the table, and ended up just writing about loneliness. I tried to shop like Grammie Lu would have. I tried to people watch like Grammie Lu, find something interesting to observe in the crowds. But everybody around me just sat there, smoking and eating, lost in their own conversations. I tried to find my grandmother, but all I saw was an empty plate and two tired legs.

So I walked out of the town, just a little bit. I walked up a footpath, intending to see the view from the castle at the top, but stopped a hundred feet up to walk into the ruins of an old stone house, impelled to sit. From it, you could look across the canyon at two caves high in the rock. I started to breathe, then started to write. I wrote about Amadour, the man who loved the world by sitting in a cave and cooking meager meals alone. I wrote about my grandmother, the woman who loved and loved and loved and then left the world, left nine children and their children. I wrote about her absence from me now, and her absence in her life–from bad events, from fully comprehending the struggles of a scary marriage and nine children. I wrote about idealism, how sometimes it wrecks your legs and leaves you defenseless in a canyon after days of smiling at sheep pastures in the hopes that the smiles will wipe out your isolation and anxiety. I wrote about how love sometimes makes you reckless. I wrote out my anger. I wrote fragments. I wrote entire paragraphs. I wrote words into circles. I drew stars. I wrote about the disillusionment of love. I wrote about being bereft. I wrote about a grandfather I never met, an angry one, who wrote poetry in secret late at night as my mother watched under a table.

I decided in the ruins of that house to remain an idealist and a lover, despite the shade that drowns us, that seems so all-encompassing and enclosing, in the canyons of our lives.

I stepped out of the still-intact doorway, breathing more deeply now, and walked slowly to the sanctuary with the Black Madonna. I sat down in front of the wall of flickering candles set against the actual wall of the cliff, lit as a prayer to a mother, and thought about my own grandmother. In the main sanctuary, an organ played one of her favorite Bach pieces–Sleepers Awake. I had awakened, left the canyon and, for a moment, found her.


The ornate but tiny chapel of the Black Madonna (Vierge Noire). The Black Madonna is the tiny figurine at the top of the altarpiece.

Works Referenced:

MacFarlane, Robert. The Wild Places. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.

Kempe, Margery. “The Book of Margery Kempe.” The Book of Margery Kempe: A New Translation, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Lynn Staley. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.

The Poem of the Cid. Ed. Ian Michael. Trans. Hamilton, Rita and Janet Perry. London: Penguin, 1975. Print.

de Troyes, Chrétien. “The Story of the Grail.” The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Trans. David Staines. Bloomingdale: Indiana UP, 1990. Print.

Ultreia–One Pilgrim’s Progress

For the last two months, my course materials have consisted of a tiny backpack filled with clothes and blister treatments, a pair of hiking shoes (recently exchanged for a new pair), and a foldable book of stamps from hostels and chapels. I am on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a medieval pilgrimage route that leads to a grand cathedral and the remains of St. James in the Galician city of Santiago. Its presence and importance in the history of Europe has its proof in the still intact walking routes that lead to Santiago from all parts of the continent. For some, it leads ninety kilometers beyond Santiago to the ocean at Finisterre, the place people once considered the end of the world. Traditionally, for people in Europe, the pilgrimage begins when you leave the front door of your house, and I have met pilgrims from Germany and Switzerland and Belgium who have done just that. While many know of the Camino Frances, which stretches through Navarre, La Rioja, Castilla, and Galicia, there are also some other very popular routes that lead through the northern coast of Spain, Portugal, and the western stretch of Spain. And then there are even more that lead from Paris, from eastern Germany, even from eastern Europe. I am staying here in Europe until my visa expires to do my best to complete, meet, learn about, struggle with, and come to love the route that takes me from the middle of France (Le Puy), connects me with the Camino Frances, and brings me to Santiago. Over the summer, I completed the bulk of twelve credits of independent study on the history of pilgrimage, pilgrimage literature from around Europe, the Divine Comedy, and nature writing themed around travel and spirituality. Now, I put my studies into practice and make my own journey, taking notes for my own collection of nature writing.

And I am indeed living my studies. Arnold van Gennep, a famous anthropologist, has a term for an experience like the Camino. He studied rites of passage and invented a word called “liminality” to describe periods in which people are suspended, temporarily separated, from their everyday lives in society. Every rite of passage, even the simple rite of walking through a door, has this step. Liminality is the sense of being caught in the middle, being separate from home and customary habits and activities, and at the same time recognizing the time on the threshold (limen is the Latin word) as something that will enrich one’s return to normalcy. Here on the Camino, I am living the words I read. I feel, often, completely detached from my normal life. For a month and a half, I walked through a country where I don’t speak the language. I felt detached from complete conversations as I sat through long meals with groups of five to fifteen social people. For many days, I walked alone for hours.  While I normally walk and hike with ease and speed, I have been walking bewildered, day after day, as I experience one leg problem after another. The slow walking has left me detached from my usual drive to move forward, to fill my days with productivity and force.

And yet, as lonely and difficult as this all looks on paper, this trip has left me feeling light and filled with a mysterious sense of joy. Every time I look back, I remember struggles, but mostly I feel filled with a sense of magic. I remember walking out of a canyon and into a city with a sanctuary built into a cliff. I remember hills of green and yellow and purple in the middle of rural France. I remember fresh, homemade sourdough bread at a donation-only pilgrim hostel. I remember watching old ladies in plain cardigans swaying along with gleeful smiles to a traditional African processional dance in an echoing stone church. I remember laughing with new friends about falling off my top bunk and miraculously landing on my less-injured foot. The route has been filled with unforeseen beauty. The difficulties, though demanding and exhausting, have taught me the importance of slowing down, of believing in the surprises to come, of trusting that not only the Camino, but life itself, will provide for us. I have realized in this trip how much the tiniest things–a bowl of soup, a phone call, a conversation, an open café after miles of rain–can mean to a person detached from home, from ordinary comfort, from usual sources of self confidence. And I have also started to suspect that those moments of relief happen more often than I have cared to notice before.

I came on this trip hoping to process a thing or two about the world, but I ended up learning more about something equally important–myself. Before I came, I spent months reading about the experiences of others on long journeys like this. I read about the experience of pilgrims in the Eleventh and Twelfth centuries in Europe, the Golden Age of pilgrimage, walking over the same bridges I have seen and themselves being confused by new languages and foods, delighted by taverns, and sometimes miraculously cured of ailments. I read of famous warriors like the Cid in Spain, exiled from his Lord’s kingdom, traversing what we now call northern Spain and regaining his wealth and renown through a series of battles with Moors. I just saw his tomb in the heart of his city of residence, Burgos. I read about Perceval leaving his mother’s home to pursue his knightly heritage. So here I am, smack in the middle of a route of extreme literary and historical significance…and every lesson reverberates back to my own life.  It was jolting at first– I felt misdirected, distracted. I was frustrated that I couldn’t focus on history and culture and writing down sagely thoughts because of the constant necessities of food and shelter and ice for my shin splints.

Yet the truth that I have come to see is that am not denying my studies or forgetting them– I am  enacting them, taking the stories I have read and experiencing them in my own flesh. This is not a walk in the park, and it never was supposed to be. I am enacting a central human experience, one imbedded in Catholic history, in philosophy and nature writing, in old European epics and romances, in anthropological studies on human passages. And at the core of all of these genres lies the centrality of the individual’s experience. I came not to study the Cid’s homecoming, but to walk through his home city myself, to feel in my own bones the immensity of the cathedral where he is entombed, to question on site the religious wars that made this Christian route possible. I came not to share commentary on Perceval’s determined quest for the Grail, but to be more ready to understand it by completing a journey of my own with all of its trials. I came not to learn about pilgrims, but to be one. I have come to believe that all art, all history, all thought, all human sharing, is meant to be internalized. It is meant to hit home not just in our heads and imaginations, but most importantly in our lives and physical experiences. 

Time has slowed. I am here for another month, and I feel already more tranquil than ever, despite unhelpful doctors and the necessity of taking busses and resting and the stubbornness of my own legs. The first and most important lesson of this pilgrimage–one that a fellow pilgrim and priest reminded me of the other day–is that everything is a pilgrimage, if we only recognize it as such. No matter if I walk or bus or fly to Zurich or wake up at home in bed, every day will continue to offer me sunsets and rainstorms and surprise friendships and brilliant stories–a mess of lessons and interactions, running through me and filling me, energizing me and feeding me. What good is a liberal arts education if we only use it to get a grade? Over here, I have finally settled down, stopped worrying about the speed or quality of my hiking or thoughts or speech or writing. Instead, the experience has started to flow through me, to impress itself upon me, and to give me lessons I never would have learned had I not gotten out of the way to see them.

There is a  pilgrim greeting here, one that has been uttered since the middle ages between pilgrims parting from one another–ultreia. It is Latin and translates, roughly, as “onward.” The traditional response is et suseia–“upward.” We sing it frequently in a song, which I have seen translated into French, English, Spanish, and German. It is the perfect way to describe what we do as pilgrims, as students of the world, as humans. Walking is a slow, wearying kind of progress–slower still with stubborn shin splints. But it is progress nonetheless. A symbol of our life stories, the slow pilgrimage leads us onward in a continuous way that, when we look back, does indeed flow into a melody. And, going onward, we rise upward into ourselves and into an ongoing love of the surprises the world throws at us.

Ultreia to you, wherever your journey takes you today!

Some pictures:


The city of Rocamadour, site of a black Madonna statue and the alleged (now empty) tomb of St. Zaccheus


Taking a rest at one of the many rest stops made and supplied with snacks and water by locals eager to help pilgrims


Morning mist


A night of song at a communal dinner in the middle of rural France