Melanie Radzicki McManus ’83 at journey's end in Santiago, Spain.
Running the pilgrim path
By Melanie Radzicki McManus ’83
Adventures for body and soul on the holy route to Santiago de Compostela
I was getting pretty good at flagging down cars and asking strangers for directions. And after just a few hours on the trail, even the slightest hint of yellow – the color of the trail markers – caught my eye. I was running the last 109 kilometers of Spain’s Via de la Plata, an ancient, 1,000-kilometer pilgrimage route stretching from Seville in southern Spain to Santiago de Compostela in the north, said to be the resting place of St. James’ bones.
I’d been drawn to tackling the Camino, as it’s commonly called, for several reasons. It’s not an easy hike, and I like challenges. (In fact, I decided to run it because I was told by Spanish tourism folks that, well, no one does that.) The journey would also afford me time for reflection and introspection, important practices I’d too often pushed aside as a working mom. And I liked the idea of spending four days in prayer for others. So after gathering intentions from family and friends, I packed my running duds and headed to Ourense, my starting point on the Via de la Plata.
Pilgrims have been flocking to Santiago to worship ever since St. James’ supposed remains were discovered in the area in 813 A.D.
The pilgrimage’s popularity peaked in the Middle Ages, then steadily declined; by 1986, only 2,500 made the trek annually. But in 1987 the various trails were collectively declared the first European Cultural Route, then named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and interest in the ancient pilgrimage revived. Today more than 100,000 folks make some portion of the hike annually. In Holy or Jubilee Years, when St. James’ July 25 birthday falls on a Sunday, pilgrim numbers double. (This year is a Holy Year.)
The guidebooks say it’s virtually impossible to get lost on the Camino. Never listen to guidebooks. While the route is generally well-marked with bright yellow arrows and conch shells (the latter the symbol of both pilgrim and Camino), there are surprising gaps in the signage, and more than a few terribly faded arrows. Fellow pilgrims sometimes helpfully arrange stones in the shape of arrows to point the way on more remote stretches.
The trail meandered through picturesque Spanish hamlets and small farms, plunged deep into soft pine forests, then up and down rocky, mountainous terrain. You never knew what lay around the corner: a snarling dog, an ageing farmer slowly leading his cows out to pasture, a pierced teen gazing askance at the crazy, middle-aged woman running through town. Elderly gentlemen tipped their boinas, or berets, at me, wishing me a “Buen camino.” One insisted I take photos of his pumpkins.
I’d heard little miracles happen when you walk the Camino, and it was true. When I needed water in a tiny burg, deserted because it was siesta time, I suddenly spotted a man – who had keys to the town’s grocery in his pocket. When I was lost and didn’t understand a bartender’s directions back to the Camino, a patron got up and drove me there.
Even my prayers, which I’d carefully written out, seemed perfectly timed to my pilgrimage. I paused before a peaceful church cemetery, then saw my next intention was for a friend’s dying mother. I was admiring a cluster of colorful homes, then read a prayer request for the expeditious sale of a relative’s condo.
And every time I stopped to ask directions and was cheerfully given assistance, it was a gentle reminder we’re never alone, and God will always help us along the way.
To qualify for the prestigious Compostela, an official document certifying you’ve completed the Camino, you must hike or ride horseback at least the final 100 kilometers of one of the pilgrimage routes or bike at least the last 200. To prove you’ve done so, you must first obtain a credential, or pilgrim’s passport, then have it stamped once or twice daily along the route. (Hotels, restaurants, churches and the like all have stamps.) Credentials also afford access to the free albergues, or pilgrim hostels, along the way. Once you reach the pilgrim’s office adjacent to the cathedral in Santiago and show your passport, you’ll receive your Compostela, written in Latin. If you walk at least 100 kilometers of the Camino during this Holy Year, you’re also eligible for a Jubilee Indulgence. For more information, see www.americanpilgrims.com.
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