It started with the Wife of Bath.
I was about 17 years old when I first read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I felt a strong kinship with the Wife because of her fierce independence and the gap in her two front teeth (qualities that I share).
I was drawn to the camaraderie that developed between her and the other pilgrims in the book. A vague notion of some day making my own pilgrimage planted itself somewhere deep in my brain.
Fast forward three decades. I was nearing 50. My life had been full; often overly full as I juggled two jobs, a marriage, and three children.
I thought about what it would be like to face each day with no set agenda, no scheduled meetings and no deadlines. I dreamed about having the chance to just walk and become reacquainted with myself.
I remembered the Wife of Bath.
So it was that in the spring of 2010, I found myself walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. It’s an 800-kilometre pilgrimage that, in its heyday, attracted half a million people a year. They were drawn to the apostle St. James, who is said to be buried in Santiago.
Today thousands of people still walk the Camino, although many of them for reasons other than to receive absolution or witness miracles at the saint’s tomb.
It was a given that this would be a special journey for me. However I could not have predicted the peace and gratitude I felt as I walked for hours with my own thoughts, shared simple meals and sleeping quarters with up to 100 people at a time, and forged friendships with fellow pilgrims from every corner of the world.
These excerpts from my journal give some insight into my Camino life:
April 14, 2010 – By the time I had returned to the hostel (albergue) from dinner, there were about 80 to 90 people making bedtime preparations. I climbed onto my top bunk, ensuring I had my ear plugs, and fell asleep fairly quickly.
At some point, I awoke. Ear plugs or not, there was a lot going on in that room. A friend’s sage advice had been to turn the sounds of snoring into beautiful music.
From deep inside my sleeping bag I pulled out an imaginary conductor’s wand and willed the orchestra to follow my cues. The difficulty was not being able to determine the time signature of this symphonic piece. Was it 4/4 time? No. 6/8 time? Definitely not. It wasn’t waltz time either.
I fell asleep trying to analyze the pattern.
April 16, 2010 – Once again this morning I was on the trail by 6:30.
I travelled with the Arga River on my right, a stunning show of wildflowers on my left, and the music of song birds all around. I stopped to have breakfast on the trail.
Four horses dined with me – they on grass, me on a ham and cheese sandwich. When I resumed hiking, one of them kept pace with me for quite some time, walking right beside me like a human companion. One of the Camino’s little gifts.
May 4, 2010 – I knew I was tired. Sleeping in albergues, it’s rare to get a good night’s rest. However, I didn’t know how tired I really was until this morning.
I stopped on the way out of Granon to fill my water bottle at a public fountain. The sky looked grey and I wondered if it would rain. I debated whether to put on my raincoat.
Just then, as if in reply to my question, a heavy sprinkling of water hit me head on, soaking my pants and t-shirt. I quickly dug around in my pack for my coat.
Then the rain suddenly stopped. A few seconds later, another big splash of water hit me. Again it was short-lived.
“What a strange rainfall,” I thought to myself as I struggled into my coat. Then I noticed something on the grass. Right in front of me. Not three feet away. An oscillating sprinkler. And it was turned on. That was my rain shower.
Whitehorse writer Janet Patterson was runner-up in this year’s Foreign Correspondent competition. She and her son recently vacationed in Italy.