"My walk on the Camino de Santiago was nothing that I expected. It was one of the most anticipated parts of the trip, as well as one of the most memorable. And each day took its own new step into a story that I had no idea I was writing."
Last summer, 14 Saints joined Professors Irina Gendelman and Jeff Birkenstein on a three-day trek through sunflower fields, farmlands, cherry orchards, cities and mountain villages in the sizzling heat of Spain. Some hoisted 30-pound backpacks and most dealt with painful blisters on their feet after walking the equivalent of 10-12 miles per day.
“We got hot, sweaty and dirty,” recalls Birkenstein, an associate professor of English.
But the band of travelers became transformed after getting a taste of what it’s like to walk the Camino de Santiago, which has existed as a Christian pilgrimage for more than 1,000 years and is today walked by people of all faiths and no faith.
Three days — which took the group from Pamplona to Logrono in the Basque country — is a mere snippet compared to the 40 days it can normally take for pilgrims to complete the entire walk, composed of various routes that can stretch for hundreds of miles.
When Gendelman and Birkenstein first planned the backpacking trip through Spain and Morocco as a Study Abroad venture for students, they knew they wanted to include the Camino, which was considered one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during the medieval period. “We thought, Saint Martin’s is a Catholic university in the Benedictine tradition. We have got to go on this walk,” says Birkenstein, who along with Gendelman, had never walked the Camino before. “It turned out to be one of the most substantial parts of the trip.”
“I was interested in the idea of walking as a way of learning about a place,” says Gendelman, director and associate professor of communication studies. “This is a spiritual pilgrimage. You’re walking the same paths as people thousands of years ago. It’s also an international experience. You and lots of other people are walking this path together but everyone is from different countries.”
The students and professors kept journals about their Camino experience and how it changed their lives. Here are some of their reflections:
We had but a short, three-day stay as guests on this wonderful pilgrimage stretching across northern Spain. Before beginning the Camino, I had eagerly anticipated the challenge of traversing over a dozen miles a day, daydreamed about the picturesque views I would encounter and opened myself up to the potential for spiritual epiphany. Needless to say, I had big expectations for our 72-hour adventure.
Yes, the rolling hills we saw could top any Thomas Kinkade painting and many mountainous hikes were conquered. But as the kilometers slipped by, I realized the most impactful aspect of El Camino was the camaraderie we shared with fellow pilgrims we met along the way. Some travel with friends, others with their dogs, while some simply enjoy the company of their own shadow. Every pilgrim has a unique story that started them on this journey, guided by yellow seashells.
A sense of community flourishes and links us to a common mission. It did not seem to matter where we came from, or what language we spoke, or what circumstances awaited us after our journey was completed. Our humble group of 16 was lucky enough to be a part of this community for three days, full of blisters, discovery and love. I know that when I am ready to walk the Camino in its entirety, I will be welcomed back with open arms.
— Annabel Warnell ’16, civil engineering
I had not heard of the Camino de Santiago until I signed up for the Saints in Spain trip. I didn't know what to expect and nothing can really prepare you for the experience until you are there walking it. I was also concerned — being a non-traditional student — that I wouldn't be able to keep up with my fellow travelers. The wonderful thing about the Camino is that everyone is experiencing it differently, whether they are walking with others or solo. I did both and enjoyed each for what it offered. Walking on my own, I didn't worry about keeping pace with anyone but myself and was able to reflect on what it had taken to get there and also about self-motivation. Walking with others, their kindness and generosity, care and concern, really touched me, plus we took in majestic views and got to know each other better. We only walked a small portion of the trail in our three days but I highly recommend walking any portion of it. Fellow walkers are very encouraging and friendly, along with lovely little towns filled with history.
— Cyndy Tanguileg ’15, interdisciplinary studies
All I wanted to do was walk in silence. All I wanted to do was think... just like I always do, too much. All I wanted to do was have a life changing experience that would move me, move my heart, so I could return home and have no words to explain the journey I completed. All I wanted was answers.
My walk on the Camino de Santiago was nothing that I expected. It was one of the most anticipated parts of the trip, as well as one of the most memorable. And each day took its own new step into a story that I had no idea I was writing.
I listened to my music, I walked in silence, I prayed, I met new people and I re-encountered the friends I was travelling with. In honesty, I was reminded of how small I am in this world. The “problems” I thought I had were menial in comparison to all of the beauty I am missing out on right in front of me. I learned what it was like to forget the trivial headaches I seem to create for myself and to simply exist.
I ended the walk sweaty, hot, most likely dehydrated, and with a much better understanding of what it means to be a part of this world and, no matter if you are walking alone or next to strangers, you are never truly alone. In today’s world, we have a tendency to clutter our schedules with dilemmas and agendas that really don’t matter. I intend to revisit that feeling, remember what it is like to simply exist and not worry so much about the answers I once so adamantly sought.
— Alyssa Melder ’16, business
I have been aware of the Camino since the late 1990s, when I started traveling to Spain on a regular basis. But it has taken me all this time to actually walk a portion of it, to get a taste of it. It was an honor to walk the three long, yet too-short days along the Camino, from Pamplona to Logroño, Basque Country, with my colleague and friend, Irina Gendelman. And we were so lucky to be able to walk with 14 wonderful Saint Martin’s students.
The Camino challenged us, brought us together, even as it allowed us to walk within ourselves, solitary and alone. We ate the peregrino (Spanish for “pilgrim") bocadillos (sandwiches), drank wine provided by Benedictine monks specifically for Camino pilgrims and, each night, we taped our blisters and recounted stories from the road.
And, most of all, we all want to return and walk the entire Camino, a walk which takes four to six weeks. In fact, Irina and I intend to lead just such a trip in the summer of 2017.
— Jeff Birkenstein, associate professor, English
As a child, I was always neat. I didn’t like to play outside and have never made a mud pie in my life. To be honest, the thought of doing the Camino — or even just three days of it — was slightly terrifying. I am not going to lie, the first day on the Camino, between Pamplona and Puente la Reina, was really hard. It was long, hot and dirty. Before washing up at the hotel that night, I thought I had tanned several shades past my normal, sickly Seattle-pale skin. However, that was just the coating of dust from walking 23 kilometers. Each of the three days got progressively better and it helped that out of our 16-person group, I picked a walking partner with my 5’1’’ height and a similar walking speed. While I will always be a city girl and relish reading indoors, I know that I can walk 20-plus kilometers a day and duck into the woods to answer nature’s call, if necessary!
— Melissa Roth ’17, mechanical engineering
Just three days of the Camino was just a taste of the bigger experience of walking it for months. It was a tease that added to my overall experience and my desire to return to Spain someday on a more permanent basis. To return to Spain is the dream; to become a Spaniard is the goal.
— Omar Santana ’15, psychology
“Buen Camino!” is what pilgrims say to one another along the way of the Camino de Santiago. But a good journey means different things. We quickly fell into our own pace. Some walked swiftly toward the ancient cities on hills, where the local txistorra, which is Basque sausage, and cold gazpacho were waiting. I admired their youthful strength. I liked being in the back, with the meanderers, stopping to marvel at the red of the ladybugs in the yellow kernels of wheat. “The Camino provides,” our guide told us, and sure enough, ripe cherries and water wells appeared in the heat of the day when our mouths were parched. A 1,000-year-old sanctuary made of thick stone, so cool and dark inside, gave us a rest from the sun. Dusty, we soaked in a shallow river, alongside swallow nests and salt rocks. Our exhaustion ended with a meal together, all of us gathered at the end of the day, and we told stories of our adventures. Indeed, a good journey.
— Irina Gendelman, associate professor, communication studies
The Camino de Santiago is panoramic photography heaven. As a millennial, my favorite thing to carry inside of my pocket is my iPhone 6. This tool allows me to capture 360 degrees of surrounding scenery. It strings together multiple images into a long photo and it produces something stunning.
Each panoramic tells a different story; it demonstrates the diversity of agriculture, architecture, people and culture that we walk by. We spend so much time in our life moving. Personally, day by day, I neglect to set aside time to assess where I am at -- physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. By stopping in place to take one simple panoramic, taking a photo, a video, or nothing at all — we can stop and experience awesomeness.
I see friends, pilgrims, locals, Americans, Spaniards, humans, animals, ecosystems and architecture, all combined into one great image. A Chinese proverb once said, “One picture is worth 10,000 words.” The Camino enabled me to rediscover the necessity to reflect. In addition, I found the necessity to find stories about this distant land. Spain.
— Gavin Basuel ’15, biology
I feel the burns, blisters and bags. I taste the dust. I smell the wheat. I see the sights. And I hear the birds...all things God gave me.
— Sarah Moore ’16, religious studies
Senses heightened, I become increasingly aware as silence gives way to the hum of the earth coming alive. The Spanish sun beats down while the air delights my skin, carrying with it a whisper to keep pushing on. Cresting the hill, my eyes fall upon the charmed church whose bells beckon weary travelers. It is in this solitary moment that I find myself feeling most connected to a global community. The Camino requires internal reflection. Forced to plumb the depths of my thoughts, my convictions, beliefs and faith are challenged, redefined and strengthened. I feel more certain of myself. With each step, I grow in confidence and as I stand, listening to the chiming bells, I know that in journeying the Camino, I have stepped into a new season of this beautiful life.
— Niya Tawachi ’16, English and political science
Somehow, I was still walking on our last morning of the Camino de Santiago. Surrendering step after step to another one of those flat, quiet stretches, I mused again over my ever-hungering motives. Willing myself to the freedom of the next second required that I savor the present one provided; another painfully inherent paradox soothed by the simplicity of just one more step. In the end, I wondered which is more difficult – to walk the Camino de Santiago, or to not? I have craved it every day ever since; such is life.
— Kristen Boyd '17, English
Will we return?
The final piece, penned by Camino de Santiago walker Cameron Devine ’16, mechanical engineering major, reflects about the entire Spain trip:
I asked Annabel, “Will we return?” As we watched Spain, the country I now love, fade into the distance, she replied, without a second thought, “Yes”. We continued to watch Spain disappear with the lighthouse blinking and the alcazaba shining. Although I know little of the language, little of the people and little of the country, I want to come back. I want to come back to learn, to eat and to live; to live a life more full than my life at home. But where is home? Is it Spain or the states? At this point, I do not know. But right now, the only reason I am not crying is I know, in my heart, I will return. Therefore, my home must be Spain, or the world, and it may take a lifetime to learn which it is.