by Martha McSweeney Brower.
In the summer of 2010, my younger brother, Joey died. With the weight of grief heavy on my back, there had to be a way forward without Joey in the world. For 3 years I bargained with God for his return to health but time after time the cancer came back. My younger brother was on my mind constantly as he hung on by the thinnest of threads, leaving me as fragile as a piece of glass. He died during a thunder and lightning storm on Cape Cod. His death was expected but the hope that it wouldn’t happen was always there. I would never get over his death, but I had to find a place for it, or it would flatten me. When we returned from his funeral, I pulled out a backpack.
“I need to walk this off,” I said to my husband.
“How about next summer after softball season? Why don’t we plan something then?” he said.
“No,” I said. “This is an emergency, and I can go alone.”
He blinked, stared, and in less than a minute he was looking for flights for two.
I had heard about El Camino de Santiago, an 1100-year-old trail across Spain that led to the tomb of St. James, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. St. Francis of Assisi walked it. So did Dante and El Cid. Shirley MacLaine, Martin Sheen, Angela Merkel, Paul Coelho, and even Stephen Hawking. Millions of people had walked this ancient trail when not knowing what else to do. There are many trails of El Camino across Spain, but most travel the Frances route that begins in southern France into Spain and meanders 500 miles across to the western coast. That was the trail we would follow.
Nine weeks after Joey’s funeral, we were sitting on a stone wall in southern France to begin El Camino. We took nervous deep breaths as two of the smallest hummingbirds fluttered near. They were tinier than the first joint of my thumb, not much bigger than a queen bee. As they hovered over the flowers of a bush, I knew we would be alright.
We did walk across Spain. We joined emperors, kings, beggars, knights, and saints who walked to Santiago to stand at the tomb of Saint James. We walked over the Pyrenees, along dirt trails in forests of eucalyptus, on trails paved with beach rocks, bricks, through a desert, across bridges, and in and out of small villages. We walked alone, together, and with people we each met along the way. Folks had a multitude of reasons to walk El Camino. Overwhelming grief had cracked many of them open. But there were other reasons, too– the longing for a child, struggles with sexuality, and thanksgiving. One man had gone bankrupt and needed to think about what to do next. El Camino gives a person the time to think.
We planned on a month of walking with not much more than a change of clothes, extra socks, and water. We started each day together, but as the hours wore on, our paces changed, and we drifted apart. Separately we could collect our own thoughts and when we were together again, we’d have lots to share.
Every day there was a new surface to walk on—sometimes smooth and dry. Sometimes rough and rocky. We walked between 15 and 20 miles each day. We were often alone. Mostly we walked through country, occasionally a lonely town. Almost every day Reade would set off to run a 5k with his backpack and all.
Our goal every day was to walk to a hostel. There was almost always a church, chapel, or cathedral to visit nearby. All had been there for centuries. In one, we lit candles for our children, family, and friends that they would find love.
Ancient signs of yellow arrows were painted on stone walls as our only directions other than our little guidebook. Simple days. Which shirt? Should we have a coke or wine? How far today? We agreed to wait up for each other and never pass a hostel. I had no need to walk fast on El Camino.
Sorrow and grief are nothing new to human beings. Most likely millions of others over the centuries brought their burdens to these age-old structures as I had. In all of the churches, there was an all-encompassing peace. The cadence of the walking was helping me to process the death of my younger brother on a physical level.
El Camino is a microcosm of life. We were a married couple walking together for a month. Together we were exhausted, frightened, in pain, ecstatic, angry, and lost…. but we walked through it. We became mindful of each other, carrying everything equally and splitting the food carefully so that each would have enough.
My blisters were of atomic proportions for the first 200 miles. After the decent in the Pyrenees on the first day, the little toes on each foot resembled cocktail franks inside translucent balloons of skin. Unable to get boots on or even sandals, I needed make-shift shoes in order to walk around for a few days. A Spanish pharmacy supplied insoles that I attached to my socks with duct tape. One day in the middle of nowhere, I found some relief at a free ‘pilgrim hospital’ set among some ruins named after Saint Anthony. A volunteer doctor injected a syringe-full of something dark & purple directly into the cookie sized skin bubbles on the bottoms of my feet.
The dryness of the hot meseta, or desert, had its own beauty. Some days we had to carry all of our water for the entire day. On these days there was little or no shade for miles. Plenty of time for contemplation.
One day we came across a high stone wall with a spigot offering free wine and water. Thankfully it was the middle of the day. We had bread and cheese with us, and most importantly – cups. As we sat in the sun on the ground with our bread, cheese, and wine, an elderly woman commented, “Que rico!” How rich.
On two of the days we walked through torrential rains in raincoats that were no better than dry cleaner bags. No matter – we were out anyway. We sang “Blue Suede Shoes” loud over and over again in the pouring rain and mud.
Every evening there was a calm solemnity in the hostels full of tired pilgrims. Barriers between people were stripped away. Mostly we stayed in hostels, but every third or fourth day, we found a hotel so we could soak our tired bodies in a tub. We were Ma and Pa Kettle, throwing our clothes into the tub to swish them around and hang them all over the room to dry.
So many wonderful people were walking for all kinds of reasons. Many just needed the time that El Camino gives. Whether a pilgrim chooses to be very prepared, kind of prepared, or not at all prepared, doesn’t really matter. It’s in the attitude. One optimistic 70-year old woman was alone, dragging a Walmart suitcase, wearing regular shoes, and didn’t speak a word of Spanish. She was cheerful and uncomplaining. There were others who had weighed every item in their packs down to the last gram, spoke fluent Spanish, but were miserable. One of the lessons of El Camino is that we are free to choose how we handle our situations. Other lessons were these:
–I can live with very little stuff. Should I wear the red shirt or the grey shirt? Fewer options uncomplicates life.
–Hard times come in life but keep walking through them. Twice we had huge blowout fights, but we walked through and walked on. One fight was about a favorite bandana I thought Reade had left behind but didn’t. The other fight happened because we were over-tired and hungry and neither of us can remember what the fight was about.
–I can bear much more than I ever thought I could. The weight of grief was so heavy I thought I could never move forward. But I did. I could walk through more pain than I ever imagined.
–The sunsets and sunrises continue to unveil beauty every day. Being human hurts, but if we live deliberately and look for beauty in nature and in other people, life is exhilarating and an adventure. Watching clouds is tremendously healing and calming.
Just as we were heading down the last few kilometers towards the cathedral in Santiago, I had mixed feelings about our Camino coming to an end. Joey was dead and that wouldn’t change, but I had changed. The walk had been rich with people, landscape and emotion. We stood at the tomb of St. James after walking together for 32 days. Walking across Spain was hard like life is hard, but there are new landscapes if we walk on.
BIO: Boston-Irish Martha lives in Maine. She has worked at 29 jobs while earning degrees in painting, art education, and creative non-fiction. She loves to wander.
Photo: Sarah Leamy