Camino Stories, Walking the Way

Don Harris | April 2018

By this time, I am sure many of you have heard about the Camino de Santiago, perhaps from watching the poignant feature film ‘The Way’ by Martin Sheen, about a man’s journey by foot on this ancient trail across northern Spain. (Martin Sheen’s original family name was Estevez; his father was born in Galicia). In the movie, the character walks with several fellow pilgrims, each with their own reason for walking the route – some for the exercise, some for spiritual reasons and others who sought a new beginning. 

Many years ago, I became aware of the pilgrimage experience through my son Jonathan who, as a college student, walked the 500 miles from France across northern Spain to Galicia. That was 1993 – twenty-five years ago. Since then hundreds of our friends, many of them La Tienda customers, have also chosen to walk all or part of the Camino. The road to St. James (Santiago) is such an authentic expression of the Spanish experience that we chose the shell of St. James as part of the La Tienda trademark and named our private label Peregrino, the Spanish term for pilgrim.

Last month, we were pleased to host author Yosmar Martínez at our store in Williamsburg to share her love of the Camino and to introduce her splendid book 'Tastes of the Camino.' She is a Paris trained chef, now living in Miami, who has walked the most traveled French route four times. Along the way, she gathered 30 authentic recipes while dining in some of the most significant towns on the Camino. At the book signing, we met dozens of people from all walks of life who shared a common interest in the Camino. 

There were students and professors, members of Navy and Army families, artists, devout Catholics, motorcycle enthusiasts, bicyclists and more! It was quite a diverse group, perhaps similar to folks you would meet if you were walking along The Way. In one way or another, the lives of many of them had been touched by the Camino. It was quite an enthusiastic group, and though many had never met before, there was a strong sense of camaraderie. No matter their background or motivation, the Camino experience had profoundly influenced their lives.

My friend Paul, a member of our La Tienda "family" was also in town. I have gotten to know him quite well over the past few years, chatting about our shared love for Spain and of course the Camino. Each time he would earnestly relate how the pilgrimage was continuing to bring new depth to his life. Paul has gone on four different treks and is now preparing to travel the Portuguese pilgrimage road to Santiago. This time it will be a short trip because he has invited his local pastor to travel with him, and his friend has only a limited amount of time to set aside for the trip. 

Prior to his first trip along The Way, Paul's extended family had suffered a shattering experience: his nephew suffered a fall which left him paralyzed from the neck down. Still sorting out the implications of that fall, Paul decided to dedicate his walk to support the young man in the only way he knew. As he walked through towns and villages, past vineyards and wheat fields, he would find opportunities to share with other pilgrims what was on his heart and ask them to keep his cousin in their prayers. 

One of the people who attended the Yosmar Martínez book signing told me another profound story. He had suffered a terrible motorcycle crash a few years ago. After months of recovery, he decided to walk the Camino de Santiago to prove to himself that he was physically and mentally tough enough to take on the challenge. What started as a physical challenge turned into a spiritual journey that changed his life. In the last few years he has returned multiple times and is now planning on expanding to other pilgrimage routes. 

Another man my son Jonathan met was a Dutch land-use mediator. He spent many years negotiating between farmers, helping to consolidate their small plots into large fields that could be efficiently farmed to increase yields. You can imagine the tense interchanges as farmers were told they had to tear down ancient stone walls and abandon their traditions in the name of modern agriculture. 

The Dutchman was so drained by the process that he decided to put on a backpack and walk out his front door. He ended up walking all the way across northern Europe and Spain until he reached Santiago de Compostela. This journey through the beautiful countryside of Spain, which he shared with other pilgrims from across the world, helped him to renew his spirit.

The Camino de Santiago is an ancient religious pilgrimage route that began over 1,000 years ago. At the time Jerusalem was in the hands of the Muslims, and Rome had been trashed by the invading Vandals. Since it was not safe for the faithful to travel to these former hallowed sites, Santiago de Compostela became the prime choice. The bones of St. James, the brother of Jesus, were deemed a suitable alternative goal for the pilgrims.

The pilgrimage literally transformed the landscape and settlement patterns of Spain. The modern Camino is busier than ever, with pilgrims from across the globe following the path to the ancient city of Santiago de Compostela. Many are no longer walking for religious reasons, but everyone who makes the journey comes away transformed in some way. We were honored to host Yosmar Martínez and some of these pilgrims and to learn of their stories at our store in Williamsburg. Special thanks to our friend Professor George Greenia, who continues year after year to share his love of the Camino de Santiago with all whom he meets. La Tienda hosted the first Camino reunion that George inspired – that was in the 1990s!

¡Buen viaje, amigos!