Contemplation on the Camino de Santiago
A moving meditation on life, nature and motherhood during the pandemic.
It’s October, after the harvest, and the fields are churned up with clumps of dry dirt across rolling hills. A single path, curving with the topography and lined with scrub, dead grass and tiny yellow flowers breaks the view into two interlocked halves. The bright sky is white and blue, but everything else is dirt-brown and dusty. I can see villages in the far distance in several directions, but at my slow pace, it would take me hours to reach them.
By walking, I’m traveling closer to the ground and can examine nature at a microscale- snails suctioned to tall stalks of a thorny plant; a tiny brown lizard flitting out of sight into the brush; a mysterious ochre-colored lichen covering a leafless shrub. Taking in the details of nature reminds me to stay present and calm. Looking at the endless fields and the long path ahead agitates me.
I am not prepared for the exposure of this place. The sun warms the parched open fields and a shimmer of heat radiates off them. I wear a thin merino wool sweater, my fleece jacket tied around my waist. I will be walking for hours in hot wool. My mouth feels dry as I traverse the hot autumn landscape. I take on a mantra that comes to mind as I walk: parched land, parched body. I am becoming part of the landscape. I walk on, emotions vacillating between amazement and despair.
Earlier, when the chilly mist of the morning was still present, I walked out of the Spanish city of Pamplona, past the citadel, a star-shaped stone fortress, now preserved as a public park. I followed the scallop shell markers in the hard path through the connected city parks, past plane and maple trees just beginning to shed their leaves. I traversed the campus of the University of Navarra, landscaped, with boxy white modern buildings on the hills.
I remarked to myself that my backpack had really become a part of me, and felt molded to my back, my gait adjusted to its position and weight. I was pleased with my shrewd packing job- I was carrying only the things I needed for this long walk, nothing was superfluous.
I walked for several miles, following the Camino shells marking the way, and stopped at a cafe in Cizor Menor, a residential enclave. The friendly barman gave me Spanish tortilla and cafe con leche. A sign on the wall read, “tired of hauling your backpack?” I immediately thought, “yes!” despite my appreciation for it as a comforting appendage earlier. I had been walking for six days straight and was starting to feel weary.
“We deliver it to Puente La Reina,” the sign read. Just where I was headed, 16 miles away. It was 5 euros and I immediately inquired about it. Relieved of my burden, I left the cafe feeling light, but almost immediately wished to have traded my fleece jacket for more water.
Here I am now, walking through a landscape I failed to predict: dry, hot earth, in the blazing sun. Sweaty and itchy in my wool, but trudging on, at least without the burden of my heavy pack.
My mind shifts and I realize that the solitude in the fields is wonderful. I feel small, surrounded by the elements, in an agricultural landscape — humanmade — but without any other humans nearby. Picturesque villages and medieval stone churches are visible in the far distance, but I cannot hear them.
As a mother, it is so rare that I am this alone. Strangely, I have no doubts about my safety. I am not lost. I am on an ancient path that millions have traveled on throughout the centuries. Despite being alone in a foreign land, with nothing but my phone (with a dying battery), a bottle of water, half a pastry carried from Pamplona, my wallet and passport, walking through what feels like endless fields and not a soul around, I feel comfortable and at home here. This is a place and time in which I want to dwell.
I come upon a single tree, take off my sweater and lay down in the shade. I have longed to be this close to nature, having spent too much time indoors during the pandemic. My world at home had become small and suffocating. My spiraling thoughts felt monumental and scary. Here, the world feels expansive. I feel expansive. I can also feel my insignificance, like a tiny living being, free to move and feel and be in this openness. My thoughts are quiet, curious, grateful. I can finally breathe.
I remember how pandemic life had been at home the past year and a half. I had been constantly on edge, with dozens of obligations on my mind, shifting priorities by the moment, letting work and other daunting tasks paralyze me. We were surviving, staying safe, but at what cost to my mental health? The invisible burdens of motherhood compounded with the pandemic- that invisible mental load, my kids’ health and new diagnoses, the loss of friendships, the divisive politics, the loss…all the loss.
I was not alone with these overwhelming, debilitating feelings. Mothers everywhere were feeling it, but we weren’t talking about it. I had felt alone and suffocated. To cope, I walked. In my neighborhood, nearby forests, and now, across the ocean in a faraway land.
Scanning the landscape for the next tree or line of shrubs that might offer shade, I estimate how many steps it will take to reach it. I count, then lose count, then count in Spanish, then forget the language, lose count again. I consider the tiny rocks I move as I step on them. How much movement am I creating with my boots? If I add up the mass of all the rocks that I stepped on and shifted that day, how big of a boulder would it amount to? Am I crushing any bugs as I walk? I think of the Jains in India who sweep the ground as they walk to avoid hurting any miniscule beings. My mind turns to my kids and our hikes in the humid forests and wetlands near our house in New York. I imagine I’m walking in mud instead of this dry dirt path. I’m grateful my shoes are not being suctioned by the mud right now.
This is the sort of train of thought I have. I notice how simple and gentle my thoughts are here. I brush these thoughts away as I walk, like clouds, creating a completely clear blue sky- a clarity of mind. My walk becomes a moving meditation.
The landscape is changing now, becoming steep. I’m immersed in green, and high above me are windmills. The path narrows, switches back. The gorse and spiky plants return, new colors of microflora- magenta, indigo, orange. Lush shrubs amidst rocky outcroppings with colorful lichen remind me of crossing the Pyrenees almost a week ago. The climb up the northeast side of this mountain is in shade in the late afternoon. A long row of wind turbines at the top of the ridge whoosh loudly in a syncopated beat that causes my heart to race. I am nearing the summit.
I stop to look back over the miles of parched fields and I shudder with a strange delight. My own two feet have carried me through this variety of landscapes and sensations. Where I stand, my back is to the sun, my body in shade, and my head above the shadowline of the mountain behind me, slicing me into shade and light. Here I go, I think. Into something new and unknown, again.
The wind turbines are deafening now and the shadow of the spinning blades cutting the land creates a dizzying strobe effect. I try to focus on my footing, the plants, how many steps to the top, how many miles had I walked.
Suddenly the wind is whipping hard, and the world opens up to a vastness that shocks me. I have reached the summit of a miles-long ridge of what seems like a single mountain- like tectonic plates had collided and created a clean, raised seam — the Alto del Perdon, the Height of Forgiveness.
A break in the rhythm of turbines allows the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage path to cross here. Marking this special place is a large sheet metal sculpture of a procession of pilgrims throughout time silhouetted against the sky. The inscription reads, “where the path of the wind meets that of the stars”.
I’m in a state of exhilaration- for the accomplishment of walking so many miles, for the incredible view of the world, and the wind- oh the wind! I can see everything in my physical world at this moment — where I am going, and where I had come from — as far as the Pyrenees Mountains in France, indeed I have come even farther.
The Camino provides the time and space to contemplate life at different scales. My own life and its trajectory and path. What had been in the past and what I need to keep moving forward. I can slow down and see the only, and undeniably correct, path ahead of me now. I had found a clarity of mind through walking, in quietude, in the land, and on my own.