A few years ago, my best friend and I took on the ancient pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago. Justin and I successfully completed the 500-mile journey with Justin in his manual wheelchair. Since returning, we have traveled around the country, speaking at different events and meeting a myriad of people. Hearing about our crazy journey leads many people to ask questions. One of the most common is, “What did you learn about life.” The short answer… a lot!
During our time on the Camino, we often heard the phrase “The Camino is a metaphor for life.” Quite frankly, we heard it so much it became annoying, almost cliché. We also heard how the Camino is broken into three stages, the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. As cliché as “a metaphor for life” sounds and as simple as breaking down the Camino into three stages seems, both are very true. And when we really look deep into our experiences on the Camino through these two lenses, we appreciate our lives so much more.
Our 35-day wheelchair journey through Spain definitely had some ups and downs, both literally and figuratively. Day one presented the climb over the Pyrenees Mountains, and no we didn’t take the paved bike route. We went over the top, making the trek to Roncesvalles over the course of thirteen plus hours. The seventeen-mile day was challenging, to say the least. The arduous task of moving forward, despite a 250-pound fully loaded wheelchair, over rocky dirt trails exhausted both mind and body.
Two more mountain passes and hundreds of miles of paths kept the physical ups and downs coming. But nothing prepared us for the emotional and mental obstacles the Camino offered. Most specifically the Meseta, 150 miles of undulating hills and wheat fields as far as you can see. The unvarying landscape is beautiful, but the unchanging surroundings eventually forced us inward. Being alone in your mind can be a scary place, you come face to face with the things you don’t like in yourself, but you also begin to recognize what you want to become. Time with your thoughts can be a beautiful thing, no matter how dark they may be. You get to know who you really are, have the opportunity to recognize the things that need to change, and begin to appreciate many of the things you have taken for granted.
As the varying obstacles continued to litter our path, one truth kept playing out over and over. Each one, be it physical, mental, or emotional was effectively overcome because of those around us, because of community. No matter what we faced, we were successful because of the love of others. Be it through encouraging words, prayer, or physical help; we overcame so many odds because others stepped in to do what we could not. This was nothing short of spiritual.
The word “Camino” means road or path. A road to walk down in an effort to get from one point to another, a road to travel from who we are to who we are meant to be. That’s life. Ups and downs, emotional and physical challenges, happy moments mixed with sad ones. Life is rarely easy. Often unexpected things are thrown across our paths. Sometimes they are physical, others mental, and others still, spiritual. Most of them, like raising children, pursuing a career, facing a disease with an unknown outcome, or chasing a dream are a combination of all three. Physical. Mental. Spiritual. Each one offers the opportunity to learn and grow… each one easier to face with others at our side.
Every day we traveled across Spain and each day since our return has shaped our appreciation for how the Camino truly is a metaphor for life and how the physical, mental, and spiritual challenges we face provide a special kind of beauty when we choose to not face them alone.