When I first thought about doing this walk, I conceived of it as a very personal endeavor. I share some of my story in the hope that it's helpful to you as you consider walking the route, or even if you're just curious.
I (Stephanie D.) was born and raised in San Francisco. I grew up Catholic and attended parochial school, where I learned about the missions during 6th grade history class and took at least one field trip to Mission Dolores. However, if you told me then that I would someday walk the Camino Real, I would've been extremely surprised. I hated walking even two blocks to the store.
Also, I didn't feel connected to the Camino Real or the missions--even the Spanish nuns taught us that Serra and the missionaries forced the indigenous peoples to convert to Catholicism and to build and maintain the missions. This was a terrible legacy.
I overcame some hardships and got a college education so I could do something I considered meaningful with my life. But I found that I needed to pay down some school debt and earn enough money to live in San Francisco, which was becoming increasingly expensive thanks to the tech and tourism industries. For a few years I worked well-paying but stressful jobs in order to make ends meet. I began to feel profoundly disconnected. Underneath it all, I felt like something was deeply wrong with San Francisco, the city at the end of Manifest Destiny. Waves of fortune-seekers had been crashing on these lands for centuries now, seeking gold, seeking land, some kind of wealth to possess. It never seemed to be enough.
In a country where you are told to lose your language, your cultural ties, your religion (except maybe Protestantism), step away from your family and do it by yourself, it seemed like there was little left but the dollar and an inorganic structure of schooling and bizarre notions of success to guide you to it.
I wondered what all of us had in common--those of us who had always been here, those who came here by choice, and those who came by force. The only thing I could think of was the earth. I though that something as simple as walking might help ground me. I wondered where I could walk.
El Camino de Santiago
The Camino happened to be located in Spain, the country that founded the state of California on Catholicism. In a way, it was also like taking a trip back to the mothership. (Though not a very motherly mothership).
In March 2011, I set out to walk 330 miles of the Camino. As millions had done before me, every day I woke up at 7am, packed my gear, got a café con leche at the local bar, and walked 18 miles through the Spanish countryside. I saw some beautiful scenery, a few cathedrals with beautiful artwork, and lots of little villages with churches that looked exactly like mission chapels. Often I was often alone, but I also met locals as well as pilgrims from across the globe; I loved meeting people, hearing their stories and connecting with them, even if just for a few minutes. I experienced all sorts of kindnesses. My Spanish improved.
Often the Camino was breathtaking, but sometimes it was ugly. Sometimes all that walking was boring. Sometimes I wanted to throw certain pilgrims out the window. Every night my feet burned. But there was a magical timelessness to being out on the road, and living outside of my normal parameters.