Fathom Mag


500 Miles up the Camino de Santiago

Published on:
April 22, 2019
Read time:
6 min.
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I blink my eyes open and fumble for my phone—5 a.m.—that’s not bad considering my body is caught between two time zones. My anxiety greets me with her barrage of questions and my body immediately tenses up. “What am I doing? What if I get hurt? What if I heard God wrong?” I breathe deeply, trying to slow my heart rate as I splash water on my face and brush my teeth, hours before my flight to Spain. 

I pace the room, desperate to relax, and finally grab my phone—one of the best ways to avoid my feelings. I scan through my emails and come across one from Dad. He says he is praying and includes a couple of songs for me to listen to. I listen to them and then a few other worship songs, still trying to quiet my anxious mind. Unexplainably, the fear lifts and my muscles relax, knowing all will be well. My body cannot contain my joy. Tears fill my eyes and I jump around, clumsily dancing around my hotel room, waving my hands in the air. I know I look ridiculous, but I don’t care. This Camino de Santiago, this five hundred-mile pilgrimage I start tomorrow, will be good. I don’t know how I know this, but I know. Right now. 

Today, I’m starting my walk early, before the sun rises, definitely before Spain is awake. My hands are blistering under the sun and the afternoon heat is particularly exhausting for my pale skin. The early risers get a reputation for trying to rush through the Camino, but for me it is a necessity. In a few hours I arrive at Irache, the village famous for her free wine fountain—one of the most popular stops along the Camino. Traditionally, pilgrims will use the scallop shell they’ve attached to their bag to cup and drink the wine. 

My mind flashes back to last May, when a few women were sexually assaulted at this very wine fountain. Today I walk alone and my fear sparks at the thought of visiting the fountain. Fear is second nature to me. She masquerades as wisdom, pulsing through my body constantly. I breathe, “Lord, send me someone to walk with.” In a few minutes I bump into Bill and Robin, friends I met on my first day walking. I run over to them, ecstatic at my answered prayer in the flesh. I briefly hesitate over whether to tell them, but quickly decide to be vulnerable. “You are an answer to prayer.” We approach the fountain together and my body relaxes, knowing that I don’t have to be afraid. The sweet wine cheers me and I pause to take in this moment—free from fear. 

I never knew how to quiet fear in my life. She’s been such a constant that her voice is intertwined with my own. They are one.

The dusty, dry land of the Meseta stretches out in front of me, bleeding into the horizon. It reminds me of Little House on the Prairie meets Southern California desertscape. Pilgrims either love or hate the Meseta. Some deliberately skip it and bus through this region, while others fondly refer to it as their favorite part of the walk. I am intrigued by this space. If a patch of land is able to bring such strong reactions out of pilgrims, then there must be something worthwhile to experience here. 

The moon is so bright this morning that I don’t even need a headlamp to see. Here I can walk by myself without fear. As a woman, I generally feel unsafe walking anywhere on my own in the dark. Not on the Camino. I feel wild, adventurous, and free, ready to howl at the moon triumphantly as I walk in the moonlight. The walk is quiet. Silence scared me for so long, scared the parts of me that didn’t want to find what lies behind the quiet. Even though I walk on my own, I’m not alone. I walk with God in the silence. Nothing needs to be said. We enjoy Spain together. In silence. 

The narrow trail invaded with brush leads downhill until it opens up to a wider path, revealing a small town. The afternoon sun warms my skin and I feel so alive walking up this mountain, buzzing with excitement. I realize suddenly that I am going to make it. I am going to finish my pilgrimage. I am walking further than I ever have, heading up to fice thousand feet—the highest point on the Camino. I can do this. I didn’t realize it until now, but I still feared that some disaster would end my pilgrimage. This realization is accentuated by the music I’m listening to. Suddenly, my body cannot contain my joy and I dance into town, awkwardly grooving and shifting back and forth to counterbalance the weight of my backpack. In this moment doubt and fear are silent. I will make it to Santiago. I just know. Right now.

I never knew how to quiet fear in my life. She’s been such a constant that her voice is intertwined with my own. They are one. Except here. On the Camino, they are distinct from each other and my own voice is growing louder. She bellows out, overpowering fear’s familiar drone.

I listen to my voice more and more. 

The sky is still dark and the air is cool. I snuggle into my down jacket, waiting for my body to heat up. It’s quiet, except for my footsteps on the dirt and the distant sound of cars on the motorway. After four weeks on the Camino de Santiago, walking is like breathing and I feel so alive as I cross the Spanish countryside. I had no idea that I would love this pilgrimage as much as I do. I just knew that I was supposed to walk it. Something inexplicable was drawing me to this path. I’m not that woman who hikes mountains and treks through the wilderness. Except, I guess I am now.

For years, fear has dictated what I can and cannot do. Especially anything to do with my body. I had surgery when I was fourteen to correct scoliosis, which involved cutting parts of my spine, fusing those bits of vertebrae to other areas of the spine, and preventing any further curvature with metal rods up the length of my back. It meant small and large adjustments to my lifestyle and I’m constantly protective of my back. There are so many things that are impossible now because of the surgery. But I’m discovering over twenty years later that my body is capable of much more than I ever expected.

There are trees everywhere, reaching high above me. After miles and miles walking through the desert-like Meseta, I exhale in this lush, green environment. Just like my first days on the Camino, once again I’m constantly pausing to take in the landscape surrounding me. 

The thought of walking five hundred miles seemed so intangible, but now I’m only thirty miles from the end. My path leads outside of the small towns in Galicia in the midst of nature. It’s weird to feel so wrapped up in wildlife while also knowing that a Cafe and Tortilla Española is easily available around the corner. There’s another couple just ahead, but they are the only people I see this morning. I pass the two, wishing them a “Buen Camino,” or “good way.” 

I don’t want my Camino to end. I reach out, letting my fingers brush the trees I walk by, trying to fully be in this time and place. Everything feels easier here. My mind isn’t so easily distracted and I thrive in silence. If I reach out enough, can I stay here forever?

Walking the Camino somehow quiets my anxiety and fear. Each step—what by now must count in the millions—has me enter more and more into the me I’ve avoided for so long. I don’t understand the connection between body and soul, but I know that the harsh line separating them is fading as I walk. Even in the clumsy steps, when I almost fall. Maybe this pilgrimage isn’t about making it to Santiago, but instead about returning home to myself.

Before walking, I wanted answers, direction. But now the questions can keep.

My eye is drawn to a perfectly formed red rose. Each day on the Camino I pick a flower to wear, as a sort of natural accessory since real accessories are too heavy to carry in my pack. It’s a game between God and me. I walk till a flower calls out and that’s the one I wear in my hair for the day. My friend Karl even nicknamed me Flower Girl. Normally, I would hate such a title, but here on the Camino I drink it in. I am Flower Girl. Carefully I pick off the thorns before tucking the stem behind my ear. I’ve never been a rose person, but today, the crimson one I wear is perfect. 

I have unanswered questions that I carry with me on the Camino. “What am I supposed to do with my life? Why did you send me here God? Will I be able to finish?” Before walking, I wanted answers, direction. But now the questions can keep. I just want to be here right now, picking flowers and walking in Galicia quietly.  

I look behind and catch a glimpse of the sun rising, one of those beautiful multi-colored-sky kind of mornings. Each time I look back, it gets more and more stunning until I begin to cry. I cry for the beauty. I cry out of gratitude. I cry as I appreciate this moment with God. As I walk through Spain with him, we saunter through the land, taking in the beauty. I realize that I am enough and he is enough. Nothing more needs to be said. 

Jen Manglos
I am a person. A lover of beauty. A red head. I just finished walking the Camino de Santiago, a five hindred-mile pilgrimage across Spain and am currently writing a book about the experience. I’m a freelance writer, speaker, retreat curator, and spiritual director, particularly interested in spiritual formation, film, and the journey of the single woman. I have an M.A. in Spiritual Formation and Soul Care from The Institute for Spiritual Formation at Talbot School of Theology and previously planned spiritual retreats for Saddleback Church. Find me online at jenmanglos.com, on Twitter @jenmanglos, or listen to my film podcast, Stories in the Key of Light, @keypodcast.

Cover photo by Les routes sans fin(s).

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