The Way to the Way
I can’t tell you where a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago begins. No one knows. But I can tell you how one happened.
I stood outside. The rain clung to my face; a stand-in for the tears I had run out of. I took a deep breath and dialed. I counted the rings. On three, I thought I would leave a message, but then he picked up. “What’s up Bud?”
The next morning, I sat in a Diner, across from my Father and we both cried into our coffee. Neither of us could believe what was happening, but I had been aware of it much longer, so I let him ask the questions.
“How long?” He asked.
“Six months or so, maybe longer.” I replied.
“What are you gonna do?” He asked.
“Get a divorce. Move on, I suppose.” I stammered. “Dad, no matter what happens, I want to walk away from this knowing that I didn’t become an asshole. I have no idea how to do that.”
We finished breakfast and headed to the trail for a walk. There is nothing like a good long walk to get out of your head and into your heart. My fatehr had introduced me to hiking as a young boy. Walking that day on a canal towpath, I felt like a little child again; insecure and afraid. As we finished our short trek, I said, “You know, maybe I’ll go walk the Camino, perhaps there is an answer out there.”
“That sounds exactly like what you should do.” He said.
The next morning, I went to work. I normally don’t look at email notifications during my day, but something made me check my phone. There was a message from my father with a confirmation number on it. There was an itinerary. There were directions and information. My father had booked the trip to the Camino de Santiago for me. He was coming along.
Three Flights and a Harrowing Van Ride
We flew from Philadelphia International, through Barcelona, then on to Madrid, where we caught the final short flight to Santiago. There, we were met by a portly man with a van. He spoke no English, I spoke no Spanish. That didn’t stop him from talking…constantly. We stepped into the vehicle anyway and were greeted by four other pilgrims. Luckily they did speak English. We introduced ourselves and went through the list of pleasantries: where are you from, is this your first Camino, what brought you here? During the brief conversation, I learned that I was the only passenger who had never walked the Way before. Most people on the Camino de Santiago, it seemed, had been there before. Some had been there many times.
I’m uncertain if it was the driver’s size or the way the Spanish build their vans, but the accelerator and brakes only seemed to be on or off, there was nothing smooth about any control. There were screeching tires, smoky stops, and turns that seemed to only require two wheels on the ground all the way from Santiago to Sarria. The man took turns taking cell phone calls (on speaker) and talking to me in very speedy Spanish. I hardly caught a word, but every few minutes, he would slap me on the knee smiling and then point out the windshield at the throngs of people walking along the road, “Camino!” I would smile back, hoping he would return his gaze to the winding road before we careened into a crowd or rolled down one of the many green hills and into a ravine.
Miraculously, we made it to Sarria with my heart intact and my stomach nearly where it was supposed to be. We found our alburgue (think upscale hostel) and I went through my gear one last time before bed, preparing for the long walk the next morning. Everything was in place, except me. I fell asleep in moments and woke before the sun. It was time to get started.
The Significance of the Scallop Shell
The scallop shell is synonymous with the Camino de Santiago, but many don’t know why. Legend says that when the boat, carrying the remains of Saint James, approached the shores of Galicia, it capsized in the surf. About that time a man–perhaps a knight or prince–was riding down the beach on his horse and saw the scene. He raced to the aid of the sailors. He and his horse were swept away with the current. However, according to the legend, Saint James sent a swarm of scallops to float the man and his horse to safety. So, when the man and his horse arrived back on shore, they were covered in scallop shells.
This scallop shell legend may not be the first one that is specific to Galacia. The route of the Camino de Santiago and the place where the Compostela now sit, were once pilgrim routes of many different groups. Some Romans took this route through Santiago (before it was called Santiago) to Finisterre, where it is said that Venus rose out of the sea on…wait for it…a scallop shell.
Before the Romans, this area of Spain was largely ruled by pagan Celts. It has been suggested that they used the scallop shell to symbolize the setting sun. It is sometimes carved into tombstones and even sits at the center of many Celtic crosses. The Romans, perhaps borrowing from the Celts, believed that Finisterre was not only the end of the Earth, but the place where the sun went to die. So the scallop shell had many connections to Galicia before the discovery of Saint James Tomb by a ninth-century shepherd.
Stepping Onto the Road
”You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” -J.R.R. Tolkien
The Camino de Santiago—the Way—is actually many ways. There are paths all over Europe that lead to the Compostela in Santiago. It is here that the famous scallop shell image continues to evolve. If you look closely, there are eleven lines all leading to the Compostela.
Each way has a unique flavor. We were on the French Way. More specifically, the Final French Way. We were a little over 100km from the Compostela; the shortest pilgrimage that would still “count” according to the Church. I would gladly have taken a longer route, but my Father had brought me here and he wasn’t prepared for a longer journey, there was a lesson to learn, so I was happy for the opportunity.
We headed down cobblestone streets following throngs of people with backpacks.; all of us following a series of yellow scallop shells which pointed the way to Santiago. The shells were everywhere, but you might miss them, if you were not on the lookout for them. Tiles with the shells were worked into walls, streets, signs, posts, doors, and every once in a while a small concrete pillar.
We stopped in a small shop to pick up a few last-minute items. Pilgrims carry a seashell on their pack. This began when pilgrims, in the Middle Ages faced perilous journeys, rife with bandits on the road. The priest of their home town would bless a scallop shell and hang it around their neck to show that they were pilgrims on a religious journey. It was believed that the symbol would help protect, or at least identify them as pious and unworthy of mugging by the bandits.
The tradition of carrying a scallop shell on the Way is still intact. Although the roads are now much more safe. Neither my father or I had one. The shopkeeper happily sold us a pair. I also picked up a walking stick. Stepping out the door, it finally felt like we were on the pilgrimage I had imagined. I had no idea what awaited me and there was no way I could have prepared for the journey. The next few steps led me to another world.
There is no telling just who you will meet along the Way. I was lucky enough to walk, for a time, with the man who brought the Way to the world.
Want to read Part 2? Click HERE.