What It Means to Go on a Modern Pilgrimage

The Camino de Santiago trail has drawn millions of people with its promises of absolution, discovery, and healing

Signpost showing distance to Santiago
Photo by MarBom /iStock

The pilgrims in León are easy to spot. They stream into the northern Spanish city from the east, wearing slightly stunned expressions, wide-brimmed hats, and seashells—the traditional symbol of this region’s pilgrims—on their backpacks or around their necks. The route they’ve just completed, across around 175 kilometres of flat fields from Burgos, is the most monotonously gruelling stretch of the Camino de Santiago: dusty, treeless, hot, boring. After eleven days of trudging from one empty horizon to the next, they appear along the small city’s narrow streets like escapees from a strange dream.

It’s been thirteen years since I walked that stretch of sun-hammered trail on the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route that has found an unlikely popularity in recent years. Pilgrims typically begin their journey in France and finish in Santiago, where the physical remains of the Apostle James are implausibly kept. Some continue more than 100 kilometres extra to Finisterre, a beach town along the Spanish coast, where the earliest pilgrims would pick up a seashell to take home as proof of completion. Pilgrims sleep in innumerable dormitory-style hostels and carry a special passport along the way, which they can get stamped in each town they visit. The most frequented route spans 772 kilometres and takes about a month to complete.

The desert-like central region of Spain leading into León commands an outsized place in my memories of the Camino, mostly for its surreal emptiness punctuated by occasional visions, both beautiful and surreal. There were days without shade or colours except the brown earth and blue sky, and then suddenly we’d be surrounded by huge fields of bright yellow sunflowers. And, once, I looked to my left while climbing to the tabletop expanse of a plateau and found myself gazing into the eyes of a wild-haired man in a large pen made of sticks, naked except for a gourd over his penis. Even then, I wasn’t sure if it was a fever dream. I just kept walking, because that’s what you do.

This past May, I returned to León, curious if there was anything left for me along this trail. I was twenty-two when I walked it with my friend Melissa, whom I had met a few years before at Bible college, and we were both then in the process of losing our faith. Counterintuitively, given its original purpose as a devotional exercise, the Camino embodied our long, arduous, and sometimes wine-sodden exit from religion. But even as we trudged away from belief, we were still searching for a way to stay connected to the formative feelings we’d experienced. For me, that was the sense of being a stranger and sojourner on the planet, called by something greater and more mysterious. Christianity teaches that this world is not our home, and the original pilgrims incarnated that belief with every step they took. Without quite realizing it at the time, I wanted the Camino to lead me to a new home, for without a higher calling, I felt aimless; lacking heaven, I felt displaced. When I tattooed seashells on my legs in Santiago, it was a sign of grief, like scratching a lost love’s name in the trunk of a tree, and also a promise: even if my faith completely evaporated, I’d keep searching.

But I’m not so sure anymore. When people see my tattoos, they wonder why I’ve branded myself with the logo of the Shell oil company. I don’t know how to defend my former pilgrim identity, which now seems like a form of sublimated alienation. Without the principles of piety and penitence offered by religion, does it really mean anything anymore to be a pilgrim? In the years since Melissa and I walked the Camino, millions of people have tried to figure that out. Western society continues to transition away from religion, but even so, the Camino is more popular than ever. More than 300,000 people made the trip last year, in numbers reminiscent of those of the Middle Ages, when relics of dead saints captured the public imagination more than they do today. Whatever his merits, I don’t think Saint James can claim credit for the recent surge in foot traffic to his supposed grave. So what is compelling the godless, backpacking hordes to revive an ancient form of Christian piety? Are they, too, secretly grief stricken and rummaging in the ruins of their abandoned faith, trying to build a new shelter from the wreck of old-time religion?

It’s already hot by midmorning when I set out from the León train station to seek out pilgrims. May is one of the busier months on the Camino, and it shows. By noon, the city is crawling with pilgrims, early risers and power striders first, then late starters and slow marchers trickling in through the afternoon. They’re all hunched under their backpacks, sometimes peering at maps but mostly making forthright progress to that night’s rest. As I begin approaching pilgrims, I find many of the conversations veer quickly into reflections about society in general, which, from the perspective of the Camino, is far enough away to feel abstract, like an item in the news. I remember that out on the path, the modern world is not our home, and I begin to recall the same feeling from my own pilgrimage in 2005—the Camino isn’t a holiday; it’s a fugue state.

I feel myself drawn deeper into this alternate reality by way of a giddy willingness to ask impossible questions. For example, this unbearable chestnut: Do you believe in God? Unlike anywhere else, on the Camino it feels like fair game. I try it out on three cheerful Korean men, who divide themselves neatly into the three categories that the Pilgrim’s Reception Office in Santiago uses to classify walkers’ motivations: religious (43 percent of pilgrims in 2017); religious-cultural, which I imagine to mean not unabashedly religious but still somewhere on the spectrum or, in other words, spiritual (47 percent); and just cultural (9 percent). One of these men describes himself as religious, one is spiritual—“It’s not easy to explain”—and one is just a guy in hiking boots. They all agree on one thing, however: in Korea, life is too busy. The Camino represents pure relief from the frenzied pace of work and striving. In that sense, the Camino is like a uniquely gruelling Sabbath.

And it is gruelling, this donkey’s life, trodding from town to town. Whatever spiritual or emotional burdens a pilgrim carries, they aren’t as cumbersome as the literal burden that all must shoulder: a heavy backpack. Admittedly, some diminished souls have theirs shipped by taxi each day to the next town, but most mule their own stuff from hostel to hostel, all the way to Saint James’s bones. Soon enough, pilgrims start shedding what they can, leaving their supplementaries behind at the hostels or pulling over at post offices to mail their DSLR cameras and iPads home. When I walked the Camino with Melissa, I brought a watermelon’s worth of books and begrudgingly abandoned most of this unnecessary paper weight within the first week. The one book I couldn’t quit was my paperback copy of Don Quixote. From a hiker’s perspective, where every ounce is felt from neck to heel, it was an inexcusable load. At 1,072 pages, my copy of Miguel de Cervantes’s masterpiece was a real brick. But the Knight of La Mancha was too symbolically vital for me to leave behind. Melissa and I worked out a system so we could read it aloud as we walked. She tied a rope around my waist and led me along like a pony, freeing me to ignore the path and focus on the text.

Don Quixote is the ideal avatar for wandering souls. Most people see Quixote as he seems to be, a deluded old loon attacking windmills, but to me, he was the greatest genius I’d ever met on a page. Bored with his life of no purpose, Quixote went ahead and hoisted a better identity straight out of books. And then, having released his inner knight errant, he clung on like a kid in a wave pool. Quixote had the courage to take a long step out of respectable society, and sure enough, he found himself in a different and better universe.

Though I was dazzled by Quixote’s obstinate magic, the story admittedly wouldn’t have mattered as much if he really believed his fantasies. If it were all psychosis, Quixote would be a ridiculous and charming character, and that’s all. But here’s the kicker: after 1,000 pages of sweetly serious speeches and absurd shenanigans, the aging Quixote finally admits on his deathbed that he was never really a knight at all. He was inventing his identity the whole time.

When I first encountered that confession, it blew my mind. Quixote wasn’t crazy—he was self-aware, and he did it all anyway: the preposterous brawls on behalf of beauty and honour, the ludicrous declamations to strangers, the farcical vigils and rituals. I was impressed that anyone would allow themselves to become an object of ridicule just to make life feel more meaningful.

Quixote arrived in my life exactly when I needed him, just as Christianity was losing its aspect of objective fact. I’d been raised devout, and with the urgency of adolescence, I’d thrown myself bodily into the fervour of evangelical fundamentalism. But by my second or third year of postsecondary schooling, it was becoming clear that straightforward, unencumbered belief wasn’t going to be an option for me anymore. If I wanted the sense that the world is more than it seems, I figured I’d have to take matters into my own hands, like Quixote. So when Melissa invited me to walk the Camino with her, it struck me that being a pilgrim could be my way of imitating my hero. After all, pilgrims are just budding Quixotes—pretending it’s still medieval times, sallying forth into the Spanish countryside, and perpetually banging against this too-solid world in their service to enchantment.

Quixote’s life as a knight consists of near-constant drubbings by aggravated strangers; pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, meanwhile, get their beatings from the ground up, directly on the soles of their feet. Suffering is integral to the Camino. My own first day on the trail started in a key of minor bliss, but ended twenty-seven kilometres later with an inner screech of alarm. “We’re going to keep doing this?” I wondered incredulously. By that point, the blisters had already started to engulf my feet, and within a few days, everything south of my ankles was gloved in puffy white skin. It was like my foot had formed a chrysalis and was preparing to hatch a grotesque butterfly.

The question of suffering—that is, why volunteer for a painful foot journey if you could go to the beach instead?—inevitably finds its answer on the trail, for an addictive, animal-like simplicity awaits on the other side of misery. A long walk is as close as I’ve gotten to being blessed with the mind of a dog: eat, go, sleep. There’s joy in elimination, and few experiences are more reductively clarifying than advancing from A to B on your feet, day after day. This primitivizing clarity might be driving the global long-walking trend. New trails are opening all over the world, and existing trails are logging increased traffic. In the last ten years, the number of pilgrims on the Camino has multiplied nearly threefold, while through hikers on the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails—3,500 and 4,265 kilometres respectively—have also been arriving in steeply rising numbers. The latter trail was popularized in Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 bestseller, Wild, which advertised the life-healing and soul-ennobling properties of a psychotically long walk. If you’re looking for an antidote to literally everything (society, the grind, and the like), try walking it all off for a month or two. It just might work.

But the Camino offers something greater than simply rediscovering one’s state of nature in the bottom of a pair of hiking boots. One could find that by walking anywhere. If I rolled out of my bed in Montreal and walked to a McDonald’s in Ottawa, I’d probably discover some primeval bliss along the way. The Camino promises deeper magic, wrought from the collective spiritual energy of many people who are seeking or who have sought healing and absolution. The Camino isn’t so much a path as a deep religious groove that’s been worn into the earth by centuries of piety. Yet we keep following the footsteps, in continually swelling numbers.

The Camino de Santiago was originally formulated during a revolutionary period in Europe in the ninth century when the Christian church was splitting into east and west. The popes in Rome started looking for political support elsewhere than Constantinople, and they found it in Charlemagne, then king of the Franks, whom Pope Leo III named emperor of the Romans in 800. Charlemagne had spent three decades forcibly Christianizing Europe by means of war and massacre, which included attempts to halt the Moors from invading what is now northern Spain. Charlemagne died in 814, the same year the remains of Saint James were discovered in the northwest of Spain, ostensibly brought there after his martyrdom by beheading in Jerusalem in 44 CE. For Spanish monarchs intent on continuing Charlemagne’s Iberian side project, and especially for Alfonso II, ruler of the small Christian kingdom of Asturias, who ordered the construction of the first church on the site Saint James’s burial, this discovery counted as a stroke of great sociopolitical luck. Over the next few centuries, European Christians began streaming into Spain to touch the relics of the man that many considered Jesus’s brother (others took offence at this calumny of Mary’s eternal virginity, though still counted James as one of the all-time greatest apostles), adding broad support to the Christian quest to reconquer Spain.

Medieval pilgrims probably didn’t reflect overmuch on the geopolitical significance of their collective religious movements. Their faith was immediate and totalizing. They wanted healing, blessings, and a better situation in the life to come, and they hoped Saint James would pitch in on those fronts. Today, few on the trail think about its namesake saint. I asked everyone I met if they cared about the person whose remains they were so labouriously travelling to see and drew nothing but blanks and flat denials. That is, all except one Korean Catholic man who told me excitedly that James was his Christian name, though even he didn’t have much to say about the saint. Without hope of eternal reward or even an endorsement from Saint James, contemporary pilgrims must devise a different set of motivations.

As I continue prowling León to extract confessions from these modern pilgrims, I find a retired French social worker named Françoise, padding quietly down a side street away from the cathedral. She originally started walking six years ago from her home in Le Puy-en-Velay, where one of four principal trailheads of the various historic French portions of the Camino, Le chemin de St. Jacques, begins in south-central France. She walks a section of the pilgrimage every year and has covered something like 1,000 kilometres so far. When I ask her why she’s doing the pilgrimage, she says it’s because she’s Catholic, but then she quickly qualifies that she doesn’t go to church and doesn’t really know how to pray anymore. “I don’t like asking for things from the sky. More so, I say thank you for the good life I’ve had. Even if I’ve had problems, I like to say thanks.” Francoise spends a lot of her time on the path simply looking for birds.

Francoise makes me think of something Alexander Angelov, an expert in medieval studies at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, told me about religious people today: “Even if someone says they’re a devout Catholic, the essence of that Catholicism, from a medieval theological perspective, is very shallow.” The original pilgrims to Santiago “imagined the world strictly and exclusively as a clash between spiritual forces,” he explains. Contemporary pilgrims must contend with boredom and blisters, as well as the nightly choirs of snoring and farting in the crowded hostels. Medieval pilgrims faced all that plus the immanent and heartfelt threat of witches, demons, and eternal torment, says Angelov. For many, the stakes were high, for their very souls were on the line, so the payoff had to be better than a few birds.

“In the Western world, traditional religion is in decline, but a rising spirituality is also very evident,” observes Angelov. In Christian circles, this trend is sometimes called the repaganization of the West, as seen in individualized, mix-and-match practices that freely combine old forms with new notions: yoga plus mindfulness plus vegetables plus pilgrimages. It’s faith without systems and ardour without authority, where New Age spirituality represents only one corner of the smorgasbord, right across from sensitive rationalism and grateful materialism.

Consider Silke and Karsten, a sweetly smiling middle-aged German couple, who trundle into León halfway through the afternoon, looking sweaty and content. This is their second time on the trail; they walked the Camino in 2016 too. When I ask why, their answers are beatifically banal. It’s “nice” and “Spain is beautiful.” Coming from East Germany, they grew up without religion, and haven’t obtained any since. “It was forbidden,” they explain. I take them for perfect exemplars of soft-focus secular spirituality, but then in the same conversation, we time travel back to the ninth century. They explain that, the previous year, they’d made the pilgrimage on behalf of a friend with multiple sclerosis. They’d carried a rock for him, and on the exact day when they placed the rock before a cross on the trail, their friend had received news of a novel therapy, which they say has since enabled him to walk again. “It’s a miracle!” I practically shout, finding myself strangely eager to believe. “Yes, it was,” they reply, factually.

Their revelation reminds me of my fundamental disappointment with the do-it-yourself approach to reenchanting the world that I had so much admired in Don Quixote. Simply, spirituality isn’t very satisfying if you have to make it up on your own. It should feel like part of the actual world outside you, not some private story you invented to feel better. Sure, some like Silke and Karsten may stumble into authentic supernatural experiences, but if we’re honest, other people’s miracles never quite cut it. Without a burning bush or a magic rock of your own, what’s a modern pilgrim to do?

As I stroll through the narrow streets of León, I continue to meet other pilgrims. There are older people with rich lives who walk for health and pleasure, and there are young people who use the trail to untangle big life decisions. There’s a father and son from Brazil whose relationship has become warm and easy under the Spanish sun, and a pair of French men who met on the path a month before and have remained inseparable ever since. I’m struck by everyone’s willingness to nestle into weighty topics. A ruminative intimacy pervades among the pilgrims, like university students sharing a cigarette. Émile Durkheim called it “collective effervescence,” the energy that people share when they’re bound together by a common focus, especially if it includes some challenge. It occurs to me that everyone on the path is finding what they’re looking for. The Camino simply works, whether by magic that’s real or invented.

I’m about to return to the station to wait for my train back to Madrid when I spot an older woman studying a map and gazing around at street signs. She’s looking for her hotel, and just as I begin unhelpfully contributing my own lostness to her situation, an elderly Spanish gentleman approaches and offers to personally guide her to her destination. “He likes to help anybody coming on the Camino,” she interprets for me as we follow him down a narrow street.

Virginia is a retired Episcopal priest from Indiana. She’s seventy-five, and she’s come to the Camino to figure out what to do with the life that’s left to her. “I have kind of an open future,” she tells me. “I could have a good twenty years ahead of me, and I’m thinking, What do I want to do with that?” Virginia reminds me of a bright-eyed twentysomething, except instead of planning her career and love life, she’s deciding whether to turn her house into a residence for the down and out. “One of [the] thoughts I have is about getting a place that’s a little bit bigger, [so] that I could offer a room or two to people in transition, people who are homeless, whatever,” she explains.

Virginia describes herself as a “great follower of Jung.” For her, walking the Camino is “a time to let the world that you see and the world that you don’t see—the unconscious—to surface and speak. When you’re working all the time and you’re very busy, a lot of that gets pushed down.” She uses mantras help her be more attentive to what comes up. “One that I use the most is from a psalm: For God alone, my soul in silence waits. I just repeat that over and over and over again.” But then, when things get really tough, she counts her steps. “When I feel I can’t take another step, I go one two three four, one two three four.”

Eventually, like in any trail, these steps end. On our second-to-last day of walking the Camino in 2005, Melissa and I arrived at our penultimate hostel and had a brilliantly stupid idea. We’d already clocked around twenty-five kilometres that day, and we had another thirty or so to go. But we were feeling unusually strong, so we decided to walk straight into Santiago that very night. We envisioned striding through the dark and arriving at the steps of the church at daybreak. The rising sun would be like God’s own smile, congratulating us for such an awesome finish.

Instead, we collapsed emotionally and physically a few hours later, sometime after the point of no return. I don’t remember much about the rest of that night, except that at one point we both wept, and we didn’t arrive at the cathedral until around noon the next day, by which time we were too exhausted and miserable to even bother going inside. I’d walked nearly a month to get there, but I was too beaten down to care.

In the worst moment of that final night, after we shrugged off our backpacks and sat down by a fountain in a small town to soak our aching feet, it was my turn to find what I was looking for. Everyone was asleep, the windows were all dark, and we were out there whispering our desperation and defeat in the shadows. Just then, I remembered a phrase from Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard, a book I’d loved for years.

“We sleep to time’s hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if ever we wake, to the silence of God. And then, when we wake to the deep shores of time uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it’s time to toss things, like our reason, and our will; then it’s time to break our necks for home.”

I didn’t recite all that at the time. I think I just remembered the part about breaking our necks for home. But it was enough. Home was what we wanted. We sobbed a little at the thought of it. Sometimes you just have to walk or run, like a dog, and just go.

Mark Mann
Mark Mann is a journalist whose work has appeared in Toronto Life, Dance Current, Report on Business, and Motherboard.