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Elan Vitae


  • J Bristol


As the one year anniversary of my walk on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela approaches, I can still barely put the experience into words. Perhaps that’s because it’s either too profound to sum up in words or it’s not meant to be shared. My intention all along was to share. In fact, it was my primary purpose for embarking on such a physical and exterior exploration of self. Known as the “Way of St. James,” the Camino is a pilgrimage route in northern Spain that has been walked by spiritual seekers of many denominations for centuries.

Don’t get me wrong, I learned (or confirmed) some fundamental truths about myself in the very first few days of the walk. 1. I’m not much of a hiker. And backpacking…really? 2. I don’t much enjoy wandering from one small town to another at home; apparently that applies to foreign countries as well. 3. I covet my privacy. The whole communal sleeping idea is an oxymoron….. 4. I’m a bonafide urbanite. While these were some easy and superficial admissions, I had no idea how deep this journey was about to take me.

I heard many times from fellow Pilgrims that you never really understand why you’re walking until you return home. While I’ve always been a contemplative and self-reflective person, I assumed there would be a notable “a ha” moment when I re-engaged in my day-to-day life. I’ve experienced multiple “a has” this past year, none of which I could directly correlate to my time on the Camino, but all of which speak to the person I am now. When I think of the woman who this time last year was frantically wrapping up a job she hated, working for people she didn’t respect, desperately seeking meaning and connection to something bigger, barely sleeping, highly disconnected from self - both physically and spiritually, I barely recognize her. And in the distinction between that person and who I am now, I find the significance and magnitude of that magical walk.

It’s possible to make a case that any life lesson is a metaphorical “Camino” and should always be honored. I cannot deny, however, that fully punctuating such a time-out from what we know is infinitely more powerful. It’s a gift I hope everyone will afford themselves at some point in life. As a city girl, I find a perfect rhythmic cadence to my thoughts and efforts on a day to day basis. Amid the chaos of lights and traffic and endless business opportunities and outlets for entertainment, I find my frequency and it feels just right. Not too fast; not too slow, and certainly not overwhelming. Yet somehow when I plopped myself on a trail, with a back pack, on the edge of the Pyrenees mountains in France, that same cadence, thought stream, and effort sounded like a raging freight train. Suddenly everything that was me was in the forefront. And it was loud. Obnoxious even. Every thought, need, insecurity, was right in front of me. In the people I met, the places I walked, and the physical pain in my body.

I was not impressed with that reflection of myself. I saw misplaced boundaries, deep seated insecurities, a bruised ego, and a broken body and spirit. I cried for days as I walked and couldn’t seem to distance myself enough from people, or that part of myself being expressed through them that I didn’t want to see. I had done enough work on myself to know that all answers are within, and yet here I was looking for explanation and validation in every step I took, every “sign” I encountered, and every pair of eyes that met mine. In them, I encountered failed relationships, shallowness, hypocrisy, infidelity, inflexibility, ignorance, and fear.

As days passed and nights passed, I started to become grateful for the monotony of just putting one foot in front of the other step after step. Grateful for the lull of the sound of my feet crunching the earth below. Grateful for the fellow Pilgrims who were close enough that I knew I was still on the trail, but far enough that we didn’t have to speak. As each step became more secure, hills became less daunting, and blisters started healing, I became less afraid of the silence. I was no longer ducking from the reflection of myself that had been raging back at me so vehemently. I became lighter physically and energetically. I had softened and opened to everything that was buried deep inside me. I was cracking through layers I would never have admitted existed.

Slowly but surely, I started experiencing meaningful and joyful exchanges with those around me; enjoying the simplicity of encountering a berry patch or fig tree along the path, and sharing the fruit with others. Basking in the sun and the oneness simultaneously yet unaware of the physicalness of any such thoughts or emotions in the moment. I was starting to feel strong in my body and empowered in spirit. I would end each day feeling that fresh-air exhaustion I experienced as a child after playing outside all day. And in the peaceful, restful sleep that followed, I gave thanks.

And now one year later, as I reflect on the rawness of that time, my gratitude is even more profound. For parts of me that came crashing down and bursting out and then melted away. Whatever moved me from so deeply inside to take that walk - that awkward, outward, external step, changed my life forever. I will never regret the distance I went out into the world to reveal the deepest truths within me.


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