Once word got out that I would be walking the Camino, I had to face friends and family who, while generally supportive, were not entirely clear as to what it was I was doing or why. I could understand their concerns for my safety and for my preparedness–or what some considered lack thereof. I could almost “hear” their thoughts, their questions: Why is she doing this? Is she mad? The former question proved more and more difficult to answer. “Well, just because!” was not sufficient. When I would explain that I had been wanting to do the Camino since the first time I went to Spain on a Fulbright back in 1979, folks tended to understand although in some cases the obvious next question was, “So why now?” I too asked myself: Why in winter, during the holidays? Won’t you miss your family? It was a hard time to be away. I would be missing the holidays–Christmas, New Year’s, my birthday, my Mom’s, sisters’ and friends’ birthdays.
When others would ask, I would smile and acknowledge that yes, of course, I would miss my family and friends–I would miss so much! I would certainly miss celebrating Mom’s 86th birthday, miss the tamaladas—both at Christmas and for Elsa’s birthday—miss the children all dressed in their Christmas finery, and my sisters’ “pink” experience; I would simply miss the fun of being in Laredo with Mom and my siblings and their families in the house where I have spent almost all of the last 60 Christmases.
Start of parenthetical note–By the “pink” experience, I mean how for Christmas, my 7 sisters and I dress in a selected color. In 2010, it was Mari’s choice—Pink! The year before she had given us the color; so all year we had been on the lookout for a pink top that we could wear on Christmas Eve. We had started the tradition four years before with the youngest of the sisters, so we had already worn silver, red, and purple. I had already found a pink turtle neck that I knew would fit the occasion; now I would not wear it! In 2011, it will be Christmas Green and Leticia selected the color. Elsa is already agonizing as to what she will choose for us to wear in 2012—End of parenthetical note.
At times I was tormented with the what-ifs and the I-should’ves that plague me as I am about to start any important project. But, I held fast. “It’s now or never!” I would explain how on several occasions I had attempted to make the walk and how my dream had remained a dream, deferred due to circumstances beyond my control. This time, I told myself (and whoever would listen), I am determined to do it, come hell or high water! I was determined to get myself to Spain, to get myself to France, to start walking and do as much as I could every day and not stop until I reached Santiago.
The question remained “Why?” I must confess that I didn’t always deny people’s assumptions as to why I was doing it. I didn’t clarify when some friends assumed that I was doing it for religious reasons, assuming I was paying a manda, a vow to Santiago. Perhaps they knew something I didn’t. Or when someone assumed that it was an attempt to show others and myself that I was still physically able to do such things, I remained silent. I harbored thoughts of writing an op ed piece that would tell the world why I was doing it. I sent out Thanksgiving Day cards to out of town friends with a personal note saying that I would be walking the Camino and therefore not sending out my usual Christmas cards. They too asked “Why?”
Why? Why do people walk the Camino and have for centuries? It can certainly be for religious reasons, to pay a manda, to suffer and atone for some sin, to have the time to contemplate life, to prove that one can perform the athletic feat that it entails, to be a tourist and visit the various sites along the way—the monasteries, the Roman ruins, the cathedrals. Many peregrinos—some of whom we met along the way—have walked the Camino several times; they are said to be enganchados, hooked, by the Camino. Could it be the magic? The spiritual experiences? The high one experiences seeing the majestic mountains, the beautiful sunsets, the flora and fauna of Navarra and Galicia? Could it be the miracles? The people that one meets? Or a combination of all of these?
Ultimately, the question remains a personal one. Everyone who walks the Camino asks the question and everyone answers differently. But we all do it for only one reason: Because we can! There are many who want to and don’t. Others who dream of doing it and don’t. Still others who can and won’t. Many don’t finish or choose to walk etapas of the path. There are many reasons why many who say they want to don’t. There are some who cannot afford it, others whose fears or doubts paralyze them. I had my share of reasons over the years.
My friend Becky Vela, my traveling companion, had walked it before, alone and in winter. So why was she doing it again? To be with me? To walk the stretches where she had had to take a bus in the previous pilgrimage? Only she can answer why she walked it the first time, why she walked it again four years later. I chose to walk it in winter because it was almost guaranteed that there would not be many other pilgrims. I could relish my solitude, my time for reflection and contemplation. I did it because I could. I now know I walked it to fulfill a spiritual need, to physically step on a path that was laid out centuries ago, by pre-Christian seekers, travelers, pilgrims to the end of the earth, followers of the path of the stars. I did it to follow my life’s path.