WILD HEART, WONDERING MIND: The family I found along the Way

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When you walk 500 miles in 30 days, those who walk with you become your family. You confide in each other about fears and hopes, joys and sorrows you might never have found courage to tell anyone else.

You share in a whole new set of challenges, triumphs and failures together, as well — experiences that expedite and intensify the tightness of your relationships exponentially. In a month’s time, you find you’ve created more unforgettable memories with people you’ve known for a month than with people you’ve known for a decade.

So I return to my family in Wyoming holding a whole new family in my heart: My Camino family. A family who walked alongside me across the sweeping breadth of northern Spain, all of us following in the footsteps of millions of pilgrims who have walked the Way for millennia before us.

The Camino Frances — the longest and most popular of the many Camino pilgrimage routes leading to Santiago de Compostela, Spain — earned its designation as “The Way” because at night, the Milky Way seems to light and guide the pilgrims’ way from above.

I arrived at the starting point of the Camino Frances, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, on a Tuesday afternoon. After a night sleepless with anticipation and bunkmate snores, I began the Camino before sunrise on March 28, setting out from Saint-Jean with my new friends Barbara from Germany and Marco from Italy.

“I suppose there are as many reasons to walk the Camino as there are people on it,” Barbara remarked in her matter-of-fact English that morning as we wound through mist-kissed farm fields.

Before setting off, the owner of a local gear shop in Saint-Jean told me that, this time of year, around 100 people were beginning the French Route of the Camino each day, with that number steadily increasing as the weather warmed. That was a lot of people — and a lot of unique reasons — walking alongside me.

I didn’t yet know why I was walking the Camino.

My cousin Caety steered me toward the Way; she completed the pilgrimage a couple years ago, and when I told her I planned to travel around France and Spain for six weeks in the spring, she urged me to walk a week or two of the Camino — just to get my feet wet.

By day four, Good Friday in Pamplona, I’d already jumped in.

My body and soul swirled in a current of community, culture and synchronicity that carried me with ever-increasing momentum along the Camino’s Santiago-bound course. I seemed to have entered into a fate I might not have known awaited me, but from which I could not (and did not remotely wish to) escape.

One afternoon, about a quarter of the way through the Camino, a Czech woman named Verena captured this feeling of Camino “momentum” quite aptly.

“It’s nearly impossible to do this — walking 25 kilometers [close to 16 miles] every day for a whole month without stopping,” she said. “But we can because all the energy of all those who walked before us is still here. That energy takes us and shoots us on to our destination. The whole Camino is like a giant rubber band.”

Verena was right, but it was not only those who had walked before me who fed my fire to walk further than I ever had: It was those who walked alongside me.

From the first day, our family was a global one — one that kept growing throughout our journey. We embraced members from Ireland, Germany, Australia, Hungary, Canada, Italy, Slovenia, England, Brazil, Israel, Japan, and the U.S. to name just some of our homelands before the Camino became our shared home.

Some of the best and most meaningful life advice I’ve received came to me from my Camino family. Best, because it came from people who I recognized as absolutely practicing the truths they preached; most meaningful because it came from people who possessed an uber-exposed view of who I was — and who I wished to become. They offered me words that immediately struck the resonant chord of what I already knew, but could not accept.

A few of the most powerful pieces of guidance:

From lion-hearted Ken: “You’ve got to write from the heart. Don’t let your head get in the way of what the heart needs said.”

From courageous, compassionate Carol: “You can get ‘off the bus,’ at any time. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to stay on the bus just because you’re on it now. Get off, and go drive your own bus.”

From uninhibited Ollie: “Live more, think less.”

By the time we arrived in Santiago late in the evening of April 26, I knew why I’d walked the Camino.

The “bus” I want to drive roams all over the world, living stories in order to share them — from the heart. If I stop thinking so much about all I dream of doing, and just do it, I’ll be living the life I want to live.

It’s easier to travel the world when you have family who loves and welcomes you all across its far-flung lands. I walked the Camino to become part of a worldwide family — a family that lovingly encourages its kin to go where their hearts tell them to go, and cheers them on all along the way.

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