When did the pilgrimage begin? When will it end? [An existential journey]

Ideas often come to us when we are walking our dog, Shanti – morning and evening. Two times a day we get to stretch our bodies and let our minds roam freely. We are not walking for five or six hours, day after day, for weeks on end as we did in Spain. But we do walk every day without fail. Lots of time for reflection. We are nearing the time when we flew to Madrid two years ago, to make the transition to Leon, where we began our Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. We began writing monthly reflections on the impact of walking the Camino almost a year ago, to check in with ourselves about whether this was just an experience we had that was fading into the background of our lives, or whether it has stayed with us. We figured we wouldn’t know if we didn’t set aside time to consider it. So here we are at the end of a year of reflection.

In some ways we thought that walking the Camino would make space for reevaluating what really matters to us at this point in our lives. It had been close to ten years since we stopped teaching with the Audubon Expedition Institute (now EEI). This was a university program for undergraduate and graduate degree students in environmental studies and environmental education where we slept out-of-doors for over 200 nights a year. Where our focus was on critical reflection and meaning making and community and action and activism and social and environmental justice and so much more. These elements of life are so easy to lose track of when living the life our culture prepares us for – to make money, to fit a certain mold, to fit our passions into the times left over from what we supposedly need to do to survive. While these were not our life goals, we still felt the impact of the prevailing culture. How does one continually step aside from these pressures?

Did our pilgrimage begin with the thought that we were in danger of becoming lost to ourselves, to one another, to our values? Had we lost our way, or could we be heading in that direction? Did it begin when we acknowledged that we likely were not going to do week-long backpacking trips any more where we carried all our food (and water purifiers and first aid kits and stoves and fuel bottles and so on) but we still wanted to put our bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits in the out-of-doors for long periods of time and that the Camino might offer us an opportunity that met who we were now in our lives? Did it begin when we watched the film The Way and acknowledged to one another that we had both been drawn to this journey? Did it begin when we bought John Brierley’s books and began to read them? Or when we found the Buddhist writers who had also walked the Camino? Did it begin on the train from Madrid when we saw two men with walking poles and backpacks? Was it when we saw pilgrims out the train window who were already on the path we would soon be walking?  Was the true beginning when we first saw the shells and yellow arrows in Leon and set our feet on the path?

And now we also ask ourselves, has our pilgrimage ended yet? Did we finish in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela? Was it complete when we faced the ocean at Finisterre and stared across the North Atlantic towards Nova Scotia? Did we consider it ended when we took the bus back to Santiago, then the train to Madrid where we ate dinner at the same restaurant we found when we first arrived? Was it over when we took the Metro we had learned how to navigate through the BBC’s lessons called Mi Vida Loca and boarded the plane to Bangor, Maine?

Was walking the Camino for us about attaining some end point, or was it more existential – more connected to meaning making and choosing once again to live our lives authentically? The word pilgrimage brings up the idea of commitment to a sense of purpose – to following a path and to paying attention along the way. If this is the definition of a pilgrimage, we believe we are still on this one. We returned to our lives, not transformed, not notably different, but more awake and aware of life’s questions. Not with answers.

As we began to write this post, this painting from Gauguin came to mind for the ways in which it also poses questions – those that accompany human beings from birth to death: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Gauguin calls us to look deeply into our past, our present, and our inevitable future – not to find ultimate answers to life’s questions, but to continue deeply searching within ourselves for meaning.


Though our Camino trek ended close to two years ago, regularly reflecting on the journey has helped to keep us awake and conscious. It’s easier to stay awake about what we were doing on the Camino (walking) than it can sometimes be in our daily lives. It turns out that those 350 km were just one pilgrimage amidst a lifetime of wandering.

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