I am a pilgrim—a pilgrim at heart and a real one too.
Pilgrims need little to live: shelter, comfortable boots, and a backpack. The backpack shouldn’t be more than 10 percent of your body weight.
I walked the Way of St. James (an ancient pilgrimage route in Northern Spain that leads to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela), for the first time in 2010. I had just gotten divorced. And I had a very big and heavy backpack with me that I had decided to carry for over 700 kilometers, on my own.
My backpack was full of:
What if I had tried a bit harder?
Guilt for being the one who left.
Dreams I had lost along the way.
The house we never bought.
The smell of his cologne and my own sense of belonging.
The first stage of the Way involves crossing the Pyrenees, a mountain range that separates France and Spain. It is a heavy climb. Less than halfway up the mountain, I was already exhausted but decided to keep going, carrying everything with me.
I could not let it go. It felt like losing myself.
But I made it through the day. And I made it through a couple more days too.
With my feet covered in blisters, my knees aching, and my back bending, I knew I could not keep going this way. I had to sit with my backpack and decide what I was going to keep…and what I was going to leave.
I sat by a river and picked up a few pebbles. I held them in my hand and went through every emotion I was having. Anger, disappointment, regret, guilt, uncertainty, fear—I hugged each of them, allowing myself to be vulnerable with them, to feel them for the last time. Then, I threw most of them into the river.
Still, I was not ready to get rid of them all. I kept guilt with me. I kept uncertainty with me. And I kept fear with me too. A backpack of three was too heavy for one to carry, but I was not able to let them all go so soon.
I woke up the next day with renewed energy. I was walking faster and farther, with brisk steps. I felt lighter, so much lighter!
One night, I was not able to make it to the shelter in time. I slept on a park bench under the sky. It was chilly. It was uncomfortable, but it was the first time in many months that I was able to lift my eyes from the ground. I was in awe looking at the clear sky that was open before me. The stars, the galaxies, the Milky Way—everything was crisp, clear, grandiose.
I realized I was following one star. It was not the star of the Way. It was my own star.
A few more kilometers down the road, I arrived to Cruz de Ferro, an iron cross surrounded by pebbles. Legend says that a pilgrim should get a pebble on the first day of the pilgrimage, representing something they want to let go of, and throw it beneath the cross once they reach that point.
I still had some of the pebbles with me, so I sat on the ground, opened my backpack, and grabbed them. I held them in my hand. My eyes moved between the cross and the pebbles. I stood up. This was the time.
I threw them beneath the cross—guilt, uncertainty, fear.
I climbed the last hill to O Cebreiro under a heavy rain. I was totally soaked with rain and mud, but I walked fast and was able to cover 40 kilometers in one day, this time without blisters.
There was no more fear. There was no more guilt. There was no more uncertainty. And there was no more of the person I once was. I had rid myself of everything that was weighing me down.
As I approached Santiago de Compostela a few days later, I could hear the cathedral bells ringing. The walk had changed me in ways I could not have imagined. The bells were ringing for me. For my new life.
I stood in front of the cathedral, turning my head up until my neck was sore. I had seen the magnificence of the universe, and I was now facing the magnificence of human hands.
A deep wave of gratitude filled my body. I was proud of myself for having made it—more than 700 kilometers, walked daily, one step at a time.
And I loved. I loved myself. I loved myself free. I loved myself sore.
I loved my skin that had been tainted by the sun. I loved my feet and legs that had carried me there.
I was starting to live again.
Author: Silvia Martin Palacio
Image: Author’s own; Eli DeFaria/Unsplash
Editor: Nicole Cameron