By Ariel Rodríguez
El Camino de Santiago is a historical trail that dates back to before the birth of Christ. One can argue the reasons for experiencing El Camino are as numerous now as they were in more historical times. Whether a person wished (or was mandated) to perform a significant penance for some criminal or deviant activity, whether they were a merchant using the trail for practical reasons, or perhaps they were an adventurer and simply wanted to see the “end of the world” (today identified as the coast along Finisterre), El Camino was a source of significant importance to the people who experienced it.
If you are reading this, there is a good chance that you’ve been on a backpacking trip or at a minimum, have gone on a nice day’s hike. On backpacking trips as in pilgrimages, our backpack literally contains all of our possessions for our journey. For longer trips, you will notice backpackers or pilgrims with much larger packs, often with items hanging from them, such as drying clothes or towels. For shorter 2-3 day trips or for trips with reasonable accommodations relatively near each other (as in El Camino), you will notice backpackers or pilgrims with more modest sized packs.
From a distance perspective, there really is no difference between backpackers and pilgrims. Backpacking doesn’t have a limit on distance, and those pilgrims on El Camino don’t really either. Now saying this, many would argue that it actually has a set distance. If one begins from St. Jean Pied de Port in France, the distance would be roughly 800km or 500 miles to get to Santiago de Compostela in Spain taking the traditional Camino Frances. If one were to begin from Le Puy en Valey in France it would be roughly double that distance. Further, one may argue that in order to obtain La Compostela (certificate of completion of El Camino de Santiago which is obtained in Santiago de Compostela), one simply needs to complete the final 100km or 62 miles. However, this argument omits two very important points.
First there is no official beginning point of El Camino. Purists tend to believe one begins right outside their home while others point to more official starting points such as La Via de la Plata which begins en Sevilla or the Portuguese route which has Porto as one of its beginning points. Second, by limiting El Camino to kilometers or miles one strips it of its essence which has little to do with actual physical distance. It is common for pilgrims to walk with a question or unanswered aspect in their life. This question is rarely limited to a specific distance. It is a question that is often answered with a mixture of unique spiritual, religious, cultural, and natural connections one experiences along El Camino. And yes, while distance plays a role, it is often not in defining El Camino, but in giving it a framework. The longer one spends on El Camino, the more time they have to clear the clouds which are preventing them from finding answers to their question and the longer they will have to develop their connection with El Camino.
Transportation wise, both backpackers and pilgrims use active transportation modes to travel once they are on their trail. However, backpackers generally use their feet to transport themselves. On El Camino, it has become that all individuals who experience El Camino with a conscious effort are known as pilgrims. This would include those who walk or bike El Camino as well as those who take a taxi from one town to the next. While you, like me, are probably up in arms about anyone not walking being considered a pilgrim, it is important to realize that a pilgrimage is not as much about the body as it is about the mind and ones spirit.
So with all of these similarities, what is the difference between a backpacking trip and a pilgrimage such as El Camino de Santiago? I’ve been alluding to a few of these differences using El Camino as an example. But in order to truly understand the difference within El Camino, I need to take you back a little.
About two millennia ago, legend has it that the body of St. James the Apostle found its way to Santiago. Over time, the route that once would take a person to Finisterre became known as El Camino and culminated where St. James was laid to rest, the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. Over the years, both the Catholic Church and those who lived in the respective Camino community worked to protect and sustain what is known as El Camino Frances, the most well preserved Camino route. Since that time, El Camino has taken on a deeper meaning to those who not only maintain it, but who journey through it, pilgrims.
Today, individuals from all over the world endure not only El Camino Frances, but a variety of other routes to Santiago. I often say that the number of reasons pilgrims have had for doing El Camino is equal to the number of people who have endured it. In essence, this is where the difference lies between a backpacking trip and a pilgrimage. It is in the deep meaning that we ascribe to our journey. This meaning often revolves around spiritual or religious energies, but it not need be. Often times, we are at a crossroads in our lives and we are simply searching for a sign to help us decide what direction to head in. Perhaps a loved one passed away who was our better half, perhaps we need to decide where we wish to focus our professional career for the next 30 years, perhaps we feel we have lost our self and are in search of who we are again. These are the kinds of questions one encounters pilgrims enduring along El Camino.
Having completed El Camino Frances from St. Jean to Santiago twice, I’ve come to believe that the meaning behind El Camino is not simply in these terms we call spirituality and religion, but in the relationship that we have with the energy of the world. Many will call this God, some will call it Karma, and yet others will call it other names. Whatever it’s called, a pilgrimage through El Camino has a way of helping us to connect with this energy in a way that most of us never thought possible. It is through this connection that we often find our answers, our way. I have yet to understand why this occurs. Perhaps there is something magical about the Pyrenees, the feeling one gets as they enter Galicia, or perhaps seeing the Botafumeiro being hoisted through the Cathedral in Santiago. While not truly understanding why this deeper connection occurs, I have come to simply be grateful for it and continue living my life as if I’m on El Camino.