It was a long last few kilometers into Santo Domingo de la Calzada, a number of them uphill and through a soul-crushing stretch of not-muchness, punctuated depressingly by Cirueña, a pre-crisis golfing community that Should Never Have Been, now mostly vacant. Along the way, Hal and I and a couple of new friends passed “S,” a young Swiss pilgrim, sitting trailside, looking small and defeated. We’d met her a few times but didn’t know her well—that would come later.
We stopped to offer water and asked her how she was doing. “Not so good,” she said. She was injured and feeling queasy, most likely from dehydration and exertion. We hesitated, unsure of what to do. “It’s OK,” she said, waving us on.
We kept walking, I’m sorry to say, focused on our own aches and ailments that long day from Ventosa to Santo Domingo.
About 2k shy of town, we met our friend M, a German pilgrim with aching shins, jogging in the “wrong” direction. He’d heard via the Camino Telegraph that S was having a rough time of it, and he was headed back to see if she needed help. Hal hugged him, and I stood in awe, watching him run back toward Cirueña. About a half hour later, he found S limping down the trail, shouldered her pack, and walked her into town.
His nickname thereafter: Camino hero.
The Camino provides. It’s the pilgrim go-to phrase across message boards everywhere, a blithe catch-all answer to the many concerns, questions, and what-ifs raised by anxious pilgrims-to-be. I’ve probably even said it myself.
One thing I’ve learned in two Caminos—one in 2013, and one this spring, from which I’ve just returned: “The Camino provides” isn’t wrong. But it’s nonspecific, and a bit too removed from what’s actually happening. Because when the Camino provides, it isn’t some sort of deus ex machina magic. It’s actual people who are doing the providing.
It’s David, who lives on some mattress along a stretch of Meseta nothingness, just so he can fix passing pilgrims a bowl of pasta. It’s the woman carrying groceries in a León suburb who stops you to say you’re a few blocks off course, and then cheerfully steers you back toward The Way. It’s the fellow pilgrim who drops his pack in Santo Domingo de la Calzada to run 2k back and help a pilgrim who’s more injured than he is.
The Camino, after all, isn’t just a series of sendas, highway shoulders, and forest paths. It’s a long, skinny agreement among thousands of people, from pilgrims to cab drivers, hospitaleros, and cafe owners, to abide by certain guidelines of behavior: walk this route, provide this service for a fair price, be generally kind and helpful and open-minded beyond the normal scope of everyday life in the non-Camino world.
The Camino isn’t just a series of sendas, highway shoulders, and forest paths. It’s a long, skinny agreement among thousands of people to abide by certain guidelines of behavior.
The important thing to remember here is that not everybody abides by this agreement. Some pilgrims seem to view the Camino as a daily race for scarce resources—a race they plan to win. Some are simply spoiled, rude, and demanding, and don’t seem to grasp that many hospitaleros are volunteers and should not be addressed as if this were a normal customer/service provider relationship.
Some business owners along The Way view the unceasing river of pilgrims as a resource to be relentlessly and grumpily exploited (kind of understandable, as they have to live in that river every day). And tragically, some criminals prey on the vulnerable, such as a female pilgrim walking alone.
Most participants in the Camino Agreement fall somewhere in the middle—they aren’t villains or heroes, just tired folks trying to survive the day. Many have no mental capacity left over to see beyond their own pain, exhaustion, or need. Others aren’t unkind, only thoughtless. They pack their rucksacks loudly right next to your bunk at 5am because they are simply not considering you. Most of us, even when we’re trying hard to exhibit human decency, have moments like these.
The idea, for me, is to have as few clueless moments, and as many kind, open, and thoughtful ones, as I possibly can.
This Camino, the divide between Pilgrims Who Provide and Pilgrims Who Receive stood out particularly starkly for me, maybe because I was lucky enough to remain mostly healthy and pain-free and had the excess energy to notice things. I saw a lot of active helping this Camino, and and I also saw a lot of active taking—sometimes with gratitude, other times with a sort of careless expectation. And seeing all that made me reflect seriously on which type of pilgrim, and which type of person, I wanted to be.
To all you prospective pilgrims, as you’re perusing pilgrim forums and shopping for hiking boots, I urge you to take a break from gear shopping and consider this: Which kind of pilgrim do you want to be? Provider or providee? Careless or grateful?
And even if you’re too hurt, blistered, or exhausted to offer meaningful help to anyone, or if you’re mourning a life loss and your mind is full of grief, there’s one simple way you can abide by the Camino Agreement: First, do no harm. Notice people. Say thank you.
And when you do have the energy to spare, offer a small kindness. Because sometimes, noticing someone else’s pain can be quite distracting—dulling your own ache, at least for a moment.
You may also enjoy:
You Might Be a Pilgrim If — 56 Ways to Identify an American Post-Camino Peregrino in Withdrawal
A Pilgrim’s Progress — On The Way, a 5’3″ woman’s gotta learn to be big sometimes, especially when her Big Strong Man feels small.
9 Way to Be a Kinder, Gentler Pilgrim — A few simple lessons in Camino etiquette.