Next fall, 2023, a few friends and I are planning to walk El Camino de Santiago in Spain. For those who may be unfamiliar with this, El Camino de Santiago, The Way of St. James, is a network of ancient routes taken by pilgrims wishing to make the same journey that St. James made while spreading Christianity (known in the first century as The Way) in Spain. The routes all end at the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, The City of St. James. Hundreds of thousands of people make the pilgrimage every year on routes that take between 8 and 35 days.
We’re not doing the 35 day route only because it’s a long time to be away, but we felt we wanted more than 8 days to experience this pilgrimage. We’ve decided on 14 days, and we will be doing the pilgrimage the way it’s supposed to be done–no tourist agency to plan our every step, no porter to take our bags from one stop to the next, no fancy hotels or five star restaurants. Just us, our lightly packed backpacks, walking sticks, and a modest hotel every few days. We will stay in local BnBs owned by families needing the income to survive. For this trip, there will be four of us, all learning our way along The Way. In 2024, I will be taking a large group of pilgrims (and doing things the easier way with professional help, porters, etc). This time, though, the pilgrimage is for me.
Last week, as Ken and I explore the world outside our cabin in the San Juan Rang of the Colorado Rockies, I begin my preparation for The Way.
Prepare the Way
I’ve gotten lots of advice from the Internet, guide books, and friends and acquaintances who have done The Way. They all say that the most important thing to do is to start walking. Every single day, increasing the length and difficulty of my walks as I go along. There aren’t any steep climbs or high elevations on the route we will take in Spain, but the more strenuously I train now, the better equipped I will be then. And finding strenuous hiking is not a problem out here!
One evening, Ken and I took our third hike of the week, and believe me, hiking up here, at almost 10,000 feet above sea level, is not for the faint of heart. The inclines take your breath away, but so do the views along the walk and at the peak of the hike. We plan on climbing two 14ers in the next ten days, and those always present a challenge! Every step can be difficult, but around every bend is a vista that is a beauty to behold. This is exactly how I imagine The Way will be.
We typically don’t meet any other people on these hikes (unlike climbing the 14ers.), but we often have company. We’re all in our own state of mind, just trying to go our own way, and taking in the world around us.
Encountering The Way
On one of our evening walks, Ken spotted a Western Tanager, a beautiful bird that was once rare because it was thought to be a threat to orchards. Ken, a lifelong birder, was thrilled to see such a beautiful specimen, and the bird showed off for us, flying from tree to tree overhead, displaying his magnificent colors of red and orange and yellow. Not much of a bird person myself, even I could appreciate the beauty of watching such a brilliantly colored creature in flight, his plumage a stark contrast to the blue sky above. Unlike most tanagers, the western species likes cooler climates and spends most of its life high in the northern regions, even into Canada’s Northwest Territories, spending minimal time in the south during migration periods. I supposed their migration is kind of like The Way, a pilgrimage of sorts.
It seems that on every outing, we are treated to a special encounter or sighting. Just before seeing the tanager, we found a log that was surrounded by amber formations. Since I’m just a tab bit obsessed with dinosaurs (about as much as I’m obsessed with sharks), I couldn’t help but marvel at the sight. Was there a creature locked somewhere inside that shiny resin? How long had it been there? What secrets does it hold? Dinosaur DNA??? Apparently not, but I can hope. See that piece of a flower on the amber? It will still be there, possibly totally encased in the resin, millions of years from now.
Again, I imagine that my time on The Way will be much the same – a meaningful encounter or sighting each day of the walk, something that will become a part of me and have an affect on me for many years to come.
Following The Way
One of the things we most enjoy while out here in the Rockies is climbing 14ers. These are the 53 mountains in Colorado that stand at more than 14,000 feet above sea level. We have five in our region of the San Juans, and only Ken and our oldest daughter, Rebecca, have managed to climb all five. On the last climb they did together, they summited Wetterhorn, a class 3 mountain that is the most challenging and dangerous in this area. On the way down, they lost the trail and ended up scaling the face of the mountain while onlookers encouraged them from below and stood by in case one of them didn’t make it. I was very grateful that they both made it down relatively unharmed and especially grateful that I didn’t know the peril they were in!
On Friday, Ken and I climbed Handies Peak. We first tried to summit Handies 15 years ago. Because I used to suffer from debilitating migraines (before changing my diet), I was never able to go over 13,000 feet without excruciating pain. I never made it to the top. For 15 years, that mountain was my white whale. Friday, I conquered it. I cried when my foot first hit the rocky top of the peak. I was completely overcome with emotion and such a feeling of accomplishment.
The climb was not easy. The elevation made me short of breath every step of the way (I used my inhaler more than once). Early on, I slipped off a rock into an ice-cold stream, so my socks were wet all day (my hiking shoes are made to dry quickly). My calves, used to a lot of walking, were screaming for most of the hike.
But I made it.
I learned several lessons, including to always carry an extra pair of socks! I’m sure my first walk on El Camino will be much the same. Oh, I won’t have to deal with extreme elevation, and I will certainly have extra socks, but I know there will be many insights I will want to impart on the group of pilgrims I will lead the following year. The most important of all will be not to make the mistake Ken and Rebecca did. We will follow The Way–both physically and spiritually.
Tomorrow, Ken, Morgan (our youngest), Josh (her boyfriend), and I plan to tackle Sunshine and Red Cloud, twin peaks that Morgan and I have not summited. The trail is clear and well-marked, but we will have to make sure we don’t wander. Storms may come up, as they often do, and we will need to be prepared for whatever circumstance arises. We know that the way is not always easy, but neither is The Way. To stay on the right path, we must follow what has been laid out for us. “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you” (Psalm 32:8).
Mastering The Way
I believe, over the next 14 months or so, I will experience many things that I will reflect upon while walking The Way, and I’m sure I will learn a lot throughout this training–not just about mastering El Camino but about myself and my life. I am starting not just my physical training but also my spiritual training. I’ll have a lot to do and think about in the coming months and many discoveries to make along my journey.
St. Augustine of Hippo once said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”
I have done a lot of traveling, and I have learned that there is a great difference between going on a trip and going on a pilgrimage. Two different people can go to the same place, one as a traveler and one as a pilgrim, and their experiences will be starkly different. Reading a little more into what St. Augustine said, those who do not travel read only one page, but those who travel as pilgrims read the entire book, including the prologue and the appendix. They become masters of The Way of Life.
One thing I know for certain–no matter how hard, how time-consuming, or how demanding the preparation and the walk itself will be, I will find The Way.
Note: To understand what is involved and to get a sense of why this is so important to so many, I highly recommend watching the movie, The Way, starring Martin Sheen and son, Emilio Estevez.
You can continue to follow our travels over the next two weeks on my Facebook and Instagram accounts!
Enter the Contest!
Don’t forget to share your Selfie with a Saint to be entered into our end-of-the-summer drawing to win a copy of our new book, Meet the Satins From A-Z, A Children’s Introduction to the Saints. Just take a selfie of yourself with a saint, and share the picture with me! Find a statue of a saint at your church, on your campus, or during your travels this summer, and take a picture with him or her. Then post the picture on Instagram or Facebook, and tag me in it–@AmySchislerAuthor– with the hashtag #Meetthesaints. All photos must tag me, use the hashtag, and be posted by August 30.
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Amy Schisler is an award-winning author of both children’s books and sweet, faith-filled romance novels for readers of all ages. She lives with her husband and three daughters on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Her books, Picture Me, Whispering Vines, and Island of Miracles are all recipients of Illumination Awards, placing them among the top inspirational fiction books of 2015, 2016, and 2017. Whispering Vines was awarded the 2017 LYRA Award for the best romance of 2016. The Good Wine, the sequel to Whispering Vines was released in June of 2021. Island of Miracles has outsold all of Amy’s other books worldwide and ranked as high as 600 on Amazon. Her follow up, Island of Promise is a reader favorite. Amy’s children’s chapter book is The Greatest Gift, and her most recent suspense novel is Summer’s Squall.
Amy’s second book in the Chincoteague Island Trilogy, Island of Promise, was awarded First Prize by the Oklahoma Romance Writer’s Association as the best Inspirational Romance of 2018 and was awarded a Gold Medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards 2019 for Inspirational Fiction. It is the 2019 winner for Best Inspirational Fiction in the RWA Golden Quill Contest, Best Romance in the American Book Awards, and a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award of Fiction. Amy’s 2019 work, The Devil’s Fortune, a finalist in the Writer’s Digest Self-Publishing Awards and winner of an Illumination Award, is based, in part, on Amy’s family history. The third book in Amy’s Chincoteague Island Trilogy, Island of Hope, was released in August of 2019. Amy’s book, Desert Fire, Mountain Rain begins her new Buffalo Springs series. Book two, Under the Summer Moon, was released in December of 2021.
Amy’s new book, Seeking Tranquility, was released on June 15, 2022. Buy your copy now!
Amy’s books: Crabbing With Granddad (2013), A Place to Call Home (2014), Picture Me (2015), Whispering Vines (2016), Island of Miracles (2017), Stations of the Cross Meditations for Moms (2017), The Greatest Gift (2017), Summer’s Squall (2017), Island of Promise (2018), The Devil’s Fortune (2019), Island of Hope (2019), A Devotional Alphabet (2019), Desert Fire, Mountain Rain(2020), The Good Wine (2021), Under the Summer Moon (2021), Seeking Tranquility (2022).