Camino de Santiago – A Pilgrimage in Plastic Ponchos

In 1994, when she was 60, the actress Shirley MacLaine walked the Camino de Santiago. Afterward, she went on National Public Radio and talked about it. My athletic mother, who was in her 40s then, and just over a life-threatening illness, heard the interview on NPR and knew she wanted to do the walk, too. “I mean, she’s into all these past lives, kind of crazy things,” said my mom. “I don’t know about all that stuff. But when I heard her talking about the Camino, it just—well, it spoke to me.”  

Camino de Santiago

My mom thought about that walk for a long time. She survived cancer for a second time, and, thanks to my brothers, became a grandmother. Finally, twenty years after Shirley MacLaine did her walk, my mom and I met in Paris and took a TGV south to Saint Jean Pied de Port, on the Spanish border.

All Roads Lead to Santiago de Compostela

My mother had organized an 8-day trip. She had done a lot of research and said that what she found was that you don’t have to walk the whole way in one go. You can walk part of it, then just go back, year after year, and pick up where you left off. In fact—we would learn—there is no such thing as a ‘whole way.’ Not only are there many different mapped routes you can take to reach the Santiago de Compostela, but, since the path actually begins when you step out your front door, each person’s Camino is unique.

While Shirley MacLaine had traveled without money, begging for food and staying in the refugios that house pilgrims along the way, we were taking an easier approach. A van service drove our bags from hotel to hotel along the  ‘French route’ that my mom chose for us. We just carried what we needed for the day in our backpacks: Some money, some water, band-aids, sunscreen, an extra sweater, and, in my case, the fluorescent orange windbreaker my mom had brought for me but that I refused to wear because I thought it looked extremely uncool. 

I figured that it wouldn’t be so hard—we had walked in California, which was challenging because everything is built for cars, but this was Europe. We’d walk a little, stop to eat, walk a little more. The first day started out that way. We had café au lait and baguettes, then began the hike to our next destination. At first, we worried we might not be on the right graveled path, then saw one of the yellow arrows that mark the trails for the pilgrims–or peregrinos, as the Spanish call them—and that appeared, like a little bolt of sunshine just about every time we started to worry seriously that we had strayed, and might be headed in the wrong direction. 

Camino de santiago

 Overhead, the sun was shining as we wound gently through the French countryside. I wasn’t too concerned when we saw the path snake steeply upwards—we were both in good physical shape, we could handle a little uphill walking. 

At an almost abandoned hillside café, we stopped for almond cake and watched the fluffy white cumulus clouds racing across the bright blue sky. I would have lingered, but my mom, who had done all the reading about where we were headed, said we should keep going, so we did. Up and up and up. There were no more trailside cafes, deserted or not. No buses, no taxis. No roads. Dark storm clouds gathered, rocky outcroppings appeared around us. My legs were tired. The temperature was dropping. Still, according to the little wooden distance markers along the path, we weren’t even close to our next destination. We took shelter during a brief rainstorm in a solitary wooden hut, then set out again, still heading up. In college, I spent a semester reading about the lives of early Christian saints, and the sense of loneliness bordering on desolation I felt here reminded me of some of those stories. We shared a sandwich. We drank some water. We wondered if we would really reach the other side of the mountains before dusk.

We kept going. Finally, the road began to incline downwards. Now it was really starting to get dark, as we entered a dense woods. I watched my intrepid mother ahead of me, making her way quickly down the uneven dirt path, which sometimes crumbled beneath our feet. We held onto narrow trees for support. Be careful! I said. You too! She said. We jumped a little, like goats.

I couldn’t quite believe it when the trees thinned. We emerged from the artificial dusk of the woods, and into the real dusk, onto what looked like a paved road. Ahead we saw a few other pilgrims, all wearing plastic rain ponchos, which I thought looked a little funny. A wooden sign with a clamshell—the symbol of the Camino de Santiago—confirmed it: We had reached Roncesvalles, where there was a shower and a room and a dinner waiting for us. It had been a long day, much longer than I expected, during which we had reached a clear point of no return when it made more sense to push on than to go back. The walk, too, had been much harder than I expected. As we checked in at the hotel, I looked over at my mom. She was invigorated, glowing. She loved it.

Pilgrims Walk Every Day, Rain or Shine

We woke up the next morning to a flash of lightning and the sound of pouring rain. I convinced my mom that there was no way we could walk in this weather. Then I called the reception. “We’d like to stay another night,” I said. Even over the telephone, I could hear her confusion. “We can’t walk today,” I said, sure she would understand. “It’s raining.” The hotel was booked, she said. We would have to go. We got dressed and went to breakfast. Outside, the rain was still coming down in sheets. There at the table was a group of Irish women, a little younger than my mother. They were dressed for walking, with their hiking boots, outdoor jackets, and backpacks. “Are you going out?” my mother asked them. “Why wouldn’t we?” they said. “It’s raining,” I said. They explained that pilgrims walk every day, rain or shine. Then they told us to put garbage bags over our socks, inside our shoes, to keep our feet dry. And we should definitely buy some plastic rain ponchos.

Shaking my head, I began to realize that my ideas about walking weather were very Californian. “True,” said my mom. “I mean at home, you wouldn’t walk in weather like this.”

Regen Ponchos

Staying close to the shelter of the wall, we headed over to the Roncesvalles cloister, a beautiful old stone building. Inside, there was a concession stand, and we bought big, shapeless plastic rain ponchos and plastic hats. We put them on. Now we looked like the other pilgrims, who were indeed setting out into the wet day singly, in pairs or groups. We decided to go to a little café and think about what to do next. It was crowded with pilgrims, humid from the rain. We ordered coffee and sat at a long table. Next to us was a hearty-looking man in his seventies. He told us he was Dutch, and that he did this walk every year—starting out on foot from his house in the Netherlands, and camping along the way. Now that he was almost 80, his wife was trying to keep him home, without success. One concession he did make to age was that now when he got tired, he sometimes took a bus along parts of the route.

I was dragging my feet, but my mom came up with an idea: Let’s take a taxi part of the way, she said. We did, and after fifteen minutes or so, the sun came out. We got out of the taxi, found the pilgrim’s route, and walked the rest of the way to Zubiri. The path was easier than the day before, and we arrived at the next hotel, in a little stone building, in time for dinner.

Camino de Santiago

In the days after that, we walked all day, every day. When it began to rain, we put garbage bags over our socks and came to understand why some pilgrims we met wore shorts even though it was not warm (bare legs dried faster than long wet pants). We traversed beautiful landscapes and walked along busy roads through industrial areas (the first time we did this, I put on the fluorescent orange windbreaker my mom had brought for me, and didn’t take it off again). We walked through ugly small towns and lovely old stone ones, through lonely farms, abandoned, brand-new housing developments, and past an ancient castle on a hill. We met people on the paths and saw our friend the Dutchman a couple of times along the way. I got used to the walking, and I liked it. It felt natural and good to move so much.

The Shirley MacLaine Moment

But it was my mom who really thrived. She walked and walked and walked like she was made for it. In another, earlier time, I thought, she would be the one to lead the tribe from one prehistoric campground to the next. She even had her own Shirley MacLaine moment, on one long, somewhat uninspiring stretch of path where someone had put up a metal artwork for the pilgrims. It was a kind of narrow metal walkway, three meters long, right next to the real path. A tall, rusted silhouette of a pilgrim straddled the walkway. The pilgrim’s form had a kind of doorway, which you could pass through. My mom saw it and headed for it, good-naturedly. When she emerged, she looked a little stunned. “Wow,” she said. “I really felt something there. Like a bolt of energy. Wow.”

I walked through the doorway, too, but I didn’t feel the same thing. That must have been just for her, part of my mother’s special Camino. For me, walking the Camino with my mom was magical enough. We’re both looking forward to the next trip.