In May 2018, as part of a global experiential learning course, 16 Honors students completed the last 150 miles/240 km of the popular pilgrimage route in northern Spain known as the Camino. We walked for 11 days, spoke to pilgrims, saw relics, attended pilgrim masses, read scholarly articles, journaled, and met daily for class discussions. Led by Professor Liz Bucar, doctoral student Sam Maron, and a local guide named Manuel, the program was designed to have us learn about pilgrimage while simultaneously becoming actual pilgrims. In the end, we also learned a lot about ourselves. Our group blog follows.

The Pilgrims

Day 1: Expectation

By Emily Jones and Julia Jaime Rodriguez

The scene was gloomy. Dark skies surrounded us as tall mountains peaked in the distance. The road we were on was narrow, especially for the giant bus we were sitting in. And to make things worse, our bus driver had passed right by our village. With Rabanal behind us, and the next hamlet another 10 km ahead, the obvious choice was to turn around. But turning a large bus on a single lane road isn’t quite that easy.

We were already filled with nervous excitement about our coming journey. Not only were we in for a 240 km walk over the next 11 days, all of us had various expectations. In fact we had written intense and personal papers detailing our motivations for coming on this adventure. But none of us had expected to be stuck on a tiny road with a ditch on one side and impatient cars on the other.

Things were resolved after the driver pulled a 57 point turn, steered us free of the danger, and received a round of applause from us. But surviving the stress of the bus ride wasn’t enough drama for our first day. The moment we set foot into our cozy hotel rooms, hail started falling from the sky. It was almost as if the tiny hamlet of Rabanal was warning us that the next 11 days would be a test on our minds and bodies.

Our meeting with Father Javier was a much needed relief after all the stress, as he would fill us with words of wisdom. With rain jackets zipped up, we walked to Rabanal’s tiny monastery, but the person who greeted us was not what we had expected. Instead of a stern face, a beaming monk stepped out the door and said in a heavy Spanish accent, “Good evening! This is Spain!” He stood still for a moment and smiled at us before ushering the group into the building.

Father Javier is a Benedictine monk, belonging to a community based in Munich, Germany. He had been in Rabanal since 1999, when he came to establish a community along the Camino to serve pilgrims. We asked him for some pre-Camino words of wisdom. He laughed a little before replying, “you will suffer.” Seeing the nervous looks on our faces, he then told us to be open and not to overlook silence and solitude. The importance of silence is something he has learned from his years of consoling unsatisfied pilgrims, as well as from his own experiences living in a community of three monks.

Next we obtained our first stamp on our pilgrim credencial, the document which will authenticate our Camino progress, and then headed over to attend our first pilgrim mass, where Father Javier and the other two resident monks sing Vespers in latin. The church in Rabanal was run down, but the music filled it with life in an unexpected way. Father Javier’s beautiful voice permeated the tiny church, and the Latin words held ages of emotion in them. The dark lighting of the church and the rhythmic melody put some of us in an a trance, as our closed eyes indicated.

After mass was done, we shuffled out quietly. Our minds were calm as we prepared for tomorrow. Expectations for walking had been set, and they were quite high.

Day 2: Reality

By Alyssa Marquette and Alana Kent

We all were filled with excitement the morning of our first day of walking. We had heard and read plenty about what the Camino would be like, but now we were going to experience it for ourselves! Before setting off, we met as a group, standing in the thick fog outside our hostel and trying to get warm despite the chilliness of the morning, while our local guide told us what the path would be like ahead. Although we knew before meeting Manuel that he coached judo and was a big, Galician, middle-aged man, nothing could have prepared us for what he actually was like. He was taller and more muscular than we expected. He spoke more softly than we anticipated, with an accent that sounded almost British. And although we were told that he can be awkward on the first day, he jumped right into joking around with us.

One of the most shocking realities on day one was the realization that the path was not very flat. Manuel referred to much of the route as a “false flat,” because although the overall elevation is fairly consistent, there are numerous uphill and downhill sections. The inclines, as we expected, were physically and mentally challenging. The beginning of our day primarily involved trekking uphill until we reached the Iron Cross landmark that indicates the highest point on the Camino Frances. Sweat stained our backs not only from the hard work but also the heat. Many of us expected much cooler temperatures, so it was surprising that during the afternoon the temperature climbed up to 80° and for most of the day, we walked without any cover from the sun.

These climbs were made simpler because of each other’s company. We had been told prior to departure that there is something about the Camino that makes people comfortable spilling their secrets to strangers. We thought that by the end of the day, we’d know the life stories of everyone in the group. In reality, though, a large portion of our time together was spent playing games and solving riddles. It was fun at first, but got a little bit old and made us slightly frustrated because most of our discussions were only surface level.

While we knew we would be dragging our feet on the uphills, none of us expected the declines to be difficult. However, we were in for a rude awakening on the first day of our trip. Going downhill forced us to go slower to avoid injury; none of us wanted to stumble over a rock and break a bone or roll an ankle. The views of the valley below us were beautiful and in the distance we could see hills and mountains that we would be crossing in the next few days. Yet as picturesque as everything was, with every step down the slope it felt like our toes were being squished against the tips of our shoes.

After 16 miles of climbing, stumbling, and sweating, we entered Molinaseca: our destination for the night. Most of us dipped our feet in the river right next to the village, and finally felt how much pain our feet were in. Although we all knew blisters and soreness would be a part of the Camino, we didn’t realize we would experience pain so soon. Even when we weren’t walking, every muscle seemed to ache and we were tired. But despite the harsh realities of the camino that we faced during this first day of walking, we accepted them as part of our pilgrim experience.

Day 3: Blistering

By Liz Gmoser and Julia Hines

Today, our group of happy hikers from previous days turned into the dirty pilgrims we had been passing on the trail. You would think that walking along paved roads would offer a reprieve from the rock-studded trails that represented a good portion of the Way we had already traveled on. But the wide-open roads and dark pavement instead served as a perfect outdoor rendition of an oven. With no shade from trees as the sun shone high overhead, our heads, necks, and shoulders took the brunt of the heat. Sunscreen was applied and reapplied, as hats were turned round in an effort to protect the back of necks.

For some pilgrims whose feet were covered with multiple blisters, every step was an explosion of pain, but each step also brought closer the promise of a shower and a roof between us and the sun. And while taking a break may seem like the ideal option for easing the pain of walking and of blisters, stopping and starting turned into the most painful part of the process. “It’s really hard to stop, absolutely horrible,” said Alanna. “It’s easier to ignore the pain when you’re moving.” But no one gave up. As Emily said, “It hurts. It sucks. But, it will be okay”.

The blistering pain of the sun on tops of heads and backs of necks was worsened by actual blisters. It seems ironic that such a small thing could cause so much pain. As you take off your shoe it feels like there should be a large wound, bleeding and oozing. But, when you do, you see it is only a small bubble causing the agony you feel. Not only does the physical stinging and rubbing make you grit your teeth, but knowing that you’ll have to put the same boots back on tomorrow and experience even more discomfort is something even worse.

The blistering nature of this stage of the journey was validated by a fellow pilgrim, Billy Moon from Bali. We met Billy at a cafe during lunch, and then he spent the next portion of the walk with us. On his previous twenty-two days on the Camino, he had never spent as much time in towns and on paved streets as we were this morning. With this being only our second day of walking, everything was fairly new to us, but it was comforting to hear that the struggle of hiking along open pavement as the sun relentlessly beat down overhead would most likely not be one we would have to deal with every day. If we could make it through today, we hoped to find refuge from the heat under the cover of a lush green canopy.

Overall, though, all the trials and tribulations made the shower at the end of the day, and the fun, distracting conversations we held, that much more meaningful. When you look on the bright side, and perhaps don’t stare directly into the bright sun’s rays, we were still at the beginning of a journey that would provide us with plenty of ups and downs and would become so much more than just a blister-causing walk across Spain.

Day 4: En-DURO-ance

By Irene Pham and Alanna Sokoloff

On some stages of the Camino, you have options about which path to walk. Today, leaving Villafranca, we took the “Camino Duro,” which translates literally as the “hard way.” It was the first year that this rigorous trail was taken by the entire Northeastern group, and to say it was hard is quite an understatement.

The first 200 meters felt like an infinite climb to nowhere. All we could hear was the crunch crunch of footsteps and our own heavy gasps for air. Conversation stopped because our breathing needed to be totally focused on climbing while trying to find a place to step in the minefield of jutting rocks. Every corner we turned we would ask Manuel, “Is this the top?” And every time he would say “almost,” and we would all internally groan.

We took frequent rest stops and water breaks as we watched the heat waves flutter around us, the Spanish sun beaming on our backs, spots of shade few and far between. The rocky terrain teared at oozing blisters while the steepness of it tested our shins and knees. But we had to keep moving. We had to push ourselves more than ever. Some even took on the extra challenge of climbing what Manuel called a wall, leading to a peak with 360 degree views of the countryside of Spain. Alanna recalls that making it to that spot was one of the most rewarding accomplishments of her entire journey.

Going down what we had climbed was just as grueling as going up. The path was so steep that many of us skidded on the loose gravel. For Irene, who had a previous knee injury, this stretch was a challenge. She could feel her knee swelling and remembered thinking “Yup, its a 2 advils and ice day.”

When we reached the bottom, we felt utter tiredness and relief. Some of us literally laid down on the ground, so thankful to be off the mountain while others collected baseball caps and wet them under a fountain so that we could have cool water streaming down our face. But the day wasn’t quite finished. We still had to walk more than an hour to our hotel, and even though the road was flat, physical movement after the Camino Duro was torture. Irene remembers being so tired that she considered leaning her head back onto my backpack and closing her eyes when she walked. Really. But on we went. One foot after the other until we finally made it.

While the day was by far the hardest so far, we would choose to do it again without hesitation. Today taught us what endurance really is. Endurance is telling yourself left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot until you finally make it. But more importantly it’s about helping others do that exact same thing whether it’s by playing a game, giving a hug, lending a pole, or physically supporting someone. And in doing this, we got so much more than the pride that I made it through the Camino Duro. We got the feeling of camaraderie that we did the Camino Duro.

Day 5: Escalation

By Natalie Reeder and Henry Weith

The dinner in O Cebreiro was loud. Tired and hungry pilgrims were laughing, eating, drinking, and, at another table, even singing “God Bless America.” We joked that for once we weren’t the loudest in the room. But we were feeling good. Today our spirits rose with each step we took to reach this tiny mountain town.

We began today’s walk enclosed by beautiful green trees that contrasted the open vineyards, mountain vistas, and streets we were used to. Leaves hung above our heads, and the dirt path beneath our feet was littered with stones and rocks, as well as the occasional pile of horse poop. No matter how beautiful it may have been, as we started the day, the scenery was hard to enjoy. The path was very steep and our legs were sore from the Camino Duro the day before. Our bodies constantly leaned forward as we pushed through the pain in order to get to La Faba, our first pitstop. Eventually the path opened up, a tiny hamlet came into sight, and a much needed break was taken.

When we continued, the path got higher, winding on the edges of mountains with farmland spreading out below. Around one of these bends a large stone stood off to the side of the path. Carved into it was a red cross and two emblems. In yellow writing was the word “Galicia.”

The spirit today was different from the day before. The Camino Duro had felt as if it would never end, and the rest of the Camino a goal we weren’t sure we could achieve. But today, we felt our sore muscles had potential. We felt invigorated by the scenery around us, and by walking past that stone telling us that we had made it to Galicia, we felt like we had accomplished something. We put in the work and got to enjoy the view. We were slowly, but surely, progressing.

When we made it into O Cebreiro, it seemed like a blessing that this town was so small the chapel was right across from our hotel. The bells started ringing at seven, calling some of us to worship. It was surprising how quickly the small ninth century chapel was transformed from a cold empty building into a space filled with weary pilgrims still in their hiking clothes. The service started with a call to worship, read not only in Spanish, but also English, Portuguese, French and Korean. In this tiny mountaintop village, a space was created that was inclusive for as many languages as possible. It wasn’t a perfect system. In fact, when one passage was being read, the reader stumbled over a phrase, commented, “there’s a mistake,” and then continued. But we were united in the common experience of the difficulties of translation.

The feelings of love and inclusion continued with the sermon, which focused on walking each step on the Camino with love. After hearing this message, we had a chance to greet each other. In this congregation of strangers, neighbor hugged neighbor, and the priest came down from the pulpit to embrace every person in the chapel.

At the end of the service, we flocked towards the altar, crowding around in a circle, for a pilgrim’s blessing. Many were holding hands and hugging, and some were even crying, overcome by the feelings of joy, love, and encouragement. A man from the village accompanied the priest for the blessings, handing out rocks with painted yellow arrows on them to each pilgrim.

With dry eyes, and decorated rocks in our pockets, we headed to bed after dinner, and met a beautiful sunset. The vibrant reds and oranges were a fitting close to an emotional day.

Day 6: Frustration

By Liz Gmoser and Natalia Rodriguez

As a group forms, it undergoes a classic series of steps as it evolves and progresses: “forming, storming, norming, and performing.” The group “forms,” as we did when we all came together back in Boston. It then “storms,” a time during which a conflict may arise or when boundaries are pushed. Once this happens, the group can move to the “norming” stage, in which differences begin to be settled. Finally, the group can “perform,” when members work together fluidly towards a goal.

Our storm broke on an otherwise gorgeous day. The sun was shining while a light breeze kept us all cool, the pain of blisters was fading, and the atmosphere was cheery and excited. An endless blue sky above us, animated discussions with other pilgrims on the trails, and a terrain that was not too strenuous all contributed to a seeming rebirth of the group mentality.

However, there was an permeating air of tension that became apparent during the afternoon. Part of this stemmed from a prompt to begin having meaningful “Camino” discussions. It was a well-meant gesture designed to encourage the group to think about what thoughts and feelings can stem from a pilgrimage, but it had the effect of making these conversations feel forced and ingenuine.

Another source was unclear directions, resulting in some members losing their way and in turn some people losing their cool. While on the Camino, many are encouraged to get lost and have the opportunity to find themselves as they find their way, but the group had mixed feelings about such an idea. Some wanted more structure and a set path, some enjoyed a carefree manner, and others fell somewhere in between. Soon, the “storm” brewed, providing an opportunity for people to open up about their emotions and feelings.

Being able to vent feelings in front of the class was seen by some as the best way to share how they felt the dynamic was changing. It was taken by others to be confrontational and left many feeling uneasy. The uncomfortable conversation took many by surprise, evidence that the group had not quite reached the “norming” stage because there was still a disconnect between different parties involved.

However, there can be a silver lining to situations like this. For us, it propelled the group into the “norming” period of group formation, in which tensions subsided as sensible discussions were had. Some people could freely talk about what bothered them and how it could be resolved or avoided in the future, and others resolved to keep a positive attitude in the face of what we were sure would be more Camino challenges.

In order for a group to perform at its best, it is necessary to weather a storm and to come out on the other side as a closer and more tight-knit team. Although Day 6 was one of the most uncomfortable, it offered us the opportunity to overcome differences and move on to a stage in which we could perform as the family we were meant to be.

Day 7: Silence

By Tal Usvyatsky and Julia Hines

As residual frustration turned into awkwardness, the group moved from the stone farmhouse outside Triacastela to the bustling city of Sarria. Today’s walk took the group through calming, forested areas and small farm towns until the last few kilometers where the area changed into the municipality of Sarria. It was the last day before the 100 km mark where many people join the Camino, so this day we were all asked to complete two hours of the walk in silence. This was something Father Javier had suggested we do as a time for introspection and reflection.

Early in the day, we reached the 138 km marker where the Camino branches into two potential routes: one through the town of Samos, passing the monastery where a piece of Jesus’ thorn crown lies, and another path, passing smaller towns like Furela and San Xil on more isolated trails. This divergence in the Camino was an opportunity for each of us to choose our own path and also to begin our two hours of walking in silence.

As we halted our conversations, walking side by side with one another began to feel strange. Earlier in the trip, as we were getting to know one another better, we felt a need to fill every pause with conversations or stories. Any silence seemed awkward, as if we couldn’t find any common ground. But during our two hours of silence, we couldn’t fall back on small talk anymore. As we walked together in silence, we felt awkward, and in response, we physically spread out. Some of us picked up our pace and moved ahead, while others chose to stay in the back. This was the first time many of us were really walking by ourselves on the Camino. We didn’t have to walk a certain pace so that we could walk next to someone or worry about getting to a spot for lunch in time. This solitude quickly turned into an opportunity for introspection.

Later that day in class, we talked about the experience of walking in silence. For everyone, the silence brought out something different. For Tal, the silence was an opportunity to reflect on her motivations for walking the Camino as well as a chance to think about how the Camino had changed her already. She mentioned that the silence gave her a feeling of control. Any of us could have broken our silence at any point, but maintaining or breaking the silence was ultimately our choice. Tal chose to break her silence when she reached Furela and told Marisa and Alyssa, “I think I’m gonna call it right about now,” to which Marisa and Alyssa replied, “yep, sounds good,” and “let’s get lunch.” Other people who took the Samos path stopped at a scenic area, breaking their silence by commenting on the beauty of the view. Liz G., on the other hand, broke her silence with, “I need to find a bathroom.”

For Julia, the silence was surprisingly hard to get through. As a quiet person herself, Julia never thought it would be hard to walk in silence on the Camino. However, when she got into the second hour of silence, time seemed to slow down, and she wished she had conversation to help pass the time. She started to understand the friendly attitudes most pilgrims had on the trail. It can get lonely after a long time and being able to talk to other people, even if they are strangers, is comforting. After the silence, Julia had a newfound wish to speak to other pilgrims and hear their stories.

Day 8: Out-100-k

By Irene Pham and Silhouette Renteria

When we turned around and looked down the hill, all we could see were colorful backpacks and the bob of pilgrims’ staffs. Today’s walk from Sarria to Portomarin is where many pilgrims choose to start because it marks the beginning of the last 100 km of the Camino. As a result, many of the pilgrims were fresh--their shoes hadn’t gone through mud and their clothes looked crisp, not wrinkly and damp like ours. A few of them even smelled like shampoo or laundry detergent. Their faces were lit up with happiness as they chatted excitedly. It was a stark contrast to yesterday’s two hour vow of silence and our group’s tiredness after having walked for a week. One man even had a selfie stick and we felt ourselves glaring at him as we passed before realizing that we were throwing the Camino shade we had talked about since day one.

Pilgrims on the Camino can be placed into a hierarchy based on a multitude of criteria such as where they began, how long they have been walking, how much they walk per day, and how they travel. There are many different routes to Santiago de Compostela, but many will say walking the “full Way” is about 750-800 km from St. Jean Pied de Port in France, which takes about a month. The farther from Santiago your starting point, the greater you are “ranked.” Those who complete part of the Way within only a couple days are lower on this hierarchy, as they haven’t endured the long struggles of pilgrimage. Many who walk will travel about 20-25 km per day, but those who want a harder physical challenge travel 40-50 km per day. Pilgrims on the Camino will travel by bus, car, horse, bicycle, or foot. Many religious groups plan tours on buses. However, the perception is that a “true pilgrim” will walk to Santiago, and walking the last 100 km is necessary to obtain a Compostela, the certificate from the Catholic Church proving your completion of the pilgrimage to Santiago. Therefore, many start their journey just before the 100 km maker at Sarria.

The socks pinned on our backpacks to dry suddenly felt like a badge of pride, a symbol of being a real pilgrim, rather than a nuisance. When we reached Sarria, we already had walked 140 km, and that was something to be proud of. Though these new pilgrims may still be in a blissful state of excitement for their journey, some of us couldn’t help but feel annoyed that they hadn’t endured what we had. And we never thought we would feel this way. We had always been on the receiving end of Camino shade: “How many days have you been walking?” a pilgrim would ask. “Just two,” we would reply. “Oh, I’ve been walking for 22 days, I started in St. Jean,” they would boast as we walked along, slightly ashamed.

But seeing all these new, fresh pilgrims today, with their happy faces when we felt exhausted inside, made us rethink these hierarchies. We realized it was important to change our outlook a little. They hadn’t endured those mountains or long days with the sun burning their shoulders. They hadn’t washed their sweaty clothes in a sink and hoped it dried by morning. They may be lower on the “hierarchy,” but who’s to say their journey isn’t just as meaningful?

The highlight of today was reaching the 100 km marker. The stone marker honestly wasn’t as what we expected. It was the same as any other maker in shape but it was adorned with a large pile of rocks and names written anywhere there was space. Even though its appearances wasn’t as grand as we expected the shift in our mentality was. We made it! This was it! We were at the home stretch! The final leg! Suddenly it didn’t feel as if we were trudging along each day just trying to make it to Day 11. Today, we were walking to Santiago de Compostela.

Day 9: Companions

By Tal Usvyatsky and Henry Weith

Henry and Natalia were walking side by side, as usual. Their conversation had a certain rhythm to it. They’d bounce stories back and forth, perhaps start singing a song, and then they’d go back to telling stories. All of this was interrupted every so often by a “Buen Camino!” given cheerfully to a passing pilgrim. However, what had only been an occasional interruption on the first day of the walk, had now become an interruption every few minutes. The number of companions on the Camino had steadily increased the closer we got to Santiago, and thus, so did the number of interactions we had with our Camino companions.

One of the first conversations Henry and Natalia had today, and by far the longest yet, was with an older American couple from Oregon. The couple recognized Henry and Natalia’s English and made some clever quip to get their attention. They continued to talk to them for the next kilometer and a half. The couple was Catholic walking all the way from St. Jean Pied de Port. When we told them that we had only been walking for eleven days, they responded with respect instead of the usual scorn of an “actual” pilgrim. This made us feel more welcome and accepted. Because we knew our “status” was respected, we felt more confident in sharing our own ideas.

The couple talked about their three sons and their religious reasons for doing the Camino. Henry and Natalia talked a lot about the dynamics of the doing the Camino with such a large group. When we mentioned the frustrations from a few days earlier, the lady’s immediate question was, “Did that happen on day six?” To which we responded, surprised, “Yes.” She went on to talk about how on her mission trips, day six was always the worst. By now she had learned to buy a bunch of snacks and treats for day six, because according to her, that’s when everyone gets cranky. When the foursome finally parted ways at a cafe, hugs were exchanged and smiles were shared.

When we arrived at our lodgings in Palas de Rei, there was a washer and dryer waiting for us. After weeks of hand-washing clothes to a “mostly clean” state, we were very excited to do our first load of laundry in Spain. Natalia and Alanna, who had arrived first, had their laundry already running in the machines. The rest of us pooled our laundry, and as Natalia and Alanna’s cycle neared its end, we went to the small laundry shed to throw our clothes in the washer.

Another pilgrim, who we had seen earlier in the day on the trail, had beaten us to the machines and was waiting outside the shed for his turn. We started talking to him about his Camino experience. He told us that he and his wife were from Germany, and this was their second Camino. They had walked about 70 kilometers the previous year, but when they got to Santiago, they were disappointed to find out that the Compostela required 100 kilometers of walking. They returned this year, ready to get the Compostela when they arrived in Santiago. We continued to chat with him outside the laundry shed until it was time for us to go to class.

We returned a while later, and to speed up the process, we ended Natalia and Alanna’s dryer cycle midway through, replacing their clothes with our pilgrim friend’s wet clean clothes. On our way out of the shed, we ran into our friend, and told him that we had put his clothes in for the remainder of our cycle. He was both very excited and clearly grateful, and he offered to pay for our dryer cycle in return. We ran into him a few more times that night, and every time, we smiled, said hello, and made some kind of small talk, mentioning that we would likely pass by them again on the rest of the Way.

Earlier in the trip, we experienced the benefits of walking alone and silence. But as we continued walking and more and more pilgrims joined the Camino, we also saw the great things that can happen when you share your Camino with others and accept their companionship.

Day 10: Persist

By Gwen Cusing and Marisa Thomassie

Today felt like it would last forever. We covered the 30 kilometers between Palas de Rei and Arzúa and walked for 9 hours with a break at Melide for lunch. Clouds loomed over us, with flat grey skies stretching on as far as we could see, and the air was humid and heavy. After the first break at about 8 kilometers, it was discouraging to know that we had about a normal day’s worth of walking still ahead of us. However, today’s sheer distance was not the only hardship we faced.

Though we had managed to avoid the “pilgrim’s flu” so far, most, if not all of us, were feeling the physical toll of walking the Camino. About six of us were walking through lingering injuries from various high school sports, including track, gymnastics, and tennis. Emily, for example, often lamented about her “poor abuela knees.” Several others, like Julia H., were sick with various colds and allergy flare-ups. The blister count was in the double digits for some in our crew. The humidity and distinct lack of sunshine did nothing to help our moods.

It was in these difficult times that we realized that in order to persist and persevere, we needed to keep the small victories in mind. One small but noticeable blessing was the change in terrain. Instead of passing through tiny towns that smelled distinctly of cow feces, the Camino snaked through eucalyptus groves and wooded areas. This new scenery was far more picturesque and easy to walk. And it certainly smelled better. Today’s lunch in Melide consisted of typical Galician delicacies, pulpo (octopus) and pig’s ears, which added a little variety to the typical bocadillos and sheets of meat that had featured prominently in the lunches in days past.

We also realized the importance of relying on each other to persist through the lows. Alanna, Natalia, and Henry sang “100 Bottles of Beer” all the way to completion, first thing in the morning, to keep the morale of the group up. For the last 8 km Alana taught American Sign Language to Sam and Natalie, who learned how to describe the colors of the cats passing by and a story about a lumberjack which is well-known in deaf culture.

As the sky continued to offer empty threats of rain, we paused at Café Alemán for a well-deserved ice cream break, about two hours from our destination. As we lounged on the patio outside, a group of Australian pilgrims who we had been leapfrogging for the past few days collapsed at a pair of tables a few feet away from us. We overheard one of them commenting that they were in far more pain than we were, even though they had been walking for less time and distance. In this weary group of Australians, we saw ourselves from the first few days of our journey. Not only were we able to persevere through this long and difficult day, we realized that we had been learning to persist through the pain since the beginning of our journey. We had made it this far through our hardships, and once we completed the day, there were only 60 km to go.

Day 11: Dialogue

By Alyssa Marquette and Natalie Reeder

It was about halfway through a day of freedom. Our group had been told we could walk on our own all the way to our hotel in O Pino, nearly a 20 km hike. With Manuel in the back, “collecting the bodies,” most of us walked the entire stage in small groups. Except Alyssa. It was 11 km in and she was sitting at a round table outside of a cafe, sipping Coke next to a man in his mid twenties whom she had just met. She had walked with this young Spanish man, named Nacho, for about two and a half hours. They greeted each other with a “buen Camino,” a phrase exchanged frequently along the trail. Then, when she stepped to the side to let him walk his bike past, he asked her where she was from. And this started it all.

They talked about everything from the differences in the schooling systems between Spain and the US, to their families, to their favorite books and music, to their experience with religion. Although it seems like it would be a very personal thing, religion was actually one of their first topics of conversation. The topic was first brought up when Alyssa explained to Nacho that our group’s classes were about religion. Alyssa also learned that like many on the Camino, he was at a turning point in his life. He had recently quit his job in Madrid and was biking the Camino route while he decided what to do next. It did not feel strange to hear or share personal things like this with a complete stranger. On the Camino, people tend to be much more open, seeking out dialogue with other pilgrims.

While we took every chance to talk with passing pilgrims, it was also the words they left behind, in the form of graffiti, that sparked conversation and laughter. Messages were spray painted, scribbled, and scratched on the kilometer markers, in tunnels, and on the backs of signs. As we reached the 100 km marker and pilgrims crowded the trail, graffiti covered everything, spreading even to trees and rocks. The messages ranged from names to phrases like “Love Wins,” and Natalie’s personal favorite, “Melted Rubber Humans,” which appeared on almost every kilometer marker.

“Melted Rubber Humans” showed up early in our journey and was always scribbled haphazardly in sharpie, not spray painted like some of the other graffiti. We laughed whenever we caught sight of the phrase. It was very relatable on the early days when we felt like we were melting, with the sun beating down on us. Since most of the messages left behind by pilgrims were their names, Natalie wanted to know if this phrase had any significance, so she had Irene google it. The first google link was a message board covered in angry messages for the culprit of “Melted Rubber Humans.” The message that made us laugh made others angry; they saw it as vandalism ruining their pilgrim experience. What seemed confusing about this to Natalie is that even the arrow markers pointing pilgrims towards our final destination resemble graffiti, sprayed in yellow spray paint on roads, fence posts, signs, and in tunnels. The new graffiti just felt like a colorful and exciting addition to her, another indication that she was getting closer to her goal, and that all the people who had traveled the way before her were rooting her on… even if they were melted, and rubber.

Whether we were having extended conversations, exchanging a few words in passing, or reading the words of pilgrims long gone, our dialogue with others on the Camino helped us learn, laugh, and pass the otherwise monotonous hours of walking.

Day 12: Destination

By Julia Jaime Rodriguez and Ewen Wang

We were 20 kilometers away. All of the walking we had done had amounted to this day--the final stretch. Being so close to Santiago, we never would have expected that today one of us would succumb to the feared “pilgrim’s flu.” Alas, we were wrong. As the day went on it was clear that one of our classmates, Emily, was struggling. Her gait had become sluggish and her usually chipper personality was dull. It wasn’t until we reached our third resting spot that it was clear that something was very wrong. After Alanna and Manuel waited for her, we heard that Emily was going to be taking a taxi, as her illness had become too severe and she could not walk the 2 kilometers left to meet us at our last meeting point before Santiago. When she arrived she looked pale, tired but not defeated. She had already demonstrated resilience during her pilgrimage, having struggled with the highest amount of blisters in the group at a count of 11. She might have been sick, in pain, but darn it she was so close and nothing was going to stop her from reaching Santiago by foot. Emily walked the remaining 7 km, despite being unable to keep down water or food.

As the group approached the outskirts of the city, the lush forests morphed into an urban city. Having been in mountains, fields, and forests for so long, many of us were surprised by the shops, busy streets, and people who weren’t pilgrims. As pilgrims, we lived a cycle that was out of sync with city life. The laughter and excitement of earlier today faded as we began to realize that we would soon have to go back to reality of our normal lives.

As we made the slow trek through the bustling city and neared the heart of it all, the lively sound of bagpipes greeted us. The musician, a young woman, situated herself inside a tunnel, to amplify her melodies. The music was a great accompaniment to our growing excitement. The curious thing was, despite this excitement to reach our final destination, a feeling of confusion crept over us as well. We had all expected the entrance to be much more grand. Almost as if the cathedral was the entrance to Santiago, the first thing one would be greeted by. Thus our slow trek in, the drama of the bagpipes, and our weary feet made for an interesting mix of excitement, sadness, and some exasperation. But before we knew it, after walking past a last unassuming corner, we saw the tip of the cathedral looking down at us. The sight took us by surprise and put smiles to many of our faces.

Our grins dwindled, and the looks on our faces changed into ones of relief. We had all made it! We had walked over 240 km, had faced injuries, sickness, and mental obstacles but finally, we had arrived to Santiago. Almost immediately we all began to sink, one by one, unto the stone ground of the plaza, many of us using our heavy packs as pillows. Each one of us gazed around, our minds racing with emotion. And then, the tears began. Emily, who had struggled until the last second, shed the first tears, and soon Prof. Liz followed, as she had promised us since day one. Tears or not, the emotion we all felt at our arrival was tremendous. After the euphoria surrounding our arrival, we watched other pilgrims arrive. A group of cyclists cheered loudly as they took a group photo, with one woman holding her bicycle above her head. A group of Germans gathered around in a circle and began singing in beautiful harmony. Others just sat down and took it all in, just as we had done, finally resting their weary limbs without having to think about making it to another destination.

Day 13: Closure

By Emily Jones and Alana Kent

We started our last day in Spain by visiting the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela, seeing the bones of St. James, and attending a pilgrim mass. We were ending it by having one last family dinner together. Our group almost completely filled up the upstairs of the restaurant. It wasn’t an enclosed, private room like we would’ve preferred, but at least we were together. Tonight our three-course meal consisted of tomatoes with olives, cod with black garlic puree, and a deconstructed strawberry cheesecake. After finishing dinner, we each shared a high and a low from the Camino. While most of the lows were challenging climbs, like Camino Duro, or minor injuries, the highs ranged from finally reaching one of our hotels just as it started to pour to eating a really good veggie burger on the trail. All of these experiences would have been amazing if we were by ourselves, but by completing them with each other and being a part of everyone else’s Camino, our own journeys became more fulfilling. Throughout this incredible adventure, we went from being friends to being a family.

So that’s it. We don’t have to wake up at 7am to get ready for breakfast anymore. No more taping our feet, throwing on questionably clean clothes, and lacing up dusty boots. No more family dinners. In less than 24 hours we will be back on a plane to the United States. Our 150 mile (240 kilometer) journey has come to an end. But we don’t think that we’ll ever forget the lessons that the Camino has taught us.

Try new things. While many of us had hiked before, none of us had done it for 11 days straight, only stopping to eat, drink, and sleep. This new experience empowered us to be adventurous in our decisions. We tried new foods, trod new roads, and struck up conversations with strangers.

Go at your own pace. Some days we charged ahead with determination. Other days we were back of the pack with all types of aches and pains. However, it was important for us to understand that the Camino was not a race. It didn’t matter if you got to the inn first or last because it wasn’t about that. Sure, we still had to make it in time for class at 6:30pm, but the Camino was ours to run or limp at whatever pace we wanted until then. Whether we choose to go fast or slow, in the company of a fellow pilgrim or walk solo, we were still walking forward and forging a unique experience. That’s what mattered.

Pain can be worth it. That walking the Camino is hard is an understatement. We pushed our physical and emotional limits every single day. There were plenty of times where it would have been easiest to stop walking, sit down on the side of the path, and give up. However, each of us knew the power of being resilient and resolute; we all made it to Santiago not because it was easy, but because we knew the importance of continuing even when the road is tough.

There’s power in listening. From the start, we were told that we should be open; that we should listen to others for they have so much to share and we have so much to learn. From hearing about someone’s favorite movie to a recent break up, our fellow pilgrims had valuable stories to tell us. All we had to do was listen.

While many of us were relieved to be done walking, it was also bittersweet to go home just as we started to adjust to walking from town to town on foot and eating pretty much every meal with our pilgrim family. Although we won’t physically be on the Camino anymore, none of our journeys ended when we got to Santiago. Going home doesn’t mean we’ve stopped listening to other people’s stories and pushing our limits. We’ll continue to be wanderers and adventurers and share what we experienced on the Camino with anyone who wants to listen.