The Mind of the Camino
// Kevin Murray

Wandering I am arriving At my own pace Step by step —Kelsey Brick

Kelsey Brick walked for 37 days; mostly alone, with blown knees and endless blisters, 800 kilometres, from France to Spain on an ancient road called the Camino de Santiago – the Way of Saint James. She traced a path to the bones of the first martyr of Christianity, then continued on for another hundred to the Atlantic coast and Cape Finisterre – the end of the world.

Only, she isn't a Christian. “You’ll come across 101 reasons why people were on the Camino; I knew I was there because I was broke and because I wanted to see Spain,” she explains. “I told people I was on a culinary tour by foot across Spain, that I was looking for cheese.”

Kelsey, a mature undergrad at Simon Fraser University, spent a year on student exchange in Spain. She learned of the Camino from a book called What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim. “My intent was to finish ... to close doors … so I could move into the next phase,” she explains. “It gave me a lot of perspective on things that I needed to end in my life ... my degree, my bad relationship.”

She was also about to turn 30, and felt that she wanted a rite of passage from one phase of her life to the next, to mark her own milestone. The logistics were simple: at a cost of about €30 a day, Kelsey was able to walk the winding country roads between villages, from hostel to hostel, mostly going solo during the scorching days and then bedding down in communal dorms at night.

As a seasoned hiker, swimmer, and rock climber, she started out on her first day as a competitor, logging 27 km. By the second day, she had blown her knee running down a hill. “Sometimes the will of your mind is a lot stronger than what your body is going to let you do. ...[It was] a slap in the face, with a hardcore dose of humility. ... You learn [two things] very quickly: to go at your own pace, and to listen to your body.”

Kelsey’s journey stretched out before her into an endless, dusty horizon, winding past gnarled vineyards and cryptic, medieval churches. While she doesn’t describe herself as a religious person, the vivid clarity of mind that she found while walking became the most profound experience of her life. “When you’re in school, you’re doing seven things at once; it’s impossible to only be doing one thing at a time, which is what you’re doing when you’re walking ... I think there are a lot of distractions in our lives that prevent us from obtaining this kind of calmness within our mind.”

While some pilgrims on the Way would say they were guided by the whisper of spirit, or by the voice of God, Kelsey was guided by her will to finish and the intense pain in her knee. Focusing on her suffering actually served to stifle her thoughts, allowing her to find a space of clarity within her chaotic mind. Ironically, it was her moments of physical relief from her knee pain that brought back her inner critic, the one telling her to quit. She named this clarity the “mind of the Camino,” and despite her negative feelings about the Church, she could not deny that this remarkable state of awareness allowed for “weird experiences” which she could not explain.

“Every time I found myself on the verge of needing something ... these moments would appear.” She describes strange meetings with travelers offering food, advice, a walking stick, or crucial yoga advice for her knee at the points when she most needed it. There was a night in Puento de la Reine when she had reached the her limit; she was ready to quit due to the inflammation in her knee. “I thought I would never walk normally again.” She met the hospitalero of her hostel and mentioned her suffering. He turned out to be a physiotherapist who offered her a treatment.

Another time, while walking along the vineyards of Rioja, Kelsey ran out of water because she had missed a signpost for a rest stop. Dehydrated by the fierce Spanish sun and on the verge of fainting, she was ready to stagger under the shade of a gnarled vine and die when she wished for a companion to talk her through the last stretch of her day’s walk. At that exact moment, her mother called her emergency cellphone which had been nearly silent for the entire journey, and helped talk her through.

Another time, a village hostel, or albergue, had its roof collapse, leaving precious few rooms for the pilgrims. With another crisis of her knee occurring, she cried out in her mind for help, and at that moment another traveller decided unexpectedly to leave, offering Kelsey her bed. Just like before, she found help in the exact moment she needed it. “These moments ... could be coincidence, but a blatant coincidence ... you start to wonder. ... The rumour on the road is that these [moments] are gifts from Santiago.”

The final leg of the journey into Galicia itself, to the holy Church which stands sentinel over the relics of Saint James, was “anticlimatic.” She attended the Mass, her first and last on the entire journey. For many pilgrims, the Mass was an epiphany, though Kelsey was put off by the heavy moral messages of the Catholic ceremony and the themes of sin. She found the ritual’s messages to be unhinged from her own sense of herself and her journey. No fan of organized religion at the best of times, Kelsey found the cathedral to be “a circus tent … more like an attraction ... the only things that those people were missing were [accessory] dogs and [designer] bags. ... It was more tourist than religious.”

Regardless, she obtained the Compostela, the certificate of completion, from the event, yet she felt little satisfaction. The last five days had been a race with endless crowds, as the only requirement for the certificate was to complete the final 100 km, and she was suspicious of these pilgrims who had walked five days for a piece of paper.

Kelsey walked on, past Galicia to the end of the world, Cape Finisterre. There, she burned her underwear on the rocky coastline and “baptised” herself in the icy cold Atlantic. While she had not bought and carried the traditional sign of St. James, the scallop shell, for the duration of her journey, she found a personal shell on the coast, seemingly set aside just for her. The lines of the shell symbolize the paths of the pilgrims who all begin at different points, yet all end at one destination, the hinge; for Kelsey, that hinge showed itself at Finisterra, the ocean.

Of the 272,703 people who travelled this road in 2010 during what the Church called a “Jubilee year,” about half did it in Kelsey’s style – for personal reasons. “When you walk 900 kilometers across a country ... I guess it becomes a spiritual thing. If it’s about touching the inside of who you are as a person ... most people would have had that at some point, walking their Camino.”

// Kevin Murray, Columnist

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