July, 2004. A friend and I boarded a train in Madrid. I was thrilled to join her for the Camino de Santiago. I admired her deeply, and hoped to become better friends.
Then we met a Spanish hiker on the train. My friend chatted with this young man, and before I knew it, we were a party of three. We fell into a pattern as the days unfolded. The two of them hiked together, initiating long coffee and ice cream breaks in the heat of the day. I went ahead, trying to keep a brisk pace, turning around now and then to see them walking behind me, heads nodding in deep conversation.
What about all my conditioning to hike hard and fast? What about my hopes for close friendship? I pushed on, fussing and sweating in the Spanish sun.
Then, when I hiked too far ahead and lost them, I panicked. I wiped away tears of exhaustion with the dirty sleeve of my hike shirt. A multilingual angel from the Netherlands and a Spanish priest with a cell phone came to my rescue. (This was in the days when cell phones weren't in every pocket.)
At a shelter at Puenta La Reina, I met Heike from Germany. This tanned, beautiful mom in her fifties had trekked all the way from LePuy, France. She sat on her bunk and advised me how to bandage my blisters. When my frustrations came pouring out, she said,
"What the Camino teaches is that you must go your own pace. You may have come with a friend, but on the Camino, you are ultimately alone."The Camino (literally "the Way") teaches what is needed. It may be a lesson in solitude. It may be a lesson in letting go of friendship. It may be slowing down, or speeding up.
Roughly, I worked on accepting aloneness. It brought up difficult feelings for this girl who grew up in a foster home and feared abandonment.
I came home treasuring the lesson and yet still confused about it. It would find its way into my life, as all pilgrim lessons do, one moment of solitude at a time.
Yet the Way is full of paradox. Just because you've learned one truth doesn't mean you don't need the opposite.
Next lesson of the Camino: You are never alone.