On August 30 I joined a group of mostly strangers to walk the Portuguese route of the El Camino de Santiago. Unlike several of my fellow trekkers, I was not particularly well-versed on the history of the El Camino so it was not the history that drew me in. I’d signed on because I needed a physical challenge to reclaim my body and reboot my spirit after an emotionally draining and sedentary winter, during which I completed and published my memoir, Bitter or Better: Grappling With Life on the Op-Ed Page. Walking 80 miles for Smiles in a country I’d yet to visit sounded like a good way to do so. And, as I discovered, six days of walking afforded a lot of opportunity for reflection and writing.
September 2, 2015
Our group of 16 has been together for days now, taking one step after another, though it feels as if we’ve been together much longer. We’ve traversed asphalt roadways and vine-draped countrysides, revealing vulnerabilities that transform strangers into confidants. We’ve spoken of loved ones we’ve lost, from infants to adult children to spouses and parents, sharing stories of life with and without them. As we’ve walked through forests, resplendent with lush verdant ferns, we’ve spoken of adventures we’ve taken and dream of taking, never knowing if at the next turn we’ll encounter a spray of purple bougainvilleas cascading down a wall or roosters huddling between cornstalks.
It might be serendipitous that so many of us have experienced great challenges in our lives. Or perhaps it is not an accident, for the El Camino is renowned for attracting soul-searching “peregrinos” – trekkers who walk dozens to hundreds of miles to reach the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims are searching for many things. Some may not even realize they are doing so. Others are on a definite mission.
We walk in pairs and groups up and down steep inclines, some of us using poles to propel us forward, others only sheer determination. Occasionally, we drop back and walk without a partner. I imagine others are indulging memories and thoughts about the future, as I do in my solitary moments. Many of us leave prayers and rocks at churches and makeshift monuments, some with forethought and others, like me, more spontaneously.
Though tears have been spilled along the way, we’ve shared many lighthearted moments, too, as over meals and wine we’ve exposed the lighter sides of ourselves. I’ve delighted in discovering that many of my fellow adventurers are perceptive students of life, mindful of a choice: we can be bitter – or we can be better. Many of us have made the choice to not only be better ourselves, but also to step forward to bring more children and families into the Smile Network fold. For in addition to our personal motives, we’re raising awareness about children (and occasionally adults) who are born with cleft lips and palates but without the means to pay for the corrective surgeries to repair them. Together, we 16, strangers no longer, are walking 80 miles to pay for new smiles. When we leave Spain we will do so with new blisters, friends, and memories, and the satisfaction of making a difference in the lives of others.