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Finding my Ways: Reflections on Riding the Camino de Santiago

biker looking at the sky

Planting The Seeds of a Journey 

My journey began unexpectedly, during a chance conversation last July with friends Linda and Mark Robison. They told me of plans to walk the Camino Portuguese. Then Linda suggested, “Why don’t you ride the Camino? A friend of mine just completed it.”
The suggestion to take my bike on the trail piqued my interest. My wife, Sharon, and I had hoped to visit Spain. When her immunotherapy for lung cancer failed, those aspirations were dashed. She passed away last December, leaving me alone in a too-large house. By July, our dream of a five-week visit to Spain, Morocco, and Portugal was high on my bucket list. Because of her cancer, we’d not considered the Camino, but now, enticed by the beautiful scenery and exciting expedition, I decided I would never be more fit for the trip. Pedaling to Santiago’s cathedral was important for me not just because it held relics of St. James, but because it provided one of seven routes with signposts, amenities, fellow travelers, and interesting sights.
Historical Context of the Camino 
As a lover of history, I could ride a Camino trodden by penitents and the devout for more than a millennium. Performing a serious pilgrimage also added spiritual value. Long days of cycling promised to provide time to remember Sharon and reflect on our lives together. I could ponder options for my future and perhaps even meditate.
Thus, it was the Camino, “the Way,” that was most important—not reaching the destination. Most medieval pilgrims sought to worship at the reliquary of Saint James (Iago in Spanish), to receive plenary indulgences that granted remission of purgatory for all past deeds. Grief was my own purgatory of sorts. I hoped riding the Camino might quiet it.
Many Protestants are familiar with the account in Acts 12:2, which tells of the execution of the Apostle James, the brother of John, on orders of Herod Agrippa. Catholic traditions collected in the 12th century provide subsequent details. Following Christ’s resurrection, James undertook a missionary journey as far as the northwest tip of Spain, but he obeyed a vision to return to Jerusalem, where he died. His followers transported his headless body back to Spain and buried it. However, knowledge of his tomb was lost during the collapse of Roman rule and Germanic invasions until in the early 800s. A shepherd, drawn by a miraculous light, rediscovered it. The local bishop certified its authenticity; then the king ordered construction of a chapel. That same century, pilgrimages began. St. James the Disciple became St. James the Pilgrim: Santiago Peregrino. During centuries of struggle against Muslim armies, legend transformed him into Santiago Matamoros, “the Moor slayer,” who appeared miraculously on battlefields to lead Christian armies to victory. Thus, he became Spain’s patron saint.
I also remembered Tour de Faith: A Cyclist’s Lessons for Living by Robert Mosberry, a United Church of Christ pastor in Iowa. On a training ride one May morning, Mosberry suffered a hit-and-run accident that threw his body 113 feet into a ditch. He woke up from a coma two months later, his lower back, pelvis, and hips pulverized. In October, he returned to church, a paraplegic but strong in spirit. When a parishioner assured him that, given his faith, God would surely heal him, Mosberry replied that his condition might be what God intended. Consequently, he prayed for health and self-discipline to ride Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) once again.
Having read the book, I was delighted to encounter him one morning at the RAGBRAI, determinedly pedaling a recumbent trike. As the academic dean of Union College during that time, I thought our students should hear him speak about living after such a devastating accident. We talked at length with theological overtones. Mosberry firmly considered “how we make the journey” as life’s ultimate importance, not “how do we meet the destination’s requirements.” However, he flatly turned down my speaking invitation. He thought the gulf was too great between his beliefs and Adventism—a church which, from its very name, is evidently concerned above all with the destination.
Two decades later, his philosophy came to mind as I considered the Camino. Most modern riders consider the Way more important than the cathedral destination. It would likely be the same for me. More broadly, I wondered: do our Adventist ways of religious living often hold priority over a distant heaven?
Preparations for the Journey 
The Camino immediately replaced Morocco in my plans. Arrangements took time. Only three weeks after my decision, I located Bike Horizons. The company arranged a rental gravel bicycle, hotels, and daily luggage support. The price was reasonable, and the service invaluable.
I also discovered John Brierley’s A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago Frances, 19th edition. He begins, “This guidebook has been a lifetime in the making and decades in the mapping.”  The book achieves its promises. Convenient to carry, with 200 multicolored maps, daily elevation profiles, and estimates of walking times, the guidebook became an essential companion for both the physical and spiritual journey.
In the comfort of a bus, I crossed the vivid green foothills of the Pyrenees from Spain to St. Jean de Pied de Pont, the Camino’s traditional French starting point. I found my hotel, walked the picturesque streets, collected the rental bike, and visited the Friends of the Camino office. A volunteer from Wisconsin advised and encouraged me, then placed the first stamp in my Credencial del Peregrino, the pilgrim’s passport.
That evening I pondered the future. Would the ride become something more than an adventure? What questions would dominate my meditations? Sorrow over the loss of Sharon, who before cancer would have loved walking or biking the route? Questions about the purpose of my solitary life, or where I would spend the rest of it? Would I feel the divine speaking to my heart? How would I recognize his leading? How would other pilgrims, many of them also suffering, relate to my experience?
The Journey 
Two routes ascend over the Pyrenees mountain range to the Roncesvalles village, famous from the medieval epic Chanson de Roland. Guidebooks recommend the first route, the Route de Napoleon. It is a traditional challenge, tough even for hikers, involving an ascent of 4,340 feet on sometimes narrow and muddy dirt trails.
On September 21, rain and fog made that route both foolhardy and impassable by bike. The alternative required riding the highway, occasionally busy and steep. To avoid traffic, I tried Brierley’s suggested alternate routes for walking pilgrims, but gave up when a farmer bluntly stated “That, on a bike? Impossible.” The rain came back on the road, so I postponed the heavy rain jacket until I was thoroughly soaked and very cold. A kind Dutch rider welcomed me to ride with his group, but they descended quickly on the rain-slicked road. Within two miles, I was shivering so intensely that I could not hold the handlebars steady.
I finally made it to a restaurant. After two hours in the warm building, two cups of hot chocolate, and two egg and cheese sandwiches, I began to feel comfortable. Prodded by a hostel volunteer, I ventured out again in the rain with twenty-five miles remaining to my hotel. The trail portions were often narrow and muddy. I finished right before dark. In Pamplona that night, I ran a very lengthy shower to revive my body and spirit. That experience ranks solidly among the worst rides of my life.
In contrast, the remaining 450 miles, ridden over ten days, were among the most enjoyable I ever pedaled. Blue skies, weather in the seventies, and tasty food.
Granted, the trip wasn’t all sunshine and blue skies. Before learning to seek alternative bike routes, I took a tumble and smashed my phone screen saver. I also lost my wallet while sightseeing one morning. With options exhausted, I returned to the Camino. A few miles down the road, I got a message from the Burgos cathedral. It seems their visitors are more honest than many; my wallet awaited. The six miles it took to retrace my steps were effortless, and I was very thankful for a Spanish sim card.
Despite the slower speed, hard climbs, and steep sections requiring me to walk with my bike, the ride became a pleasure. Moreover, conversations with fellow pilgrims often surpassed the joys of the ride itself.
Conversations on the Road 
Interacting with strangers brings unknown rewards—sometimes risky, yet often uplifting. However, it may be a dying art. In his recent book, Fractured, Jon Yates argues that deep fissures make it impossible for people in contemporary Western societies to reach between classes, religions, ethnicities, and generations. Walking pilgrims often bridge the fissures. Strangers with similar strides often become friends who eat and hostel together. However, cycling on narrow trails limits conversation, and bikers often halt miles apart. On my ride, I was alone. Nevertheless, every new day brought memorable discussions, provoked by the simple question, “Why are you doing the Camino?”
The vacationers would generally reply with, “Hey man, it’s a great ride.” But among the pilgrims, the question encouraged philosophical and spiritual reflections that polite European society avoids among strangers. On day three, a man named Fabio chatted at length with me. In his early forties, his pilgrimage began in Assisi, Italy. He had ridden about 1,500 miles in 25 days just to start the formal Camino. His purpose? Fabio suffered from Crohn’s disease, but he wanted to demonstrate to other patients that an active life could continue despite debilitating illnesses.
Probing deeply, he asked me if I believed in God. When I tossed the question back, he replied, “Look, I was born in Assisi, so I’m a Catholic by birth and baptism. But reaching adulthood I left the church and became secular, an agnostic. Now? I don’t believe in the God of the Catholic Church, but I’m no longer agnostic. I do believe that there is something greater in the universe.” He did not know what that something was, nor did he know where to learn about it. The conversation was worth continuing, but unfortunately, we parted before I had either his address or picture.
The Rio Najerilla flows through the town of that name and makes a beautiful spot for lunch. I surrendered to hunger at a small outdoor café behind the trees to the right of the photo above. Later, Els, from Holland, sat at the adjacent table. Drawing from the “why” question, we soon engaged in a sober conversation about our similar griefs. We each had lost our spouse in 2022. In her despair, she decided to walk the Camino. That day she had completed 25 miles by lunchtime—certainly an achievement. That night I thanked God particularly for the blessings I had received during my greatest periods of grief from family, friends, and the church.
Els was greatly blessed by her journey. Two months later she emailed me, “I had a wonderful experience because of the nice people I met, nature, to be with myself and the simplicity of life. I miss it. I am going back in April.”
Later, I was joined by a Spaniard (pictured above, to the right) who rode with me a short distance across the flat, treeless meseta. Unlike me, he had the good sense to start and quit earlier in the day than I did. We never exchanged names, but I should have asked for his. Over eleven days of riding, he was the only pilgrim who advocated traditional Christian beliefs, and he did so with joy.
One of the few Americans I met on the trip was from Oceanside, California. As I left town, he advised me to prepare to walk my bike in the next hour or two. He warned that the river valley was steep. Since he had just arrived on foot, I asked how he knew the way ahead. Experience spoke . . . this was his fifth Camino. He had thought the fourth would be the last, which he and his wife undertook to console a close friend who had lost her son in an auto accident. Then, when his own son retired this year, he asked, “Dad, do you have another Camino in you?” I sensed a believer.
In contrast, another fellow biker, Céline, described herself simply as “a French girl.” She aimed to complete the Camino on a mountain bike, having started a few years ago on horseback while recovering from life’s disappointments. Her beliefs were complex as something of a lapsed Christian. As her smile suggests, her conversation was a pleasant antidote to fatigue and weary muscles.
No selfie shows me standing in the plaza before the Cathedral holding the Compostela, the certificate of completion. The final miles, ridden alone, were disappointing. My last riding friends were a Dutch father and son duo who had encouraged me in the rain ten days earlier. Unfortunately, they stopped miles short of the Camino’s end. Entering Santiago, I chose my hotel instead of the cathedral. There, I discovered a single empty washing machine. Clean clothes, a clean body, and sneakers called my name. But laundry takes time. As twilight darkened, I returned the bike, but the Camino office had closed: no certificate.
Days later, more serious regrets arose than merely the missing certificate. Riding the Camino was more than a happy adventure, and it assuaged my grief by capturing my attention in the present. I prayed more fervently and recognized that my safety, happiness, and physical health reflected, in part, God’s leading. But the journey did not address very serious questions, such as the purpose of my solitary life and where I should spend the rest of it. Days of riding emphasized the physical way, but had I neglected the destination of heart and soul?
John Brierly concludes his guidebook with a quote from Paulo Coelho: “Before a new chapter is begun, the old one has to be finished. Stop being who you were, and change into who you are.” Because those questions remain, my old chapter is not yet complete. My change is just starting. The yellow arrow and the scallop against the blue background now call me. I must return to both way and destination, this time on foot. Buen Camino!
Malcolm Russell, PhD, is the former VP for Academic Administration at Union College. Before that he taught at Andrews University from 1977-2003 where he was Professor of Economics & History and Director of the Honors Program. 
Photo Credit: Pixabay via Pexels 
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