This is a story about a man from Benicia and a path in Spain. Mike Steinmann has been a Benicia resident for 29 years, and has been commuting to work in San Francisco nearly two thirds of that time. The stress of long hours sandwiched between a big commute builds over time, so this summer, Mike decided to take a leave from work—and, embark on an adventure. But where to go? He desired an experience completely different from his everyday life, that would stretch his comfort zone. He settled on the Camino de Santiago—an ancient pilgrimage route stretching across Europe and ending at the site of (tradition has it), the remains of St. James the Apostle, in Santiago, Spain at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. “I wanted to get away on my own and I liked the idea of The Camino because it was good physical exercise, a challenge, a component of having to exert yourself. It intrigued me because of its historical and religious significance and the fact that there was a good infrastructure of cafes and places to sleep—it’s a well-travelled path, yet remote at the same time.”
El Camino de Santiago, or “The Way of Saint James,” over 1,000 years old, is actually many trails that converge into one. People begin all over Europe. In antiquity, pilgrims started at their front door, meeting other pilgrims en route. A popular path is the Camino Francés, which begins on the French side of the Pyrenees, and runs about 350 miles. The route leading to Santiago actually ends 15 miles beyond the cathedral, at Finisterre, an ancient Celtic city that was believed to be the end of the earth. Indeed, the history of The Camino dates back well before Christianity. Remains of Celtic villages and Roman bridges still dot the trail, as do old churches, where pilgrims would rest and eat at the end of a day’s walk. “You could see how the trail had just been a foot or horse trail and became a wider roadway for carts, then had gotten paved with stones at some point, and became the Camino Primitivo. There are parts of it that are still cobblestone paths. Some paths turned into streets, then highways—villages grew into towns and cities.”
Some medieval pilgrims walked the path as penance for high crimes, and many to view the touted remains of Saint James. The route was highly travelled during the Middle Ages; then the Black Death, political unrest and the Protestant reformation lead to its decline. But since about 1980 its popularity has reignited—Mike estimated, based on the number of pilgrims arriving in Santiago each day, that there were between five and ten thousand travelers on the Camino Francés at any given time. In 2010, 272,000 people walked the trail.
What are modern people searching for? “Most of the people that I talked to were there for some means of personal discovery, whether they were young people who had lost their job, or older people whose children had moved out. The people who were walking the whole Camino were very thoughtful, introspective and very humbled by the experience, even if they weren’t there for a religious reason. If you think of the Camino as sort of a metaphor for life, we’re all on this path, and sometimes you know why you started down the path, sometimes you’re just stumbling along. But you’re on this path and you wonder, am I on the right path? Am I going the right direction? That’s what a lot of people were acting out.”
Many modern-day pilgrims walk for three months to reach the Santiago de Compostela, and some walk just portions of the trail. Mike walked about 100 miles in nine days. The steep, varied terrain was physically challenging. He often felt communication barriers with the locals, and missed his family. But the aloneness also led to a greater sense of connection. He found strength in “being able to see the moon, and know that my wife could see the same moon. There are ways to feel connected even when you can’t pick up your cell phone. You just have to reach down for them—they’re there.”
Mike has a lung condition that reduces his breathing capacity. I asked him how much difficulty this added to his walk. He said, “I saw many, many people that had challenges, people walking with crutches, older people with ailments. My walking companion had a stroke and only had one useable arm. It was a challenge for him buttoning his shirt and putting on his backpack. Even if you’re healthy, you see others who are struggling or having a difficult time. People are very aware of that and very helpful.”
“Buen Camino” is the common adage along the trail. People might pass each other and meet again further down the road. They may share a meal and talk about what they’ve seen and learned, what they’re looking for. Mike is still assimilating his experience even after he’s returned home to Benicia. “As I think about it, I’m learning new things. I learned that I want to be more real. I think we all kind of build a shell around ourselves, a persona, that we want to put out there in the world; we want to hide our weaknesses and accentuate our image of perfection. Over the years that shell can become thick and hard to maintain. I want to learn that I don’t need that shell, I don’t need that persona. This, in itself, is a journey. I’ve taken the first step down that path.” For him, the adventure really is just beginning.
Beth Steinmann is a freelance writer and blogger for Bay Area publications. Mike Steinmann is her dad.