A friend asked me the other day about the most memorable gift I received on the Camino de Santiago. “I heard you talk about the gift of inspiration often, but I mean the other kind of gift, something from a person.” Ann smiled and mixed the sugar in her teacup on the patio table.
“Well, I received many special gifts, but let me tell you about the brightest Camino gift.” I took a sip of my tea and got comfortable in my chair. “The very first time I pondered walking the Camino de Santiago, I could only leave work for a week. ‘Better to get a taste for a week than nothing at all,’ I thought. Thanksgiving week was a good time to get away, so I hopped on a plane to Madrid, all by myself.”
“Were you nervous attempting this as a solo female?” Ann put her spoon down.
“Yes, because I didn’t know what to expect. Now, speaking from experience, it was perfectly safe. I get more relaxed just talking about it.” I sat back in my chair. “The very first day, I met a lovely couple from Spain – Mar and Emilio. We immediately clicked and walked together, aggregating our new Camino friends around us. We had lots of amazing conversations and meals with this wonderful company. One day, to keep with my schedule and to fit in some sightseeing afterward, I decided to leave earlier and walk farther than the rest of the group. When I shared my plan at dinner, everyone was worried about me walking in the dark before sunrise. We cried and hugged since I would not see them the next day and, possibly, ever again. That is when Mar and Emilio remembered the flashlight they brought with them and offered it to me. I thanked them for their concern, a special Camino gift and I put the lovely flashlight in my pocket without giving it much thought.”
Ann leaned forward. “You wanted to walk alone, in the dark, in Spain?!”
“Yes, but I think the saying that the Camino walks you is really true.” I winked at her. “Why else would I leave my new friends and decide to walk double the distance I was used to?” I winced as I remembered pushing the heavy albergue door open. “The nearby streetlight didn’t do much to cut through the sticky darkness above, and it did absolutely nothing to stop me from shivering. There was no way back. The door shut behind me and everyone was asleep. I cinched my backpack tighter around my waist. My cautious steps echoed as a walked.”
“No way, girl!” She looked me up and down.
“Yes, that was The Way walking me out of the small town under a few dim lights straight into the countryside. The asphalt finished soon after the last streetlight faded, and the path turned to gravel. ‘No biggie,’ I thought. I could see the dark outlines of the houses and barns, once my eyes adjusted. After a few open fields, a large, dense mass of the forest loomed ahead. The path was still wide, so I just continued, mostly by feel and intuition that the Camino didn’t split in a different direction.”
“Unbelievable! Were you scared?” Ann sipped her tea and a drop escaped her lips landing on a napkin in her lap.
“I don’t remember the fear, it was more like my mind and vision got sharper as I entered the forest. ‘Mmmm, eucalyptus, my favorite,’ I sensed. The scent put me more at ease. Though it was much darker inside, I could still make out the path and had no trouble walking. Until the path split… There were three choices up ahead. They reminded me of some old fairytale where I would lose my horse if I went left, my head if I went right…”
Ann gasped. “What did you do?” She rolled and unrolled the napkin.
“I stopped and contemplated sitting on a rock till it got lighter, but it could take over an hour before it would be light enough to see any markings. An owl hooted somewhere, but the forest was eerie quiet otherwise, not the most soothing conditions for sitting and waiting. I readjusted the Velcro on my jacket cuff and the sound jarred my ears way more than normal. My hands were getting chilly without movement, so I slid them in my pockets. A smooth metal surface reached my fingers and a strap wound around one of them.”
“The flashlight your friends gave you!” Ann nearly jumped from her seat.
“Yes! The light of hope, friendship, and safety! How did they know I would need it? I clicked it on, and a dim ray touched the nearest tree. It was not the brightest thing in the world, but it gave me hope that I could make out some markings if I did not already go astray earlier. I moved it up and down the tree, nothing. Next one, nothing but the patchy eucalyptus bark. I went over the area near each path a few times, still no highly desired yellow arrow. I did not know how much juice was left in the battery, and I decided to give it a break so I could think awhile. I ran the beam for the last time along the thick tree trunk and placed my thumb on the button to click it off. The beam jumped from the tree to the ferns on the ground and then to a nearby rock. There I spotted a big hand-drawn yellow arrow!”
“What luck!” Ann pursed her lips and let out a long breath as if through a straw.
“I jumped around and yelled, ‘Thank you! Thank you!’ The precious light my friends gave me was the ray of light needed to show me The Way. There was a lot on my mind as I crunched the leaves underfoot on the path that had been illuminated for me.” I felt so blessed to relive that faraway moment in the conversation. “Is this how we get tested whether we will give up or not? How often do we forget in tough situations that we have the right tools always available? How do we make our internal light shine brighter? My sweet friends, my angels, my guiding lights got me through the dark hour before dawn.”
“Yes, but don’t forget that you wouldn’t even a chance to ponder these questions if you didn’t take those first steps.” Ann patted me on the arm. “Both the very first steps you took on the Camino and stepping out into the darkness that morning. Tell me what happened next.”
“I sang as I walked and soon saw the clearing at the end of the forest. A rooster in the nearby village announced that dawn was breaking, and I gladly stepped out to greet the sun.” I stretched and reached my arms up.
“Did you get a chance to tell this to your friends?” She squinted as the afternoon sun shone in her eyes.
“Yes, the next day! I walked double the distance in one day, but they finished the following morning and came to meet me in front of the Cathedral in Santiago minutes before the pilgrims’ mass started! Later, they asked me to change my train ticket for the following day. We all laughed that the day I gained by walking double the distance actually allowed me to slow down and enjoy the celebrations with them.”
“You go, girl!” Ann high-fived me.
“The Camino will call you next.” I smiled at my confident friend.
“I just might get up and go this year. Will you help me plan my first Camino? Where should I fly to?” Her eyes glistened.
“You will do just fine. You can take my friend’s flashlight for good luck, I still keep it in my pack. You will find your own Camino angels and receive your own Camino gift! Buen Camino!”