In 2011, when I first hatched my plan to walk the Camino de Santiago hardly anyone I knew had ever heard of it, let alone walked it. But I was lucky enough to get first-hand advice from people I have not, to this day, ever met.
Nine months before my departure I was a host at the John C. Campbell Folk School for four months. JCCFS is like a summer camp for adults. People come from all over the country to take classes in cooking, writing, weaving, blacksmithing, wood carving, you get the idea. So, as you can imagine, it’s a wonderful mix of fascinating people. Every day I had the chance to dine with a new group of students. When asked what my plans were after my time at JCCFS was finished, I talked of the Camino. On a few occasions someone said, “I know someone who did that!” I would ask if they could put me in touch and was quite surprised at how enthusiastic total strangers were about sharing their Camino experiences and advice with me. After every one of these conversations I thought, “When I get back I must find a way to pay this forward.”
Six weeks after my return an opportunity presented itself–an opportunity unlike any I could have ever imagined. I learned there was a weekly gathering of returned pilgrims at a coffee shop within walking distance of my new home. They met every Tuesday at 9 AM to not only reminisce, but to share their wisdom with anyone they knew of who was interested in walking The Way.
At the first meeting, I was hooked. Here was a group of people who understood exactly what I had done and what I was grappling with coming back to the real world after such an experience. And here was a way for me to share my knowledge with future pilgrims.
Not only did I attend nearly every week, but I also offered to meet future pilgrims one-on-one for coffee or lunch, and was delighted every time my offer was excepted. Thanks to this group, rare is it for someone from the Asheville area to go on the Camino with as little knowledge as I had the first time.
After my first day of walking the Camino in 2012 I had the pleasure of meeting Vincent and Franco, friends from Italy walking the Camino together. Vincent was on his third Camino and was accompanying his friend Franco who was walking it for the first time. After buying me a drink, Vincent opened my guidebook and marked everyplace he recommended I stay. He told me about the parish Hostel in Granon where a meal is prepared and eaten together and a candlelit service is held in the church next-door each evening. He circled the town of Moratinos and next to it wrote, “Italiano,” explaining that two Italians had just opened a hostel there and I would be guaranteed a delicious meal along with wonderful hospitality.
It has occurred to me that I am in Vincent’s shoes this time: an experienced pilgrim guiding a first-timer. And, like Vincent, I am thrilled to help whomever else I can.
That opportunity presented itself as the eight of us who had ridden together from the airport to St. Jean gathered our backpacks out of the van. An Asian couple approached Mick, a first time pilgrim I had spoken with during the ride. He pointed them in my direction saying, “She can help you.”
I learned they were lost. And though it had been 3 1/2 years since I had been in this town, I knew where they needed to go. It was on our way to our destination, so I walked with them, learning they were from South Korea and had a reservation at a hostel further along the route. I let them know their destination was three hours away and when we parted ways I wished them Buen Camino.