This is part of a series on walking the Camino de Santiago.
Solvitur ambulando — Latin: “It is solved by walking”
We all have problems. As the world gets more complicated, problems don’t seem to get much easier to solve. One solution—or at least the first step to a solution—is a good walk. A walk may begin with a mind full of problems that need solving. Along the way, past dramas, future “what-if’s” or “to-do’s” can evaporate with every step.
“The object of walking is to relax the mind,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. “You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk. But divert your attention by the objects surrounding you.” Quite the opposite was true for German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. His philosophy was that walking was the catalyst for quality thinking. He wrote: “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” For me, both ring true. I learned this long ago in the small town of Edgerton, Wisconsin.
Walking up the railroad tracks is a family tradition that transcends three generations of Andersons. When I was a boy, my grandpa, Dad and I would set out on the tracks for the afternoon. As we walked we balanced on the rails as long as we could. We talked about life, hopes and dreams. We left coins on the rails for the train to squash. In those days, we could even bring the .22 rifle and shoot cans. When we got to the bridge by the creek we’d sit on the edge, joke around and grandpa would tell stories. We would, as grandpa used to say, “observe the wonders of nature.” I’ll never forget the smell of autumn leaves, the trickling sound of the stream, or the ripples from throwing stones into the gently flowing water. If we were lucky, we’d see a deer or turkeys strutting by.
On our little break from society we were able to connect with each other and ourselves on a deeper level. There was a restoration of balance that happened out there—a reset button, one might say.
Years passed. Grandpa passed away. I grew up and moved away. I’d struggled with family, schools and personal demons for years. By my twenties, the ‘walk of life’ got complicated, busy, and stressful. I worked a job I hated to live paycheck-to-paycheck and afford the drug habit that made life feel a bit better. That ended in a disaster that took years to recover from. Late in my twenties I realized that despite being from a broke, blue collar family, I could borrow money for university. I started studying psychology and sociology with a dream of helping people like me–and maybe myself. I got over-involved. I made a difference on campus. I won awards. But after a few years, the whole system felt wrong and I was in major debt. I began realizing the life society expects us to live felt artificial and forced. Stress was at an all time high. After my uncle and maternal grandfather died, I had something of a nervous breakdown. I could barely function.
One day while looking into Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, after a process of self-confrontation, I decided to completely re-evaluate my path in life, starting with a clean slate. Instinct urged me in another direction, toward something authentic and meaningful, but the world around me pulled in every direction. I needed to cut the strings that pulled me. I needed to hit the reset button—in a major way. But how?
And so, at 29 years old, depressed and hopeless I dropped out of college and moved back in with my mom. I was confused. I had no idea what the hell I wanted to do with my life. I knew I needed to make a dramatic transformation and rid myself of a past and future that haunted me.
One day, as if an omen, a hint of direction came while watching a movie called “The Way.” It’s a story about a man (Martin Sheen) that walks across Spain on a path called the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) in the footsteps of his son (Emilio Estevez). It reminded me of walking up the tracks and the reset button.
What is the Camino de Santiago?
The Camino is a pilgrimage route that leads pilgrims five hundred miles from the French Pyrenees to the city of Santiago de Compostela, Spain. It’s believed the remains of the apostle St. James are held in Santiago’s cathedral. Some pilgrims continue beyond Santiago to the Atlantic coast village of Finisterre,“end of the Earth.” For over a thousand years, people of all ages, from all walks of life, all cultures and ideologies travel thousands of miles to walk the Camino.
“The Way” enchanted and awakened me. I did research and made plans. In an act of renunciation and fundraising, I turned Mom’s garage into a liquidation facility. I sold my car, furniture and as many possessions as people would buy and brought carloads to Goodwill. At that point, whatever it was that I was doing became something more. But I still didn’t know what I was doing. On a sunny day in August, 2012 I got a passport and bought a one-way ticket to emancipation.
“Good evening and welcome to flight US90 to London, Heathrow. We hope you have a pleasant flight.” The woman’s voice came over the speaker in an attractive British accent. It was my first time traveling abroad. I took a last look at American soil as the plane ascended over downtown Chicago. Skyscrapers looked like little toys. The glowing light of the setting sun shined on one side of them, shadows stretched from the other. In front of the plane, Lake Michigan glowed. As we flew, the auburn sky darkened and stars began to shine through. Off we flew, as if into a different dimension of space and time. On the other side of the Atlantic, a new world—actually an old world—awaited.
I grabbed a copy of that day’s newspaper from the seat pocket. The headline read: “Neil Armstrong, First Man on Moon Dies at 82.” The article began with a quote from one of the most memorable moments in history: “This is one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.” Coincidental, I thought, as I looked out into space, toward a new frontier in my own life.
After a week of planes, trains and busses—over ocean, mountains and desert—I arrived in the quaint village of St. Jean pied de Port, France. As I stepped off the bus, the air was cool and fresh. It was quiet. I felt free—just my thoughts my backpack and me. It’s there, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the magic of the Camino began.
To be continued
The Camino would push the boundaries of my physical and psychological endurance for over a month. But the path led me to a life of travel and self-discovery —and this blog.
Have you walked the Camino? Would you like to? Join the discussion below!