Imagine for a moment an invisible container that you hold, on the inside. A container that is of a certain size and thus, only able to hold a fixed amount at any given time. The container does have the capacity to shrink or increase in size but you don’t know that, not yet. You had not even been aware that such a container was a part of you. This container holds all of your joy and pain, and the beliefs you carry about your capabilities, as well as the doubts. When something truly wonderful occurs, your container allows your experience of that joy to match its size. A small container allows only a small measure of joy. Also, when an opportunity arises, your container decides if it is equal to that of the opportunity. A mismatch and the opportunity goes away to one who can meet its potential. It’s as if we have a set point for all emotion, positive or negative and we are locked in a holding pattern. For many this remains unexamined and unchallenged. However, certain experiences have a way of disrupting our set points. Walking the Camino was a way for me to enlarge my container. In particular, the one that holds all of my beliefs about what I thought I could or couldn’t do. Who I thought I was or wasn’t. And trail angels, as I will describe in a moment had a lot to do with that.
The phrase “the Camino provides” is one that circulates regularly throughout the many books, YouTube videos and even within the movie that I encountered pre Camino and the notion was comforting. It’s a little like the pack of tissue one keeps on hand just in case the bathroom is out of toilet paper. You know it’s there, available when needed.
I subscribe to this idea in a general sense, as a spiritual tenet applicable to my life as a whole. We are given what we need, or not given what we think we need, to teach us what we are here to learn. So assuming a well-trodden path imbued with historical significance was going to provide me with what I needed moment by moment was not far-fetched or unrealistic in my book. I assumed it would be true for my Camino, just like it was true for the others who had gone before.
Paolo Coelho’s book “The Pilgrimage” was my first and likely, most significant entry point into the lore surrounding the Camino Santiago. However, a couple of others worth mentioning are Walking Home by Sonia Choquette, I’m Off Then-Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago by Hape Kerkeling and the movie, The Way starring Emilio Estevez and his father Martin Sheen. Once my departure date grew closer, and I was looking for advice related to practical matters like packing lists, accommodation options, routes and needed documents, I found two YouTube channels to be very helpful: Beyond the Way and Lindsey Cowie. It was in all of these places that I learned of the Camino’s significance to others and became inspired to find my own.
A trail angel is a term common to thru hikers on the Pacific Crest (PCT) or Appalachian (AT) Trail of the United States and can be described as a person or group of people who leave food or perform other, often anonymous, acts of kindness for hikers. Thru hikers on the PCT and the AT encounter different conditions and situations than Camino goers. The nighttime foraging of a bear on the AT may require securing food stuffs above ground or keen attention to exposed rock in case of a potential rattlesnake encounter on the PCT. Neither typical in my experience of Northern Spain. The greater distance and lack of accommodation both in terms of food and lodging also necessitates increased gear, and the terrain is more challenging. Trail angels on the walks differ in what they provide but exist on all.
I didn’t recognize Hans as a trail angel right away. His height was what first got your attention. I called him El Alto. Well over six feet, he towered over Maria and I and could easily be spotted at a distance. He was lanky and wore a brown, safari-style hat with a blue, short-sleeved shirt, khaki hiking shorts and glasses. I liked him immediately and felt good when his presence was near. For many days, in the early part of our trip, he was either a few km ahead or behind us and we met up frequently to share short conversations, cold drinks and always, a smile. I learned, despite the language barrier, that he had been on the trail for over a month already, beginning his pilgrimage in Geneva and would continue all the way to Santiago, traveling twice the distance of the typical peregrino. As I consider now why this lone, quiet man left such an impression on me, I think it was because of his quiet. He imposed himself on no one. Made no demands and did not seek attention. And yet was in no way passive. The doing and non- doing that the Tao Te Ching speaks of so cryptically. He had achieved the mantra a friend had suggested to me, in the throes of my anxiety and second thoughts pre trip to “just go and watch”. I held on to that mantra like a jewel in my palm but didn’t really know how to do it. My first instructions were provided in Hans.