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Jeffrey Bloechl’s philosophy class was a test of mind, heart, and body
Humans are weird. No animal would willingly put himself through this much pain,” Isaac Holterman ’17 said. He spoke through a yellow handkerchief worn bandit-style to fend off pollen and the potent aroma of burro manure. The trail he was trudging stretched behind him 387 miles to the east—he’d walked 99 of them—and, ahead, 112 miles west, nearly to the Atlantic. He was coming down heavily on his heels, babying the blisters that had bubbled up on his toes during yesterday’s 19-mile, 2,600-foot climb through eucalyptus woods, with a 20-pound pack on his back.
It was 6 a.m., and the 10 undergraduate students, their professor, a graduate assistant, a Jesuit, and I were panting more than talking. The farming village we’d stayed in the night before had no breakfast café; we were ascending another 800 feet, in anticipation of chorizo and eggs. White Spanish broom and brambly sweet chestnut lined the sides of the trail, brushing our shoulders; bright purple foxglove skimmed our knees. In the valley to our left, cows and sheep grazed, too distant to be heard. Clouds veiled another valley to our right, obscuring russet hamlets we’d seen the day before. Around us, cuckoos were singing their two-note song and white-tailed wheatears chattered.
Beguiling as the late-spring landscape is in Spain’s northwest corner, most of us kept our eyes down on the uneven, rocky path, our minds on the injuries accrued from the last six days of hiking. Freshman Amanda Bolanos had 17 blisters. Kyle Olander ’18, a finance major from Pittsburgh, shuffled with the aid of a walking stick, his knees wrapped in medical tape after a steep descent three days earlier. The rest of us had endured some combination of heat rash, hornet stings, scratches from stray cats and nettles, and swollen ankles; we smeared our skin with a mixture of sunblock, aloe, and cortisone. Still, biology major Coco Muir ’18 surprised no one when she expressed gratitude for her blisters and bruises. “They’re reminders,” she said, “that this is supposed to be hard.”
Forty-something, wiry, and basically ever calm, associate professor of philosophy Jeffrey Bloechl laughed. Over an anticipated trek of 13 days, “I was hoping you’d all get a little beat up,” he told the students, his class. The catalogue title of this, his new course, was “Self-Knowledge and Discernment: The Experience of Pilgrimage,” and the description began, “We will explore the practice and experience of walking . . . as a way into deeper reflection on self-knowledge and discernment.”
The idea for the class grew out of a conversation Bloechl happened to have in fall 2012 with Boston College administrator Mike Sacco, about a family vacation. In late May, Bloechl had walked 100 miles of Spain’s rugged Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, with his wife (theology department chair Catherine Cornille) and children, then ages 14, 16, and 18. Sacco is director of the Center for Student Formation, which hosts off-campus retreats and on-campus opportunities for students to “explore the connection between their talents, dreams, and the world’s deep needs,” in the words of its mission statement. Bloechl remembers Sacco telling him, “We need to make a Camino class.” In fall 2013, the professor began drafting a syllabus for PL449.
The Camino de Santiago is a 500-mile path across northern Spain, with its terminus at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the purported resting place of the remains of the apostle James. It crosses mountains, plains, pastures, forests, and cities, and as a pilgrimage route it dates back 1,200 years. Once a means for Catholics to earn indulgences, the Camino drew some 237,000 wayfarers from around the globe in 2014. In 1879, Pope Leo XIII ordered an excavation that cast doubt on the legitimacy of the cathedral’s relics, but many still follow the trail to strengthen their Christian faith. Others walk out of some personal need. And now there are those who do it just to lose weight. Bloechl’s class would walk nearly half the route, starting from the city of León.
The Office of Student Formation helped Bloechl to frame the course. When Sacco suggested that a spiritual and formational guide be added as co-teacher, the professor immediately agreed, proposing a close friend, Anthony Corcoran, SJ, with Boston College ties (M.Div.’95, STL’97, STD’07). Bloechl and Corcoran studied together at Marquette University 30 years ago, and the Jesuit had accompanied Bloechl’s family on the Camino. Corcoran’s day job is Jesuit regional superior of Russia, Ukraine, Siberia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, responsible for 40 priests of the order (the presence of which has roots going back to the early 17th century); the Society of Jesus granted him leave to join the class. Bloechl also asked Center for Student Formation graduate assistant Megan Krakowiak ’12, MA’15, to serve as the teaching aide. An avid hiker, she would be the ad hoc nurse of the trip with her first-aid kit and blister ointments.
Seventy students applied to take the course. Bloechl interviewed them all, to build a diverse group of 10 who “weren’t just looking to be tourists.” Together, they resemble one of those special teams created to take down the Nazi fortress in a World War II movie: Kate Albyn ’17, an English and secondary education major from Centennial, Colorado; Cordelia (Coco) Muir ’18, a biology major from North Carolina; Kyle Olander ’18, the finance major from Pittsburgh; perspectives major Greydon Piper ’17, from Fort Lauderdale; Niko Piperis ’17, from Omaha, studying history and philosophy; Chicagoans Arnesia (Nesi) Banks ’16 (political science) and Isaac Holterman ’17 (applied psychology); and Californians Ethan Street ’18 (economics and history), Amanda Bolanos ’18 (perspectives and political science), and Madie Chadwell ’17 (information systems and business analytics). Most had not heard of the Camino before reading about the course. Some had not traveled abroad, and others had never hiked. The reasons they gave for signing on were varied: to “discipline my mind and body”; to “let God back into my life”; to “connect with nature”; to learn “to trust.” One student had lost a parent; another was estranged from family.
The class held its first meeting on March 26, in a conference room in Rahner House, on College Road. Bloechl told the group, “More so than most activities, walking connects us with a sense of self.” He cited Heidegger’s contention that humans walk to cope with an innate restlessness. And he said, “A pilgrim may also begin with a feeling of alienation, a sense that there’s no big picture, [a desire] to walk out to find something else.” The Transcendentalist Thoreau maintained walking helps humans rediscover their natural state, the “creatureliness” they lose in society. Philosophers from Socrates to Kant walked for inspiration, the steady motion propelling a deepening stream of thought. Over the two hours, Bloechl kept returning to one point: “You need to get in shape. You have to start walking, a lot, now.”
In five more sessions, the students discussed readings assigned in philosophical texts (Nietzsche, Rousseau, Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking) and literary works (by Swiss novelist Robert Walser, Portugal’s Fernando Pessoa, and Canada’s Anne Carson). They wrote essays and participated in weekly 60-minute walking exercises that they documented in journals. Week Two: “Walk at a moment when you feel an urge to ‘get away’ for a while.” Week Three: “Walk alone, with a particular wish to withdraw into yourself and be quiet.” Week Six: “Concentrate on what you hope to gain from the pilgrimage on a personal level and what you hope to be able to offer others in the group. Try to gather your thoughts into the form of just a few questions or wishes (or prayers).” Bloechl said the exercises were not only for physical preparation, but to wean the students from modern life’s prevailing distractions and help them “get acclimated to their own thoughts, which aren’t always pleasant.” He waited until the second class to mention that when they arrived in Spain he would take their cellphone chargers.
In April, the group hiked together, eight miles up and down New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock. At dusk, Bloechl asked the students to look out on a pond, as Thoreau does in Walden, and “see yourself as a reflection of Nature. Think of the ripples in your life disrupting that reflection.” On the Camino, he said, they would try to still those waters, as they walked the 215 miles from León to the cathedral in Santiago.
“Will the Jesuit try to convert us?” We had flown into Bilbao the night before, on May 20, and were on a bus heading southwest to meet Fr. Corcoran in León. Only three of the students were practicing Catholics, and many in the group seemed a little uncertain about a cleric serving as co-leader, let alone living with them for two weeks.
When Fr. Tony, a native Texan, met up with us in the stone-paved Plaza Regla of León’s old town, these concerns vanished. Tall, gangly, bespectacled, and sunburned—on the trail, he would spray himself frequently with SPF 90—Corcoran hugged Bloechl, who informed the class that the Jesuit had started walking 12 days earlier in Pamplona.
“But you’ve all survived two days with Professor Bloechl!”
Three decades on, Bloechl and Fr. Tony’s friendship has not lost the giddiness of best friends at the start of a summer vacation. One night, while the rest of us tried to sleep, they spent 10 minutes chortling as they spun a story about our lazy-eyed, argyle-sweatered innkeeper’s other life as a wizard. Each morning on the Camino, the two sang along to a song on Bloechl’s iPhone to awaken the class; one morning it was the “Oompa Loompa Song” from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, another the Fendermen’s “Mule Skinner Blues,” which Bloechl accentuated with an air banjo solo.
“You brought something out in him,” Chadwell said much later to Fr. Tony. “He was so reserved and cerebral in class.”
“I know,” the priest said. Then, mock panic, “How do we get him back in the box?”
As we plodded toward Santiago de Compostela in pairs and small groups, miles spent one-on-one with the attentive, patient, and open Fr. Tony would be coveted by all. He said six Masses on our journey, intimate celebrations for the class and the occasional passerby. His homilies were swift and personal, scattered with one-liners and anecdotes from his first Camino. Unless they’d fallen asleep, the students attended every Mass. Some joined partly out of a habit of religious observance, but all for a contemplative end to the day.
In León, on the eve of our departure, Fr. Tony celebrated Mass in a small bedroom of our albergue (inn), a term that along the Camino designated a hostel for pilgrims. As the students sat on bunk beds, he removed from his rucksack a golden chalice, a 3 x 5 inch representation of the face of Jesus, and a Tupperware container filled with host, and he set them on a plastic end table, the evening’s altar. His cargo pants swished each time he genuflected.
That night there was much unpacking and repacking, and few slept well. When we first entered the albergue, Bloechl and I had caught a middle-aged woman who collapsed on the staircase. “Will that be us in a few days?” Olander asked.
Day 1. At 7:30 the next morning, we gathered outside the towering 13th-century Cathedral of León, its rose window glowing from the sunlight within. A pharmacy’s green neon sign told us it was two degrees Celsius (36º F), and our breaths made small clouds. Bloechl and Fr. Tony began what would be the pre-walk routine: one reciting a quote and the other offering a prayer to set the day’s tone. On this morning, Bloechl quoted from Pedro Arrupe (1907–91), a past Jesuit superior general and a Bilbao native:
Nothing is more practical in life than finding God, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.
Fr. Tony, who hasn’t lost his penchant for starting sentences with “y’all” and ending with “huh,” even after serving in Russia since 1997, followed. “As you walk,” he said, “I just ask that y’all breathe in that greatness, that natural beauty that will surround you, huh.”
Seconds after the cathedral clock struck eight, we set off, observing 45 minutes of silence, as we would every morning. Bloechl recommended we devote this time to practicing St. Ignatius’s five-step examen—(1) pray for clarity of mind and spirit, then (2, 3) review moments of gratitude and the range of emotions of the previous day, (4) try to find the root of one emotion, and (5) pray for the day ahead. Most struggled to focus on the first day, especially as we wove through the rush-hour throngs chattering on their cellphones, passed pungent fish markets, and trekked along a high-traffic strip of car dealerships and factories.
We followed the Camino’s waymarks out of the city, golden scallop shells that dot the trail every half-kilometer. There are competing legends—some say early pilgrims picked shells on the Atlantic shore as reminders of their journey; others that when St. James saved a drowning knight off Galicia, the knight emerged covered in them.
An hour into the walk, Bloechl, Fr. Tony, and four others stopped for cafés con leche, and the rest continued. Half a mile ahead, the waymarks pointed two ways—straight, along a highway, and left, onto a trail through the plain. The group of eight that had walked ahead were nowhere in sight. Bloechl called Krakowiak’s phone to ask which way they went. No answer. He checked his guidebook—the paths didn’t converge again for 22 miles, at a point we weren’t due to reach until the next afternoon. We guessed and went left.
We walked along a flat dirt and gravel path, six pairs of feet making what Fr. Tony calls “the Camino crunch,” through five miles of tall grass, broom, and purple heather. Lizards occasionally scooted past our feet, and storks sailed overhead. Most of us stayed silent for a while. “I have separation anxiety,” Banks confessed. “Are we always going to get split up like this?”
An hour later, Krakowiak called back. She’d found a two-mile road off the highway that linked with us. We met at lunch, at the one café in Antimio de Arriba (population 53).
Following the lead of most of the 20 or so other pilgrims in the restaurant, we took off our boots and socks and limped barefoot to the order bar. The menu offered bocadillos, toasted subs filled with Spanish omelet or Iberian ham; and salads topped with canned tuna. No one tried the local pig snout. In three days (10 meals), some students would eat seven bocadillos. Piperis, blue-eyed and bearded (he was one of three students who elected not to shave on the trip), said he worried he’d lose his mind if he couldn’t find a bocadillo back in the States. Street, ever deadpan, said that when he listened to his footsteps on the trail, he heard himself chewing a bocadillo.
At red plastic tables in the shade, Krakowiak set out toilet paper rolls in lieu of never-present napkins. Bolanos, Olander, and Chadwell applied moleskin bandages to the soles of their feet. A few students ate fried eggs (perhaps courtesy of the chickens we heard clucking) with yolks as orange as the freshly squeezed jugo de naranja. Piperis tossed scraps of bread to a stray mutt, Holterman to a goat.
Lunch loosened the conversation on the afternoon’s walk. Students broke off into twos and threes, and amid the banter—Piperis in his booming voice waxing poetic about Nebraska football; Street sharing his love of Stanley Kubrick in his California drawl; Albyn, Banks, and Holterman singing Taylor Swift songs—they began to open up to each other, about the pressures they felt to study the subjects their parents want them to study, romantic relationships that had ended poorly, and the serenity they were searching for on this long walk.
Bloechl, Fr. Tony, and Krakowiak spread themselves through the class, available for questions and ensuring that conversations returned by and by to questions of spirituality, formation, or philosophy.
Fr. Tony had encouraged the class to find metaphors in the Camino. We were preoccupied managing our shoulder pain, constantly adjusting back and hip straps, regretting packing more than 20 pounds of inflatable pillows, fleece blankets, sleeping bags, leather-bound walking journals, leisure reading (Kerouac, Paulo Coelho, Jesuit Walter Ciszek), cameras, and sweaters. We began to see our rucksacks as our material lives: The person with the most belongings has the most weighing him or her down. Excess socks and magazines disappeared.
Just before 4:00, we arrived at the village of Mazarife (population 451) and a one-story adobe albergue with a terracotta roof (6€—less than $7—for a bed, a homemade dinner, and breakfast). Holterman, the one fluent Spanish speaker in the class, struck up a conversation with the owner, a gruff, middle-aged physiotherapist named Pepe Giner. He told Holterman that when he was diagnosed with liver cancer a decade earlier, he promised God that if he survived he would open a hostel for pilgrims. Giner, his brother, and his daughter prepared raspberry salad, squash soup, and vegetable paella for the class and 50 other pilgrims in the basement dining room. Fr. Tony celebrated Mass after the tables were cleared. Kate Albyn, a soprano, led the hymns, and the rest of the class softly sang along. Holterman read the Gospel in Spanish for the Giners, and a German couple watched in silence.
Afterward, sunburned and yawning, the class sat in a circle on the front lawn for “reflections,” an hour every other night for sharing impressions and thoughts. Bolanos summed up: As much as the day’s conversations had brought out the group’s differences, she said, “We’re all here searching for something greater for ourselves.”
The students were in bed by 9:30—”about an hour before I usually start homework,” Piperis pointed out.
We left the next morning at 7:00 and continued along the flatlands, past fields of wheat scattered with conifers and through a small poplar forest. We crossed a 15th-century footbridge with 19 arches over the river Orbigo, and saw villages with doors painted blue to repel insects. On either side of the trail were Roman aqueducts, now filled in with vegetation. The farmers we occasionally passed called out Buen Camino, the universal greeting and farewell to pilgrims.
Each class member heard and said Buen Camino at least two dozen times a day. This was the onset of the busy season, and we passed or were passed by about 20 pilgrims and locals an hour. Locals tended to offer generosity or wisdom. Along one stretch of fields, a pony-tailed man staffed a kiosk offering free fresh watermelon, strawberries, orange juice, and chestnuts to walkers. When Holterman, in brown high-top boots that dwarfed his thin legs, asked an elderly man in Chozas de Arriba for directions, the villager added, Qué vais bien y qué volvais mejor (Journey well and return better). It became Holterman’s walking mantra, something he repeated any time he needed inspiration.
Among pilgrims, the lone travelers tended to strike up the most conversations, and were the most likely to reveal why they were walking: the woman from Kentucky who told Banks she was trying to get over a divorce; the French couple grieving the death of their son; the Vancouverite relishing, so he said, three weeks on the trail without his wife. Most encounters never extended beyond Buen Camino. But a few lasted hours. Every other day Piperis would happen upon a middle-aged hiker named Constantine, and they would speak in Greek. Almost every day an elderly, bearded Australian man would catch up to Chadwell to talk. Quiet, yet perfectly willing to bypass small-talk (“I’m not really interested in if you liked your ensalada mixta“), Chadwell said in reflections one night, “In the real world, when you ask people how they are, they’ll just say good, or busy,” and maybe they’ll rattle off items from their day planner. “Here, where we all have only one goal, to walk forward, and no distractions to escape into, when you ask someone how they are, they’ll tell you how their heart is.”
By day three, when the plains gave way to the Montes de León, everyone had settled into a distinctive stride. Piper had managed to pack his life into 11 pounds, and bounced along at the front in shorts and a blue nylon pullover, a look of wonder on his face as his head bobbed to gaze at the landscape left and right. Each morning Banks plucked a different flower from the side of the trail and set it in her hair. When her left knee gave, Fr. Tony handed her one of his metallic orange walking sticks, which she often twirled in the air, a trick she’d learned on her high school color guard team. Street often walked alone. He wore corduroy pants and an olive green fedora, and kept a straw dangling from his mouth; a young organic farmer from Massachusetts whom we encounter each day nicknamed him Crocodile Dundee. He was the wanderer, strolling into villages, sampling the local cherry liqueur and spicy pimientos.
On the evening of day three we settled into Rabanal, a village of 60 with one-story stone huts that were once the shelters of 18th-century herdsmen. We held reflections in a sunken garden before Roman ruins. “The simplicity of life on the Camino, the simple bocadillos, simple sleeping, simple walking, the simple sounds of the rivers we pass, is working its way through me,” said Olander (he of the aching knees). “My mind is quieting down.” Fr. Tony celebrated Pentecost Sunday Mass in the garden, and we walked next door to a 12th-century Romanesque church with spider-web cracks in the ceiling, to hear Gregorian chants.
Two hours into day four, up a hill of lavender, we reached a clearing at the peak of the Camino, 4,963 feet above sea level, and stopped at the Cruz de Ferro, an iron cross 1,000 years old. Centuries before the Camino, Romans offered sacrifices to the god Mercury on this site. Now, the simple small disciple’s cross stands atop a 30-foot wooden pole atop a 10-foot pile of stones. By tradition, pilgrims carry a rock from their home country (though most today pick up a pebble nearby along the trail), a representation of a sin or an unresolved issue or grief. After traveling weeks with its weight, they leave it on the pile. Piperis brought a circular sliver of a branch he received from his roommate’s late father, a surgeon who had turned to woodworking after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Some walkers leave seashells, painted rocks, or photographs.
Chadwell sat for a few minutes on the grass beside the mound. Though raised Evangelical Christian, she hadn’t attended church in a long time. But she said that as she watched her classmates grow quiet before depositing their rocks, and as a dozen other walkers held hands and sang a hymn, “For the first time in my life, I felt God’s presence.” She walked alone in silence until reaching the albergue.
Professor Bloechl was among the last to arrive at the cross, and he recounted his story the next night. He was carrying a stone to commemorate his friend assistant professor of philosophy Jonathan Trejo-Mathys. The two were co-teaching a graduate seminar in the fall of 2014 when Trejo-Mathys was battling cancer. He died that November at age 35, leaving a wife and two young daughters. Earlier, Bloechl had walked through a field of small white flowers that resembled lilies of the valley, his wife’s favorite flower. The foliage was so thick that “it was as if Catherine was embracing me,” he said. Missing his wife, his colleague, and others in his life who died young—and admittedly feeling overtired—he became teary. Then, he heard the sound of cloth ripping and someone yell, “Oh my God!” He turned around to find that Fr. Tony’s pants had torn as he lept over a narrow stream.
“Levity always comes on the Camino at the exact right moment,” Bloechl said.
Day 7. After 20 miles at a decent pace through vineyards and cherry orchards on day 5 and 19 miles that started along the gentle Río Valcarce and ended in the O Courel mountains on day 6, we arrived at the peak of O Cebreiro following an hour’s climb, just after 7:00 a.m. The crests of hills that rolled to the horizon jutted above the clouds below us like tiny islands. Fr. Tony offered to celebrate Mass, and we gathered on a lawn scattered with poplar trees, stacking our rucksacks into a pyramid to form an altar. We were joined by two 60-something Australians, Lawrence and José, two middle-aged Dutch women, and a Frenchman who the night before had told Fr. Tony he didn’t attend Mass because, “Je suis Catholique, mais je suis Français.” When Fr. Tony asked the congregants standing in a circle, “What should we pray for?” Lawrence said, “That we are able to carry the lessons of the Camino with us when we return. That we don’t lose the Way just because we aren’t walking on it.” The Gospel was from Mark 10:46–52, the story of Jesus healing the blind man. In his homily, as the sun brightened behind him, Fr. Tony said “We thank God for our vision, appreciating his greatness here at the summit. . . . But blindness is also a gift. Blindness propels scientific discoveries. Blindness spurs new insights into the faith. And our blindness will drive us down into our souls on the Camino.” Our journeys into the soul continued after breakfast.
Before setting off on the day’s 14-mile, 2,600-foot descent through woodland toward Triacastela (named for three castles, all of them gone), Bloechl asked the class to consider a quote from the 12th-century French monk Bernard of Clairvaux: “You will find something more in woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you what you can never learn from masters.” For the next few hours I walked with Piperis and Holterman, the two biggest personalities in the class. The talk was mostly serious—about maintaining roots while we search for the truths in other religions and cultures. We stopped by a knobby sweet chestnut tree, the diameter of a corn silo. A sign noted the tree’s age: 800 years. “Almost as old as me,” the Frenchman from Mass said as he passed us. Our conversation turned to Nature. Seven days into the Camino, Nature had become our one constant. We ate each meal in a new café and the albergues changed each night—some had 100 beds to a room, others four; some turned out the lights at 10:00, and some didn’t allow boots in the bedroom. The challenge we came around to was not about maintaining or abandoning traditions. It was about finding a way toward the grace and serenity of Nature.
After we arrived in Triacastela and held reflections seated at café tables under broad umbrellas—the sun didn’t set until 10 at night—Holterman continued the conversation. “We make culture and yet we’re enslaved by it,” he said to his classmates. “But being in Nature has made me think about what I can change about myself.” As was typical during reflections, the conversation quickly evolved.
“Society is about instant gratification,” said Street. “Nature is patient.” The tree isn’t downloading an app for rain. It exists and waits until it rains. “And we’re getting so close to Nature it’s making me more patient. The earth is beating us up over and over again. This is spiritual boot camp.” Muir, Piper, and Olander agreed that they felt their patience expanding on the Camino.
Krakowiak said, “Home is where I allow myself to be known. That’s what we’re all doing out here.”
“When I look back or journal about the day, I don’t think of the sites we’ve seen or the places we stop at, I think of the conversations,” said Piper. “Sometimes I get so deep in them that I don’t notice the landscape has completely changed like three times since we started talking.”
“I grew up in Nature, in Wisconsin farmland,” said Bloechl. “But now when I think of beauty, the first thoughts that come to mind are of people.”
At each café, church, and albergue, we stopped to add a stamp to our Camino passports, the Credenciales del Peregrino (pilgrim’s credentials). We would present these at an office of the archdiocese in Santiago to receive our compostelas, official-looking certificates bearing our Latinized names. About half of the albergue owners have theirs hanging from the lobby walls. The owners who had them tended to be more accommodating—offering foot massage machines, laundry services, later quiet hours, showers of more than 15 seconds, and complimentary breakfasts. The one-story, narrow-hallwayed stone albergue in Triacastela had no compostela. The bathrooms and bedrooms were closed off by blue saloon doors that rattled in the wind at night; it dipped to 30 degrees, but the bedroom windows wouldn’t shut; five minutes before and again five minutes after 10:00 p.m., the owner stormed into our room and shouted, Callate! (Be Quiet.) The next morning, the group left the albergue in record time.
Less than a mile down the trail, we came to a fork. We split again, this time by choice. Half of the group decided to go right, a route three hours shorter that gave them time to nurse their wounds and prepare a bolognaise for the group’s dinner. The rest of us hiked along the twisting river Sarria through deep woods to visit the sixth-century monastery of Samos. The massive granite fortress has the capacity to house 500, but only 11 Benedictine monks live there today. In the mahogany-walled sacristy, in a glass tube within a velvet-lined display case beneath a golden crucifix, rests the left femur of St. Benedict (c. 480–543), we were told. The tour guide said there were 88 similar relics of saints enshrined along the Camino.
This provoked a conversation that lasted miles, about how the class’s intentions compared with those of early pilgrims. As Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes in his 2012 pilgrimage memoir, A Sense of Direction, “Contemporary pilgrimage isn’t the old push to escape the stultification of boredom with the novelty of travel, but the new desire to escape the anxiety of novelty with the guarantees of obligation.” Albyn and Piperis both prefaced their observations by saying that they feared a career of repetitive work; but, even so, each said, the repetitive, basic task of walking 10 hours every day had helped them see “the beauty of monotony.” “The monotony of the Camino is making room for my mind to transform my thoughts,” said Albyn, her bright blue eyes focused on the trail ahead. Holterman noted, “This is the longest time I’ve been with my own thoughts in my life. At home I’m lucky if five minutes pass before I check my phone. Here I can actually feel my train of thought progressing.” They and other students agreed that while long stretches of the Camino weren’t particularly serene—at least a few miles most days were along highways—they’d become much more attentive to the landscape and to their companions: to Bolanos smiling all day amid obvious pain, Albyn’s inability to become visibly annoyed with anyone (“to know if she’s mad you have to listen to her different shades of happy,” said Olander), Piperis’s ability to throw off his rucksack, flop onto the bed, and fall asleep, seemingly in one motion. As Gros notes in A Philosophy of Walking, “It is when we renounce everything that everything is given to us, in abundance.”
The weather cloned itself for nine days in a row. Each morning the students kept their hands in their pockets until the sun rose behind them to whip them without mercy for the rest of the day. First the windbreakers came off, then the zip-off pant-legs. By lunch, we were dripping. Rarely did a cloud offer refuge. The Camino began to feel like one eternal day.
We knew time was progressing by our intensifying suffering. We were sleep-deprived from nights sharing a room with 50 strangers. Even when we had our own room—half of the albergues happened to have a room with exactly 14 beds—our neighbors seemed to snore directly into the air vents. Our feet were wrinkled and nearing the consistency of Play-Doh. Bolanos’s blisters now numbered 19; she experienced pain with every step.
Tired, sore, thirsty, we were all losing the capacity to check ourselves from snapping, from saying, “Shut up and let me ache in silence.” Yet as their pain grew, so did the students’ patience and kindness. Olander said he treated the first few days’ walk as a race. But when his knees throbbed toward O Cebreiro, “I eventually listened to my pain and slowed down.” This allowed him to have a two-hour conversation with Banks that got “so deep I forgot about my knees. It’s like what Doc [the class’s nickname for Bloechl] said, ‘Health of mind is inseparable from health of body.'”
During reflections, Albyn said that compassion was “experiencing the fullness of life with one another, suffering with one another. That’s what we’re doing on the Camino.”
The students grew much more comfortable with silence, and on day 11 no one said a word for two hours.
Day 12. We walked along a gradual 900-foot descent through pine forests, chicken farms, and small villages. At lunch we stopped at a pulpería (octopus café) for poached octopus—the cuisine grew more nautical as we approached the Atlantic. At 6:00 p.m., we gathered for a final Mass, in our peach-colored albergue bedroom with exactly 14 beds. Fr. Tony set up an altar by the window; outside, pilgrims were hanging their laundry. Six of our group sat before him on the hardwood floor, the rest gazed down from the top bunks. In his homily, he shared that he had walked the Camino in 2012 to remember his brother Joseph Corcoran, a 1984 Boston College graduate. Joseph renounced his Catholic roots when he was 18. Nonetheless, he’d lived in Spain and had often asked Fr. Tony to walk the Camino with him. He contracted AIDS before he was 30. As he got worse, Fr. Tony moved in with him in a one-room apartment in New York, waking up every couple of hours to care for him (Fr. Tony hasn’t been able to sleep for more than three hours straight since). On his deathbed, Joseph asked his brother, for the first time, to pray for him. When Fr. Tony and the Bloechls arrived in Santiago a few days after the 20th anniversary of his death, Fr. Tony registered his compostela in Joseph’s name.
On day 13, with the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela beckoning at the end of some 14 miles, Bloechl and Fr. Tony sang the “Oompa Loompa Song” one last time, and the group set off. Most struggled to focus on the silent examen. We wove through another pine forest, passed cemeteries with above-ground vaults stacked eight high, and sat for a few minutes in a small chapel at Monte de Gozo (Hill of Joy), on which Pope John Paul II celebrated the final Mass of World Youth Day in 1989. Three-hundred-sixty feet above the city, the hill offered our first view of Santiago. Each day the group had walked at different paces—Krakowiak and Piper usually checking into the albergue first, around 3:00, and the last arriving an hour or so later. We walked the six miles downhill into Santiago together, through the winding pedestrian roads of the old town, down a stone staircase where a woman played a triumphal muiñeira tune on Galician bagpipes, and onto the plaza before the cathedral. And we stopped.
Bloechl approached Bolanos, whose blisters now totaled 24. “You did it,” he said. She finally cried. Piper and Holterman were crying. We sat in a row on the plaza’s hot cobblestones, leaning on our rucksacks. Bloechl took off his boots and tossed them in front of him. As the rest of us followed suit, a flock of photographers encircled the pile. A couple from Ohio celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary offered us their extra bottle of champagne. There was joy, relief, and sadness. After 13 days of it, waking up to a 1960s children’s song and walking all day together felt like the only and best thing to do. What now?
When we arrived at Albergue Ultimo Sello (literally, The Last Stamp Hostel) a few blocks past the Cathedral, the receptionist handed over the envelope with the students’ cellphone chargers, mailed from Bilbao. Some sat in the lobby checking their email or posting photos of the trip to Instagram, the rest went out and shopped for new shirts and shoes.
Before our last dinner together—a feast of tapas (pulpo, jamon iberico, and patatas bravas) at an outdoor café—we held final reflections on a stone staircase to the side of the cathedral. We had showered but were sweating again on the steps; it was the hottest and sunniest day of the trip. Bloechl asked the students to consider one good thing, one change they felt, and one question they still had at the end of the Camino.
“Looking out onto the clouds on all sides from O Cebreiro, I felt my smallness in the world,” said Albyn. Heat rash colored her legs, and she leaned against the mossy banister in a blue T-shirt bearing the Colorado flag. “But we had all worked extremely hard to get to that site, and we were one small thing together.”
“I felt seen up there at O Cebreiro,” said Piper, the tips of his brown crew-cut seared blonde. He said that back in September he somehow chose not to delete the email from the Office of Student Formation that read, “17 days in Spain, 3 Credits, 1 Long Walk.” He applied on a whim, thinking it might be an opportunity to “not just study a philosophy, but live it.” “When I got to that peak, I felt like I was meant to be there. I had no idea spirituality could be this important to me.”
Muir said she felt more present. Fatigue accentuated her slight North Carolina drawl, and she spoke more slowly than usual.
“I’m obsessed with countdowns—two miles to go until the 10-mile mark, nine questions left on this test, three days until the weekend. Out here I’ve realized how much I don’t notice when I think like that, and when I don’t think like that, how much more available I am to friends.”
Multiple students said that while they felt like they awakened their most natural, best selves on the Camino, they worried that this part of them would recede when they returned to their routines and social distractions, studying for finals, preparing for careers. “When we get home, how do we stay on the way?” Olander asked.
“You have an awareness that some questions are more important than others,” Bloechl said. “If not that, then you at least realize you have questions. You also have each other to discuss those questions.”
Two weeks after returning, when I emailed the class to ask how they felt, Albyn wrote: “Entering the course, I believed that I would inevitably and effortlessly grow in self-knowledge and in the ability to discern my vocation through the Camino experience. I found that I cannot find answers simply by walking for two weeks. Growth in self-knowledge and discernment was and is a never-ending progress. The Camino is no longer finite, but rather a metaphor for life.”
I’d asked Piperis the same question back on day 10, when he was bounding ahead of the class along a Roman wall that separated the trail from a cow pasture, sunglasses covering his eyes, red bandana wrapped tight atop his head, red long-sleeved T-shirt stained with sweat and egg yolk from a breakfast several mornings earlier. He said that he felt like he was beginning to get inside the head of his father, who walked for an hour each morning, and was starting to understand what Fr. Tony had said to him: “Sanctify the ground you walk on.” He was learning, too, that when the journey felt dull or arduous striving to be open and compassionate transformed it. “But really, all these steps on the Camino [354,233 according to Bolanos’s pedometer] feel like the first step.”
Toward what? I asked.
“Dude, I have no idea.”
No one in the class claimed to have found their calling on this walk. Their paths will probably splinter in 10 directions. But—as Piperis seemed to be saying—together on the Camino they made one firm footprint in the earth.
“I have no idea, dude,” Piperis said again after 30 seconds of silence. “But this feels solid.”
Read more by Zachary Jason