Years in the making

my path to Finisterre

unfolds step by step

Unstructured spiritual paths, meandering as they tend to be, often prove most meaningful for many of us as we flee the strictures of doctrinaire religions in a spiritual quest for understanding, and perhaps a bit of wisdom. Just one week after returning from the Camino de Santiago, I found myself at Breitenbush Retreat Center in Oregon’s north Cascades, a place I’d visited only as a child decades before.

Wandering the trails, through lush forest and along the rushing river, I began to reflect on my recent countless steps — from the Pyrenees, to Santiago de Compostela, to Finisterre — as a pergrino seeking the patience and presence of inner peace through silent meditations and observing timeless landscapes trod by 12 centuries of pilgrims. Many walk seeking an epiphany at some point along the way. As my own steps carried me along the varying terrain, I began to contemplate each momentary place, each stone-strewn hill, herd of sheep, misty forest, fellow peregrino, or a shimmering village in a valley on the horizon and the hope of reaching it before fatigue prevailed.

Yet an enduring amazement sustained me. Looking for light from within also came around to looking outward and embracing a pastiche of images offered up by the places I passed along my way. I could not know what I might find — it would come in its own time. I would just walk, relax and remain mindful and receptive. As John O’Donohue said in Anam Cara, “Your soul knows the geography of your destiny.” I thought about this often as I ambled along, contemplating how I had somehow known I would someday find my way to this path, and how my sense of being just where I was at any given moment was a gift of destiny.

Take this long journey

the one you began before

the one with no end

Arriving at the beginning, my feet had conversations with me. They needed encouragement, from heart and mind, about what would be asked of them. And an emergency appendectomy four days before my departure from home had left me wondering about this wayfaring journey I’d been planning for so long, and my doctor’s wariness of my determination to venture off so soon.

With those four days at home to ponder it all and another four in Basque country to acclimate, I followed my heart and my path. I was hopeful my stamina would stay with me, trusting that my training would carry me forward each day over the miles of terrain and hours of treading. They did and I persevered, day by day, poco a poco, paso a paso. The shared spirit of “Buen Camino!” amongst passing pilgrims was a cheerful encouragement throughout each day, providing moments of peaceful assurance that I would press on, on, and on again.

There is an indelible destination to this particular time honored odyssey, yet Santiago de Compostela, and Finisterre (the “end of the earth”), gradually blended into the journey itself. It seemed as if meaningful, peaceful thoughts often came after walking these long miles, mindfully and quietly. I strive for spiritual renewal day by day in life, leaving the past in the past, using it to learn for today and plan for tomorrow.

Sometimes a realization would arrive upon waking the following morning after distilling overnight. Or, while walking, as a sudden “epiphanous” interruption of a present moment, like a sound one might notice the moment it stops. From time to time I would pause and choose a small stone for my pocket to carry along, then home, bits of ancient earth as talismans of my journey, pebbles pummeled underfoot by a millennium of pereginos. Gradually my mind’s eye began to see what has passed, is now, and may well be. Like having been in a place you’ve not seen, or known, then sensing your mind telling you that it surely saw, knew, all before.

"Traveller, there is no path

The path is made by walking

By walking you make a path

And turning, you look back

At a way you will never tread again"

—Antonio Machado

—Lawrence Nagel is a native Oregonian and 30-year resident of Ashland who enjoys quests around the Rogue Valley, the Pacific Northwest and abroad, traveling by car, boat, on two wheels, and air if necessary. He may be reached at nagel@mind.net.