The Way of St. James goes by many names - the Way, El Camino de Santiago or just the Camino. It is an ancient path cutting a swath through Spain, stretching from southern France almost all the way to Spain's western coast. For over 1,000 years, pilgrims have walked this path to pay penance, to connect with the spiritual or to take on the challenge of an 800 kilometer (500 mile) hike.
And just recently, a man who took a pilgrimage of sorts to Tacoma ventured out to walk the Camino.
Robert Dittmar came to Tacoma in 2011 to help his brother, Willow Salon and Spa owner David Dittmar, expand the salon.
But after a fateful evening at The Grand Cinema, Dittmar had found an entirely new purpose. The Grand showed the Emilio Estevez movie The Way in late 2011. The Way is a movie about a father hiking the Camino in place of his son who passed away.
Dittmar knew he had to do this hike. His reasons were spiritual and physical: reconnecting with his Catholic roots and the endurance of an extensive hike.
Over a period of 33 days, Dittmar crossed northern Spain on foot and completed a total of 790 kilometers.
The journey begins
Dittmar arrived in Roncesvalles, Spain, the first week of February. He intended to hike one of the main pilgrimage paths called Camino Frances, which starts in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France. But on the night he arrived, an intense winter storm forced him to start from Roncesvalles. That and a general lack of preparedness.
"I just figured - this sounds cool, the movie looks great, this will be easy. I didn't have a guide book. I got there in just a pair of jeans and tennis shoes. I had all the proper gear. The night before I left, I realized I couldn't fit it all in my backpack. So I triaged - what do I need, what do I not need," says Dittmar.
From Roncesvalles, he only had 790 kilometers to go. On foot. In winter. Who needs hiking boots?
He mentions others riding bikes on the trail, catching buses to skip ahead or even using a car and a series of day hikes to make the distance.
"Most people I met understood that suffering is part of it. Physical suffering, financial suffering," he says.
In Roncesvalles, he received his credencial - a passport for pilgrims. Each stop along the way puts a stamp in the book. At the end of the Camino, this can be exchanged for a certificate of completion, as long as the pilgrim has traversed at least 100 km.
The Camino is often said to have three stages: physical (mountains), mental (the flat middle ground) and spiritual (the green hills and cathedral of Galicia). The Way is dotted by olive groves, vineyards and snowcapped mountains, and passes through small towns, villages and larger cities. Parts of the trail are dirt. Parts are on roads.
The first part of the journey took Dittmar into the Pyrenees mountains. This meant freezing winds, small and rocky trails, hands swelling from the cold and snow plows that seemed to care nothing for the pilgrims, often splashing them with snow and salt.
Almost immediately, his feet faced torture. Because his shoes weren't equipped to handle the snow, he wore plastic bags around his socks, which promptly scrunched out of place. Many blisters ensued. Two of his toenails went black, but fortunately stayed attached until the very end of his journey.
"You're slipping and sliding trying to get up the mountain, and you're thinking whoever made this trail just wanted to see how many ankles he could sprain," Dittmar says.
While the Camino is well traveled, there are fewer travelers in the winter. Market and lodging closures are not uncommon.
"There was one time we were up in the highest parts of the trail, and there's only one place to stay. None of us had any food. The market was closed. There were five of us. We had half a tomato that had been in my pack all day, a quarter of a red pepper, and two bowls of soup. We all split it. We were so hungry," he says.
People on the Camino
Pilgrims band together while traveling the Way. Along the path, Dittmar connected with other travelers, and has stayed in touch with many of the people he walked with.
"The greatest thing I experienced was the camaraderie between people. They say misery likes company," he says. "You probably talk more on the Camino about your life back home, the challenges you face and personal situations that you wouldn't tell anyone else."
What happens on the Camino, stays on the Camino.
He speaks of amazing acts of kindness, often involving pilgrims giving away items to help others - a knee brace, a walking stick, food.
"No one really wants to see anyone fail. Everyone wants to see everyone make it to Santiago. When someone needs something, you just share," he says.
Historically, kings and paupers and everyone in between have walked the Camino - people along the trail still tend to treat everyone well. You never know who you might be dealing with.
"On the Camino you are stripped of just about everything. After a few days, everyone smells of body odor, whatever food we spilled on our clothes while eating lunch in the grass on the trail, perhaps cigarette smoke, perhaps hair that hasn't been washed for days," he says. "In those states, there's not a lot to hide behind. You are who you are, and surprisingly, I saw nothing but absolute beauty in everyone I encountered."
While there were many times of little food, horrible weather and getting lost when the yellow arrows along the way weren't exactly clear, Dittmar says his biggest challenge on the Camino was a knee injury sustained early on.
"Coming down out of the pass in Pamplona it was all rocks and my pack was too heavy. I didn't feel it too much that day, but over the next few days it got worse. For about 10 days, every step was brutal," he says. "Everyone was telling me I wasn't going to make it and that I should go home. I was like, I'm in Spain and I have time. I'm going to finish."
And finish he did. It turns out knee injuries go numb after about three weeks of intense pain.
Pilgrims along the Camino have several lodging options, including hostels, pensions, even luxury hotels at the six or seven bigger towns along Camino Frances. But for those with a pilgrim passport, albergues or refugios are most common. These basic hostel-style lodging are free or very cheap.
Albergue staff often cook for pilgrims, and most have stoves (but often no dishes) and showers. Still, it seems when pilgrims are most in need, albergues are not necessarily there for them.
"Toward the beginning, almost none had heat. That was miserable," says Dittmar.
He developed an evening ritual in the albergues - hand wash socks, hang them up to dry and then a glass of wine. Wine is cheap in Spain and proved a highlight of the evenings.
"Every night, there were copious amounts of wine. The culture I experienced was very laissez-faire. People stroll into the albergues at different times. Usually around 8, we'd all be drinking wine, talking about the good parts of the trail that day, and the really rough parts, and glad everyone was there," he says.
The Camino ends in Galicia and almost everyone, Catholic or otherwise, attends mass at Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
"When you get to Santiago, don't see the church. You go all the way through the city and come up behind it. Right there are all the pilgrims because the pilgrim's office is in front of the church - everyone is milling around waiting to get their compostela [certificate of accomplishment]. You see people you haven't seen in two weeks or two days."
Legends say the remains of St. James lie below the cathedral in a silver shrine. After visiting the tomb, most pilgrims make their way behind the alter to touch the statue of St. James before attending mass at noon.
"After church, it's bittersweet because it's sad that it's over," says Dittmar.
Many pilgrims continue on to the coast, where tradition has it that you burn all your nasty hiking clothes before you go home. Dittmar did not do this, but hopes to the next time he goes back. And he does intend to go back and do the trail again - perhaps the northern route, or perhaps the Camino Frances again from the very beginning.
But next time, he intends to go fully prepared.
Beyond the people on the trail, Dittmar also found that the support of those at home made a huge difference to his endurance on the trail - specifically, phone calls to his mother cheering him on and his brother allowing him to take time off.