In October of 2011, my husband and I separated. We’d been married for four years, and though much of it had been great, a lot of really terrible stuff had transpired. Divorce seemed imminent; we’d lost our way.
We moved out of the little house we’d shared; I took one cat, Jim took the other. In the following weeks, whenever I was alone and still, I suffered chest pains: heartbreak isn’t merely a poetic idea. My doctor prescribed Xanax, but it didn’t help much.
That winter, we decided we still loved one another too much to give up. Tentatively, we began seeing one another again. In January, I bought tickets for us to attend a concert by the choral group, Conspirare. The piece of music they would perform was Joby Talbot’s “Path of Miracles,” inspired by the composer’s experiences on the Camino de Santiago.
Neither one of us had ever heard of the Camino, but that didn’t impair the music’s effect on us. For almost an hour after the performance, neither of us spoke — it was that good. Later that night, I did an internet search on the Camino. As soon as I learned what is is, I knew that some day, I would do it.
That day turned out to be sooner than I expected. By March, Jim and I had moved back in together, and were sorting things out. Cleaning up our marriage was a bit like cleaning up after a tornado: we were more or less starting from scratch, with a few scattered odds and ends we wanted to keep — like our shared love of traveling. I told Jim about the Camino, but my plan was to do it alone. When he said he wanted to go with me, I was secretly disappointed. I’ve always been fiercely independent, and prided myself on not needing anyone, or anyone’s help. Marriage had muddled this perception of myself, and I viewed the Camino as a chance at self-reclamation. Having my spouse along — I thought — would only slow me down and impair potential connections I’d have with God or other people, or myself. But our healing marriage was still too fragile for me to say any of that. It would have been like kicking someone in the stitches.
However, over the next few weeks as I considered the prospect of doing the Camino with Jim, it started to seem like a good idea. And then it seemed imperative. We needed to do something symbolic, something really hard and really wonderful, to rely on one another and encourage one another, and to really talk. Originally, I’d planned to undertake the Camino when I finished graduate school, in 2013. Suddenly, it seemed too urgent to postpone. Four months later, we flew to Paris, then took a train to Bayonne and another train to St. Jean Pied de Port to begin our Camino. We celebrated our 5th anniversary and the beginning of our walk by privately renewing our vows in an empty little church at St. Jean.
In retrospect, it seems remarkable to me that I wanted to do with Camino without Jim, and I’m grateful that I didn’t. If I had, it would have been one more thing dividing us, an experience he couldn’t appreciate. I’d have been able to tell him about it afterward and show him pictures, but in so many ways, I would have left him behind. Instead, when we talk about the Camino now, we relive it together. I remember the time that I had a migraine, and he carried my pack for me, in addition to his own. I remember how we’d rub each other’s feet at the end of an arduous day, and how he prodded me out of bed in the mornings, and I wonder if I could have made it on my own. One of the things I’ve sacrificed is knowing the answer to that question. But I’ve also made peace with the fact that I don’t want to be on my own; people are meant to need one another. Reliance, and being relied upon, are enriching.
The Camino saved us. Two years later, our marriage is stronger than ever, and we are also stronger as individuals. Sometimes, I’ll look at Jim and think, “I walked five hundred miles with you.” It seems both miraculous and perfectly natural.
Photo at left shows Jim and I taking a break from walking for a picnic of bread, sardines, apples, water, and a swig or two of glorious Spanish wine. Nearby and out-of-frame, another pilgrim celebrated that day’s especially fine weather by playing a harmonica.