The Sunday Edition·PERSONAL ESSAY

A pilgrim's journey: This woman hiked hundreds of kilometres to find peace

Like the hundreds of thousands of others who have walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain, Margaret Lynch saw herself in a new light. She tells the story of this personal journey of discovery in her essay.
Margaret poses with the statue of the pilgrim of O Cebreiro on a rainy day during her trek. (Submitted by Margaret Lynch)

Originally published on February 15, 2019.

They say the Camino calls you and you walk when you're ready, when you need it most. October of 2013 was that time for me.


I was celebrating the 25-year anniversary of my cancer survival and I had a successful career fundraising for the hospital that had saved my life.

I had hoped to go with a partner, a friend, or a group of people.  

But at 56, after two marriages, with no children, I was on my own again. The first marriage took place during my cancer treatment, when it seemed I might die. It lasted six years, ending after my leukemia was gone.

The second marriage ended three years ago after fifteen years. As a second chance at love, I'd fought hard to keep it alive, reluctant to admit defeat.  But there was a huge sense of relief when it was finally over. Counselling helped me understand how my choices had contributed to the demise of both marriages. On the other side of my grief, I asked myself what I wanted. I was surprised when I didn't know the answer.

Lynch's view during one of her many mornings en route to the Camino de Santiago. (Submitted by Margaret Lynch)

I started my pilgrimage in the small town of Astorga, after an overnight flight to Madrid and a four-hour bus ride through the greenish-orange hills of northern Spain. Exhausted, I booked a hotel room, determined to get a good night's sleep. But first, I walked through town looking for Camino markers—yellow arrows, painted on walls and sidewalks that would show me the way.

Darkness greeted me at seven o'clock the next morning. My head-lamp shone a thin beam of light ahead as I crossed the town square and turned onto a deserted street. I was both excited and scared. But I hadn't come all this way for nothing, so I put one foot in front of the other and started walking.

The narrow street spilled onto the main road leading out of town, where a steady stream of pilgrims absorbed me. They spoke in a smattering of languages I didn't understand.  

Farther down the road, I encountered a couple checking their map, speaking English.

They had already walked 500 kilometres. They invited me to join them and together — on that blue-skied day — we walked twenty kilometres. They were generous with their food and experience, sharing foot care tips that came in handy a few days later.

The moment Lynch reached the 100 kilometre point in her pilgrimage. (Submitted by Margaret Lynch)

"At the first sign of a blister, pierce it with a threaded sterile needle. Leave the thread in to drain the blister, cover and keep it clean."

We talked as we walked.  We were close in age, with shared experiences. She was divorced after a long marriage and his wife had died of cancer a few years earlier. Even at the time, I knew that first day was a gift.

Then came the rainy days, a blessing in other ways, masking tears that streamed down my face. Raging winds muffled my voice, raised in anger at an uncaring universe. I walked, as if in a labyrinth, circling  into the centre, and took a look at my life.

It was a good life.

Tired of waiting for someone else, I knew it was time to walk by myself, for myself.- Margaret Lynch

Since my last marriage ended, I had lived alone in my quiet, simple space — an oasis of calm where I soaked up solitude at the end of the day. I had close friends. But  sometimes I was lonely. So, a year ago, I started dating.

I met decent people, broken people, and more liars than I thought possible at this stage in life. I ignored red flags, leaning into a false sense of intimacy while the men backed away. My neediness and insecurity puzzled me. Confident and self-assured in my professional life, I lost myself in men I barely knew.

The last breakup had been particularly painful, and I asked myself, not for the first time, "What is wrong with me?"  It was that day that I booked my trip to Spain. Tired of waiting for someone else, I knew it was time to walk by myself, for myself.

"The table overflowed with food and wine. I was the only single person at the table. But I didn't feel alone." (Margaret is in the centre.) (Submitted by Margaret Lynch)

Early morning on the Camino was my favourite time of day. The stiffness in my legs eased as I started to walk. After sunrise, shapes materialized, carrying bulging knapsacks. There was little conversation yet. Only the sound of walking sticks attacking the pavement, like woodpeckers gouging a tree.

Over nine days, I walked 230 kilometres in the footsteps of pilgrims dating back to the 11th century, drawing strength from all the people who had come before me. With my belongings on my back, I walked from village to village, staying in communal refuges at night. Each day I felt lighter, abandoning unnecessary baggage.

On the tenth day, the mid-morning air was unusually fragrant. With peeling bark and slim ribbons for leaves, eucalyptus trees towered above me. For the first time in days, the sun was shining, casting my long pilgrim shadow ahead. I inhaled deeply, feeling an unfamiliar calm.

After lunch, I walked alone and lost track of time, forgetting about blisters and aching knees.

Lynch standing with the Cruz de Ferro (the Iron Cross). (Submitted by Margaret Lynch)

Impulsively, I checked into Hotel O Piño for the night. After nine days of shared dormitories and showers, my single room with private bath was exquisite. I soaked in the tub until my skin pruned.

Downstairs in the dining room, Paul and Birgit from Denmark waved me over. We'd traded conversation and snacks the few times I'd run into them. There were others I hadn't met before: another Canadian couple from B.C., Linda and Heide from California. The table overflowed with food and wine. I was the only single person at the table. But I didn't feel alone.

Heide quietly told me she had dedicated her pilgrimage to her young grandson, a recent bone marrow transplant recipient. I paused before telling her about the transplant that cured my leukemia, but trusted that in the moment, it was the right thing to do. And it was, for both of us. She glimpsed a person farther along the path her grandson was travelling, and I learned I could help another person by sharing my story. I had never fully understood that before.

Heidi's face softened as she thanked me.

Afterwards, I thought about that day, two months earlier, when I'd booked the Camino.  And about my question "What is wrong with me?"

Maybe now I had the makings of an answer.

And the answer was: "Nothing at all."

It was moments like these - during the early mornings of her pilgrimage - that were Lynch's favourite. (Submitted by Margaret Lynch)

Click 'listen' above to hear the essay.


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