"Are you going to Santiago?" the heavyset woman asked. We were both exploring a small cathedral in northern Spain, and she had noticed my disheveled hiking clothes.
"Yes," I said, "but . . ."
I started my rote apology about how I was only a part-time pilgrim _ just doing bits of the route, not walking all the way across the country to the great shrine at Santiago de Compostela, the way a devout pilgrim would.
She didn't let me finish. She stepped closer and pleaded in a near whisper, "When you get there, will you say a prayer for us . . ." _ she indicated her husband, standing nearby, then began to weep _ "and for my mother, who is very old?"
Her request started tears in my eyes, too. She told me her name was Monique, her husband's was Giles, and that they were from France. Then she kissed me on both cheeks, gave me a hug and disappeared among the Gothic columns. I never saw her again.
I'm not a Catholic, and this trip didn't make me one, but from that moment on, I had no more doubts about being a real pilgrim.
All trips are pilgrimages, when you think about it, but this one last September was more so, because my companions and I were following in the footsteps of millions of others who walked the same route across northern Spain during the past 1,000 years.
Five hundred miles of well-beaten trail and road, from the Pyrenees in the east to the region of Galicia in the extreme northwest, it's known in Spanish as el Camino de Santiago _ the road of St. James _ or, to the thousands of modern-day hikers who travel it every year, simply the Camino.
No one really knows how many pilgrims walked it from the 800s through the Middle Ages, hoping to have their sins absolved at the reputed resting place of Saint James the Apostle.
What's known is that they did walk it _ so many, so steadily, and for so long that the marks of their passing are still there, remembered in churches, cathedrals, monasteries, whole towns.
Tradition holds that James had been a missionary in Spain, after which he returned to the Holy Land and was martyred; his disciples brought the body back.
Saints' bodies meant miracles in those days, and miracles _ of healing, of rescue, of grace _ quickly followed. The stories spread across Europe, growing in complexity, as if the continent were playing a gigantic game of telephone.
People in need of hope or forgiveness (or just an adventure) began to flock to this spot in Galicia, which was about as far as a European could walk in those days and not fall off the edge of the known world.
The edge, by the way, was very close: Finisterre _ it means "the end of the earth" _ is a town on Galicia's western coast, about 40 miles from Santiago de Compostela. Sail due west from there, and your next landfall would be Canada, though the early pilgrims believed it was going to be limbo or maybe hell.
Tourism was literally invented along the Camino, with the city of Santiago as a kind of religious Disneyland at journey's end. Tourism's companion, the travel guidebook, was invented here, too: Europe's first was written about this road by a French priest in the year 1130.
I hopscotched the length of the Camino with a tiny tour group from the United States (three tourists, three guides). We walked part of each day _ from 8 to 13 miles _ then drove an hour or so to a town where we would have dinner and sleep.
It took us 10 days to cover a route that takes walkers _ the ones I regarded as full-time pilgrims _ about six weeks.
"When you're on a trip and something happens or doesn't happen, you think, "That's the way it is.' When you're on a pilgrimage, and something happens or doesn't happen, you think, "It's a miracle, isn't it?'
So said a Scottish pilgrim in the mayor's office of the hamlet of Larrasoana, early in the trip. I started counting miracles after that. By the Scottish pilgrim's definition, I was averaging about three a day. I felt a bit let down if I spotted only one or two.
Mostly, they were the simple pleasures of the road: green fields and sheep bells and pinkish Basque cattle chewing their cuds. Leafy dark-green archways where the Camino cut across the main roads and into a forest. Wild blackberries, ripe for the picking. And holly, as glossy as Christmas.
They were sunlight and friendly dogs, little brooks and old buildings.
And lazy mid-afternoon picnics in abandoned churchyards and village parks _ potato omelets, crusty bread and local cheese, salami and good red Spanish wine.
More than anything, my miracles were people _ the people we walked with, of course, but even more memorably the people we left behind, residents of hamlets so small that you'd never bother to seek them out, villages with a single street whose name has not changed in centuries: Calle Santiago.
"Hola, mujer! Hello, woman!" villagers called. Then the inevitable question: "Are you going to Santiago?" Then my inevitable answer. And their inevitable farewell: "Good journey, woman!"
Official miracles were more impressive. They belonged to history and had churches or statues to mark them. My favorite hinged on two roast chickens in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, a town founded about 1100 by a kindly man known as Saint Dominic of the Walkway.
St. Dominic liked to help pilgrims. The road where he lived was rough; he straightened it. The river was dangerous; he built a bridge. Pilgrims got sick; he built a hospital. But it was the chicken miracle that stuck in the collective mind.
Sometime in the Middle Ages, after the saint died, a local constable mistakenly hanged an innocent young pilgrim who had been accused of theft. The miracle holds that the power of Saint Dominic rescued him, keeping the boy alive on the gallows. Impossible, said the constable, who learned this as he was about to eat dinner. Why, that boy could no more be alive than these roast chickens!
You can guess what happens: The birds miraculously spring back to life, and the constable cuts the boy down and restores him to his joyful family. It's all memorialized by the strangest structure of the journey: a Gothic chicken coop, complete with live chickens (no, not the same ones) inside the town cathedral.
September's rooster-in-residence was particularly happy and crowed often, a sound so amazingly out of place in a church that I laughed aloud.
It took me a few days to realize that only the old called out to us on the Camino. Children were missing, and it wasn't because they were in school. There just weren't very many young families around.
The explanation was that rural Spain isn't much different from rural America: There are few jobs but farming, and being a peasant farmer is crushingly hard, so the young go away to work, and if they come back, it's only for weekends or fiestas.
The cities get bigger, the villages shrivel and die. Foncebadon, a village in the mountains of Leon, was so completely ruined that at first I thought it had been bombed. Current population? Two humans, six dogs and a flock of sheep. Even pretty Rabanal, its nearest neighbor _ now reviving thanks to business from pilgrims _ is ringed with abandoned houses, like a suburb of ghosts.
Walking the remoter parts of the Camino, then, was like walking through an open-air old folks' home. Maybe that's why utter strangers were so willing to chat, to stop minding cattle or forking hay and to tell their life stories instead. One old man flagged me down to talk about growing up in Cuba; he still sends money to his sister there, so she'll have enough to eat.
An ancient woman, bent like a hook and leaning on a staff, peeped over her farmyard wall to ask where I was from, then told me how she had traveled to America when she was a little girl _ to Honduras, by boat. Honduras is in America too, isn't it?
In Rabanal's small plaza one evening, three 70ish women told me what their mothers had to go through to get a loaf of bread _ sow the wheat, tend it, harvest it, thresh it, grind it by hand into flour, knead the dough, heat the old stone oven.
"Life was hard here," one woman said. The memories, as much as the chill evening air, made them shudder.
The Camino hands out encounters like this, endlessly and to everyone.
If you go
The modern Camino de Santiago is a little like Route 66 in that it's a mix of every kind of road, from narrow path to superhighway. Sometimes you walk through leafy glades, sometimes on country gravel, sometimes on asphalt where you're buffeted by the windy wake of passing semis.
But modern pilgrims make the trip the way medieval ones did: in a series of stages, each the length of an average day's walk. Although it can be done in a hard month, the nearly 500-mile walk really takes closer to six weeks, given rest days and sightseeing.
Each stage has refugios _ refuges or dorms for pilgrims _ some of them newly built to meet increasing demand. There are also inns and small hotels in towns on the route.
Tours: For folks with less stamina or time _ myself included _ there are organized tours.
I chose Spanish Steps, a new tour company founded and led by Judy Colaneri, 36. She's a private caterer in Aspen, Colo., during ski season and a traveler in the off-season. Hers were the only walking trips I found that sampled the whole Camino.
Colaneri has walked the route three times and said she wanted to share its joys with other travelers for a modest price: $1,695 per person, double occupancy, or $1,995 for singles, for an 11-day trip that includes all meals, lodging in small hotels and inns, entrance fees, ground transportation and luggage handling. Air fare is extra. Groups are kept small; there were six in ours.
For details, contact her at Spanish Steps, P.O. Box 8653, Aspen, CO 81612. Phone or fax (970) 923-6859.
Guidebooks: The Confraternity of St. James publishes a compact guide by the late Rev. Elias Valina Sampedra, the priest responsible for painting yellow arrows to mark the route. Write The Confraternity of St. James, First Floor, 1 Talbot Yard, Borough High St., London SE1 England.
I used A Practical Guide for Pilgrims by Millan Bravo Lozano, published in Spain and available in larger towns on the Camino.
How hard is it? There are few steep grades, so anyone who can climb stairs could do this trip. It gets harder if you're trying to stick to a schedule. And much harder if you add a 35-pound backpack with sleeping bag. Colaneri suggested that independent travelers mail clothes to post offices or hotels ahead of time, and stay at inns instead of refugios, so they don't have to carry their own bedding.
When to go: Spring and fall are best. Veterans advised against summer because of the heat and crowds, and against winter because the going is wet, cold and lonely.
Getting there: I flew into Madrid, took a train to Pamplona and drove with my group to Roncesvalles, a Pyrenees hamlet that is the traditional starting point for the Camino. There's also a taxi service from Pamplona to Roncesvalles, run by Pedro Tellechea, an energetic Basque.
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune