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Solo In Spain

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My name is Rocco and I'm a recovering capitalist. It has been ten months since I last cashed in an option; a year since I last fired an employee to "enhance shareholder value," and 11 months since I sold the company to "crystallize" that value. It should have been a banner day -- I had turned a company around that was headed for bankruptcy, saved many jobs, put some money in my pocket, and garnered more offers to do the same for other firms. Along the way, however, two offices had to be closed and more than 150 good people had to be let go. That had been hard, and I was physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted.

There are as many motivations for travel as there are possible destinations: adventure, relaxation, exploration, curiosity, fleeing winter, fleeing humidity or simply fleeing all these and more in an endless variety of combinations and permutations. I needed time and solitude to re-examine my priorities. I was on the fast track to becoming Rocco "Chainsaw" Rossi, restructuring guy, and that clearly wasn't making me happy.

In school I had always prided myself on how high my marks were, and post-school I had simply replaced the race for high marks with the race for more money as the symbol of success and achievement. Now I found myself troubled by the values of the experience I had just gone through. No, we weren't Enron or WorldCom, and I wasn't enriching myself by illegal means. But was this the best way for me to be true to myself? Socrates said that "the unexamined life is not worth living," and it had been too long since I had undertaken any meaningful examination. I turned to the remedy that has always saved me in difficult times -- I went for a walk.

This walk, however, lasted 32 days and covered almost 900 kilometres in Spain, much of it following a medieval pilgrimage route known as the Camino Francés, or French Road. Since the middle of the ninth century, millions of pilgrims have travelled this route from the French border to the northwestern Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela -- the site of the purported tomb of St. James the Apostle. Traditionally, they came for a host of reasons, ranging from the intercession of the martyred Apostle, to atonement for past sins, to giving thanks for a blessing already received. All of those motivations still exist, but in our more secular world, adventure and tourism have been added.

I read about the pilgrimage five years before I actually went, and was intrigued by the opportunity for solitude, physical challenge and learning. Carving out a month to undertake it, however, didn't seem possible during a period when I was looking to maximize wealth creation and prove what a driven guy I was. If "lunch is for wimps," as Gordon Gekko says in Oliver Stone's movie Wall Street, then just think who I'd be if I took a month-long vacation. But being between jobs and facing a crisis of values gave me the push to go this past July. I was very much a lapsed Catholic, and I left with no hope of personal intercession, but there was enough residue from my early religious training to feed a dim notion that I would be atoning for laying off all those people while I went searching for myself.

In an average year, 40,000 people undertake some portion of the Camino by foot, bicycle, horseback or car. In Holy or Jubilee years when St. James' Day, July 25, falls on a Sunday, there is a special indulgence available from the Catholic Church, and 10 times the usual number will travel to Santiago. There is no one starting point. Historically, non-Spanish European pilgrims began in Arles, LePuy, Vezeley or Paris, but today many begin in St. Jean Pied-De-Port, just inside the French border with Spain. Spaniards have traditionally begun at Roncesvalles. Just inside the Spanish border with France, the town was made famous in The Song of Roland as the place where Charlemagne's retreating rear guard led by his champion and friend, Roland, was destroyed. The church, however, provides a certificate of completion, or Compostela, to any pilgrim who walks at least 100 kilometres or cycles at least 200 kilometres of the route, and so many choose starting points well inside Spain.

I started in Pamplona, 50 kilometres west of Roncesvalles, because there is a convenient airport with frequent connections from Madrid and because all the major pilgrim routes coming from the rest of Europe meet and become one just to the west of Pamplona. It is far cheaper, and almost as convenient, to simply buy a return ticket to Madrid and use Spain's terrific bus system to get to and from cities and towns along the Camino. In a wonderful modern manifestation of church and state interaction, pilgrims who obtain their Compostela are entitled to a significant discount on any Iberia flight out of Santiago.

The first task upon arriving in Spain is to obtain a pilgrim's passport, or credencial. This grants entry into the monasteries and hostels, or albergues along the way that offer shelter for the night and the occasional meal. I got mine at the Archbishop's palace in Pamplona for the princely sum of one euro. They are also generally available in the hostels in the larger towns along the Camino. Each of the hostels and many tourist attractions will stamp your credencial. This becomes a wonderful souvenir of the trip and provides a record with which to qualify for the Compostela when you get to Santiago. Having obtained my credencial, I started walking west.

Pamplona is a beautiful city dating back to its Roman founding (its name is derived from its origin as "Pompey's city"), but the timing was wrong for me. The city was in the middle of preparations for the annual Festival of San Fermin, which features the famous running of the bulls and non-stop revelry, and that was the last thing I wanted. I felt lonely in the dancing, singing crowd. But just a couple of kilometers away, walking on a gravel path through wheat fields, I was soon revelling in solitude and my own thoughts.

I found myself meditating on many themes. The most persistent was the human attachment to material things. If you are like me, you accumulate stuff: clothes, shoes, posters, books, furniture. Forced to carry everything you own on your back while walking 30 to 40 kilometres each day under a hot sun focuses your mind on the essentials.

Each new day on the Camino brought a reassessment of what could be given or thrown away. One fellow I met had broken off the handle of his hairbrush to save the weight. But it is not only about reducing physical weight -- it becomes about deciding what is enough, and distributing the surplus to your fellow pilgrims. In the kitchen of one of the albergues above a cache of food was a handwritten poster that in eight languages encouraged pilgrims to "take what you need and contribute what you can."

Meeting people along the Camino was a revelation. I spent most of my time walking alone, but I would always meet people at night at the hostels and the conversation was as nourishing as the food that everyone shared. There was little small talk. This was all the more remarkable because it was a veritable Tower of Babel situation where most used hand gestures and an amalgam of languages to get their points across. Sharing the same road, you very quickly get to an intimate discussion of why you're on the Camino. Early on I met Jesus, a Spaniard who had spent the last 10 years of his life working for a foundation in Malaga that focuses on at-risk youth recovering from addictions, depression and violence in the home. "I woke up one morning and found that I had nothing left to give," he explained. "I sold what little I had and started out on the Camino to clear my head and replenish my heart."

Barbara, an American mother and former songwriter whose children had now all gone away to college was there "to rekindle my musical voice"; Luiz, a Brazilian musician, would only say cryptically that he was there "by necessity." Peter, a 74-year-old Belgian who was walking the Camino for the third time, had this to say:
I had to come this time because the other times I came on the Camino, I came to ask God for something. This time I ask only for the strength to complete the pilgrimage. I have been married to the same wonderful woman for 50 years. We have had eight children and 24 grandchildren, and I have had a successful career in banking. I came this time simply to give thanks for the wonderful life I have been blessed with."

We all had our own reasons going into the walk, but there is no question that the walk itself added to and altered them. The most common addition happens virtually every time a villager gives you directions or fills your water bottle. "No need to thank me," they say. "When you get to Santiago, pray for me -- my name is Gloria or Paco or . . ."

All pilgrims become surrogates for these kind people and, religious or not, it is hard not to say a prayer for them when you reach Santiago. The walk spawned many resolutions. I would cull my "stuff" and think twice before buying anything new; I would sell my Mercedes SUV and buy a smaller, more fuel-efficient car; I would incorporate more exercise into every day; I would reintroduce religion into my life; and I would never, ever do another restructuring project regardless of the money offered.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with being a businessman, but if I return to business, and that is still an open question, then the opportunity has to be about growing a company with people I share values with and with a product or service I value. Having reached those conclusions, I was given a magnificent gift by the Camino on Day 28.

I had been to Santiago, had gone on another 90 kilometers to Finisterre and was now walking down the Costa da Morte. My intended destination was the beach resort town of Louro, where I planned to spend two days on the beach eating, drinking and generally letting my feet and body recover before returning by bus to Santiago to take a plane home.

Ahead of me was a small boy of about 10 or 12 who was banging away at the side of the road with a hoe. When I reached him I said, "Good morning. How are you doing," in my best Spanish.

He looked up at me and grunted. His face was somewhat distorted and it was clear that he was mentally disabled in some way. He looked me up and down, dropped his hoe and grabbed my walking stick.

I had bought the walking stick on my first day in Spain and it had been with me for almost 900 kilometers. Two days before, in Finisterre, following tradition, I had burned my hiking clothes to symbolize the birth of "the new man" at the end of the pilgrimage. Several of the other pilgrims had burned their walking sticks as well. I couldn't bring myself to do it because I had become attached to it and wanted to bring it back to my father, who loves to carve wood, as a present.

Instinct took over and I wrestled with the boy for the stick. It took all my strength to pry his fingers loose. Just as I was about to "win" it dawned on me: What was I doing? I stopped struggling, put his hands back on the stick and said, "Regalo para ti." (Present for you.)

The boy was justifiably confused. He looked at the stick and then at me for a few moments, and suddenly he smiled. "Para ti," (for you) I said one last time as tears filled my eyes, and I knew then that my pilgrimage was done.

That smile was the Camino's ultimate gift to me -- it was my reward for learning that it is not about getting the highest marks or most money. I took it as a sign that my atonement had been accepted. Even for the non-religious, it is impossible to walk in the footsteps of the millions who have trudged, bled, prayed, laughed and cried along this route for over 1,000 years, and to see the monuments that have been inspired by that faith, and not be moved.

It is impossible to be exposed to the openness and generosity of your fellow pilgrims and the native Spaniards along the way and not be inspired to introduce more of that behaviour into your own pilgrimage through life. It is impossible to cover several hundred kilometres on foot and not to recognize the power of taking single steps or lighting one candle. It is said that the tourist simply visits the Camino, but the pilgrim is visited by it. The same can be said of all travel. All it takes is an open mind and some comfortable walking shoes.