The foyer of the albergue was overflowing with peregrinos. Bodies packed in like sardines, squeezing into every nook and cranny. The room was ripe with anticipation as more and more people squeezed in, saying hello to each other with a “Buen Camino” and smile. I leaned against the wall, feeling shaky, as if I might cry at any moment.

Before long the nuns joined us, bringing instruments and song sheets with them. “Bienvenidos,” the youngest one said. “Welcome.  Introduce yourselves. Tell us where you are from and why you are walking.”

It was the question I’d heard most often since I’d begun my journey.  Why are you walking the Camino?  Even though I’d been faced with that question more than once, I hadn’t settled on an answer.  I’d said any number of things when people asked.  I was turning 60 and it seemed like a good thing to do to celebrate a big birthday.  I was walking to honor my mother who’d recently died from Alzheimer’s. Or in honor if my father who’d died from ALS.  

I’m not sure why I felt the need to have a reason. Surely, just wanting to walk was reason enough. But I wanted to understand what had drawn me here and while all the answers I could come up with sounded good enough on the surface, none of them felt complete. 

As I listened, I could feel my throat tighten and tears fill in my eyes.  There were pilgrims from Spain and Poland, Germany and Sweden.  It was their first Camino or their fourth.  They were walking to celebrate their anniversary, in gratitude for their recovery from surgery or to deepen their faith. 

How could I express what I was feeling in that moment?  Could I even find the words, or would I just dissolve into a pool of tears as I always seemed to do when my emotions overwhelmed me. I’d been walking more than two weeks already, more than enough time to arrive at an answer to this fundamental question and yet I still did not fully understand.  

“My name is Suzanne,” I said. My voice trembled.  “I’m from California, in the United States.” I looked straight ahead, towards where the sisters were sitting. I paused for a second to steady myself again.  “I’m turning 60 this year and…”  I couldn’t continue. I forced an awkward smile.

 “Breathe,” I kept telling myself, “Just breathe.”  I looked down at the song sheets that lay across my lap. The words blurred by the tears in my eyes.

After we finished, the sisters led us in song. Songs in English and French, Spanish, and German. Eventually we came to the unofficial Camino anthem, “Ultreïa ! Ultreïa ! E suseia Deus adjuva nos!”  Onward and upward.  Keep going until we meet again. The ranges, octaves and various accents created a harmony unlike anything I had ever heard before.  I sang through the tears that streamed down my face.

Suzanne Maggio is the award-winning author of Estrellas: Moments of Illumination Along El Camino de Santiago, The Cardinal Club: A Daughter’s Journey to Acceptance and the host of the podcast, from Sparks to LIGHT. She tells stories about ordinary people who find deep and unexpected connections with others and within themselves.