Homer Alaska - Arts

Story last updated at 6:49 PM on Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Camino de Santiago: A way to connect to nature, the world



Photo by Christina Whiting

Christina Whiting pauses by a marker during her walk on the Camino de Santiago last fall.

The Camino de Santiago has many names: the Way of St. James, Donejakue Bidea in Basque, le chemin de Saint Jacques in French and Ruta Xacobea in Galician. The perregrinos, or pilgrims, who walk it, simply call it "the Path."

Last fall, Christina Whiting, a Homer artist, photographer and writer added her footprints to the 1.5 million steps of the Camino Frances, the 500-mile northern route of the Camino de Santiago. An ancient series of routes through Spain and France, all paths lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in the Galician region of Spain, the traditional burial site of St. James.

Next Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, Whiting speaks and shows slides of her Camino as part of the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society's annual meeting. Next Friday from 5 to 7 p.m. she visits at a reception for her art show at the Fireweed Gallery.

Whiting's show includes photographs of her journey as well as mixed-media art made from found objects, including a few pieces she found on the Path and mailed home. Too tired at the end of daily 15-mile walks to keep a detailed journal, Whiting's photographs represent her visual journal.

Many people walk the Path for religious reasons. When pilgrims arrive at the cathedral to get their Camino passports stamped and to receive their Certificate of Compostela, they are asked if they walked the Camino for spiritual or other reasons. Though not Catholic or a practicing Christian, Whiting said she walked for both religious and cultural reasons.

"I think spiritual in the sense I was definitely looking for a deepening of my spirit. I needed to step away from my life, to create physical distance from that," Whiting said. "I love the idea of being connected to the planet through my feet."

Her journey began in the French Pyrenees Mountains at St. Jean Pied de Port. Whiting walked the first day with her partner, Taz Tally, and met another Homer friend, Heather Beggs, at Roncesvalles and walked with her two days. Most of her 42-day trip she walked alone.

With most legs of the Camino Frances about 12 miles apart — about the distance of the Homer Spit Run from Homer High School to Land's End and back — and going through small towns and cities, Whiting usually slept in albergues, similar to hostels, with bunks in large rooms. Her favorites were at monasteries.

"You were staying in a church and eating communal meals," Whiting said. "I think a big part of the camino experience, it's the sense of community."

The Path goes through rural villages, small towns, farms, forests and fields. Going in the off season from early October to mid-November worked well for an Alaskan, with warm days and cool nights. Whiting only got soaking wet twice. Some days proved emotionally difficult, like the day she walked through a forest and found herself weeping. What she calls her "Camino angel" saved her.

"I just sat on this log," Whiting said. "I heard this rustling behind me. This little dog came, sat beside me and put his head in my lap. ... I was so comforted by his sheer presence."

On three occasions, Whiting had a bizarre experience. When perregrinos hear people behind them ready to pass, as a courtesy they step off the path to let them go by.

"I stepped off to the side," she said. "I turned around and there was nobody there. ... I wasn't freaked out. I knew I wasn't alone."

After returning to Homer, Whiting said she thought she would keep walking. Instead, she slept three days straight. Other perregrinos she's talked to have had the same experience.

"It's like your body needs to rest, your mind needs to rest, you spirit needs to rest," she said.

On her Camino, Whiting met people from 14 to 86. Perregrinos know each other by the cockle shells from the coast they wear on thongs around their necks or tied to their packs.

Whiting said she wants people to think of the Camino as a way to connect to nature and the world.

"I want to inspire people to do the Camino," she said. "I also want to inspire people to do the Camino out their back door. How can I do that every day when I'm home? To me, that's the ultimate lesson."

There's another lesson Whiting learned, too.

"Don't do the Camino unless you're prepared to make changes in your life," she said.

For Whiting, that means leaving two longtime jobs she's held in Homer, as a worker at the Fireweed Gallery and as coordinator for the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, which she will quit after this year. Her next step? Maybe become a freelance travel writer and photographer, and see what path she takes.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.