Hiking the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela: A Lesson on Loss by Sarah Davis
Somewhere, I know my dad is by the water singing this song, by his favorite band The Beatles and wearing one of his signature Hawaiian shirts.
This is just one of the thoughts that crossed my mind while I hiked part of the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela earlier this year, spreading my father's ashes and giving him the opportunity to hike it alongside me.
My father had a 20-year fixation with the hike, long before the movie, The Way, came out in theaters. After he turned 70, he decided to hike the Camino with his sister, Sherri, and (hopefully) with me. However, at the time I was a contracted employee with no vacation time, and the hike took 4-6 weeks to complete. Later that year, my father got sick with prostate cancer. Even after he healed from the prostate cancer, leukemia became the next battle that he would not, unfortunately, win.
Years later, while on the trail my father dreamed of hiking, I found comfort in spending time with the other pilgrims on the journey. I also found comfort in the memories of my father that the journey evoked. Daily, I was with him, and I was able to acknowledge the profound impact he had on my life.
Forever an extrovert, my father loved people, and sharing meals, belly laughs and dreaming together with his closest friends and family.
As a former Navy man, he also had an unexpected artistic spirit. While searching for a note about his eulogy (at the desk where he had spent hours editing the American Model Yachting Association magazine) I stumbled upon an application for membership to the NY Museum of Modern Art, which he had submitted as an artist. With it, I found a follow-up letter, typed out on formal stationary, thanking someone for their phone call and describing, in detail, what it meant to him to be accepted. While I don't think my father ever intended to put his works of art on an exhibit, he never let go of that part of his life.
As my mother later told me, my father had defied his own father and chosen to study art in school, at which point his father stopped funding his education. So, my father dropped out and joined the Navy instead. (I had never known this part of him.)
During the hike, these revelations about him crossed my mind. I also remembered things that I had known about him, such as his love for water.
After the navy, he had spent his recreational time sailing. And, after that, he pursued model yachting, all the while donning his signature Hawaiian shirt, a look he embodied while sailing and, later, while receiving chemo. (His collection had grown to over 50 shirts by the time he passed on.) Now, these shirts, have been reborn into several handcrafted quilts by a family friend and are spread out among me, my mom and his sister Sherri.
During our hike, I realized that almost everyone had a different, life-changing reason for being on the trail. Though we didn't always hike together, we greeted each other and shared meals together at the end of each day — an experience I know my father would have enjoyed.
Almost near the end, during one of my ash-spreading moments, I realized that this could have been his intention all along — this was how he was going to get me to the Camino. This was how he wanted me to learn about him and remember him.
I like to think that my father still lives on within me — and that he's never left me. I found grace in the ritual spreading his ashes brought me.
Though I won't go to the Camino every year, I can still honor him and the spirit of that journey by embracing authentic moments with people, preferably while sharing food and conversation about the loved ones we have lost in our lives. Because, quite frankly, they never leave us — and the memories are important to share with others.
Sarah Davis is a writer and instructional designer living in Oakland, CA. She also volunteers as a board member for Global Lives Project, an online film library of human life experience.