"Its doors (are) open to sick and well, to Catholics as well as to pagans, Jews, heretics, beggars, and the indigent, and it embraces all like brothers."
The words of the 12th century hymn (quoted here from Gitlitz and Davidson's masterly cultural handbook) refer to the Hospital of Roncesvalles, but they could equally be applied to the Camino today. For while the Camino gives us wonderful opportunities to be alone, the chances it offers us to meet people are unparalleled. The pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago are women and men, very young and very old and every age in between, of every nationality, profession and culture. They run the religious spectrum from devout Catholics to committed atheists with a generous sprinkling of pagans, Jews and heretics.
Many of these people, if we passed them on the street or sat next to them on the subway, we would never talk to. Our thought would be, "We have nothing in common." But on the Camino, you do have something in common. You are walking in the same direction, on the same road, to the same destination, sharing the same bars and shade trees and shelters along the way. And because you are walking, there is plenty of time to talk.
On a perfect day on the Camino, the three rhythms come together. There is the gentle, constant rhythm of walking, the solitude of the between-spaces, and then a reunion and a celebration as we reach the next town with its bar or fountain, where already pilgrims are meeting and laughing over the usual talk of distances, heat and blisters. We can pass through with a smile, or stay to enjoy the company, and maybe leave with a new walking partner. On the Camino, we are only as alone as we want to be. It lets us measure out and balance our desire for solitude with our desire that our journey be shared.