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Mo Houston – Walking The Camino De Santiago

Boarding a flight to Madrid, Mo Houston shoved her only piece of luggage, a backpack weighing less than 18 pounds, in the overhead bin. Carefully packed and meticulously arranged, it contained 2 changes of clothes, a pair of shoes, flip flops, a rain suit, a head lamp, bandana, and not much else.  These were her supplies for the next month.

For hundreds of years, people have journeyed to the Apostle St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. According to legend, the remains of St. James are buried here. Pilgrims begin their trek in France or Portugal or Germany.  The Camino de Santiago – or The Way of St. James –  refers to any of the different routes pilgrims choose to reach this sacred shrine near Santiago, Spain.

Mo Houston in Spain's Camino de Santiago

The Way of St. James is a spiritual journey, a soul-searching personal undertaking. People walk the The Camino, a 500-mile trek in the Basque region of northern Spain, for reasons special to themselves. 

“The Camino is full of miracles and marvels – every single day.”

Busy with teenagers and their activities, Mo never took the time to mourn the recent loss of both her parents.  For her, walking The Way was a time to think about her mom and dad –  and grieve.   “It wasn’t sad – it was a beautiful thing,” she says quietly.

Even for those in great shape, a journey of this magnitude is challenging for the body, mind and spirit.  Taking a train from Madrid to Pamplona, and then a bus to France, Mo and her husband, Greg, reached the starting point for The Way.  Setting out from Saint-Jean-Pied-a-Port, the first portion of the spiritual walk was all about the “body adjusting to walking 15-20 miles a day,” Mo explains.  Climbing the steep hills through lush forests and pastures of grazing sheep was hard work.  Carefully zigzagging her way back down – to avoid shin splints – was just as tough.

Traveling at about the same pace, a small group of walking friends evolved. Their Camino family – 8 other pilgrims from Australia, Spain, Italy, and Germany –  shared meals of rock-hard bread and octopus and chocolate croissants.   “We took nothing for granted along The Camino,” Mo remembers.  “We were thankful for every little thing.”

Sloshing through cow manure, admiring fields of roses, and gazing at gigantic stork nests, Mo took the time to really notice her surroundings. “There were no distractions,” she smiles. 

Friends along The Way of St. James

Walking 15-20 miles, you must simply trust there will be a place to eat and sleep after each long, exhausting day. “You don’t make a reservation for the local auberges, which are upscale hostels,” explains Mo. You knock on the inn’s door and hope.  “It worked out every evening for us,” reflects Mo, “and reminded me I need to let my worries go.  God will provide.”

Settling into a bunk bed, in a room with 30 (!) other people, Mo got used to coughing and snoring companions and sleeping among strangers.  Were you frightened, uncomfortable, anxious, wondered my not-as-adventurous self? “Never,” she quickly replied.

“Right away you learn material objects don’t mean anything.”

For five weeks, this perky woman with the cute outfit, haircut, and smile woke around 5am, strapped on her headlamp, and gathered her belongings – and laundry – for the day.  Dressing was easy because she slept in the clothes she planned to wear the next day. No makeup, hair dryers, contacts, skin care routines, shampoo. 

Pilgrims along The Camino de Santiago

“I did have a tube of lipstick,” Mo laughs. And lots of Vicks Vapor rub for her aching feet.  “The simpleness felt good,” the designer from Houston added.  “Right away you learn material objects don’t mean anything.”

Each innkeeper stamped her Camino passport with their unique design – a cross, a farmer, the name of the auberge. Stone fountains in villages provided drinking water – and sometimes red wine!  And then she set out for the day, morning coffee a few miles away, with damp socks swinging from her backpack to dry in the breeze.

“My husband & I returned with totally different ideas about how we want to live the rest of our lives.”

Not every day was filled with storybook sights of ancient stone bridges and medieval churches and sweet cows with bells dangling from their necks.  Mo spent plenty of monotonous days trudging along the seashell-marked trail and listening to the relentless clicking of her walking sticks. But this is “where I really got into my soul.” This is when her mind wandered, and she did lots of praying and deep thinking.

“In the big picture of my life, does this really matter?”

“The most magical thing about The Camino is the people,” says Mo. Greeting those you encounter along the trail with a “Buen Camino,” you don’t know if you are meeting a prince or a peasant or a spry, elderly man celebrating his 80th birthday. Everyone has their story, and she learned something from all. “We are all different races and origins and speak various languages, but we are all so very similar,” Mo says.

Bagpipers lining the path, Mo’s eyes filled with tears as she walked the final steps to mass at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.  After 33 days and 500 miles, she was exhausted, accomplished, emotionally spent.

Finishing The Camino de Santiago

The Camino is a walk of faith.  “You don’t think about the fearful things – where you will sleep, what you will eat, what happens if you get sick,” says Mo.  “Everyday is an adventure and about finding the beauty around you.  I am a mom, so I will still worry.  But I hope I returned with a greater faith, more confidence, and new ideas about how I want to live the rest of my life.”

Mo’s blog about her adventures turned into a book, Texans on the Camino.

All photos courtesy of Mo Houston

Other stories you may enjoyAdam Schallau, Southwest Photographer and Jen Lofgren, Casting For Recovery.

 

 

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“Mo Houston – Walking The Camino De Santiago”

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