It’s been over two years, 904 days to be exact, since I arrived in little Saint Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees – tired, cold and very excited. I had gotten it in my head that I needed to walk the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and basically cross the whole country of Spain by foot. There was something inside telling me that I needed to do it, for myself, to gain perspective and to actually finish something that I started. And I needed to do it alone.
One of the main questions people tend to ask me whenever the subject of the Camino comes up is ’Weren’t you scared?’. The question, a valid one and always filled with good intent has always been absurd to me and is usually answered with a casual ’I’ve never felt so safe anywhere’ and that I would more worried walking home alone at night in Stockholm than in those forests and fields in Spain.
That’s why the disappearance of Denise struck me in the heart. In the beginning it was so inconceivable that anything bad could have happened there, that there must have been a simple explanation. People paused their Caminos all the time to work in hostels or detour from the route. Right?
The Camino de Santiago is difficult to explain because it’s a universe in it’s own. It’s an equalizer, where people from all over the world walk together through the landscapes despite their blistered feet and add to each other’s stories. Everyone is the same on the Camino. The objects that might cause people to make snap judgements about each other at home (clothes, makeup, circle of friends, occupation, neighborhood etc.) are of no real importance. Scratch that. They are of absolutely no importance. The conversations that would arise between strangers were the deepest one’s I’ve ever had in my life. We were all pushing through soaring limbs and popping ibuprofen as if they were tic tacs, but that just added to the experience. We were in it together. Like the two girls I spent most of my time walking with and who helped me with so much more than I could ever have asked for. Or the South Korean man that I met on my first two nights and then didn’t see again until 4 weeks later when we had arrived in Santiago an yet I couldn’t stop crying when it was time to say goodbye to him.
It was as if the outside world didn’t exist. You could spend two hours with someone and feel such a strong amount of love for him or her, as if those two hours had been two years. The way we would cross paths with each other and somehow know who might be a day’s walk ahead by now or who stopped and extra day in Pamplona to rest and was now arriving in the town you left this morning. Without calling or texting or emailing or tagging. We just knew. We kept track of each other because, again, we we’re in it together. Meeting someone again after a few days and hearing ’Oh yeah, I heard you we’re ahead of us’.
I’ve been following all the aftermath of Denise’s disappearance and praying with the whole Camino community of her safe return. A woman, walking alone on the roads I have felt safest in my life.
When I was in Spain I met a few people who we’re walking for someone else. One woman was walking for her friend who had recently passed away and I met a young man who was walking for his father who wanted, but was too ill to complete the Camino. Now, countless pilgrims are already walking with an extra shell on their backpacks with Denise’s name on it. Because that’s what the Camino is. A family; a community. And because we are in it together.
A Shell for Denise
From what I’ve read, there are thousands of pilgrims all over the world that are struck deeply by the death of Denise Thiem. Pilgrims traditionally hang a scallop shell on their backpacks to symbolize their status as a pilgrim on the Camino. If you are not currently walking and would like to contribute a shell for Denise’s memorial, you can send your name and a message to firstname.lastname@example.org, and the beautiful people at the pilgrim house in Santiago will inscribe one for you.
Lots of love,
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