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In Spain, a 500-mile trek to self-discovery

Spain's 'El Camino de Santiago' pilgrimage teaches a college graduate important life lessons.

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The strident chime of my wristwatch alarm slowly drags me to consciousness. Sighing, I turn off the alarm and look at my watch: 5:30 a.m. Time to get moving.

I cajole my weary body out of the sagging mattress and find the neighboring bunk in the darkness of the pilgrim's hostel, or Gently, I nudge the occupants of the top and bottom bunks. "Jamie, Kate. Time to get up," I whisper.

Kate answers with a low groan. "This is so not a vacation," she murmurs. Jamie and I chuckle, understanding her sentiments completely. Having just graduated from college, we are in the midst of a month-long foot journey across nearly 500 miles of northern Spain to the town of Santiago de Compostela, where the relics of the apostle St. James the Great rest in a medieval cathedral.

The path we follow, easily delineated by large yellow arrows pointing the way on buildings, signs, and the ground itself as we pass through the Spanish countryside, is known as El Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James. It was one of three major pilgrimage routes in medieval times (the other two being those to Rome and Jerusalem). Pilgrims have walked the Camino for more than a thousand years seeking reconciliation and enlightenment.

Today, the route is lined with communal hostels and annually traveled by some 100,000 pilgrims of different nationalities, ages, and religious beliefs. Most are motivated by religion, history, or simply a sense of adventure. For us, it is both a celebration of the completion of one life stage and a time to reflect and regroup before entering the next.

And so here we are, changing from pj's to trekking clothes by headlamp amid the surround-sound snoring of old French men and the gentle, early morning scuffle of travelers getting ready for another day's walk. I exchange pleasantries with those I have come to know over recent days, using a mix of English, my broken Spanish, and the 12 French words I know – or by smiles, nods, and "conversations" in Portuguese, Japanese, and Hungarian. You'd be surprised what two people can communicate without understanding a word coming out of the other's mouth.

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