Trail Magic on the Way of Saint James
Story and photos by Beebe Bahrami

Walking the Camino in Spain means stepping into synchronicity, strange coincidences, and other forms of magic.

Camino travel

As I walked the Camino across northern Spain, this 85-year old nun from Montpellier, France, would appear suddenly in front of me even though I knew I had just passed her a few kilometers back.


The first time I saw her, she was standing at a kilometer marker along this sacred trail. For Christians it dates to the 9th century and leads to Santiago de Composela and the supposed tomb of Saint James the Greater. For pagans, based on rich regional folklore and archaeology, it may be an initiate's road that goes back three thousand years or more. Marie would tap her wooden walking stick on the stone marker saying a prayer while the plastic food bag dangling on her arm swung in synchronized cadence, as did the small tan rucksack on her back. She would smile at me and go back to her reverie. Tap, rock, tap. She would then amble slowly to the next marker and repeat the prayer there. If she walked 25 kilometers a day, she tapped, rocked, and prayed 25 times a day.

One day, after I passed her for the third time, I didn't see her again until I arrived in O Cebreiro in Galicia. Two friends walked with me during that stretch and they too had noticed Marie. They mentioned the contrast of our techie hiking shoes to her sturdy orthopedic ones, the very same shodding she wore while working the garden or walking to her convent chapel in southern France for the daily cycle of prayer. When we learned she'd walked from her convent's front door, our respect for her deepened. But only when we saw her in O Cebreiro sitting at a café table calmly sipping tea as if she'd been there for hours did we begin to put it together that nothing about her was linear.

"How many times did you pass Marie today?" I asked Karen.

"At least twice."

"No, I think we passed her three times," said Bill.

"So, how is it that she always ends up ahead of us?" I asked. "I never saw her pass us once."

We looked at Marie again and Marie smiled back at us defiantly, daring us to call out the impossibility in our world and the normality in hers.

Carving Joseph's dream

Strange Encounters on the Trail

Marie's was only one of many mysteries that began to reveal themselves on this old road of initiation for some, penance for others, and deep reflection and reinvention for yet others.

There was Javier, the university student from Argentina studying in Pamplona. He always appeared like a Harry Potter house-elf the moment I invoked a question in my head. It began in Navarra just outside of Pamplona and then numerous times thereafter. He'd simply pop up beside me, where moments before no one had been, and tell me the answer to my unuttered question. Another pop and he'd disappear and alone again would I be in a great expansive landscape.

Once, I was watching a pilgrim pushing a shopping cart holding his pack with food bags tied to its sides. He parked it at an outdoor shrine, lit a cigarette, and began ranting to the statue of Mary on her pedestal under an oak tree. He was so ardent in his gestures that I wondered if I dared pass.

Pop. Javier.

"Oh, he's harmless. That's the homeless pilgrim of the Camino. He lives on the Road. Everyone takes care of him." A habitual Camino walker—this was Javier's fourth time walking it in full—I took his word for it. He disappeared as quickly but reappeared next outside of Estella as I was wondering if I'd ever get there.

Pop. "You're almost there. It always feels like forever at this point, but it's only two more kilometers." Pop.

Puente la Reina

There were other sorts of synchronicities. I hadn't seen any pilgrims for over two hours as I neared with anticipation my favorite place on the Camino, the little octagonal chapel of Eunate near Puente la Reina. On approach I thought to myself, I hope I get to experience it in silence, that there aren't any chatty pilgrims there.

Right then, a woman, who introduced herself as Clara from England, appeared by my side. She was an incessant chatterer, the chattiest person I've ever met. She engaged in an unstoppable and steady stream of small talk all the way to the chapel. I finally asked politely if we could enjoy the chapel in silence and she obliged me long enough to circle it once and then resumed her monolog. As she went on and on, I wondered at the timing of her appearance and my thought.

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