Updated: Jun 26
| This is the 394th story of Our Life Logs |
The early morning sunrise colored the sky with washes of pink and orange. Although my feet ached from the previous day’s walking, I had risen early to admire the view from the mountain top. I was at the Cruz de Ferro, the highest point on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. It was a beautiful, crisp, clear morning. My only regret was that my dad wasn’t by my side as he should have been.
I was born in 1980 in a picturesque town on the coast of Cornwall in England. I had a joyful childhood and have memories of playing on the beach with friends and family. I have a younger sister, and my parents were happily married. Growing up, I was always close to my dad and looked up to him. He taught me how to ride a bike and how to fish. We would often go on long rides or go fishing at various spots along the coast—my dad always knew the best place to catch a fish.
As I grew up, I became very competitive with him. Each summer, we would have an ongoing contest to see who could catch the biggest fish. He always won…that is until the summer I turned 12. That year, I finally beat him. I vividly remember pulling in a huge fish, almost the size of my arm. It struggled on the line and I had to lean backwards to haul it into the boat. My dad wanted to help me as he was worried that I’d be pulled over the side of the boat, but I didn’t let him. He did hang onto the back of my life jacket though. Landing that fish was the happiest and proudest moment of my young life.
My dad’s other interest was spirituality; he was interested in Buddhism and personal development. He meditated daily to the amusement of my friends and me. I remember when I was about 14, he brought home a book from the library. It was about the Camino de Santiago, a 560-mile pilgrimage across Spain. We looked at the pictures together, and he told me all about the long, winding road that traversed northern Spain. It ran from the border of France to the coast at Finisterre. This book captivated me and appealed to my sense of adventure. At the time, I was in the scouts and loved camping trips, hiking, and outdoor pursuits. I immediately said, “Let’s do it.” My dad laughed and agreed that one day we would walk the Camino de Santiago.
The next few years passed, like the life of any teenage boy, with exams, scout trips, and playing football with friends. I started drinking and became interested in girls. However, I never forgot about the Camino de Santiago.
After I finished school, I joined the police. My dad was so proud of me as he had considered joining the police himself when he was younger. At that time, he also reminded me that we were going to walk the Camino one day. I agreed but didn’t take him seriously. It seemed like a very long way, and we had never met anyone who had done it. Was it really possible to walk the length of an entire country?
I guess life got in the way. I was busy finishing off my police training and then moved two hours north and got a job as a traffic cop. I put all thoughts of the Camino to the back of my mind.
The following year, I returned home to visit my parents for a couple of weeks. While at the library, I took a book out about the Camino de Santiago. I was surprised to find that it was the same book that my dad had brought home all those years ago. It was now slightly dog-eared. I wondered if anyone who had taken it out had actually done the walk.
I went home and surprised my dad with the book, saying for the second time, “Let’s do it.” He looked at me and grinned, and at that moment, I knew that we would. This time I read the book from cover to cover and started to think about doing the walk seriously. I was excited and began to make plans. The trail looked easy enough in theory; there was a footpath that was signposted the whole way with hostels along the route. All we had to do was pack our bags and get to the start.
That was easier said than done. Although my dad said he was up for the adventure, he was fast approaching 70 and had started to have problems with his knees and back. We regularly walked along the coast together, but I wasn’t sure how he would cope crossing two mountain ranges. However, it had always been his dream, and he was stubborn and determined to go with me.
“We’re going to have to get some training in if we’re really going to do this,” I told him one sunny afternoon in June. We took out my old scouting gear, and I packed a backpack and gave it to my dad.
Bloody hell that’s heavy, he said as he put it on his back.
It was about nine kilograms that we needed to carry. I began to worry that my dad wouldn’t be fit enough, but after adjusting the straps and removing a bit of weight, he assured me that he would be fine. He was going to do it. We set out along the coast.
After a few miles, he began to complain about his knees hurting. That’s when I started to doubt that we would ever make it to the start, let alone walk 560 miles.
I returned to work and forgot about the Camino, but unbeknown to me, my dad hadn’t. He had been practicing all summer, getting up every morning, putting on his backpack and walking for miles and miles along the coast. He would walk all morning and return home in time for lunch. Or he would walk further and stop in at a café for lunch, then take the bus home. Sometimes he would even pack a picnic and walk all day. But I didn’t know then; he didn’t tell me.
One evening I got a call from my mum. “I think you need to come home and talk to your dad,” she said. I immediately thought the worst; was he ill? But my mum sounded happy enough.
“Why, what’s he up to now?” I asked.
“Let’s just say, he’s planning to walk the Camino.”
I went home the following weekend, and my dad told me all about the walks he’d been doing in the local area. I could see that he had lost a bit of weight and he did seem fitter, but I still had my doubts about whether he’d make it. Although, it did seem like he no longer huffed and puffed up hills or complained if we walked a long way. Instead, he seemed to be enjoying himself. Who was I to try to hold him back?
One night, we stayed up until the small hours, talking and planning. We agreed that we would do the walk, but due to my job and my dad’s health, we decided that we would split the journey into two, with two weeks at a time.
In September 2015, we set out for our adventure. For two weeks, we walked along the Camino de Santiago, just like we had planned. It was a fantastic experience, and I could see that my dad was enjoying every minute of it. We meandered through small country towns and vineyards where we tasted the Spanish wines. We passed through Pamplona where there was a festival going on and saw the running of the bulls. Well, a version of it anyway—adults were chasing children down the streets with handmade hobby-horse type bulls.
Bits of the trek were a struggle. On the first two days, we had to cross the mountain range from France into Spain. However, we had done enough preparation and managed to walk almost 300 miles. We returned home and planned to do the rest of the walk in 2016.
But fate had other plans, and we had no clue.
After coming home, my dad started to feel ill. The family all thought that he had simply overdone it on the Camino, that he had pushed himself too hard and too far. I felt a bit guilty about encouraging him to walk so far under the hot Spanish sun. He was constantly tired and wasn’t himself. I started to worry about him, but my mum said he was getting old and just needed to rest.
A few months later, he was still feeling tired and lethargic; he had been feeling stiff and ache for a while but had just put it down to old age. He visited his doctor, who ran some routine tests but thought that there was probably nothing to worry about.
The test results revealed abnormalities, and he was sent to the hospital for more tests. Then came the shocking news: my dad had cancer. At that moment, I felt numb inside me.
I knew that we would all help him fight it, and we did. But things were spiraling down. There was nothing we could do.
One day, I sat by my dad’s hospital bed, he seemed very tired and dozy and had hardly spoken at all for a few days. He looked very old, and I knew that the end was near. Suddenly he lifted his head off the pillow and struggled as if he was trying to sit up. He looked me straight in the eye. I sensed he had something important to tell me. “You must go back and finish the Camino,” he said slowly.
I agreed, and he made me promise to finish it without him. When he first went into hospital, he still believed that he would get better and be able to finish it. I humored him for a while and said that we’d do it, but as I watched him fade away, that dream seemed more and more impossible.
My dad passed away in 2017, 18 months after being diagnosed with cancer. Although I knew his death was inevitable, I was still gutted when he finally left us. I tried to carry on with my life as normally as possible, but a sadness that I just couldn’t get rid of had settled over my heart. His death left a massive hole in my life.
I would go on long walks by myself at the weekends. I tried to concentrate on all the happy memories we had made together. I knew that no one, and nothing, could take these away from me. But still, a hollow ache spread across my stomach and chest and stayed there for what seemed like years after losing him.
On one of these walks, I remembered the promise I had made to my dad just before he died. I decided I would take two weeks off work the following September and finish the Camino. As I’d been walking so much at the weekends, my boots had started to fall apart.
In September 2018, I started the second half of the Camino de Santiago. I wore my dad’s boots and was happy to be back. Every step was as if I was walking for the both of us. I knew that my dad would have loved it. He would have loved to make it to the end. Finally seeing the sea and taking photos at the 0,00 K.M. marker was a highlight of the trip and something that I had set out to achieve.
I saw the journey as a time to let go and to grieve. I also met a lot of people on the Camino, many of whom became friends. They all had their own stories to tell, some of them sad, some not. Talking to others about my dad helped. It was like therapy and allowed me to express some of the feelings that I’d been keeping inside.
I returned home feeling refreshed. Things were different somehow. I knew I would never forget about my dad, but truly, it was time to move on.
I’ve learned that life is too short if you have a dream, so follow it while you are still able. I know my dad would have been proud of me for returning to Spain to finish what we had started. It was a dream for the both of us. His boots have now come to rest in the rock garden at my parents’ home, white flowers growing out from them. They are battered and worn, having walked the whole Camino de Santiago, all 560 miles of it.
This is the story of James Tyler
James grew up in Cornwall, England, in a loving family. After leaving home, James remained close to his family, especially his dad. It was always his dad’s dream to walk the Camino de Santiago, a 560-mile trek which stretches the length of Spain. In 2015, James and his dad walked half of the Camino and planned to come back and walk the other half the following year. Unfortunately, after returning home, James’ dad was diagnosed with bone cancer and died 18 months later, and was never able to complete his dream. To honor his dad, James walked the rest of the Camino by himself in 2018, wearing his dad’s boots. He took the journey as an opportunity to finish grieving and was able to move on with his life upon its completion. James currently lives in the town of Newquay in southwest England and works as a police officer.
This story first touched our hearts on July 21, 2019.
| Writer: Abi Latham | Editor: MJ|