Updated: Sep 15, 2021
I was all alone on the path. The sun rose slowly behind me, coloring the distant sky a soft pink and then a fiery orange. On both sides of the trail, field mice rustled their way through the grain. Though I only saw the occasional bird shoot out of the fields and dive back in, I could hear them all around me: a constant twittering, squeaking, clicking, chirping.
It was my eleventh day on the Camino de Santiago, the 800-kilometer pilgrimage across northern Spain to the shrine of St. James, and I was on the trail early, leaving the city of Burgos behind. These peaceful mornings always went by quickly, and by midday, I reached the town of Hornillos del Camino. It was a small medieval town, nestled in a valley of green and golden fields. Its buildings were browned by age and sunlight. I purchased a sandwich and settled in the shade of the town’s squat church. According to my guidebook, the town had provided shelter and protection to pilgrims for nearly a thousand years, even changing its name to reflect its connection to the Camino. As I ate, I imagined medieval pilgrims walking through the town, stopping by this church, tying up their mules, seeking shade and spiritual comfort inside.
I left the town and continued on the path. Occasionally, I passed a pilgrim and exchanged a cheerful “Buen Camino!” before continuing on alone, each of us struggling silently through the afternoon heat. Here, in the open countryside, there were no trees or towns for shade. There were only endless fields. Many had elaborate irrigation systems—large metal contraptions with a meshwork of hoses and sprinklers—yet the sides of the fields were sandy, and, with every step, I raised a puff of dust. The sun beat down on me relentlessly. My feet began to ache and my shoulders hurt. Sweat stung my eyes. As I had imagined the pilgrims of the past, I now thought of those of the future, the ones who would follow in my footsteps down these dusty trails and through these thirsty fields. What will the Camino be like for them? What will be left in ten years, fifty years, a hundred years? Will the Camino even exist anymore?
* * *
The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, began in the ninth century with the discovery of the supposed remains of St. James the Apostle. Soon after their enshrinement in Santiago de Compostela, pilgrims began traveling across Europe to worship at the apostle’s resting place. Traditionally, pilgrims began their journey from their own doorstep, linking up with others on the major routes through Europe and then cutting across northern Spain, through the Basque Country, Castile and Leon, and Galicia. Along the way, various lodges provided food, accommodation, and masses for the weary travelers. As proof that they had completed the Camino, pilgrims proudly brought a scallop shell home from the shores of Spain. Over time, the scallop shell became the symbol of the Camino, and it became customary for pilgrims to affix them to their packs and clothes as a sign of their pilgrimage.
Today, hundreds of thousands of people continue to leave behind their ordinary lives to partake in this longstanding tradition. Indeed, though the worlds of the medieval and modern pilgrim are impossibly different, the essential facts of the Camino—the ones that draw thousands of new pilgrims to it every year—remain largely the same. The scallop shell is still ubiquitous: on souvenirs, adorning albergue (hostel) entrances, and dangling from backpacks, including my own. I walked through the same small towns as my pilgrim predecessors. I drank from the same vineyards in Rioja and Navarre, regions first cultivated by the Romans and whose wine was spread far and wide by the kings of Navarre and Aragon. I too stopped in the cathedrals of Burgos and Leon to admire their high, ribbed ceilings and overwrought altarpieces and colorful light. And though I could glance ahead to the next day with my guidebook or Google Maps, I didn’t know my destination until I arrived; I simply walked until I could walk no longer, and then I asked for a bed in the next albergue. If the albergue was full, I continued on.
But most importantly, like our predecessors, every pilgrim comes to the Camino in search of something, whether it’s spiritual fulfillment, a fresh start, or simply a slimmer waistline. One pilgrim I met, Larissa from Washington, D.C., said the Camino was a kind of last hurrah for her. She’d lived a peripatetic life so far and wanted to settle down and find a lasting community. As we walked through the pastureland of the Basque country, past cows munching happily on grass, she said: “I know it sounds silly, but with every step, I’m imagining that I’m getting one step closer to home.” Another pilgrim, Gregory from Portland, Oregon, sat down next to me at a café one sunny afternoon. We were both dripping with sweat and indulging in a short break and a cold drink. He told me he’d been diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease, a genetic neurodegenerative disorder, and only had a few years of proper motor functions left. He’d never traveled outside the United States, so his friends pitched in to gift him a trip to Europe to walk the Camino. “Real bravery, I decided, is accepting the trip,” Gregory said to me. “It’s letting yourself be cared for when you need it, not that John Wayne stoicism.” Along the way, others told me they were walking to get over a bad breakup, decide on a new direction in life, work through trauma, contend with an addiction, or simply find a momentary respite from the bustle of modern life.
This search for something, whether we knew exactly what we were looking for or not, seemed to unite everyone on the Way. Indeed, people seem to come to the Camino precisely because so many, and in such similar situations, have come before them. In other words, the Camino—and perhaps secularized pilgrimage more generally—is an institution built on history and common practice, on the recognition that others have come here to seek meaning and continue to do so. This longstanding tradition is unlike most others, for its ritual is deeply rooted in a particular place, tied to the geography of northern Spain, which pilgrims have traversed for centuries. In this sense, climate change is a unique danger, since it threatens not just to irreparably alter northern Spain, but to undo the history and tradition built on that geography. Unlike a slowdown in pilgrims or a change in religiosity, climate change threatens the very premises of this pilgrimage.
* * *
Today, the Camino is facing rapid and unprecedented change. Average temperatures have steadily risen in Santiago over the past 60 years: in 2014, the city experienced 85 days over 25 degrees Celsius, compared to 10 in 1954. In the words of Professor Alberto Martí Ezpeleta, a climatologist at the University of Santiago de Compostela whose research focuses on the climate of northern Spain: “The summer season is expanding… Summer used to stretch from June to September, but the data series show that these hot days now appear in May, even late April, and continue into October.” Summers are not only elongating; they’re also intensifying. Heat waves, like the one that set record temperatures across Europe this summer, are becoming more common and more devastating. According to Geert Jan van Oldenborgh of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, such extreme heat waves may become the norm, even if the Paris Climate Accords’ goal of limiting warming to two degrees is met.
These higher temperatures will have a range of devastating effects on the region, some of which are already being felt. Summers are longer and drier now, heightening the risk of fires. In 2017, La Voz de Galizia, a local newspaper, reported that: “More wildfires are breaking out and damaging or destroying timber and farmland, as well as threatening homes, public and commercial facilities, and communities.” Only two years ago, much of northern Spain was consumed by conflagrations. The vegetation of the Camino—its characteristically colorful flowers and hillsides of grapes—are also threatened by the coming temperature increases. Farmers are now harvesting earlier and adapting to erratic, declining precipitation rates.
In the short term, these conditions may extend the pilgrimage season, as months that were once too cold or wet become warm and dry. At the same time, walking the Camino in the middle of summer, traditionally the most popular time to embark on the Way, may become increasingly dangerous and difficult. The increased temperatures and aridity will lead to a variety of heat-induced ailments, including dehydration, respiratory problems, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and heart attacks. To sum up the situation, Jorge Olcina, the head of the University of Alicante’s climate institute, told the AFP, an international news agency: “Climate-related risks—heatwaves and rain and droughts and floods—will increase in the coming decades” in Spain. Already, climate change is drying out streams, blighting crops, and existentially threatening the future of this centuries-old pilgrimage.
We often talk about climate change threatening the “environment,” turning fertile land to desert, wrecking reefs and rainforests, swallowing coastlines. But climate change doesn’t just threaten the “environment” in general. It threatens a particular environment: this environment, which, in the case of the Camino, has become laden with particular meaning, the result of hundreds of years of tradition, of millions of pilgrims traversing these plains and these forests and staying in these medieval towns.
These dangers are becoming increasingly familiar to the denizens of the Camino. One day I walked with a man from Germany who wore his graying hair in a ponytail and had a scallop shell tattooed on his right calf. He walked with short, aggressive strides, and I had to double my pace to keep up. He told me that ten years ago, he had given away all his belongings—“all the shit you don’t need”—moved out of his place in Holland, and walked to Santiago. He has been on pilgrimage or serving pilgrims as a hospitalero ever since. I asked him how the Camino had changed in the past ten years. He pointed at the sides of the fields we were passing through, which were bare and sandy. We crossed a bridge, and he pointed out the dry riverbed beneath. Even in just the past decade, he said, he’s seen streams dry out, vegetation desiccate, and brush fires increase in size and frequency. “I am glad you are here now,” he said to me. “You may not be able to do this when you are my age.”
* * *
On one of my final days on the Camino, I stopped for lunch at a small, shaded brook. I eased myself onto a rock at the water’s edge and dipped my feet in the stream. I was in the province of Galicia, only a few days from Santiago. I marveled at how much the scenery had changed in the past month: from the bare pastureland of the Pyrenees to the endless, open plains of the Spanish Meseta to these almost jungled hills. Little here seemed to have changed since the 12th century, when the writer of the Codex Calixtinus, perhaps the first guidebook ever written for the Camino, described Galicia as “well-wooded, with rivers, meadows, and orchards, and the deepest clearest springs, but with few towns, farmsteads or wheat fields.”
I imagined the medieval writer scribbling these notes at this brook. And, as I imagined the medieval pilgrims who may have rested here, I imagined future pilgrims, on break from a world unimaginable to me, stopping here too. I wondered what their experience would be like. Would this stream still be here? Would these dense woods still provide shade from the afternoon sun? Would the Camino even be walkable in the hot summer months?
A mother with her three children—two five-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, and a six-year-old girl—came down the path. The mother pulled the two girls in a red cart, which was loaded with their clothes and supplies, and the boy ran alongside his mother. He flailed around with his two trekking poles, evidently still getting used to his hiking accessories. The mother seemed exhausted but happy, and she stopped to chat. The kids tore off their shoes and socks and splashed through the stream. The mother told me that they walked only a few kilometers each day, but it was a thrilling adventure. The first days had been difficult, but now they’d settled into a rhythm and she could scarcely imagine an end to the Camino and a return to the usual pattern of life. She said she was trying to squeeze as much enjoyment out of these last days as she could. As she talked, she occasionally turned to the kids to shout: “Don’t get your shorts wet!” or “Stop splashing her!”
In my own way, I was having a similar end-of-Camino crisis. This all felt fragile—fragile because these were the last days of the Camino and I too felt pressure to cram as much meaning and enjoyment into them as possible. But they were also fragile because the entire Camino, this long tradition of pilgrimage, had a deeply uncertain future. How could I relate to this thing that I was now part of—this long lineage of pilgrims—knowing that that lineage could be on its last legs?
I finished lunch and set off with the family. Eventually, I walked on ahead, and the five-year-old boy ran up past me, exaggeratedly planting his trekking poles with every step. “You’re the slowest! You’re the slowest!” he gleefully taunted me. But after a while, he dropped in with the rest of his family. “See you down the road,” I said to him and continued on through the woods.
Steffen Seitz is currently reading, writing, and hiking on a gap year before attending Yale Law School. Previously, he studied philosophy at Princeton University and worked on expanding educational opportunities for incarcerated people through the Petey Greene Program.
Art by Aishah Wilson