The idea of pilgrimage is a foreign and enigmatic concept to many in contemporary society. Why would someone choose to spend days, weeks or even a month walking across hills, deserts and barren wilderness with limited clothing, aching feet and little rest? 

Yet, this lack of material comforts is juxtaposed to the deeper blessings involved in a true pilgrimage. In a 2007 homily at the Shrine of Mariazell, Austria, Pope Benedict XVI described pilgrimage as: “Setting out in a particular direction, traveling toward a destination. This gives a beauty of its own even to the journey and to the effort involved.” 

More than 100,000 pilgrims from over 100 countries yearly complete the 1,000-year-old tradition of hiking the Camino de Santiago. The route through northern Spain follows the legendary footsteps of St. James the Apostle’s preaching mission in Iberia (southwestern Europe). 

The pilgrimage has various starting bases and ends in Galicia, at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where tradition has that the remains of St. James are thought to have been transported after his martyrdom in Jerusalem in A.D. 44. 

Since the Camino is a mental, physical and spiritual journey, there are numerous trials: Blisters, fatigue, monotony and uncertainty are among the more common occurrences. 

Those completing at least 100 kilometers (62 miles) of this journey by foot, verified by stamps obtained along the route, receive the “Compostela” certificate of completion. 

Even after the destination is reached, the certificate bestowed and the blisters stop throbbing, the memories, conversations and images continue in pilgrims’ minds — bearing fruit for years to come.  

In honor of 2010 being a “Compostela Holy Year” — a year in which the July 25 feast of St. James falls on a Sunday — here are the pilgrimage journeys of several American Camino participants.  

Niki Kalpakgian writes from Austria.

Katie Hess 

Who: Katie Hess of Coldwater, Ohio, was a Camino pilgrim in June 2008. “I could see that there was something about being on a pilgrimage and walking that was profound, and I was curious to find out what it was.” 

Fellow pilgrims: Pilgrims are people of all ages, walks of life, nationalities and abilities. But the solidarity of working toward the same goal breaks down barriers. “Everyone is a friend on the Camino,” said Hess. 

Why a pilgrimage: “In walking toward a destination, one has a chance to be with God, and in that time the distractions fade away, the desires of the heart become more apparent, and one’s vision becomes clearer.” 

Learned along the way: “A lot of the growing comes in the months after the pilgrimage, when you have a chance to reflect on lessons learned.” 

Dianna Miller 

Who: Dianna Miller of Littleton, Colo., made the Camino trek with three college classmates in June 2005. “We hiked the pilgrimage soon after our graduation from college as a celebration and a ‘going-out’ into the new lives that awaited us and a way to deepen our relationship with God,” she told OSV. 

Challenges: “The first night we stayed in Burgos, I was petrified not knowing what was coming in the following weeks. … I cried myself to sleep that night, having no clue what I got myself into.” 

Fellow pilgrims: While hiking, Miller’s group met a pilgrim who said he was not a religious man, but was searching. “At the end of the Camino, he said to me, ‘I don’t know if I agree with Catholicism, but it must be right because I see you four ladies living with such joy and peace.’” 

Learned along the way: “The consistency of walking each day showed me the importance of being consistent in prayer regardless of feeling consolation or desolation.” Miller, who carried a journal of prayer intentions on her pilgrimage, added, “It is a blessing to look back at them now and see how God has heard my prayers.”

Matthew Flemming 

Who: A college junior from Denver, Matthew Flemming hiked part of the Camino for three days in October 2009. He placed himself “into a situation where I had to grow as an individual.” 

Memorable moment: The experience of reaching the cathedral at Santiago is a crowning moment for Camino pilgrims, including Flemming, who went to Mass and confession there. “I had been so isolated from all that was familiar while hiking; being able to end my journey by stepping into the church ... completed the peace I had begun to find while walking,” he told OSV. 

Father Dave Pivonka, TOR 

Who: Third Order Regular of St. Francis Father Dave Pivonka of Washington, D.C., hiked 30 days to Santiago with Father Joe Lehman, TOR, mid-May to mid-June 2006 in thanksgiving for their priesthood. Last year, Father Pivonka wrote a book, “Hiking the Camino: 500 Miles with Jesus” (St. Anthony Messenger, $13.99), on his experiences. 

Learned along the way: “Our lives are too comfortable; we rarely get out of our comfort zone, and pilgrimages cause us to do this. Also, they allow us to see what is really important, what we really need.” 

Pilgrimage advice: “Keep walking. All of life is a pilgrimage. … We simply need to keep walking. Some days we don’t feel like it; we hurt, we are tired, but we need to get up and keep walking. If we want to inherit the prize, we must not stop.

Papal quote

“I ask [pilgrims] to treasure the profound experiences of faith, charity and fraternity they encounter on their journey, and to seek especially to live the Way as an interior experience, responding to the call that the Lord makes to each one of them.” — Pope Benedict XVI in a message to Santiago de Compostela Archbishop Julian Barrio Barrio marking the Holy Year.