From Camino to "Stranger in a Strange Land"

Joanne McCoy- In August of 2017, I left home to walk the Camino de Santiago. Although I am a veteran traveler, I had never attempted a solo trip. Still, at the age of 62, with little to no hiking experience, I decided to act on a dream that had been manifesting itself to me since I was a little child: I would walk the Way of Saint James.

The Way of Saint James is an ancient pilgrimage trail also known as the Camino de Santiago. Five hundred miles long and thousands of years old, it begins at the base of the highest peaks of the Pyrenes Mountains in southwest France and ends at the Cathedral de Santiago where the bones of St. James the Elder, one of Jesus Christ’s apostles, are said to rest. Since the early 9th century, millions of pilgrims have walked the Camino de Santiago seeking grace, peace, strength and forgiveness.

Last year, I made my own Way. With no companions, speaking neither French nor Basque nor anything but “school Spanish,” I set off from the medieval village of Saint Jean. I carried only 15 pounds of gear on my back, a set of hiking poles, and a special document from the Vatican allowing me to stay at the pilgrim hostels and eat at the pilgrim tables along the Way.

Before the sun had set on Day One, I had met a remarkable group of people from all over the world. We didn’t stay together over the entire journey, but our paths were to cross frequently over the next 40 days. We shared everything—water, food, music, clothing, advice, laughter and encouragement. With our eyes on Santiago, we were all the same. Some of us made it. Some of us didn’t. A few walked every step. Others stuck out their thumbs and hitched a few miles or jumped in the back of a pony and cart, or took a bus or train when exhausted or injured. We listened to our hearts and we didn’t judge. It was as if we were one body, all just walking each other home to Santiago.

It was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. I’ve been looking for ways to revisit parts of it, emotionally if not physically, for the past year….

Yesterday was Day One of Rehearsals for the ensemble cast of "Stranger in a Strange Land," the community story play that will be part of New Spire Arts Stages' Grand Opening Weekend performances on January 19, 20 & 21.

Thirteen performers and I came together as strangers at 2:00 P.M. By 8:30, we had connected with one another in a way I’ve rarely experienced before. With encouragement from the multi-talented Celeste Miller, and after hours of experiments in dance, music and storytelling, our group of 14 had not only become friends with a deeper-than-casual knowledge of one another, we had also formed the basis for a true ensemble cast.

It was kind of magic, really.

I came to the group with my Camino experience to share. I've never felt more like a stranger in a stranger land than I did on my pilgrimage. But thanks to God's grace shown to me by my fellow pilgrims, and the kind and generous hospitalateros (inn-keepers) along the way, I lost my sense of "otherness" and felt welcomed into the rolling, ever-changing community that is the Camino de Santiago.

As we prepared to leave the theater last night, I realized that I had just experienced another "stranger in a strange land" experience. Nearly everyone else in the ensemble is an experienced actor or gifted dancer, all well-acquainted with Dramaworld-- that "strange land" of grease paint, spotlights and improvisation-- that I've never stuck my big toe into before yesterday. A stranger in a strange land indeed!

It's clear to me now that this foray into performance is the next step for me in learning to do things that scare me....that take me out of my comfort zone, that make me STRETCH, without needing to be *perfect* at it.

Just like the Camino did.

This time, my fellow cast members are my fellow pilgrims. Most/all are more experienced than I (just like on Camino)-- but we are all sharing this road, encouraging one another-- bringing each other out of that sense of "otherness" into the joyful together that is community.

It feels good to be back on the road again.

I'm thinking of all of you, fellow pilgrims and Camino angels, with love and gratitude this morning.


To keep up with Joanne's journey, check out her Facebook page The Last Pilgrim