A Walking Pilgrimage on El Camino Real
Words by Christine Van Dyk
Richard Roos was a newly-ordained Jesuit priest when he set out to walk El Camino Real in March of 1979. In those days, The King’s Highway was all but forgotten. Expansion and neglect had virtually erased the path Father Junípero Serra took 200 years earlier when he began planting a chain of 21 missions up the spine of California. Beneath asphalt and weeds, the remnants of an ancient trail lay waiting to be discovered.
“It was a call that I had to answer in order to be truly myself,” Roos wrote in his book, “Christwalk.” “Had there been no other reason, that would have been enough. Sometimes it seems too simple, but it is the fact: I went because I had to.”
If you’re like most people, you don’t consider yourself a pilgrim; the word may seem irrelevant. Yet the notion of stepping outside ordinary life and walking into the unknown and finding purpose—that seems more relevant now than ever.
“Camino” simply means “the way.” The most famous is Camino de Santiago, or “the way of St. James,” a series of walking paths through Europe leading to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. But what if Europe is out of the question? Is a transcontinental flight the only way to embark on a pilgrimage? El Camino Real offers the experience without a passport. It’s ideal for first-time pilgrims, avid hikers, and folks who fear the thought of a post-pandemic journey overseas.
Pilgrim hikers, such as Kristie Nolen, often return from Camino de Santiago feeling lost, not ready for their journeys of self-discovery to be over. “My search for the Camino life back home brought me to El Camino Real,” she said. “It was a walk in my own backyard.”
Originally a footpath for first peoples, El Camino Real became an overland route for Franciscan priests traveling between settlements in the 1700s. Since each mission was no more than 30 miles from the next, a day’s ride on horseback, the trail could be broken into segments. This means modern-day pilgrims can complete the Camino on a single thru-hike or spread it out over several trips—a valuable option since the route stretches nearly 800 miles from San Diego to Sonoma.
Tradition has it the priests marked the Camino with mustard seeds, creating a golden trail that climbed up the coast. Today’s pilgrims follow a string of commissioned mission bells which hang from shepherd’s staffs planted every mile or so along Highway 101. The historic route snakes through a diverse West Coast landscape: seaside trails and steep mountain paths, an abandoned stagecoach line, and suburban sprawl.
“You don’t walk the same path each day,” California Mission Walker Martha Lopez said. “The Camino crosses rural farms and big cities, vineyards and small oceanside towns. It’s always changing; a beautiful parable for life.”
The slow journey gives travelers a chance to see the real California, one town at a time.
“You can eat Armenian food in Glendale and look for the Danish wood storks that sit on rooftops in Solvang,” Ron “Butch” Briery, author of “The Original Hiker’s Guide to California’s 21 Spanish Missions Along El Camino Real,” said. “Did you know the original Camino skirts Disneyland, the Ronald Reagan Ranch, and the coast of Monterey? The beauty of the walk is not that it is one thing or another—it’s the diversity of it all.”
And while Lopez claims the pilgrimage brings meaning to ordinary things, such as “the sound of the ocean, the song of a bird and even the blaring of car horns in traffic,” that meaning isn’t always religious.
“The fellowship of the pilgrimage, the generosity of fellow pilgrims and of people you meet, and the great privilege of getting up in the morning and having nothing to do but walk,” Eliza Linley, California Mission Walker, says, “these all contribute to an awareness of new ways of being in the world.”
Like Briery, not all pilgrims are religious. Many find the Camino to be their way to “explore history, take on a physical challenge, or commemorate a significant milestone—all sacred things,” he says.
It’s a sacredness echoed by the missions themselves. Largely reconstructed after the ravages of earthquakes, fires, and years of neglect, most remain active parishes with regular services and confessions. Catholic faith on the West Coast is rooted beneath the red-clay tiled roofs of the hacienda-style churches.
Each mission along the Camino serves as a mile marker pointing “the way.” However, as many pilgrims discover, the point is less about arriving and more about what it takes to get there.
“Pilgrimage is inside of you,” Lopez said. “I chose to walk because it is a walking meditation.”
As nice as that sounds, walking is sometimes hard—especially when you have the urge to run. Forcing yourself to slow down, not rushing toward the end, but merely enjoying “the way,” is often the greatest challenge.
“I no longer measured my advances as I had when I drove a car,” Father Roos recalled. “The number of hours between major cities or state lines was irrelevant here. As a pedestrian, it was a major event to discover what lay on the other side of the next hill, and I had the luxury of wondering about it for hours.”
There are lessons to be learned in the silence of walking alone or the moments when conversation stills and all you hear is the rhythm of your stride.
“The world slows down when you’re on foot,” Lopez said. “You learn to focus on what is right in front of you. Each interaction becomes more poignant, each landscape more beautiful, when they are fully experienced.”
Edie Littlefield Sundby set out on El Camino Real in an attempt to rid herself of the fears that came from battling cancer for six years. She called the long walk a “slow remembering of how profound and wonderful life is.”
On Good Friday in 1979 Father Richard Roos finally reached the end of the mission trail. It ended “not with a bang, but a whimper.” After 44 days and nearly 800 miles, he was still the same person, “dynamic, not static.” Like so many other pilgrims after him, the revelations came slowly and the lessons unexpectedly because, as he discovered, “life is pilgrimage.”