I first heard about the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route across Spain, from friends in Paris. I had spent the last five months living as a faux expatriate writer, spending so much time in front of a computer screen that I felt as if my life revolved around it.

Living in Paris had only furthered a sense of alienation that had been growing in me in the months following September 11, 2001. The World Trade Center tragedy had made me feel like an exile from my native New York.

I watched the towers collapse on a television screen in a dorm room in Rochester, instead of from the roof of my apartment building like many of my friends and family.

That afternoon, I found myself on the phone with my crying mom, who had watched the towers collapse from the Brooklyn Heights promenade. I wanted to take a semester off to come home, dig through the rubble and experience what my friends and family had experienced.

I had been protected by a boundary of 300 miles from the ashes on the cars in front of my home and the memos that blew like tumbleweed down the streets of NYC.

Despite this desire to return home, I went abroad as planned, still uncertain how I would spend my summer. But when I heard about the Camino, I felt I could do something for my home even while abroad.

And so I began the pilgrimage, carrying all that I would need on my back. The average day was spent walking and planning out, with the help of a guidebook, where to find food and shelter for that night. I didn’t speak much Spanish, other than knowing how to ask where the bathroom was.

At times it was difficult ?marching miles in muddy fields, following cows up foggy mountain paths, even being caught in a torrential thunderstorm miles away from the nearest shelter.

I carried with me the names of all the September 11 victims. When I arrived on July 4 in the Cathedral housing the relics of St. James, I read the names out loud in a quiet corner.

By reading each name, I was forced to recognize the humanity of each person and think of each one as an individual life. The people who died on September 11 didn’t choose to have their lives shortened, but I was able to choose to remember who they were by reciting their names when I arrived in Santiago.

If a person who lost a loved one reads my story and sees that I was moved by their personal tragedy enough to walk 500 miles, maybe they will feel less alone in their pain. The path wasn’t important ? all that mattered was that I kept walking, and when I got to the end, I remembered why.

Rosenthal can be reached at arosenthal@campustimes.org.

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