When three siblings hike the Camino de Santiago, the fact that one has Down’s syndrome makes some things tricky, but the whole trip far more rewarding
The Camino de Santiago has been a confluence of culture since the eighth century, a trail where like-minded souls from all over the world share the sacred act of pilgrimage. Routes from the north, south, east and west of Europe crisscross Spain but all converge on the shrine of Saint James the Apostle in Galicia’s capital city, Santiago de Compostela.
Not that it’s a pious walk. Of the 178,912 people who reportedly completed it in 2021, a third did so for non-religious reasons. But pilgrims of all creeds share a common goal and a “Camino culture” of reaching out to help other walkers and sharing what food you have in your rucksack. Everyone works for the common good and that alone is reason for going. It is rare to find a grumpy pilgrim.
Some years ago, I had a dream that I was walking the Camino with Reuben, my youngest brother. But would he be able to do it in real life? One of the attributes of his Down’s syndrome is flat feet, and he’s not a keen walker. But I shared the idea with Nathan, my other brother and his response was “Let’s do it!” After several months of planning, we arrived in the city of León, around 200 miles east of Santiago, to begin our Camino.
A friend had treated us to a night in the Parador de San Marcos, a splendid former Renaissance convent at the start of the route. We spent hours at the breakfast buffet, eating as if it was the last time we’d see food for weeks. Back in the room, I noticed Reuben had a whole pack of felt-tips with him. Every day, he likes to draw images from his favourite books and films: lions, nuns, wardrobes.
“You don’t need 30 felt-tips, Reubs. Just choose 10,” I said. “We need to lighten our load.”
Packs duly adjusted, we set off to find the official Camino, a series of metal scallop shells cemented into the pavements and yellow arrows marking our route. We were to join the Camino Frances, which runs from the French Pyrenees across the arid plains of Castilla-León, and climb gently at first, and then dramatically as we neared the fertile pastures of Galicia.
Leaving a city on foot is an odd, counter-intuitive sensation. Within minutes Reuben sat down on a park bench. “My back hurts, brother. Too heavy,” he announced, pointing over his shoulder. We tightened Reuben’s waist clip so his hips took the weight away from his shoulders and his face changed from grimace to scorn. Every step was made with trepidation and the pace was agonisingly slow. On the outskirts of town, just before residential merges into industrial, Reubs spied a cafe with food photos in the window. He went in and ordered burgers and Coke.
“I’m done, brother,” he told us. We had walked just three of that day’s planned seven miles. But there was no shifting him, so we bunked down in a truckers’ motel on the industrial estate. The food was good. The beer was better.
My dog Monty, dubbed the Perrogrino (peregrino is pilgrim, perro is dog), pulled Reubs up hills, across pastures and along paths through maize fields. Our pace might have been slow but it was constant, and as our bodies and minds grew stronger, we started to believe we could actually do it.
In the town of Astorga, we marvelled at Gaudí’s Episcopal Palace, the furthest of all his commissions from his Barcelona base. In the idyllic cobbled village of Castrillo de los Polvazares we gorged on traditional cocido maragato, a medieval-feeling feast, only in reverse: platters of pork, chicken and beef, followed by pico pardal (tiny chickpeas), and then soup at the end of the meal.
Nathan and I had been neglecting ourselves for the sake of Reubs. I’ve since learned that carer burnout can creep up on you like this very easily.
We had our credenciales, or pilgrim’s passports, which give walkers the right to a bed in any of the dozens of refuges dotted along the route for a nominal fee. But for us it was rare to find a bed available, as we were always the last to leave and the last to arrive. Other pilgrims often made sure there was a bed for Reuben, but his brothers had to sleep on cold corridor floors. The walking, the doubling back to see where Reuben was and the sleepless nights were taking their toll. Nathan and I were spent and had a blow out.
“Look – there’s a fork in the path after the next village: the official route and an alternative one to visit the monastic community of Samos. Why don’t we split up?” I suggested. “Maybe it will do us good.”
“Fine,” Nathan replied. “I’ll take Monty. You take the Reubs and I’ll see you in two days’ time.”
Reubs and I slept in Samos monastery that night and I had one of the deepest night’s sleep of my life. Reuben still talks of Samos.
We met up with Nathan in the town of Sarria, a popular starting point a mere 67 miles from Santiago. We apologised to each other and enjoyed a brothers’ hug, both realising that this experience was changing us – mainly because of the little guy sitting cross-legged next to us, grinning from ear to ear.
“Told you,” he pronounced.
We had assumed we were taking Reubs on a pilgrimage but it was becoming apparent that he was taking us on one. We were learning what it was really like to have Down’s syndrome, walking at his pace and experiencing life through his eyes. It was a truly transformational travel experience, and the beginning of my understanding of Reuben’s reality.
Reubs knew that mum and dad would be waiting for us near the steps of Santiago’s magnificent cathedral, and that thought carried him onwards. His confidence was blossoming. Nathan and I looked on as he charmed his way into people’s minds and became a beacon of hope, not just for us, but for every pilgrim we met.
Each evening, Reuben drew a wardrobe with his felt tips. One day he placed his drawing on the bunk bed of a young pilgrim from the US. Reticently, the boy came over to show me and said, “Excuse me. Your brother, put this on my bed.” I admired the particularly fine drawing of a wardrobe in brown and black ink. “Yes. That’s the wardrobe from Narnia.” He looked puzzled. I said: “The book by CS Lewis? The Lion, the Witch and he Wardrobe. It’s a passage to Narnia, an alternative reality, a portal into a different world.” The penny dropped. His eyes glistened with tears. We learned later, on the very reliable Camino grapevine, that he had been planning to quit the following day as he was struggling with the isolation of his solo pilgrimage. Reuben’s drawing led him to continue.
“Reubs. That’s amazing what you did for that guy. I think you’ve probably changed his life.”
“I know, bruvr. I know.”
We spent our last evening on the Hill of Joy, where pilgrims would traditionally celebrate their arrival with dancing and bonfires, looking down the towers of the mighty cathedral in the valley. Reuben spent the evening drawing. I counted his felt-tips. There were 11.
The following morning, as we entered Santiago’s Praza de Obradoiro – which has to be one of Spain’s loveliest squares – our legs finally gave way. Nathan and I fell to the ground in amazement at what we’d achieved – and sheer relief that we’d made it.
Reuben peeled us off the cobbles, took our hands and led us through the crowds to find mum and dad. Many pilgrims, with weary souls and battered soles, had their eyes closed, their faces tilted to the sky. Some were praying; others were simply taking the time to bottle the “Camino culture” and take it home. There are two Caminos, one external and one internal. The external reaches its destination; the internal never does.
Manni and Reuben Coe’s memoir, brother. do. you. love. me, is published by Little Toller (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply