The best miracle happened outside the town of Portomarín. There'd been a number of them on this family trip -- with my wife and two daughters -- walking the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. That July morning my youngest daughter, Yancey, and I stepped out of a forest and onto a field -- and, it seemed, into a previous century. Hundreds of pilgrims milled about, locals sold trinkets, jugglers wandered by, musicians played, people handed out refreshments and offered showers at a community center.
Suddenly a stranger stepped up to me and said, "Excuse me, did you lose your camera?"
He then handed me my camera and explained that he had found it in the grass. He had clicked through a few photos, looked up and, at that instance, Yancey's blaze of red hair -- right there in the picture taken the day before -- emerged from the forest.
I started riffing about the road to Santiago and serendipity, how when you slow down one's pace to that of an ox then ... The man cut me off with the simple language of miracles. "Thank St. James," he said, and walked away.
And there we were, my 13-year-old and I, looking at each other as the lugubrious issue of Old World religion shambled forth. Miracle -- how to even talk about the sacred? (Sex was so much easier.)
Still, this stranger's nod at the pilgrimage's patron ("Santiago" is Old Spanish for St. James) provided me with an opening -- to talk about how the Camino de Santiago was founded in the ninth century when a peasant discovered the tomb believed to be that of Jesus' apostle James in a cave in northwestern Spain; about how the road had been reinvented for so many reasons -- as a recruiting station for armies resisting the Moors, and later as a tourist economy pioneered by the Cluniac monks in the late Middle Ages. It was littered with relics and stories of miracles, and every possible segue into a father-daughter chat about spirituality and the possibility of being a true pilgrim even in the age of atheist champions like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.
But Yancey rolled her eyes, and the message was clear: save it, Dad, for another day.
I had already walked the road to Santiago two times and written a book about it. So, a few summers ago, when Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen reworked some of the material from my book into a movie ("The Way"), the two girls decided it was time to tackle the camino as a clan.
As a practical matter, there are few family outings easier than a pilgrimage: a backpack and sleeping bag each, a few changes of clothes, sunblock. The less stuff, frankly, the better. We rented a car in Santiago, drove to Bilbao and then walked west for some 200 miles.
There's nothing quite like quitting one's comfy hotel after a breakfast of chorizo and café con leche, hoisting a pack and walking out the door. The transition into hobo is immediate. Meandering through a Spanish city with a backpack is hardly arduous, but then the outskirts come, and then a dusty trail alongside asparagus fields, and soon sweat and fatigue. And there you are, in a brute animal slouch, lugging the weight of your own self and belongings, watching the miles go by very, very slowly, the sun hissing just outside your sunglasses. When we pulled into a pensión that night, we soaked our steaming feet in cold water. If it hadn't been for extreme hunger, we would never have made it downstairs for dinner.
There are five main Spanish pilgrimage routes to Santiago. The most commonly taken is known as the French road, which enters Spain at Roncesvalles (where Roland blew his horn as the Saracens slaughtered Charlemagne's rear guard, if heroic verse can be trusted). It is 650 miles from there to Santiago.
Spaniards accommodating pilgrims are well into their second millennium of doing so. There are comfortable hotels along the way, and most villages have a hostel specifically for pilgrims, costing no more than a few euros.
We decided to take the less-traveled coastal route to Santiago -- along the rugged northern Atlantic shore -- and then join the French route later in our three-week walk. On the third day we pulled into a hostel along with some 20 pilgrims. The night progressed into a group scene, full of talk and wine. By 10 p.m., most of us were in bed. (Here's a tip: take earplugs. Twenty people, all snoring in different keys and registers, while comical at first, is reminiscent of Dr. Seuss, had he been a composer.)
The next day, my 15-year-old daughter, Tarpley, befriended a German student in his 20s. While I tried to convince myself that her walking ahead of us -- in cutoffs, flowers in her hair -- with a graduate student was just part of growing up, the reptilian stub of my brain was seized by TV movie plots of serial killers with decent haircuts and pretentious eyeglasses. I kept my distance, but at every blind corner I hustled to the turn.
The following day, I noticed that the student walked alone. "He's boring," Tarpley observed. Apparently, he wanted to impress her with his philosophical dilations. We passed him a few days later, at a roadside table chatting up some pilgrims -- their eyes glazing over with his urgent retelling of Plato's parable of the cave.
The most fraught crisis occurred a week later. It was midday and we were exhausted. The path climbed -- gradually, endlessly -- uphill. Every fork in the road seemed an M. C. Escher illusion. At one crossroad, Yancey dropped her pack and announced that she could walk no farther. My wife, Lisa, asked what she wanted to do. We had no phone. There were no cabs. We couldn't carry her pack. We all stood there for a good five minutes. A profound calculus was being worked out, a reckoning of sorts: there was absolutely nothing her parents could do to help her.
Ninety-three million miles away, the sun raged at 9,941 degrees. The upward list of the road stretched out before us. The silence broke with a grunt. Yancey hoisted the pack onto her back and walked on.
The year we walked, 2010, was a "holy year" -- when the feast day of St. James, July 25, falls on a Sunday. Reports suggested that some 100,000 people were streaming toward Santiago the same time we were. Once we hooked up to the traditional road, arriving in Portomarín, we discovered it was true. When we entered town at midday, every hostel was packed. Reluctantly we pitched a tent in the town park. Soon, as hundreds more pilgrims arrived, looking for what were now small patches of earth, we felt lucky. Festive dinners broke out but wrapped up early. Not long after darkness, the overstuffed village settled down to sleep.
At 4 a.m., we heard a commotion, and my daughters unzipped their tent to find out what all the rumpus was about. Hundreds of competitive pilgrims were racing out of town, like early birds at a yard sale, intending to secure the best sleeping spots in the next town; by 4:30, they were singing French camp songs and boisterous Dutch ballads. At one point, a dour group in robes trudged by, their leader dragging a cross, a reminder of what the road must have looked like once upon a time.
As pink light began to smear the eastern sky, we joined the cacophony. I had wanted to experience the medieval quality of being among thousands on the road to Santiago, and here it was. The world's longest conga line. That was the day St. James handed me my camera.
Friendships formed, people disappeared and reappeared. I earned parental chits when a woman told Tarpley she had decided to walk the road after reading a book by Jack Hitt. But that fleeting honor didn't last the day. The only room in the next town put all four of us in one double bed on a ferociously hot night. With the window open, I awoke riddled with bug bites. So I added mortification of the flesh to my medieval experience. Skin pocked in itchy bites had become my own full-body cilice.
The pilgrims moseyed from town to town, and there wasn't a restaurant that was not overwhelmed by hundreds clamoring for bread and a café con leche. Yet courtesy broke out: people helped one another, brought food and drink unbidden, shared a patch of shade.
In one town, we came upon a gallery filled with ancient pilgrim art. The sponsor of the show was Opus Dei, a Catholic group known for its adherence to tradition. A young cleric approached and offered his view that true pilgrims were those who met three conditions -- they went first to the cathedral, participated in Holy Communion and prayed for the pope.
In my crummy Spanish, I reminded him that the road had been a spiritual walk long before Christianity. Pagans and Goths and other non-Christian people walked the road, also known as the Via Láctea (the Milky Way) because even at night, it was said, one could follow the path west. The town they were aiming for, though, was not Santiago so much as the little town farther on -- Finisterre (End of the Earth, until 1492). As the westernmost spit of land in Europe, it was a place of mystical obsession long before an errant hermit found St. James's sepulcher.
The cleric held his own. At one point, we both looked out the window at the motley parade. "Apparently, the pagans have returned to take the road back," I said.
By the time we arrived in Santiago, the city was packed. The next morning, at the cathedral's pilgrims' office, we got in line to obtain the pilgrim's diploma -- known as a compostelana.
The clerk asked a simple question: Was your pilgrimage religious, spiritual or cultural in nature? To those who claimed the third category, the church presents a bland document asserting that you walked the road -- thanks for participating, everyone's a winner.
But if you answer the question as religious or even spiritual, the church awards you a diploma bordered in sturdy Gothic imagery with an array of rococo ribbons adorning the top. In Latin, it declares that the recipient has visited the cathedral "pietatis causa" -- for spiritual reasons -- acknowledging that today's pilgrims are as authentic as the medieval ones treading in our imagination.
There are any number of good guidebooks on the pilgrimage, but don't miss perusing the oldest. The Codex Calixtinus, written almost 900 years ago, was one of the earliest Santiago pilgrim guides (that survives). An English translation can be found at codexcalixtinusfacsimil.com.
Written by a French traveler named Aymeric Picaud, the Codex includes many sardonic observations about the road, most of them still hilariously revealing of all the French prejudices toward Spain, especially its food and the men of Navarra.
If you're planning a pilgrimage, a more modern place to start is caminoadventures.com, which has information on the various routes, including maps, contacts for hostels and packing tips.
Jack Hitt is the author of "Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim's Route Into Spain," and, most recently, "Bunch of Amateurs."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.