WALNUT CREEK -- In life, seeking security can be an insecurity.

At least that's what Kosta Makris believes, and living by that philosophy can sometimes be a hard road to travel.

But not as hard, perhaps, as the grueling 400-mile trek the 21-year old Walnut Creek man took in August along the famed Camino de Santiago in Spain, a journey that took him out of his comfort zone but into enlightenment.

The Camino de Santiago -- or Route of St. James -- is a historic pilgrimage made by thousands of people each year from starting points throughout Europe, and ends at the majestic cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, in the Galicia region of northwest Spain. It follows the journey ancient Christians took with the remains of St. James, who is buried at the church.

Through the centuries, the route has been undertaken as a penance or as a path to enlightenment. Known as "The Way" (and recently popularized by the Martin Sheen movie of the same name), the trek can be walked, biked, run or -- perhaps in honor of medieval ancestors -- covered by horse, cart or mule.

Makris used his feet, and averaging seven or eight hours a day, walked the route over a 34-day span. Starting in Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, Makris braved heat, chills, loneliness, injury, language barriers and even ferocious dogs, but he made it.

"It was the most amazing experience of my life," he says. "I don't claim a religion, but it was an unbelievably spiritual experience for me, a great adventure."

The trek capped a three-month journey of self-discovery for the 2010 Northgate High grad, one that saw him traveling solo in Thailand, Greece and France before starting on "The Way."

Like most important things in life, it wasn't planned. "I had read about the pilgrimage, and I had a little over a month left before I flew home," Makris says. "So I jumped in and did it."

Certainly taking on a 500-mile walk alone with no preparation, was getting out of his comfort zone. But as most pilgrims do, Makris found friends along the way, "angels" that seemed to be put in his path for a reason and helped him discover his higher purpose in life.

That's certainly a discovery most people yearn to make, and Makris recognizes he is lucky to have learned it earlier in life than later.

"I was not a great student, and I didn't feel comfortable in 'the machine' that is school, work and earning a lot of money," he says. "I knew there had to be more to life."

Makris, like most of the travelers along the Camino, stayed at "alberques," an inn or hostel available to pilgrims at little or no cost. Most of the proprietors have traveled the Camino themselves, and "want to give back a little of what they found" to weary travelers, Makris says.

Since he spoke little Spanish, he communicated by body language. "It's amazing what can be communicated through just a smile," he says.

Five days into the journey, he suffered a foot injury that laid him up. But at one of the alberques he met a woman who offered him an herbal cream that almost magically helped him heal quickly.

"She was truly an angel put in my path," he says.

Only about 8 percent of the people who start the pilgrimage finish, so Makris was truly proud when he arrived in Santiago de Compostela.

"It is not a romantic journey," he says. "You'll be tested along the way, pushing your body to do something like that." One fellow traveler on a bike fell and broke ribs, and another was attacked by dogs in a cattle village along the route, suffering bad cuts to his legs.

Makris himself discovered joints and muscles he never knew he had, "because everything hurt after a while." Toward the end, he suffered some homesickness.

"I missed my dogs, my family ... my mom," he says.

But he also discovered more important life lessons.

"I learned to let go," he says. "We worry so much about controlling things in our life -- money, relationships, security -- but there's really no control. The universe will throw things at you that you will never expect."

As he traveled along the Camino, Makris was able to come to the realization that he would like to become a counselor, helping teens who may struggle in school and help them "from going into the dark side, spiritually."

"It came to me, over a matter of days," he said. "And as soon as I realized that's what I wanted to do with my life, who should I meet but another traveler who also wanted to be a counselor," he says. "That's what I mean about the universe putting people and things in your life when you need them."

Although he made it to the end of the Camino de Santiago, Makris isn't done seeking spiritual growth. Next summer he plans to travel to learn more about Buddhist teachings. And he knows that he'll be tested along the way.

"I know that when things get hard, to keep my vision strong and keep moving -- in my case, one step at a time," he says.

Read about Makris' pilgrimage at his blog, www.KostaMakris.com.

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