Walk This Way

Notes from a journey on the Camino de Santiago. /

John Steinbeck once famously described Cannery Row as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” And the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route in Spain, might be similarly described. The Camino is a rotten sock, a throbbing blister, a lingering burn, a Pyrenees-pass, and a table of strangers, atheists, and religious devotees who learn to share a peaceful meal. The Camino is a disagreement about the perennial questions and the meaning of it all: pain, prayer, solitude, communion, of whether it is sane to think there is a higher Way. The Camino is an awkward communal bathroom, a forced pre-dawn wake-up, a rickety top bunk, and a cacophony of snoring. The Camino is the belligerent German who drinks all the table wine, the esoteric spiritualist whose feet never touch the ground, and the grieving widow who walks to mourn her loss. The Camino is a swirl of faces and intentions and infirmities, all aiming at a single end.

For us, we were two old buddies hitting the road. Every other year we took a long hike, and this year, we felt the Camino calling. We’d heard reports about the trail’s burgeoning comeback; an estimated 200,000 pilgrims were now walking it every year. Both of us were in states of transition—geographically, vocationally, spiritually—and little sounded better to us than a long, unhurried walk.

In the end, the Camino was all we expected and more. Indeed, so much so that when we returned to our home cities, we started emailing each other notes from the journals we kept along the way, in hopes of capturing the essence of the trail.

On paper, the Camino de Santiago (or “Way of St. James”) looks like an unerring walk in a park. From the comfort of your living room, you flip through idyllic footpaths across northern Spain, all of which meander through lush and perfect countryside. You become an expert on the Camino’s history—an early Roman trade route turned pilgrimage by the discovery of the bones of St. James in the ninth century. Then you scroll through photos of pilgrims reaching the cathedral in Santiago, falling to their knees and basking in spiritual epiphany and self-discovery. From your couch, it looks as if they barely break a sweat.

However, as you arrive in Spain and climb the steps of the Metro de Madrid, your mind is occupied with other things: (1) the concentration of well-dressed people in Spain, none of whom are wearing hiking shorts; (2) the blister already forming on the ball of your left foot; and (3) the pressure you now feel to begin deriving spiritual meaning from everything. As you near the top of the stairs, you hear a familiar tune on an old violin. It takes you a moment to place it, but as you walk by, it hits you. You’re entering Spain to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It’s heavy-handed, of course, but you don’t really mind. You wonder: is this how God speaks? On the Camino, the question never seems that far away.

Every modern-day pilgrim walks by choice. (In the old days, many walked the Camino for penance.) Yet the reasons for each pilgrim are mysterious. “If you think about it,” one 21-year-old said in Santiago, “it makes no sense. You walk punishing distances, to get bad sleep, to eat mediocre food. Why would anyone do this?” But then he adds, as if to answer his own question: “I think this has been the best month of my life.”

The physical rhythm of the Camino is not hard to describe. You wake up in a room full of strangers, fumble around for your clothes, walk as far as your feet, partner, or guidebook will allow, and chatter with others along the way. Then you find another bed, take a shower and inspect your feet for blisters, break bread with fellow pilgrims, go to sleep, and repeat the cycle all over again. The spiritual rhythm, however, evades all description.

Most nights you sleep in an albergue, which is essentially a kind of pilgrim hostel, not open to the public. Depending on your point of view, the albergues are either a focal point of suffering or the reclamation of a lost communal ideal. No two albergues are the same, nor are the hospitaleros who run them. Some albergues grasp brazenly after dollars, others seem reluctant to accept donations. The services are similarly diverse. The quality of a bed bears no obvious relation to its price, or to the likelihood of a bone-shattering roll off the top bunk. Some albergues radiate warmth, others exude military discipline. Germophobes and light-sleepers, take note. At no point in life does the strength of your earplugs matter more.

The pain experienced by most pilgrims on the Camino is temporary—a blistered heel, perhaps, or a snoring roommate. But where the Camino really gets to you is in the sheer volume of these inconveniences. Most people can handle a blister on a normal day. But when you combine it with a full-body ache, a peeling sunburn, and a roommate who bellows in his sleep like an asthmatic dolphin, then you have begun to know that special cocktail of pain and comedy only the Camino can deliver. In a matter of days, even the hardiest pilgrims whimper. The tattered parka, the socks swinging from the backpack, the sad hobble without the dignity of crutches: this is how you spot a pilgrim in your local Spanish town.

Savvy entrepreneurs offer a variety of shortcuts and pain-saving conveniences, whether via luggage services, buses, or taxis. But the sensitive pilgrim should be forewarned: using these services will lead to draconian judgment from other pilgrims. In this sense, the Camino is not always the lovefest one might imagine.

On the Camino, everyone is afflicted. Along the 750 km from the French border, the pilgrim doesn’t know how the pain will arrive, but in every case it will. Pain on the Camino is ubiquitous, no matter the preparation. You purchase the best boots, only to get shin splints; or you stretch out your legs in the morning with great care, only to pick up stowaway bed bugs. And the same dynamic exists in the pilgrim’s relations with others. You enjoy a moment of blissful connection at dinner, only to learn the next day that your tablemate is a fraud. Or, more often, that you yourself are a fraud in some sense, much less generous than you once imagined. The Camino pulls the pilgrim apart, and you cannot help but see the results: spoonfuls of self-awareness handfed from some hidden Benevolence. The most honest travel brochure for the Camino should read: “You will feel pain.” And then, for added accuracy: “And you will have all the time you need to think about it.”

The main English guidebook offers two paths to follow each day, the practical path and the mystical path. The practical path tells you to turn left at the derelict stone mill and cross the stream to follow the yellow trailmarks. The mystical path, meanwhile, tells you to become the wood stork on top of the mill, and scour the nearby stream for spiritual light. Each path can be useful at different times.

By the third day, the pilgrim’s entire body is in shock. You collapse into bed in the evening, every bone shouting: “WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME?!” By day ten, however, you feel better than you’ve ever felt before. The rhythm is in your bones now, and you’ve seen most of the Camino’s dirty tricks: the shabby housing, the intense strain, the quirky pilgrims. You begin to embrace it all.

As the new normal sets in, the landscape continues to change. The cloud-covered Pyrenees open to the grape-growing Rioja, which then opens to the desert, which then opens to the rolling green hills of Galicia. You get used to the beauty of these regions, just in time to watch them go.

In the mornings, you walk alone. After the chaotic nights, the mornings are best for untangling the meaning of the prior day. In the dawn light the birds chirp merrily, and the hills are even more green than normal. The noisy pilgrims doze quietly in their bunks. In moments like these, as you descend into silence, the pressure to feel something reaches its peak. The challenge, it seems, is in matching your sanctity of setting with some equal sanctity of thought. There are tricks, maybe—prayers, Icelandic music, mantras—but no combination provides the automatic lift. Physically and spiritually, the Camino offers no shortcuts.

One explanation for the Camino’s growing popularity is that it lifts the modern pilgrim, however temporarily, out of the sad and tired pleasure-seeking our society commonly equates to well-being—a “well-being” wherein we spend most of our lives earning money in order to buy buildings where we store things that do not bring us joy. Deadened by such routines, on the Camino the pilgrim enters into a daily rhythm so unlike normal life that it jolts her into a different kind of awareness. The pilgrim strolls out into the open sky and feels the sunlight on her skin, the electric presence of others, the reality of pain, the depth of the inner life—a life made small to the extent it is funneled toward consumption. At the same time, the pilgrim sees the absurdity of trying to carry too much along, and the pettiness of how we self-classify and divide. (At the end of a long day, kindness is more compelling to the average pilgrim than an impressive job.) Indeed, in the Camino’s many communal moments, the pilgrim feels the humanity shared by every other pilgrim, and the many sad splinters through which we fragment and obscure it. The pilgrim, for a moment, feels the raw simplicity of being alive.

Along the way, you meet outstanding pilgrims. People who seem like they were born for the Camino. One such pilgrim, for us, was Flopsy Lewis. “Flops,” as she goes for short, is a 71-year-old teacher who now lives in Zimbabwe. Flops is a devout Catholic and makes friends wherever she goes. At any point you can ask any other pilgrim, “Where is Flops?” and the answer is always a hand pointing forward or back. Flops is an acknowledged source of wisdom on the trail. You hear no less than three dinner-table epiphanies that begin with the words, “Well, I was talking to Flops today and…” Flops walks alone, except when she doesn’t. She doesn’t group herself with any one of the pilgrims, yet is unfailingly generous with her time. Flops is sprightly, awake, kind. Whatever she has, you want. You pick up a kind of joy and well-being simply from being around her, and you mourn the loss when she walks ahead.

It can be hard to describe what the pilgrim feels in the final few weeks. Arrival in Santiago brings with it a raft of emotions: sadness that the end is near, and elation to take off the muddy boots once and for all.

As you reach the city center, you drift into the current of pilgrims and wind through the cobblestone streets, passing ancient fountains and discharged pilgrims walking the other way. As you near the final square, you descend through a staircase and pass down through a stone tunnel. Near the entrance, a man inside plays a handheld melodica. For a moment you fear that entry will be spoiled with the wrong song, but then you hear the melody: I heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord—but you don’t really care for music, do ya? You can’t believe it. It’s sappy, you know, and you shake your head. Nonetheless, as you cross into the square, the feeling is real. The Camino is not a victory march. The pain, the bad sleep, the achy bones and blistered feet: all the indignities of the Camino are now being swept up into this. Arrival turns them into something else. You look around to see familiar faces. The Germans, the Spaniards, the Koreans, and the Danes; the young and the old; the sick and the healthy; the impressive and the seemingly insignificant—all the people you met are now streaming into the square. The square blesses them and welcomes them in. And the emotion you feel now, despite every ounce of cynicism encrusting your heart, overwhelms you. On your lips there is a cold and broken hallelujah.

On the flight home, jammed into your window seat, the line between sacred and secular has never felt more unclear to you. Your mind drifts back to the hills, to the warmth of the pilgrims you met, and this mystery of pain and joy in alternation. Whatever it is you feel now, you want to keep. You are not—as the Camino made clear—as noble as you thought, but the path is no less lovely for it. The world is something you couldn’t begin to dream up yourself: a path miraculous with detail, and a pair of eyes through which to take it in. In even the smallest things, the heart can seethe with anger or become radiant in love. “You can listen to the Camino if you want,” one pilgrim said, “but it never forces you to.” And this, like all else, will be hotly debated among pilgrims until the end of time.

Jeff Carver is a high school writing teacher currently living in New Orleans. Josh Jeter is a lawyer in Austin, Texas, and earlier wrote “To the Holy Mountain” for issue 24 of The Behemoth.

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November 2016

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