Last summer I had that familiar itch in my feet so I quit my job, moved out of my apartment, and told my girlfriend that it was over. I’ve spent a lot of my life traveling and I’ve always tried to follow the Road Junky ethos of staying off the beaten path and looking for experiences that were more authentic and more adventurous than most. I’ve always fought against the idea of being simply another tourist, yet I found myself inexplicably drawn to one of the oldest and most well-worn paths of all: I wanted to join the river of tourists walking across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago.
I started on that first day with no idea what to expect but already slightly annoyed with the people I was meeting and seriously wondering why I thought this was a good idea. But somehow it all turned out the way these things sometimes do when you really are able to let go of all your expectations and doubts and judgments – of which I had many! That is to say, it turned out better in ways that I never would have expected.
Slowly, slowly I kept walking and with each day of walking the questions started to drop away – I was going to Santiago and that was that. There were no other decisions for me to ponder. I wake up in the morning and follow the arrows until it was time to stop for the night, then I get up the next day at dawn and do the same thing. Sometime toward the middle, after 15 or so days of walking, all the past and all the future slipped away from me. The Camino became the totality of my world and it was nice.
I don’t want to make it sound like paradise, believe me it wasn’t. There were plenty of annoying people, noisy exhaust choked roads leading into cities, long stretches where you’re tired and doubt and loneliness start eating at you, a sense of being just another tourist on a giant river of tourists, of bourgeois Europeans with their fancy gear all “doing” the Camino so they could check it off their bucket list or backpackers doing it because it was a cheap way to spend a month or lose weight or whatever. Eventually it didn’t matter why other people were doing it. I knew that there was nowhere I could go or nothing I could do where these meta-problems wouldn’t exist, where I couldn’t argue with myself whether or not this was an authentic or simply another empty, commodified experience for us, the consumers of unique experiences so that we could find selfish fulfillment or have colorful stories to tell back home. I understood that they were there, that this was a very flawed and human experience, and tried my best to just go with it and take it for what it was and people for who they were.
I realized I was no different or better than anyone else I was walking with. I was just another confused human being hoping to find some meaning. Anyone who thinks that they will be able to walk like the monks of the 1300’s is deluding themselves. That simply isn’t the reality we live in. The path may follow the same route, we may visit the same churches that have stood for centuries, but otherwise it is not the same Camino. The Camino isn’t at all a complete escape from the modern world: it’s a reflection of it.
There is internet and phone access everywhere. If your wallet is fat enough for 5 star hotels, they are yours for the taking. If your backpack is bothering you, there is a service that will transport it ahead of you to the next stop. If you don’t want to carry your provisions, no worries since you’ll never be more than an hour or two from a bar, restaurant, or market. At the end of the day all the pilgrims seemed to plop down at the cafe or guesthouse and the first thing they did was pull out their iPhone or iPad and start emailing or updating Facebook or writing on their Camino blog. I was a little surprised how few people were using this time to cut the electronic tether and just be here.
I’m not saying that these developments are by themselves bad or represent a corruption of the Camino. Far from it. If the original pilgrims had access to these resources they would almost certainly have used them!
Not only has the Camino changed, but so have the pilgrims. Today’s pilgrim is not the poor penitent of medieval Europe. Today’s pilgrim is the bourgeois vacationer who is looking for something more meaningful and more interesting than 2 weeks on the beach in the Bahamas. It’s a new kind of mainstream adventure tourism.
Originally the supposed motivation of pilgrims was the divine reward that would be earned by reaching the end, but there was more to it than that. Aside from the tiny aristocracy, up until the 20th century for most people living in Europe there were probably only a handful of times in your life that you traveled beyond the borders of your town of birth. If you were a common man and wanted to see more of the world beyond your region you basically had two choices: war or pilgrimage. Pilgrimage was a chance for people to have a bit of an adventure, maybe the only in their lives. Not only that: it was officially sanctioned and accepted by society. Who could look down upon a man who was following God’s path? So people went, and over the decades and centuries a whole network of infrastructure was built to support the pilgrimage.
When you start out on such a long walk the end is a complete abstraction. It didn’t really exist to me except as this theoretical place that one day I would arrive at. Kind of like marriage or a career. It helped that I was completely unplugged – no devices, no books, no writing. Nothing but a sleeping bag and some clothes.
I met some wonderful, wonderful people who I really felt close with, who I would have dismissed out of hand as being people I’m completely not interested in or had nothing at all that I could connect with. I became great friends with a 55 year old evangelical Christian woman from Mississippi. With a 60 year old retired Dutch investment banker. With a beautiful French woman who talked enough new age crap to make me barf yet somehow it wasn’t so bad because I could see where she was coming from with it. With a giant Texan guy who’d befriended a giant Russian guy on the first day and had become inseparable, like soul mates almost, walking together, taking naps together along the side of the trail in the afternoon and generally being in no hurry to get anywhere. It just happened for them.
My experience was completely where I was: my feet, my body, the horizon, the hills, the fellow pilgrims who’d come and go from my sphere of being, and that was it. The next town didn’t exist until I crested the hill and saw it in front of me. The last town where I spent the night receded into the past. There was no looking back and not much looking forward either. Just walking. Just keeping my eyes open and feeling the breeze and the sun and my muscles moving and watching the trail unfold with each step, with each day, with each kilometer. By the time I reached the end I’d accumulated an untold number of stories and conversations and people and sensations, but somehow I didn’t feel the need to do anything with them aside from know that they were there, that they happened, that I just walked 850 kilometers over 35 days and had reached Santiago.
It was the end of the line. There was no where else to go. In so many ways standing still and contemplating my return to my ‘real’ life was the most difficult part of the whole thing. Yet it wasn’t completely true that it was the end. I could keep walking if I wanted to. Go a further five days to Finisterre, or even do what my friend had done, touched the cathedral in Santiago, turned right around, and started walked the other way back to France. No, this was the end of the line for me. To keep walking would only delay the inevitable. I had to face all the things that I left behind 35 days before. My mind was clear and my body felt strong. I was ready for whatever was next.