Last year, I completed the Camino Frances, and, before you ask, no – I am not becoming a full time Pilgrim of the Catholic or any other religious persuasion. I have not shaved my head, chosen a wardrobe of itchy brown wool or started speaking in tongues. This still leaves ample room for cultivating my various eccentricities, one of which seems to be a growing inclination for long solitary walks.
You may ask, as many of my friends already have, the simple question – Why? I give an obvious, but trite answer. I like to walk.
When pushed for a more substantive explanation, I push back – with my own question. If you can explain golf junkets, traveling for months in a motorhome, ocean cruises to nowhere or all inclusive resorts, I will try to explain pilgrimage walks.
The question has, however, caused me to reflect a bit more deeply, if only to answer the question to myself. Why do I like these long walks?
My good friend, Dana, recently gave me a book by Paul Theroux called The Tao of Travel. In my view, Theroux is the Shakespeare of travel writing; he thinks and writes deeply and honestly about travel; I skim the surface.
The Camino Portugues violates my first principle of adventures; as Theroux noted; “in travel, as in many other experiences in life, once is usually enough.” I am willing to violate that rule because that first experience has grown on me. I recall it wistfully, with affection and warmth. I want to recreate that aura if I can.
Setting off on a long walk down an unfamiliar path with the barest of essentials seems to involve three principles.
Walking is SLOW. I can manage about 25-30 kilometers a day, about a half hour drive if I travel by car. As one writer put it; “I came to realize that I traveled best when I traveled no faster than a dog could trot”.
When I walk, my senses have time to absorb my surroundings; the promise that dawn brings, the joy of roosters crowing, cow bells near mingle with church bells afar.
I witness the countryside waking up, I stop for lunch when and where the locals stop, I eat their food at their pace. I slow down as they retreat for siesta and revive myself as the shadows grow in the afternoon.
Even now, I recall the smell of morning dew, the farmyard manure, the fresh hay and the anise smell of wild fennel seeds rubbed between my palms. I capture the scent of the baker’s fresh bread before I reach the edge of the village, sniff it out like a hunting dog to its back street.
Slow travel enriches my trip – my senses load up. Slow travel introduces me to the ancient village lady selling crepes from her front door – my loose change is likely her pension supplement. Slow allows me the adrenaline rush of encounters with the snarling mongrel protecting his farmyard – my heart rate quadruples with the surprise and leaves me vibrating. It’s cheap entertainment.
Slow allows me to see the happy face on the sunflower in the nearby field; slow allows me a vision of morning dew on a spider web that accentuates its delicacy; slow gives me permission to stop and take a picture of them. Slow allows me to marvel at the whimsy of a Coke machine in the middle of a field and wonder at it’s portentous incongruity. Slow.
These walks are SIMPLE. I carry all I need and nothing more. I have my boots, my pack, my poles and my cap. Technology is heavy and poisons the purity of the experience. I carry a cheap pay-as-you-go cell phone and a local charger for emergencies. I carry a change of walking clothes, some dollar store plastic clogs, and one decent set of civvies for meals in restaurants and public spaces. I have a down blanket for chilly nights, a tooth brush/paste, and the essentials for healthy feet – vaseline is my friend on the camino. A jacket for rain, a hat and my meds – vitamin I (ibuprofen), a muscle relaxant and immodium. I fill up on water constantly and carry some between sites.
I have the conceit of a diarist, I carry a journal and a camera; I am doing something important and memorable that must be recorded. everything else is redundant.
My job every day is simple – walk to the next destination, secure food and water along the way. At day’s end, I find a place to sleep. wash myself and my clothes and recuperate/rehydrate for the next day. I try to be a tourist for a while, I hope for company at dinner and, if I do this conscientiously, after 25 days I reach my destination. Walk, eat, wash, write, sleep and drink. Simple.
My life during the day is deliberately SOLITARY. The solitude may be THE compelling reason for this reprise. On my first, I walked alone. In the evenings, I was able to share meals with other travelers, at night I was surrounded by humanity – packed in hostels where minimalism is a luxury.
The days were mine and I reveled in them. How else to avoid the distractions of life, the intrusions of others and the imposition of ‘world affairs’. Is it possible to stop and stare at the early morning sky trying to find the big dipper or the North Star in the company of others? Not for me, I feel ludicrous or ingenuous.
When I’m on my own I can be totally selfish. If I want to eat frittata at cheap local places five days in a row, I can. If I want to walk all day without stopping, I can. If I decide to rent a real hotel room to avoid the snoring, snorting, farting and grunting of others in the albergue, I can.
There is a ‘lucidity of aloneness’ as Theroux calls it. Solitude allows walking meditations. Without distractions, with abundant time to meander, my mind wanders further afield, seeks out darker recesses, rediscovers oft-forgotten memories. Left to its own devices, my mind does find more to amuse itself, to contemplate and dream. I can even talk to myself out loud if I want. I don’t, at least not very often, but I can.
I have deeper, more meaningful conversations with strangers (we know we’ll never see each other again so we can be more honest, more revealing and more thoughtfully opinionated). When I’m in a strange country, stripped bare of distractions, and walking monotonously, I can have deeper, more meaningful conversations with myself.
I learned long ago the difference between alone and lonely; it’s huge. Pilgrimage walks seem to offer a rare opportunity to be alone without being lonely. I have miles of open road to amble along at a pace that facilitates introspection, abundant physical and spiritual emptiness to fill as I see fit and, at the end of the day, I usually have a complete stranger to share my meal and some musings.
I hope it works for a second time.