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GALICIA, SPAIN-

I awake at 7 am, mostly from unwieldy nervousness. Before I have time to pause and consider what is to come, I strap on my 20 pound backpack, leave the pilgrim’s shelter in Sarría and ascend a firm incline for about 45 minutes into a Tolkien dream sequence.

Once inside, the misty mountain top has no visible exit; white pulpy air hangs still upon all scenery within a 100-foot diameter.

The path levels out, my head soaking in frosty sweat; I feel like am in the heart of a chilly other world, alone.


You have to do this alone. It’s part of the allure of el Camino. It also offers you a chance to forget about the maddening urban life that is Madrid, or Berlin, or Oslo, or Paris, or Los Angeles or wherever it is that you came from in order to do this.

Going hiking usually necessitates the presence of friends, but this modern pilgrimage is essentially a journey into self, regardless of whether you believe in God, believe positively that God does not exist or simply don’t care. To do it with a group of others is just another way of having a good time and cracking jokes or philosophizing while taking an slightly arduous, unending stroll.

An hour passes, the fog clears and the sun blesses every inch of the surrounding farmlands and endless green with its idyllic royal luster: the divine yellow ignites smiles on all the determined pilgrims and brings an easy contentment to northwestern Spain on this early April day.


Three hours in, my bottle is long since drunk and the only thing my dry mouth cares about is where can it find be sated with fresh water. As this thought becomes an ever-increasing concern, one of the many dilapidated walls that offer the ubiquitous yellow arrow that points all pilgrims toward the proper path–the path toward Santiago de Compostela–offers a distinct green arrow that says fuente.

My mouth salivates; I quicken my steps.

***

Walking, such a simple action that is taken for granted until it is compromised in some way.

It is the only mode of transportation on this pilgrimage besides the option to ride a bicycle or a horse.

If you walk the entire Camino Francés from Ronces Valles on the border of Spain and France at the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela near the Atlantic, you will walk 800 km (500 miles). Most pilgrims do it within one month. Some of the extremists take three weeks, clocking an average of 40 km (25 miles) per day; others take five or six weeks, averaging 20-25 km (12.5-15 miles) per day.

Your backpack should weigh no more than 10 % of your body weight. You should carry no more than three changes of clothes and the essential items, which vary from pilgrim to pilgrim. For me, the essentials include a flashlight, earplugs, basic toiletries, toilet paper, a swiss army knife, nail clippers, a notepad and pencil, etc. All else is superfluous.

I am here on my own volition even though I was required to walk for two days as part of the class by the same name in which we studied most of the aspects regarding this historic pilgrimage.

Something’s been nagging me since I started studying the phenomenon: the translation of the name. El Camino de Santiago is normally called “The Way of St. James” or sometimes “The High Road to St. James”. The word camino in Spanish is bunch of different things, but it’s normally NOT “the way”: road, journey, path are the usual equivalents. Yet on this massive hike, people commonly say to the pilgrims ¡Buen camino!, which I’m certain would not get translated as “Have a good way!”. Probably the most accurate expression would be “Have a good journey/trip”. But what nags me about it is that neither of these truly capture the essence of the Spanish.

I suppose this simple example illuminates  the trappings of translation quite compactly.

At its most basic, my motivation is to find out what it means to be a modern pilgrim and to try and get a glimpse into what it meant to be one 1000 years ago.

The medieval pilgrim did it for different reasons: penitence, infirmary or punishment. Many pilgrims did the journey because they were lepers, diabetics or mysteriously stricken with some unknown disease. Cancer and lunacy were unknown then, as were weak hearts and pretty much every other currently known disease. To go on the pilgrimage was to seek the divine, helpful hand of God via his Jesus’s trusted confidant and apostle, St. James, the patron saint of Spain.

The history of the pilgrimage is rather long and unfitting for a space such as this, but it’s worth mentioning the crux of the story.

St. James was decapitated in the year 44 by Herod in Israel. His body was placed on a small one-body vessel that made it through the Mediterranean and up the Atlantic until it reached the Galician shore.  About 750 years later his body was discovered where the city’s cathedral now stands. Throughout the following 1000 years, the pilgrimage acted as a sort of political/religious coagulant for a broken, post-Roman Europe, one that the Catholic church used–along with the pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem–to unify Catholics and countries which in that era were inextricably linked.

It worked, making el Camino de Santiago the most popular of all the western pilgrimages in the past millennium. The cities of Burgos, León and Santiago de Compostela actually grew into their modern metropolises thanks only to the existence of the Camino and the infrastructure built around it to help the pilgrims make it to Santiago.

The kicker–for me at least–is this: the body in the cathedral has a head attached to it. It’s never been decapitated. It has scientifically been proven that the body in the sepulcher of St. James is either not St. James or he somehow gained a head after death. This latter story is the official Catholic one, the one the preaches miracles abound. One of the main impetuses for medieval pilgrims was to be able to touch the reliquaries that held supposed relics from saints in hopes that they themselves would receive some of the divine magic and cure themselves. And St. James the headless-headed enigma buried beneath the massive Cathedral is one of the biggest relics of them all, with the exception of wood from Christ’s cross. (Interestingly enough, if you took all the supposed splinters of wood that people have claimed was from the original cross, you would have need a large boat to support its weight, or it would take 300 men to hold it up.)

For the modern pilgrim, blisters, chaffing and inclement weather are the biggest enemies; the pilgrim who embarked on this journey that started around 800 AD and reached full peak around 11th-13th centuries, had death looming over most of the time. Their average life span was 35-40 years, the majority of babies were stillborn, a dry spell in the weather meant starvation for at least a year and the bubonic plague was as much of a concern as the bandits who often pursued and killed pilgrims just for being on the road. Not to mention the imminent fear of the Moors, who had come to reign in about 80% of Hispania in part of this middle ages.

To the medieval pilgrim, traveling alone was unthinkable.

To boot, if they made it to Santiago de Compostela, they had to go back–on foot–which is the mother of all understated anticlimaxes. The modern pilgrim grabs a bus, plane or train and is back sleeping in their climate-controlled queen-sized bedroom while listening to their Ipod and cooking a frozen pizza.

***

The first day ends after six hours of walking. I arrive to Portomarin…

and pay 3 euros in the community shelter. I get the top bunk in a room with 40 other bunks.

I eat, scribble some words on a notepad, snap a few photos, climb the ladder to bed around 8-9 pm and put in the ear plugs in order to mute the cacophonous snoring that pilgrims naturally emit while resting.

As I lay my head down, I realize that day one really doesn’t count.

It doesn’t count because your fresh and amazed by the newness of it all.

Blisters are a few days away, as are charlie horses and strained muscles.

For the same reason, the second and third day don’t really count either.

Day four is when you’re almost almost accustomed to walking 25 km a day that you go an extra two or three or four, on to the next pueblo or two to gain some ground.

And then — inevitably — it rains a steady, windy drizzle, sometimes pouring down.

I put on the poncho on day four and get so figuratively lost in my thoughts — which are mostly centered around the miserable nature of the day — that I literally get lost. I miss a crucial arrow and before long, I’m on the highway walking alongside coches and camiñones that spray water on me.

My cheap poncho starts ripping down in the chest area, making my inner shirts wet — another preoccupation of the modern pilgrim. Wet clothes and shoes make for an unpleasant journey.

I would give you a full play-by-play of the events, but I realize now as I type this, what, really, is there to tell?

I walked, I ate, I rested, I walked on, I rested, I ate, I slept.

I took pictures.

I sometimes called on the help of others when I needed it; I sometimes helped others who needed it.

I was exhausted and, by the time I reached the cathedral, exhilarated.

In total, I walked about 120 km in five days, enough to obtain the official pilgrim’s credential that logged me as another number for the year. In 2006, 100,377 pilgrims did at least this same distance that I did; in 2007, 114,026 walked it; in 2008, 125,141. (These stats come from the Archbishop’s office of Compostela itself.)

The volume of books that have been written about the Camino in the past 15-20 years is astonishing. It seems like if you can string together a sentence and snap some photos, you too can write about what it means to be a pilgrim (myself not excluded). Paulo Coehlo did it, as did Shirley McClaine. I’ve read the Coehlo one and excerpts from others and, honestly, I wouldn’t recommend a single one in terms for literary merit. (But if you ever decide to do it, they certainly are helpful to know what to expect.)

That said, it seems to be a slippery task to be able to write about this and not fall into the abyss of cliché. El Camino, the road, the journey not the destination, do it, push yourself beyond your limits, persevere/ struggle through the hardships, never lose site of the goal, be patient, give 100%, etc.

In the end, over a month after having done it, I still wonder what it was that I learned. I never got what I expected: no revelation, realization or epiphany. Maybe this is was part of it: don’t expect anything. It will be different than whatever you do expect, so keep them minimal. The only thing El Camino de Santiago really offers you is some time alone and with strangers, some silence, some nature, some beauty, some exercise, some challenge.

Now that I think about, that’s quite a lot.


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KIP TOBIN's real name is Stephen Christopher Tobin, but no one really calls him that, not even his mom. His favorite letter is "i", which is also one his least favorite words; his favorite words tend to include euphonious consonants like Ls and Rs and Ss, such as surly luscious allure. He relocated to middle America last year. He writes fiction and nonfiction but will not tweet. He's currently working on his doctorate in Latin American Literatures and Cultures, studying the intersection of the body, vision and media in contemporary Hispanic Science Fiction . If asked, he will tell you that S. Gautauma pretty much summed 'er all up when he said: All things are transient. Work out your own salvation. He's constantly in that latter process, all the while trying to become as present and aware as he possibly can in this world of simulacra and simulations. You can leave a message on the board here and he will try to get to back with you. His alter ego sometimes posts music mixes on Tip Robin's Mega Maxi Music Mix Mash (tiprobin.blogspot.com), which is unsearchable on the internet and something of a micro, gotta-be-in-the-know phenomenon. He's no longer a part of the social networking revolution. The revolution, it seems, will not be televised but rather streamed, and he hopes he's not watching it. He wishes everyone good luck whenever he can. Good luck.

2 responses to “El Camino de Santiago: The Essence of Pilgrim”

  1. […] with 12 crossed off – the ice-cream van notwithstanding. They range from the personal (Item #76: El Camino de Santiago), the curious (Item #8: Fire a Gun – I hasten to add I don’t actually want to cap somebody, I’m […]

  2. Carl D'Agostino says:

    Retired Am Hist teacher, 34 years. 60 yrs old. BA/MA religion/history. Enjoyed the piece. I think most of the Pilgrims may have been disappointed too 1,000 years ago esp. those to Jerusalem. Perhaps the journey was actualized by the contemplation along the way. It is probable that more than two thirds died never making the round trip and if you did that was a miracle in itself. Declining health, caring for aged parents, crazy children, but delightful grand children reduce the possibility of my engaging on a pilgrimage. Adventure and travel don’t seem imminent. My pilgrimage is like Pilgrim’s Progress flavored by the Canterbury Tales and my growth, understanding an acceptance maturing in the faith.

    As far as James growing back his head and the Church’s reply, it seems they are true to the admonitions of Paul. Martin Luther commented that Paul stressed faith and felt the more unbelievable an event or doctrine seemed, the better, because it required increased faith.

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