We abandon them daily in the wasteland of the past. Because even though I have told you that I am walking to remember, this isn’t completely true – we must embark also on journeys of forgetting.
– Paul Salopek, Out of Eden Walk
The Camino de Santiago, or more precisely, the Camino Frances, is one of the World’s great long-distance routes, or one of it’s most overrated and overcrowded slogs, depending on who you ask. There’s truth to both opinions. The ancient pilgrimage path doesn’t need a great deal of introduction, Google and bad Hollywood has taken care of that.
The Camino is an entire network of pilgrimage routes, beginning in cities all over Europe and scrawling their way across the continent to the small Galician city of Santiago de Compostela, in the wild north-west of Spain. What most people are talking about when they mention the ‘Camino’ is the Camino Frances, the ‘Way from France’, an 800km stretch of the network that begins in the tiny village of St Jean Pied de Port, in French Basque Country, before crossing the Pyrenees and making it’s way through the northern provinces of Navarra, La Rioja, Castilla y León and Galicia.
It has become immensely popular in recently years, but oddly enough I’d never heard of the Camino Frances until a couple of weeks before setting out. During the Australian winter of 2012 I was in Europe for a few months and was keen to do one of the longer routes. I’d been eyeing off Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne (HRP), a much more challenging route that traverses the Pyrenees longways. However, I was also hoping to have an adventure with some friends I’d met on exchange the previous year, and in the end we decided the Pyrenees was probably beyond us (I eventually completed the HRP in 2013). One of the group was a Santiago native, so when she suggested the Camino we didn’t take much convincing.
I’ve read a lot of blogs and a lot of books and a lot of very excitable forums in an attempt to try and understand what the Camino is about, not to mention walking a bloody long way, and I’m still entirely stumped when people ask. For many it holds true to it’s traditions as a Catholic pilgrimage, for just as many it can be a summer adventure, a spiritual journey, a mental and/or physical challenge, a coming of age, another stop on the tourism train, or simply a pleasant stroll with good people through a remarkable country. There are the marathon runners and triathletes and then the folk who’ve spent their whole lives without feeling the beautiful ache of an exhausted body at rest. There are the solo walkers, the couples, lovers, friends, families, school groups and guided groups. There are the friends made and friends lost.
It is remarkable to think of the scope of influence that can come about from simply putting one foot in front of the other.
It wasn’t until earlier this year that I read the first instalment of Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk in National Geographic. I was on a plane heading towards KL, and as I sat in a metal tube suspended 10km up in the air I read about the first steps of Salopek’s almost inconceivable 34,000km walk. In the very beginning he describes walking thus:
‘Walking is falling forward. Each step we take is an arrested plunge, a collapse averted, a disaster braked. In this way, to walk becomes an act of faith. We perform it daily: a two-beat miracle—an iambic teetering, a holding on and letting go. For the next seven years I will plummet across the world.’
Through walking we become base, ingrained in the texture of place and landscape and the stories that, amongst all cultures, define us.
Perhaps, for me, the Camino was simply a story.
This is the first of what will probably be four or five collections from the Camino. At the end I’ll probably write a post about Galicia itself, a place I’ve been lucky enough to spend a while, on this trip and others.