This one’s for Phantom, and also for Jo(e), whose posts on the Appalachian trail and monastery visits revived some wonderful memories.
Four years ago, I went with a colleague and fourteen students to Spain to walk three hundred miles’ worth of the ancient pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela. In the eleventh century, Santiago was the most important pilgrimage center in Europe; Dante wrote in La Vita Nuova that “in the wider sense, a pilgrim is whoever is outside his fatherland, but in the narrow sense, none is called a pilgrim save he who is journeying towards the sanctuary of Saint James of Compostela.” Some traveled to express their thanks for the protection of the saint, some hoped for miracles, some walked as penitence for their crimes. I proposed the trip as a unique way to experience the history and culture of Spain, to literally walk in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of medieval Europeans.
I love telling travel stories (I should post sometime about being spit upon by elephants; that’s one of my favorites) but for some reason I don’t talk much about the Santiago trip, and I’ve never written about it. This is partly because there were so many different facets to the trip: I experienced it as a professor, as a guardian of students, as a lone walker, as a friend, as a historian, as a foreigner, as a spiritual explorer, and even though those all overlap in my own consciousness, they’re all very different perspectives and I don’t know how to begin to make a coherent narrative out of them.
It’s also because I didn’t construct any narratives for myself in the process: I chose to take neither journal nor camera on the trip, though I usually travel with both. It’s too easy for me to fall into the role of narrator of my own life, imagining a third-person description of what I’m doing or a viewpoint through a camera lens. But much of the impact of pilgrimage lies the experience, to be acutely aware of your own existence and the world around you in each and every moment as you pass through time and space, and I wanted to develop that awareness as much as possible. The journey itself was more intense and felt as a consequence, but not in a way that fits well into words, because I didn’t fit it into words at the time. I’m glad of that, even though it makes the stories harder to share.
What I remember most is the routine of each day. The trail has gained renewed popularity in recent decades, so you’ll always share the road with other pilgrims. You’re up early, slipping out of bunk beds and silently arranging your backpacks, making sure the weight is balanced just so. Everyone’s on the road not long after dawn. You walk with your students, until they gain confidence and dare to venture out on their own, at least until you gather them back together at the end of the day like wayward sheep. You join a group for a while, chatting and exchanging stories; you walk alone, seeing more of the unfamiliar flowers and skies and small stone villages where someone will always pause from tending the sheep to wave and wish you buen camino, a good road.
While the sun is still casting long early-morning shadows, you might pause to sit in a field to share your yogurt with the military guy from Wisconsin, who gives the best advice about how to avoid blisters; later you’ll sit on a rock wall on the outskirts of a town to break a chocolate bar with the funny Portuguese girls who know all the gossip about everyone else on the trail that day. You’re not in a hurry; everyone develops their own pace and rhythm, and it’s almost impossible to change yours once you have it. Sometimes you see the same people over several days as your paths leapfrog each other; sometimes you’ll have a single intimate conversation with someone, and after they move on you never see them again. You can always seek people out if you want companionship, or you can walk alone for weeks; people recognize the signals either way.
If the priest in the next village sees you coming, a group of pilgrims trudging in from the horizon, he may ring the church bells and come out on the steps to entice you in, to stamp your pilgrim-passport and tell you proud stories of his town and the church and the saints who watch over it. He’ll tell you the best place in the village that offers a good hot lunch. Every little restaurant along the camino has a “pilgrim special,” a pot of stew or soup that’s easy to make in large amounts and is delicious and sustaining to people who walk all day.
When you arrive at the refugio, the hostel-like accomodations for pilgrims that you’ll find at regular intervals along the road, the first thing you do is wash your socks. Socks are to a pilgrim what oxygen bottles are to the climbers of Mount Everest. Everyone has three pairs: the ones you have on, the clean ones in your bag for tomorrow, and the ones you washed last night, maybe still hanging on the outside of your bag to dry. You don’t always know where the next refugio is where you’ll spend the night, but you know you’re home when you see any building with rows and rows of socks hanging in the breeze like little welcome banners. One refugio in the countryside didn’t have any clotheslines set up, but there were several young trees in front of the dormitory, and their lowest branches were always festooned with pilgrim socks.
Then, in the late afternoon, there’s almost always a period of silence and reflection. Travelers trickle in one by one to the refugio; after they find a bunk and ease off their packs, they sit outside on rocks or under trees, writing in journals or just enjoying the stillness. After twelve or fifteen miles of walking, you savor stillness, letting all your joints finally stop moving. Sometimes pilgrims will chat quietly or tell stories, but until sunset, it’s more common to find an appreciative silence.
In the evening, revived by the rest, everyone gathers in the refugio’s big stone kitchen to compose a stone-soup kind of dinner: you offer your cheese, the Brazilian brings some meat from the market good for stew, the Italian couple tosses in their vegetables, others bring bread and fruit, everyone mixes and shares and laughs and communicates in gestures and fragments of any language they know a word of. Someone always has a guitar; everyone is generous and cheerful. It’s easier to be thankful when you’re a pilgrim: you’re thankful for a smooth path, for not being lost, for having found a place to sleep, for having food to share, for having clean socks. I think much of the spiritual experience of the road comes from being surrounded by thankfulness; it brings out the kindest in people.
There’s no way to know how much the experience of being a pilgrim to Santiago in the twenty-first century echoes the experiences of previous centuries. Sometimes you walk through villages that have seen little change over the centuries; your feet follow Roman roads past ancient Celtic forts and Visigothic churches. Occasionally you walk along the shoulders of highways, shrinking from the noise of passing traffic. Our understandings of religion and travel are certainly different from the medieval pilgrim’s. But there’s something about pilgrim-ness that I’m sure is the same. Pilgrims are outsiders; there’s an inescapable air of otherness about them, and they recognize each other no matter what the circumstances. There are the obvious clues, of course: Santiago travelers always carry a scallop shell somewhere on their hat or their pack, and if you see a person with a walking staff and a backpack anywhere in northern Spain, chances are he’s a pilgrim. But even if you go to the refugio and clean yourself up, put on your ordinary clothes to tour the town as if you were any other tourist, there’s a pilgrim-aura about you, and the locals greet you with particular hospitality. You instantly recognize any other fellow traveler, and they wink back and wish you a buen camino.
But the pilgrim-aura lasts precisely as long as the pilgrimage. You meet so many fascinating people on the trail, and you marvel at sharing a common experience with people from such extraordinarily different backgrounds. Everyone exchanges addresses and promises to keep in touch, but you know that you won’t. Your bond to each other is the journey itself, and part of its magic is that it cannot last.
The object of the pilgrimage is to reach the cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, to greet the saint and thank him for the successful completion of your travels. Most are elated at their arrival, celebrating their accomplishment; others, like me, are a little sad, knowing that the journey meant more than the destination. It doesn’t take long to readjust to the twenty-first century, though for a day or two you’re dizzied by the sensation of riding in a car, and you still have the urge to wash your socks in the evening. You’ll always keep the scallop shell that you wore on your pack.