An Argument for taking a Long Walk // Or, More about me, the cult of the individual and the continuing quest for clarity.
Walking the Camino de Santiago was one on those comfortably obscure ideas I’d lugged around for many years. Like becoming a writer or living in the desert or travelling to the Galapagos, it was the kind of idea that warmed my heart in a maybe someday kinda way.
When I found myself arriving in St Jean Pied de Port (where most folks begin their Camino journey) on the 13 September last year I couldn’t quite believe I’d managed to follow through on such a plan. I had diligently refused to over investigate the terms of my engagement and thus set out with a pretty murky understanding of what awaited me on the 900 km journey ahead.
There are books, maps, apps, youtube channels and all manner of websites and forums totally devoted to destroying all potential Camino mystery and intrigue by describing the whole adventure in devastating detail. After flirting briefly with information overload, I made a decision to walk the other way.
My dedication to ignorant bliss would continue to serve me well and was perhaps the first teaching on this ancient road to supposed self-actualisation: The ability to allow revelation to arrive, unforced.
There are plenty of fellow Pilgrims however who will not choose to allow their ‘way’ to reveal itself to them in its own timely manner. They must know the weather, the time, the weight of their backpack, the kilometres they have passed since they embarked that morning or even the direction if they fear they’ve walked off track.
And that’s fine too because the other funny thing you learn pretty quickly about this big old walk everyone decides to take in such close physical proximity to each other is that everyone is not going to participate in the same manner as you. So you may as well get used to it.
About two weeks before I began my Camino, an Australian friend set off on his Camino seeking solitude and spiritual growth. Instinct led me to believe this might be harder than he envisaged and communication with him confirmed that he struggled to meet his own expectations in a sea of people and energy.
There was certainly a part of me that began in St Jean Pied du Port in search of spirituality. It is hard to deny the energy emanating from those paths well-worn with the heaviness of pilgrims’ dreams, desires, hopes and disappointments for many hundreds of years. However, the kind of spirituality I found was reflected less by solitude and more in the moments I shared with fellow pilgrims also seeking the ‘way.’
The spiritual lesson I learnt was one of presence, a deep, kind and unhurried presence free from the everyday pressures of an everyday existence that demands not leaving a single moment to spare. On Camino I found time; time to indulge in without guilt or distraction, time to be completely immersed in conversation or simply watch the cloud cover in the sky unfurling above.
It is alongside this sense of presence that the beautiful monotony of a daily walking routine builds and finds peak momentum. At no point in my 32 day journey to Santiago did I retrace my steps. There is something fantastically fortifying about always moving forward; it reinforces the necessity of presence and the urgency of bearing witness to a time and place that will not be crossed again.
What a perfectly sweet simple gift that we should only have to wake up, pack our things in our bag and leave as the sun dawns on our back and set out walking for the day until we arrive. And on arrival we must only attend to our most basic desires: the blisters on our feet, washing the sweat from our back, making a bed, food, wine, cigarettes, tooth brushing and slumber.
The simplicity of a world with so few choices (and therefore only the best choices) will ease even the most anxious of minds. Here, there is only unadulterated, pure enjoyment of the here and now in all its imperfect glory.
And, to be sure, there is no shortage of discomfort among all these life-affirming sunrises and golden hour sunsets through the fields. There are bunk beds squished together four in a cluster in a room of over fifty, there are smelly boys’ socks and half-naked snoring old men, leering intolerant old ladies and loud Italians laughing late into the night over the most delicious pasta they did not share, there are tepid low-pressure showers and rumours of bed bugs in the next town, there are sinks for washing undies in but nowhere to hang them out, there are countless crap coffees and a never-ending supply of stale tortilla for breakfast (but hey at least it’s gluten-free)…
There are blisters and then there are people painstakingly discussing blisters for hours on end over dinner and there are days when things just go on a bit longer than anticipated and everything hurts and feels kinda wrong and people (hint: usually from the USA) insist on striking up a conversation with you at quite clearly the wrong time and you simply cannot fathom how they could not read the signals you were sending about staying away…
Wherein lies one of my favourite Camino lessons: exposure. In so many ways we build our little lives to reflect our own values and beliefs and discard anything that doesn’t serve those narratives. We build our lives to be comfortable. We build them to be safe. We build them to limit the risk of exposure: to difference, to people older than us, people younger than us, people who aren’t as educated as us and the list goes on.
On the Camino these rules for behaviour are gleefully disregarded. We find strange bunk buddies, we share a meal with the most unlikely dinner companions, we contravene the accepted norms for discussions with strangers on long walks in the forest, we find solace in the oddest situations. It’s mainly bloody marvellous and makes for some wonderful life-long stories.
But there are also times when headphones are warranted. Through sheer luck I gratefully found a stash of Richard Fidler’s Conversations had downloaded themselves on my phone. I very much enjoyed striding across the countryside accompanied by Fidler’s dulcet tones. There are not many voices that should be applied liberally in times of searing physical pain but I can confirm Fidler’s is an exception.
The only other auditory stimulation my phone provided was a playlist I named ‘walking cliche’ compiled on the fly one afternoon early on when I found wifi access in an albergue. There were nine songs on that playlist and I listened to them at least once most days and they made me feel really good for no particular reason.
Which is another perfectly mundane Camino learning I’ll carry with me: feeling good because you can. The power of letting go is undeniable and unattachment in all its forms is certainly a worthy pursuit. I noticed myself practicing unattachment every time I met and then lost a new pilgrim along the way or found myself wanting to linger in a particular location longer.
When I finally arrived in Santiago I wasn’t ready to stop walking. I felt sad arriving in a big city, I cried as we approached the outskirts. I was worried the world was going to try and take away all the good feelings I’d found. I felt as if the act of walking was the only way I generated them and if I stopped they’d all dissipate into thin air.
I’m happy to report that some of these lessons have stayed with me and while I cannot always access that particular breezy presence I enjoyed so much I know exactly the recipe to conjure it again and sometimes that is comfort enough. Perhaps the best we can do is walk alongside each other a little while, share a moment of levity and continue along the way.
Wherever you arrive you’ll find yourself right there, either having beat you to it or walked in the door just a moment behind. You can walk, but you cannot hide. In my case, I’ve learnt the volume of my voice tends to proceed me and though I’m no flag bearing Australian, that particularly shrill laugh tends to defy me…
One year later I still hold these memories as some of the happiest in my lifetime thus far. They are memories of feelings, faces, words exchanged and images. Few things compare to the joy of the sun reliably rising on your back as you head West for absolutely no reason at all. And although we may set out to find ourselves, what a gift to end up finding everybody else.