Footloose, footsore on the St James Way

In May and June of

MMX I walked the St James Way. It will remain one of the more important journeys of my life.

Before I embarked on this journey, I did what most people do: I researched the Way and went so far as to drive to St Jean Pied-de-Port (for some cycling too). Reading the literature does not prepare you for the Way anymore than reading a sci-fi novel prepares you for a trip to an outlying galaxy. Even though I had read, calculated and made exhaustive lists, I did not know what to expect, not really. When visiting St Jean-pied-de-port (St John at-the-foot-of-the-mountains) last year, I asked more than a dozen pilgrims (those who had been walking from as far away as Switzerland)  what I should expect. They were very imprecise, it seemed to me.  Purposefully, I thought.

My preparation did not make the journey any easier. However, like many travellers the difficulties were of my own doing. I committed a few cardinal sins. My boots were too new though I had bought them six months before and “broke them in”, or so I thought. My rucksack was too heavy which is to say I carried too much dross with me. To put it another way, you cannot, you should not, the comforts of home should stay at home. Those things I thought I needed I ended up leaving behind at the hostels. First it was something a little heavy, then something bulky then finally even trousers and underwear. To this end hostels have a catchall bin for pilgrims who are wishing to donate and those looking for a lost sock or all weather underpants. It seemed that many pilgrims were better prepared – and so they were as I subsequently found out – while many were very ill prepared indeed. The most ill prepared pilgrim I met  was a friendly sympathetic nurse from northern Ontario. She had a few handicaps. She spoke no English although this was not a big problem as the second largest group of foreign pilgrims were French-speakers. She was overweight and she wore crocs.  In retrospect, when my blisters started to multiply like promiscuous rats, I kicked myself for not bringing along my own crocs. She was brave. She did not whine. But she was slow so I left her behind. This is the first lesson I learned. You must walk your own way, at your own speed and in your own thoughts.

I decided to start my journey on the eastern side of the Pyrenees, which is to say St Jean pied-de-port. It is my understanding that pilgrims who start in St Jean have grander bragging rights than those who start in Roncesvalles. Perhaps bragging rights  is the wrong term. Anyway, it was during this first day that I met pilgrims who had started 1000 km before me in Le Puy and others even further north and east. By their measure, I was a Sunday stroller. It was also on this first day that a pilgrim offered me piece of his meal when I sat down dismally lacking in nourishment of any kind. It was morning, it was sunny, it was grandly beautiful and I had not food in my kit. He also imparted advice: Always have food with your when your start out. His kindness was returned several times over on the journey.

It was also here, on my first day and crossing the Pyrenees that I met the members of  my first family. It was this family which stayed intact for the longest period. Halfway on my journey I developed a toe infection which obliged me to part from the family. Had it not been for this we might have held together to Santiago. As it happened, two members (who had joined the family some days after Roncesvalles) stayed together to the very end: to Lands End or Finistere.

Upon leaving St Jean, the hosts (albergiste) of the hostel – two real salt-of-the-earth Frenchmen, and true devout Catholics – instructed us how to greet other pilgrims. "Ultreia!" The response is "Et suseia". Rarely did I hear these words bandied about and certainly most pilgrims did not understand what it all meant. It means simply "Forward, ahead. “ And God help us!

But as I said, most people did not know what it meant and therefore kept to the benign "Buen Camino!" This anodyne greeting started to grate towards the end of the journey. I suspect it was because most pilgrims use it as a cover or as a way to dismiss the occasion to prevent another pilgrim from starting a dialogue. This was the way it worked: you mumbled ‘Buen Camino!" and continued on your merry way without missing a step. If you did then you were inviting conversation. At the end of the journey, the last thing a tired pilgrim needs is another chatty pilgrim rabbiting on about things of idiotic unimportance. Frankly, after one month of heat, cold, rain, snow, infected toes, blisters too numerous to count, irregular and insufficient or poor quality food, lack of proper kipping accommodation, it all starts to break down, even for the most courageous and intrepid traveller. It is also at the halfway point that one learns the meaning of well worn adages. Silence is golden is understood. What goes up must come down. Share and share alike. A fool and his gold are soon parted. Of the three love/charity is the most important. Strangely, tiredness, sore, blistered, bloody, infected feet is no reason to not continue. This is another important  lesson one learns on the St James is: never stop!

In spite of the fact that I carried a lot of weight and did indeed discard unnecessary accoutrements, I did have music with me. I played Pergolesi’s Fac ur ardeat cor meum daily, to give me courage and put me into a spiritual mood. It became my signature. Pilgrims walking beside me or with me would inevitably ask for an encore. I mean I did not sing it. Well I did, but only to accompany the joyful sonorous rendition by Sebastian Henning and René Jacob. I especially enjoyed this masterly musical piece after the daily rosary, or when I sat down to tuck into a fruit.

Why do it?

The St James Way is not to everyone’s taste. Or rather parts of it are not. The faith-based or religious reasons are less comforting than they once were and sadly, many of the  pilgrims who walk the Camino do not do it for religious reasons. The other way to say this is that some of the pilgrims who walk the Camino are not very religious. Indeed I met some were as venal, gritty, uninspired as rats taking a free ride on bowels of the Parisian sewage system. You learn this as you walk beside strangers (who quickly become friends). You walk the St James Way not to judge nor be judged but being human, one does precisely that. Sometimes that which comes out of another human being’s mouth can make one scratch one’s head. A French pilgrim told me, in order, what things are important to him and on those things he contemplated on the St James Way. He, a man approaching seventy, revealed to me that his list was short but it included  the very mundane – wife, family, children, work, friends but finally, sex (which he enjoyed with gusto).  I do not think I showed any surprise on my face.  I was now in the last 100 km of the Walk and hoping deep quiet. After this revelation I decided to walk on my own.

Some pilgrims could not rightfully be described as pilgrims. Some, too many, it seemed, were there for reasons to do with sport. There were those who were certainly not pilgrims, if one was to judge by their words. Yes, I did meet a few who, after the first greeting, went into vituperative paroxysm even make noises like "Oh the churches are so opulent. Would it not make more sense to sell all those riches and give the money to the poor?" Head scratching is permitted, I told myself. And tut-tutting and a feeling of vexed by simple minds. Then it echoes in my mind: Faith, hope and charity and of these the greatest is charity. I smile. I listen and bid that person  adieu. Thankfully I encountered less than a handful of such interested unbelievers. After such encounters I could not help feeling that for someone who is actually walking the El Camino for religious reasons, it sometimes felt as though I was the odd man outt.

The people who do not walk the St James for religious reasons do it for spiritual reasons. Still others do it for "other" reasons. Many of these wander the El Camino for physical fitness. Still others, as crass as it sounds, because it is a cheap holiday.

In the video vignettes I posed three questions:

a) What is your name?

b) From where do you hail?

c) What is the reason for your journey?

Videos (Short versions)


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