After a long break to oppose a massive, auto-centric development proposed here in Portland, I return to my preferred topic of walking to announce (Tada!) :
Next month I’ll start walking the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route from the French side of the Pyrenees to the cathedral city of Santiago in northwestern Spain.
For about two months—if all goes as planned—I’ll be on The Way, as it’s known. Have you seen the movie by that name, directed by Emilio Estevez starring his father, Martin Sheen? It apparently gives a good idea of what the walk is like, in camaraderie, scenery, and personally transformative power.
Inspired partly by the movie, I’ve been planning this trip for more than a year, perhaps as long as two years. But now it’s official: I’ve bought the ticket—tickets, actually because the first 10 days I’ll be traveling with my younger daughter Allison.
So the die is cast. We depart Sept. 13.
Besides questions about the itinerary, I’m most often asked why I’m doing it.
My decision was so intuitive—it seemed to arrive in my mind in an instant, fully formed—I’ve had to fabricate an answer out of fragmentary recollections and oddments of feelings.
I know I first ran across a mention of the Camino in a research article by an ethnographer, Sean Slavin, who had walked the path and interviewed fellow hikers about their experiences. The text was dense, and the ideas odd (For instance, pilgrims occupy “liminoid social spaces in relation to surrounding society”). But the idea of paring down to the simple and the self-reliant is part of my DNA.
I had after all, in my 30s, walked, bussed, and tented around Europe with a loaded pack for 45 days. Despite that pack’s heft of more than 50 pounds, the resulting adventure—living in a thatched-roof hut in Galway, camping beside castles in Scotland, hiking the high Alps of Provence with boar hunters—remains a lifelong landmark. Was I ready for another?
I had also homesteaded for five years in the wooded hills of Vermont, without phone, electricity, or running water, hot or cold.
Paring down indeed!
And, for the most part, I had loved it.
What really caught and held me, though, was when I learned that Santiago is Spanish for Saint James.
I have for many years belonged to a spiritual group whose first members read so exclusively from the biblical book of James that they were planning to name themselves “The Jamsesians” before another name prevailed.
I regularly draw inspiration from the four or five pages that make up that short New Testament book, pages that are more a guide to daily living than a call to prayer or any other kind of divine devotion.
Free of sectarian belief, I felt—and feel—called to walk to Santiago, a city and a cathedral built to honor James the Greater, who was sent to preach Christ’s teachings on the Iberian peninsula.
Perhaps even more primally, I feel called to walk to the ocean beyond Santiago. The great rock slabs shown in images sliding down into the sea at Finisterre remind me so much of the Maine coast a hundred yards from my adopted home.
And rightfully so. When the continents were mooshed together eons ago as Pangaea, Spain was pressed into the side of North America just north of Maine.
As a result, standing at what the Spanish call the end of the earth, I expect to feel at home. And I will be looking out toward home.
For me, then, this going away represents many forms of coming home.