‘I was looking for nothing when I set off for Santiago de Compostela, and I found it.’
I’d written this on the first page of my journal before beginning the 790 km walk across Spain. Despite advice to be clear on reasons for tackling El Camino, given the exacting nature of the journey, I hadn’t thought about it much beyond hoping I could rise to a challenge, practise my Spanish. I was no pilgrim in the true sense of the word; it wasn’t religious, it wasn’t even spiritual. I didn’t expect to return a changed person. I can walk, I thought, I like walking. I can ride a bike – you don’t forget how to do that. But I’d forgotten we’d be crossing the Pyrenees on day one – well, the foothills anyway, a steady steep climb for about 32 kms. Beginning at St Jean Pied de Port, just over the French border; a pretty little medieval village with its window boxes of bright geraniums, shutters, stone arches and cobbled streets. We took the Route de Napoleon, the steepest and most difficult route away from the village.
The views from that climb were spectacular: wind turbines lazily turning, drift of fog over the valleys below, the blend of colours on the hills from lavender to brown to green, moss covered trunks of beech forests, and always the hovering clouds to show just how high we were – we rose to 1950 metres eventually. Along the sides of the track always the tangled bracken and blackberries, rose-hips, wild strawberries, fennel and nettles. No pilgrim need ever go hungry along the way: almond, walnut and chestnut trees, apple and pear trees, plump blackberries. And right near the top of our climb that day, a caravan covered in fake rock, with a coffee machine, cold beer, and muffins.
But what goes ever onward and up, must inevitably come down. And following the climb was a knee-jerking stumble downhill that seemed to go on forever until we finally came to Roncevalles and a beautifully restored old monastery. No lift and a room on the 3rd floor made it seem an impossibility that I would be able to wrestle my heavy luggage up those stairs. But it was done, with much swearing. Lying in the silence of my room after that first day, I wondered whether I would be able to get up in the morning to do it all again. My feet, though not blistered, felt like two tubs of cement had settled around them. Lying down before dinner wasn’t a good idea. It was very difficult to rise again, though the meal and especially the wine made it all worthwhile.
The following morning my feet had returned to normal and the pains of the day before were forgotten. This was to be the process for the next 35 days – discomfort, doubt, recovery. And always the thought in the back of my mind that I would make it, despite the aching joints, despite the feeling at times that every bone in my feet had been broken. I’m a fit person. But I don’t normally walk 20 to 30 kms each day for days on end. Of course, riding a bike (which we did for 7 days) brought with it a whole new range of pains that made me never want to see another bike, ever. And riding into a strong wind on a bike was indescribably difficult! So was lugging it up and over steep rocky terrain.
When the heat was relentless and the shade minimal, I’d find myself looking at my feet, then at the tiny things in front of me: a beetle crossing the track, a feather, a purple pebble, an ant, little pieces of flattened moss like coral or dead trees or the veins in the body, and, on occasions, giant black slugs at least 12 cm long and as fat as a man’s thumb. The inch by inch struggle, the competing textures of the path, the vegetation at the sides of the way. And then I’d look up: cloud topped hills, pebbled path, backpacks and hats of fellow walkers, fields of sunflowers. Listen to the sounds: mostly silence, scuff of footsteps, chiming bells on cows and goats grazing in the valleys, the tap of my necklaces knocking together sounding just like the tap-tap of walking poles, calls of Buen Camino from passersby. And once, a whisper in the long grasses, a brief time-stilled whisper, of all those pilgrims from the early ages with their wooden staves, their cloaks, beards, empty bellies and eyes on redemption or whatever called them, their sandals or bare feet slapping the earth in the same way, the same place as mine; a certain traversing of time as I walked by the grasses and the wind whispered in the way that reminds of things in the corner of your mind, things lost, or never had, but known. I had a momentary understanding then of life and The Way being one and the same; ups and downs, pain and recovery, trust and in the end we all arrive – somewhere. And that I could live like this forever: walk, eat, laugh, drink, sleep; that that is the way we all should live.
We have constructed a world of perceived urgency and spend our lives trying to overcome the effects: scented candles, yoga, massage, meditation, positive affirmations, counselling, alcohol, drugs. Just walk I say. Take a long walk and feel the blessed weight of nothingness.
Arriving in Santiago I didn’t fall to my knees or weep in relief, I wasn’t a changed person, but I hadn’t expected to be. What I found, in the silence and struggle of the walk itself, was absence. Absence of rush, timelines, forgotten passwords, traffic crush, do this survey, write this report, pay these bills, look out! there’s a speed camera. Instead there was nothing – except silence, and the absence of need for anything to be done except walk.