Journey to the End of the World
Hiking the hard road to a new self
Image by Flickr user: Jim Anzalone / Creative Commons
I was living in Germany, and a friend suggested that I go to Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, Spain, at the finis terrae—the end of the earth—the most visited city in the West during the High Middle Ages. My friend explained that it was a pilgrimage site, that many believed that Saint James the Apostle’s body was interred there, that pilgrims established roads that can still be traced today. Why did these thousands travel from as far away as Galway on the west coast of Ireland to the extreme end of the known world? I concluded that there was but one way to find out: to walk to Compostela myself.
Shoes, a Staff, a Start
May 4, St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles
None of my friends tried to dissuade me. On the contrary. One loaned me a thick sleeping bag; another, a large backpack; another, an ingenious Swiss army knife. The friend who had originally suggested this journey loaned me an old but sturdy-looking pair of Italian mountain shoes: “Here, put these on—they’ll take you all the way to Compostela.” Amazingly, they fit. Today, however, I’m worried. Maybe I just imagined that they fit me . . .
I have a rough map indicating the camino, with the names of villages through which I will pass. For each larger town, there is a simplified street map. There are two routes from St. Jean to Roncesvalles. I want to find the marked trail; the other runs alongside a road. Soon I realize I am going along the road, not the trail. But how long will it take to go back and find the other way? There are no towns on the trail, no place to stop for the night.
Yesterday, back in Germany, my left knee pained me. Off and on, it hurt during the seven days that I had practiced for the journey. Early each morning, I had shouldered the pack, filled with books, and walked for two hours. After one week, I could wait no longer. I filled the pack, put on the mountain shoes, and jumped on the train.
But now I begin to feel apprehension. What if those irregular pains turn out to be something serious? What if I need some kind of medical care? What if I become a burden to my children through this vain traipsing through an unknown foreign country?
I had made the decision, before starting out, that I would walk alone. I felt that only in this way would I be able to explore the secrets of the camino, which, I believed, might be possible if I could accompany those who went before. Carefree, with no thought of danger, I walk through the town of Valcarlos. I am in Spain! Three pilgrims greet me; a young man who carries a good stout staff encourages me to find one, too. The pilgrim staff is a regular feature in the iconography of Santiago Perigrino, as St. James is often represented; there is even a blessing for it. In 1928, a young Madrid pilgrim writes in his relato—his report—the street in the city where he bought his staff made of ash. He rejoices in the music of its regular tapping the earth as he walks, and he believes it to be indispensable. Later I find a newly fallen tree and cut a staff with my new pocketknife.
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