“There are so few wanderers left,” says a character at the end of the novel Couples by John Updike. “We are almost all homebodies and hoarders.” Reading that after walking the Camino de Santiago, it really struck home.
The epic hike across the pastoral breadth of northern Spain is a pilgrimage like no other; in fact, it defies conventional wisdom about what constitutes a pilgrim. It can be holy if you want it to be; it can also be a riot of carnival.
It’s about 900 kilometers east to west if you begin at the most popular starting point just on the other side of the Pyrenees in France’s Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, then push on through the city of Santiago de Compostela—technically the end of the pilgrimage—and continue for another 85 kilometers or so to the logical terminus at the town of Finisterre on Spain’s Galician coast. That’s a good walk in anyone’s book.
Since returning, I’ve been continually perplexed by, and mulled endlessly over, just why the experience was so fulfilling, shocking even—shocking in a dazzling, uplifting way. After all, I was only walking, putting one foot in front of the other, no big deal. I’ve also puzzled over why the amazing rejuvenation it conjured up in both body and mind has been so hard to maintain since returning to the normal, non-Camino lifestyle of bustling America.
What was so vital during the Camino, I’ve realized, was a constant sense of momentum. That brought about so much else: a sense of achievement each day as a new destination was reached, novelty, camaraderie with fellow travelers—little of which is experienced amid the torrid stasis that counts as the modern lifestyle.
“If you live today, you breathe in nihilism, it’s the gas you breathe,” wrote novelist Flannery O’Connor—and that was in the 1950s. Much of today’s nihilism is rooted in materialism, the lust for profit margins and inhumane aspects of the capitalist free market. Contrary to its nomenclature, that market increasingly appears to be trampling on any sense of freedom in important areas of society and the family, whereby the weak, disabled, and old are sidelined due to their inability to serve as useful economic actors.
Camino means “journey” in Spanish, and the one I followed had been traversed for centuries, first by pagans and then by those clinging to the belief that the bones of Saint James, one of the Twelve Apostles, rest within the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Its existence is a shared countering of such nihilism for pilgrims (everyone I met, whether religious or not, was happy to be called a pilgrim, which I think says something in itself—we are all wanderers at heart).
With all the marvels of modern transport at our beck and call, most of us actually don’t go anywhere different. Even if you fly somewhere, it’s the same airports, hotels, and resorts through which most people revolve.
“Tourism is the great soporific,” said the British writer and sage J.G. Ballard. “It’s a huge confidence trick, and gives people the dangerous idea that there’s something interesting in their lives. All the upgrades in existence lead to the same airports and resort hotels, the same pina colada bullshit. …The tourists smile at their tans and their shiny teeth and think they’re happy. But the suntans hide who they really are—salary slaves, with heads full of American rubbish. Travel is the last fantasy the 20th century left us, the delusion that going somewhere helps you reinvent.”
This monocultural creed that’s been stamped on the world is one of the major push factors for those who strike out on the Camino. Continually I heard people lament the same problems and trappings of modern society, and about how they undertook the Camino to find space amid the tumult.
One pilgrim called the Camino the “Woodstock of our age”: a way of breaking away from the suffocating relentlessness, confusion, and expense of modern society.
This expansive urge was keenly expressed in the imaginative and plentiful graffiti along the Camino, sprayed and scrawled on walls, bridges, and underpasses: “Wage Hope!” “Be stronger than your strongest excuse.” “Don’t be afraid ever. This is just a ride.” “Fuck work. Let’s surf.”
“People just live to work,” I was told by Liza, a pilgrim and “healer” from France. “My parents gave everything to teaching but at the end of their careers they told me don’t do teaching—people just go to work, sleep, eat, then do it again.”
Admittedly, despite the Camino being substantively simple, it is not a simple option to take. Not many can afford such a long break, either because their jobs and bosses won’t allow them to or because they can’t afford the loss in salary.
But there are easier options closer to hand, if only one will seek them out, notes the British writer Will Self, a self-proclaimed and obsessive urban walker.
“To walk the city and its environs is, in a very powerful sense, to use it,” Self says. “The contemporary [walker] is by nature and inclination a democratizing force who seeks quality of access, freedom of movement and the dissolution of corporate and state control.”
Self makes the point that there are two types of walking. The first, such as walking to work, has an obvious objective, and the second, walking simply for the sake of it, serves “as a resource that can refresh us physically, aesthetically and even spiritually.”
Self writes about the surrealist poet Louis Aragon, who, drawing on foot-bound ventures around Paris, described how the walker could, if sufficiently alive to nuances of place and atmosphere, experience the “moment.” This, Self says, is the “ambulatory equivalent of the sort of insights the surrealists believed they received from dreams, séances, automatic writing and other methods they used to short circuit the deadening influence of rationality.”
But increasingly we are boxing ourselves in with rationality, data, and sheer laziness. Self notes that with each passing year, the number of journeys taken on foot declines. At the current rate, walking may die out as a means of transport by the middle of this century.
As we focus on our smart phones, credit cards, mortgages, job promotions, widgets, frequent flyer miles, and the like, we let ourselves be ensnared by what the Stoic philosophers and anarchists call the disposable trash of the enslaved society. And we let our deep-level imaginations atrophy.
Nowadays we are increasingly vulnerable to the taunt thrown by the satirical poet Juvenal at the Roman people more than 1,800 years ago that our main desire is panem et circenses—cake and cinema.
We should pay attention to that criticism. We are designed as humans to look to a horizon and move towards it. But we are forgetting this truth, and it’s destroying us as we eke out lives of routine and vacuity.
“When we are free from necessary cares and labor, we long to see, hear, learn, and we regard knowledge of hidden and marvelous matters as essential to a happy life,” said the Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Cicero in the first century. “From this we understand that what is true, simple and uncorrupted is best suited to human nature.”
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the Horn of Africa, the U.S., and the UK, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey.