My Winter Walk
Drawn back to the unfinished path
Is it possible to be satisfied walking only a section of the Camino Francés without completing the entire stretch from St. Jean Pied de Port or at least from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela? I imagine that this is difficult and that one will always be very strongly drawn to the unfinished path.
This is what I experienced after completing my summer walk. Although I had contemplated walking alternate routes the next time around, such as the Portuguese Way or the Camino del Norte and others, it was always the unfinished Camino Francés that begged for completion.
Even walking the total Camino in stages will always be a compromise, although this is what pilgrims with time restraints or for economic reasons have to do these days. The same applied to me.
The real pilgrimage may be one that is walked all the way, from start to finish in one go – not in stages. Undertaking the walk over a prolonged period ‒ for weeks on end, finally having the satisfaction of reaching Santiago. It means experiencing not only joy, but also the prolonged hardships of this walk, enduring adverse weather conditions, rough paths, steep climbs and descents – missing loved ones and foregoing a regular and comfortable life at home.
There are bound to be off days when one has had enough of walking and would be happy to see the end. Experiencing discomfort in albergues with their shared bathrooms, squeaking double bunks, the odd behaviour of one’s fellow pilgrims and a possibility of bedbug infestations might be off-putting.
Eating sub-standard meals prepared by well-meaning but inept cooks and walking in rain and freezing temperatures can be challenging. In my case, at home everything is in perfect order and there is nothing more enticing than comfortable surroundings with delicious home cooking. I have retired; I can afford hotel rooms, I can eat in restaurants and have all the mod cons. Why do I opt to rough it? And why do so many others, so many youngsters, so many pilgrims in their forties to sixties, as well as the odd die-hard seventy- or even eighty-year olds find the way so fascinating?
Very few activities, if any, provide as much distance from everyday life as we know it. In the period of a few weeks one experiences hardly any distractions from ‘outside’ and from conventional life. We are not required to perform or to take major decisions; there is no need for conformity; we have no obligations; life becomes simple and the daily routine is plain and straightforward.
Six or more hours a day are dedicated to walking, a rhythmic exercise with few distractions. In my case, thoughts generated when walking from one village to the next have more to do with establishing a rhythm and working out how much further it is to the next destination, where to buy provisions, what to buy, whether to stop for a meal or just have a coffee, etc. These are remarkably simple considerations.
Under these basic conditions, repeated over a prolonged period, the body and mind seem to resettle. It is as if the body realigns and recharges the internal energy meridians, as apparently it does with acupuncture and pressure point treatments, but much more thoroughly and with longer lasting effects. The head becomes lighter, the mind becomes uncluttered and more receptive to new impressions, and as a result new thoughts and ideas arise.
It is walking the uninterrupted total distance of the Camino that most thoroughly separates us from life as we normally know it. It is this separation from the known that is fascinating, unique and beneficial. One can compare this to cleaning and re-formatting a cluttered computer hard drive. After a thorough cleanse everything functions more smoothly and faster. In my case, over the past 70 odd years of use, a great deal of junk had accumulated in my brain and downloads from the ‘World Wide Web’ had clogged the system. Old experiences that are no longer relevant, ‒ like obsolete programs on the hard disc – or unnecessary emotional baggage in the mind, require re-assessing and archiving. Memories that befuddle the brain and cause distractions from our present need to be filed. It is amazing how junk can obscure the good and the positive and how beneficial a ‘brain clean-up’ can be.
All of the above contributes to opening our senses and the new vigour that flows from this generates the enthusiasm that I saw in most people I met on the Camino. The more time we can allow this process to take place, the more unique the pilgrimage is likely to become, and it is for this reason that I maintain that walking all 800 km, or even further if starting from beyond the Pyrenees mountain range, from somewhere in Europe for instance, represents a real pilgrimage.
The company of others when arriving at the albergue for the night is an essential component of this experience. It is important to be part of the community of pilgrims that has now existed for 1200 years – to get to know and interact with the many different characters and to participate in the few common activities and their rituals. Even overtaking others, or being overtaken on the walk, has its ceremony and makes one aware that one is not alone – that one belongs to this community. We humans need company; we need to be part of a bigger picture and identify with others. This is necessary, although I must confess that I did enjoy the three days alone at the end of this winter walk without seeing a single pilgrim.
I have probably met no more than a handful of walkers who undertook the Camino for physical reasons, and from what I could observe, there were not that many who walked for purely religious reasons either. It is more likely that pilgrims search for solutions to life in general or to overcome specific problems which might be work-related, relationship-related, health or family-related, or for any other reason. The nature of the walk is such that most pilgrims are probably not afraid to question themselves and are willing to explore a new dimension in life.
Perhaps they do not start with specific reasons for the walk in mind – or they cannot identify the motives that brought them to Spain. They probably realize soon enough, however, that there was a need to undertake this venture and reasons become clear.
Why do I regard walking by oneself so important? What I had experienced was that, whenever we walk with others, or are in others’ company, our senses deflect. If someone walks next to you – your mind and attention ‘bends’ sideways to the other. In walking alone, this is not the case, our awareness in this case is forward or inwards or it is plain and simply selfishly private, bare of distraction. One does observe one’s surroundings to some extent but in essence attention is straight ahead and unencumbered. This is liberating and is probably aiding the process of re-configuring one’s mind.
Why did I choose to undertake my second walk in the coldest winter in decades? This was more a coincidence than a deliberate intention. It was certainly not planned. For family reasons it became essential for Uta and me to fly to Germany at the end of January and this prompted me to travel on to Spain to walk from Roncesvalles to Fromista. Although this was decided at short notice, I had enough time for the necessary preparations as well as for two weeks of intensive physical training.
I received many well-meant warnings from family and friends. Their concerns were that walking in February in severe weather conditions would not be pleasant and could turn out to be rather dangerous – and this February turned out to be abnormally cold with unusually heavy snowfalls. However, I was determined and ignored their concerns.
With the high-tech equipment available today, low temperatures and snow did not seem an obstacle. I made use of a climate simulator in one of Cape Town’s outdoor supply stores, where the temperature was controlled to minus eight degrees Celsius. This assisted in selecting the appropriate gear, despite prevailing outside temperatures hovering around plus thirty degrees.
I own a substantial but rather ancient hiking jacket which I tested for a while under our shower at home. It passed the trial and no water penetrated, confirming that the garment would protect me. On a winter walk like this preparation is important, in extreme circumstances it can be a matter of life and death, as is demonstrated by recorded fatalities of Pilgrims crossing the Pyrenees.