“A 2000-mile walk from the heel of Italy’s boot up through Italy, across the south of France, and the north of Spain was the inspiration for my book, ‘SIX MONTHS WALKING THE WILDS (of Western Europe); the Long Way to Santiago.‘ Walking from one corner of the earth to another – Finibus Terre in Italy to Fisterra on the Northwest coast of Spain – offers a lot of time to think, to wonder, and to listen. While I walked alone for several stretches of this trip, I was able to observe some truly interesting patterns and rhythms during my time in Spain, walking what is known by most as the Camino de Santiago.
There’s a rhythm to the walk, a rhythm that goes beyond the crunch of boots on gravel. A rhythm that is more than the swinging of arms or the steamy puffs of visible breath on the coldest mornings or the pulsing stride of thousands of pilgrims along the road. It’s a rhythm that begins early every morning, with the shuffling of sleepy bodies rising from forty bunks in the bare-bones albergue. It’s the quiet waking-to-walk of a small army of gentle soldiers, all fighting only themselves, their temptation to quit and go home, their exhaustion from unfulfilling work, their spiritual lethargy.
The rhythm is a quiet packing of gear, or clinking and clicking of a quick cup of coffee before the first steps on the trail, or of skipping that cup and just walking on into the darkness, hoping to put an early dozen kilometersof the trail behind you before breakfast. It’s the rhythm of that first, sweet stop of the day. It’s walking into the third Spanish village of the morning and finally catching the bar owner making her own rhythm with the broom that announces she’s cleaning her door step and firing up the oven. It’s the huffing of her machine pumping heat through the coffee and into your veins. It’s the irregular beat of pilgrims arriving at that bar and sighing into chairs to enjoy a crust of tostada and their own cup of café con leche.
It’s the reluctant rhythm of pushing back up out of the chair to walk on, but this time with a bit more of a café-warmed smile, perhaps with a new friend to share your trail, or with ‘old’ ones you’ve missed for a few days. The rhythm of this leg of the morning is a loose one, eased by a full belly and a bit of rest, and partly from the miraculously simple pleasure of having no job to do that day other than to walk beneath a Castellano sun and a generous sky, over trails whose guards and ghosts entertain you with visions and imaginings as you find your way along the yellow arrows leading toward the fabled city of Santiago de Compostela. It’s the rhythm of stopping in the heart of each village to breathe for a moment, to give thanks for the unfailing fountain of cool water waiting there for thirsty pereginos, to lean on your pack in the shade of the church or of the lone tree by the water, to greet the other arrivals, to search faces for memories or smiles, and then to stand and walk on, walk on.
The rhythm slows and broadens when arriving at the albergue in the next town, for now you get to drop the pack for the final time of the day, to sleep for a bit, to realize what a luxury a warm shower can be, to rinse clothes and find a sunny stretch of line to hang them on so they’ll be ready for tomorrow. It’s the limping, sweet rhythm of wandering on tired feet down the ancient street to the local bar restaurant for food and drink with other pilgrims, for wine and wondering at the miracles of synchronicity that brought all of you to this perfect moment in this perfect place.
It’s the softening rhythm of aches and pains that finally lead you back to that bare mattress, to spread your blanket and stretch out for a few hours of badly-needed sleep. And then, it’s the rumbling rhythm of those lucky few who can drop off to sleep first, the restless turning of those who can’t, and the giggles of the rest who are held awake by the farce of snores that fill the room. It’s the faint pre-dawn peepings that all too soon begin to drift from watches and clocks under the covers, waking the odd collection of one-night roommates to their task. Then, groggy and sluggish, reluctant at first, the pilgrims rise, slowly, unsteadily finding the rhythm again for the new day, rising to walk on, walk on, walk on, searching for the next miracle that lies along the trail called El Camino de Santiago.