happy pilgrim

Yes, it is too dam small in here

“You want to be as entrepreneurial as possible,” I advise aspiring pilgrims. And I often get quizzical looks with this advice. Entrepreneurial? What in the world is he talking about?

Let me say right away that this has absolutely nothing to do with anything so crass as actual pursuit of money (Given that I’m American, I thought that was a necessary disclosure!). No, what I’m referring to is a pilgrim’s actual mindset. Because the question I receive time and again is, ‘Who do you decide to hike with’? And for those of you who have read my Camino narrative, The Best Way, you are aware that I consider the astoundingly diverse cast of characters that populate the Camino de Santiago–especially the Camino Frances–to be the greatest part of the entire Camino experience.

There is no cookbook approach to finding pilgrims to walk with. But the entrepreneurial mindset–looking for propitious situations and avoiding disadvantageous ones–is a good attitude to carry into the journey. This is especially important considering that reams of pilgrims–including many female pilgrims–arrive to do the pilgrimage alone. Right away they are going to be facing the issue of interaction with fellow pilgrims.

Of course, we all–or most of us–fear rejection. The good news is that relationships amongst pilgrims tend to develop organically. That is, you naturally find trekking partners based on your walking speed, frequency of breaks, preference for albergues, and dining habits. It also depends on one’s personality. I consider myself a bit of an extrovert; I like to be around people. And given the international population of Camino pilgrims, I prefer to be around pilgrims of as many nationalities as possible. “I don’t hike with Americans while overseas,” I have told people. That is not literally true, and I am not anti-American in any way. However, I don’t make the long trip over the Atlantic with the idea of hiking with other Americans. And I meet Europeans of the same mindset. “I can’t take this group any longer,” an Italian lady told me last year, speaking of a large group of Italian pilgrims. Perhaps not coincidentally, we ended up hiking together.

The previous year I ended up walking with a large contingent of males and females from Paris. Of course, the longstanding phobia that French and Americans have for each other is well known. I love the irony of it, and it certainly seems like you learn more when walking with foreigners (We spoke the neutral language of Spanish, which they had a much greater command of). You see all kinds of ironies on the Camino. I remember an unfortunate situation in an albergue when a drunk pilgrim began grabbing at a young French lady. An 18 year boy from Germany, France’s long-time nemesis, stepped in an rescued the girl. She ended up walking the next 300 kilometers with the German and his girlfriend, despite severe communication problems.

But perhaps I should not have mentioned that incident above for the simple reason that I have seen so few unpleasant episodes over the course of my three pilgrimages. The risk of other pilgrims causing you serious problems is very low, so stick your neck out. The odds are that you will be around people of very different backgrounds, which means that you have a lot to learn from each other. If for some reason you do find hiking partners to be unpleasant, there are a jillion different ways to get away from them. Melting into the crowd (there are people around at almost all times, day and night) of pilgrims is the most time-tested. In fact, unless you are especially content with the people you are walking with (Note: people have met on the Camino and gotten married), my advice is to bounce around some. Some days you might choose to go extra distance which will immerse you with pilgrims on a different schedule; other days you might choose to pull up short. “Hike your own hike,” is the well-known paradigm amongst Appalachian Trail hikers. Camino pilgrims would be well-served to follow this ethos.

It is worth remembering that the word ‘travel’ comes from the Anglo-Latin word, ‘travails’. This brings up yet another great irony. In this day and age of instantaneous communication and supersonic jet travel, it is harder than ever to travel soulfully and well. However, the Camino mode of travel–walking several hours per day, along with breaks, communal meals, and shared bunkrooms, is a step away from overly sanitized, antiseptic travel. Better yet, more than any way I have ever traveled, it affords a person great opportunity to make authentic acquaintances, rather than just surface-deep chatter with hotel desk clerks and waiters. But to maximize this opportunity, I recommend pilgrims do the Camino alone and with an entrepreneurial mindset.

Bill Walker is the author of The Best Way – El Camino de Santiago He is also the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trailand Getting High–The Annapurna Circuit in Nepal.