First off, so you don’t have to read to the end to get my overall view – this is the best Camino de Santiago travelogue that I have read to date. It is funny, at points heart-wrenching, insightful, and like the best of these books, brutally honest. On top of all that, it is a dam good read, one of the few that I found hard to put down in the evening.
However, when I started the book, my immediate impression was, “I am not going to like this book or this guy.” Perhaps the book was deliberately written this way as it highlights the contrast between the thinking at the start of the Camino Frances and the more gentle thinking that develops through the book.
How Heavy is Your Rucksack?
Once on the Camino, many of the first questions that people ask each other is about weight, and there are lots of comments along the lines of “wow, look at the size of that pack,” keep the weight low is important. (also read more on the weight I lost on the Camino) On the forum, some members have even weighed everything and posted the information for others. Bill says:
I’d become obsessed with the weight of my backpack. Before leaving Australia, I’d weighed everything on my digital kitchen scales. I did this secretly, up in my office, in case my wife discovered I was weighing my underpants.
Why Walk the Camino?
I have written about reasons for walking the Camino before, but I’ve never really figured out why it keeps drawing me back. Bill also asks why; he asks why a lot throughout the book:
I’d never done anything crazy like this before – a pilgrimage walk. I was not a hiker, and I wasn’t a Catholic. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I was a Christian.
I was also not an adventure traveller. I’d never kayaked down the Amazon or climbed Machu Picchu or trekked across Siberia. For me, adventure travel was flying coach. All this backpacking and wearing of heavy boots and flying off to France to walk ancient pilgrimage routes was a new experience, and not one that made me feel entirely comfortable.
No, I was doing this pilgrimage because… Yes Bill, why ARE you doing it? I had no idea why I was doing it. All I knew was that I had to do it. There was no question about it. I simply had to walk the Camino.
I met my other half on the Camino ten years ago, so the Camino still comes up in conversations, and I still struggle to answer the question simply and easily why I walked.
Bill, like many, says he wanted to think. Now, apart from the fact that a lot of thinking is overrated, many who walk state this same purpose. Are we unhappy looking for a better way to live?
At that moment, I realised I was facing my first real test of the Camino. I quickly saw that this was more than just a decision about my naïve notion of what it was to be a pilgrim. This was a decision about my flexibility. My capacity to do things differently. My preparedness to take on change.
One of Bill’s first lessons was learning how to do the laundry. However, there was much more than this to learn. He had started with a romantic image of how a pilgrim should be, and part of that was trekking with a wooden walking staff. However, he, like many, suffered problems with his knees, legs, and feet. He had to discard the walking pole for sticks:
That then raised the question: Why are you doing the Camino? Was I doing it to indeed bring forth change? Did I truly believe that I actually needed to change? Or more importantly, that I could change? I was nearly sixty. At that age can you press the reset button and hope that you’ll default to a nicer less complicated human being? That you can expunge the irksome characteristics of a lived life, and rid yourself of those personality traits that have made life so unnecessarily difficult? For you and for those around you?
These are questions that I have asked myself; how much can I change? Shortly after Anna met me on the Camino, she informed me that I was one of the grumpiest pilgrims that she had met. I am still not known for my sunny outlook, but the grumpiness has more humor now.
Later in the book, he says:
This damn Camino is like a psychiatrist’s couch.
I now prefer to think of it as a month long walking meditation that allowed me to see the constant circular useless
thinking noise in my head that would not be quiet for a moment and gave no benefit in return.
But he goes on to say:
I realised the Camino had just cold-cocked me again. It had brought up stuff from forty and fifty years ago that was obviously still coiled in some dark grubby little recess of my psyche.
Snoring and Farting
Noticing that one of his dorm mates on the first night snored, he thought he was doing her a favor by having a quiet word telling her that she snored. However
She told me that I not only snored, I farted. Then she left quickly, for which we were both grateful.
Other people in the room helped reinforce her statement, and Bill’s picture of himself had to change.
I snore. There it is; it’s out. If you sleep in the same room as me, earplugs will be necessary – earplugs are absolutely necessary on the Camino. And even I, as a snorer, use earplugs as others snoring before I get to sleep keep me awake.
One night in a hostel on the Le Puy Camino, I was fast asleep snoring, and apparently, others who came in late could not get to sleep and were making some noise and whistling to disturb me. I slept soundly through it all, though they woke everyone else in the hostel…
Where Next After The Camino
I’d be in Santiago, and then this whole episode in my life would come to an end. It wasn’t just four or five weeks of walking that would end, it was more than two years of anticipation and planning and dreaming that would no longer occupy my life.
Partway along my first Camino, I picked up a small booklet that discussed where now after the Camino and where are the yellow arrows in your life? I found my answer in mediation.
I’d become obsessed with the Camino. How would I cope when I got home?
I missed walking when I arrived in Santiago de Compostela. Initially, my days appeared without purpose; yes, I was going home, but to what kind of life now?
It took walking the Camino for me to see that there was another way, a simpler way, to live. Without fear, and without excess.
I wish I was there; I live with less excess now. As I get older, some fears dissipate, and some stay with me. Living and acting without fear would really be great.
Bill wrote a blog while on the Camino you can access it here http://pgstheway.com/; during the Camino, he asked himself questions: Who am I, What am I doing here, What really matters? I suggest you click the Past Posts menu on the right and go back to the beginning, and there are great photos and more writing as he walked the Camino.
I love hiking, backpacking, and camping. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.