The walks in and out
Walking as a method to transform walls soon became a way to discover and to transform oneself. Early August 2014, I travelled to Irún, a Bask town at the border between France and Spain, and I spent the night in an old municipal hostel. The place was filled with pilgrims who were undoubtedly as much impatient as I was to start walking at dawn the Northern Way of Saint James for the next thirty days. Being myself apathetic of religious beliefs, the walk began by just wishing lonesomeness in the wilderness while being far from urban environments. The return to an elementary state of life was nonetheless a momentary illusion, in which one could naively see the pilgrim as a non-product of culture, a secular being in nature, whereas the linearity of Christian trails would remind the religion’s moral values. Rather, today’s pilgrim is a post-modern actor of a simulated ascetic experience of poverty, humility and chastity, but the conception of that illusion was and still is extremely necessary to awaken the senses, the sublime truthfulness of an attentive body, beyond the darken screens of our times.
As such, nature’s greatness revealed itself all along the Atlantic coast, unfolding the body’s fragilities when walking in the darkness; going up and down muddy hills by taking extremely care of blisters, muscles and wounds; resisting dehydration caused by the burning sun; or protecting the bag pack from the rain by reusing huge garbage bags. Simultaneously, the rediscovery of everyday life simplicities revealed culture’s prominence, expanding body’s hedonistic pleasures when drinking hot coffees and beers; eating dried fruits, tortilla sandwiches and bowls of lentils; or taking refreshing showers and gratifying naps once the thirty kilometres a day of arduous effort were done. What the body may have felt was a better control of itself, where one could measure distances through footsteps and then perceive environments at a different level, at a human scale. There were not engines to transport the living body between one stage and the other, nor escalators or lifts, just its feet and the carrying out of the willing. What the mind may have a felt was more time for itself, where one could think slowly and introspectively while sharing experiences with people from far and wide. There were not consumerist distractions to transport the mind towards the contemplation of its own degeneration, but just consecutive satisfactions in overcoming efforts. The desperate search of instantaneousness, of scrolling the screen, of impatience to boredom and slowness, was thus overtaken by the large amount of meaningful and nourishing rewards that one could offer to his body and mind on a daily basis. With all that is needed in a thirty litres backpack, a new routine was followed in waking up at five or six in the morning, walking until two in the afternoon, resting and enjoying new landscapes until the night would come, and silence would bring strength in a well-earned sleep. The routine was clearly organised in time slots but there were always unexpected episodes that certainly made the journey more stimulating than first imagined while discovering my hidden natural being.
Walking as pilgrim 2km per hour, 20 to 30km per day.
Today’s Camino is well tended for modern pilgrimage as may show the well-known label of a yellow scallop shell. The natural shape has become cultural, transformed into an iconic symbol that reassures people who may be afraid of being lost. The yellow shell is at the core of the pilgrim community, showing the right direction to follow, bringing together individuals on a universal route and reinforcing their ties when sharing the struggle. Pilgrims are instantly recognised by the way they dress – the backpack aesthetic – and by the trail they follow. All roads felled with yellow arrows or yellow shells painted on a blue background, lead to the city of Santiago de Compostela, the spectacular end of that one-way journey, where the Apostle Saint James was buried. The yellow shell is also a product of consumption, a brand that may lead some pilgrims to behave as tourists in every town they walk through, while modifying local areas to satisfy their paradoxical need of locality. Interestingly, some people walk to disconnect from the intensity of city life to find their own utopia that they may not find as easily reachable as in urban environments. One may escape from a routine to enter in another, with its codes and rules, and that is how the step-by-step trail may reassure those who may seek adventure without being too adventurous. On the other side, from a pantheist perspective, the landscapes used by the Christian religion as a scenario to obtain God’s miracles and indulgences in medieval times, are in turn consumed by the mass of the twenty-first century. In summer, the last stages in Galicia largely exceed the capacity of people that small towns could and should receive, without mentioning those who only walk the last hundred kilometres to obtain a certificate of merit on completion of their journey. In the past, walking used to be a monetary value for shrines, but today the papacy has not the monopoly anymore, letting others obtaining benefits of the pilgrimage industry such as private hostels, restaurants, pharmacies, and even Correos, the national postal service, by providing backpacks’ transport from one stage to the other to let pseudo-pilgrims walk with lightweight bulks. Nietzsche criticised the Christian interpretation of suffering as ‘the prime argument against life’ rather than ‘a veritable enticement to life’, but this analogy could be applied when observing people’s hard physical effort being overcome by a sense of comfortableness inasmuch as Capital has replaced God. In short, one may flee its urban self and the consumerist mass to find them again on the trail under more subtle forms. The illusion was there, again, and there was only one’s own will to ignore it and find enjoyable these summer holidays, or annual break, the ultimate paradox of the modern adventurer.
If not paying attention to these obvious contradictions, the yellow scallop shell could successfully work as a powerful symbol of unity. Unknown people helped me every time I was slightly injured and needed food, water or shelter to spend the night, which made me feel an infinite gratitude towards human condition. That Christian morality has not the monopoly of charity is widely known but this increasing and contagious enthusiasm to do good on a daily basis along the trail was unusual in times when many consider our civilization to be decadent. The already weaken religion preserved an historical tradition that may have become a path of salvation for those tired of the deleterious causes and effects of their unhappiness. In Güemes (Cantabria), the rural house La Casa del Abuelo Peuto was one of the most acclaimed hostels of the Northern Camino, in which the hosts’ strong testimony of solidarity and humanism was inviting pilgrims to behave tolerantly beyond the trail, recovering a forgotten spirituality. Back to Barcelona, the yellow traffic lines and signage panels replaced instantly the yellow arrows and scallop shells. The path of redemption brightens with that yellow – easily recognizable over dark tones – that was merged into a codified city order. Back to the Mediterranean coast where the sunshine’s light, food and music bring amusement to people, I started paying more attention to those men walking with hiking shoes and backpacks wandering the streets. There were not pilgrims with whom to share past experiences; their homeless condition was hiding a much worst suffering. The trail may give sense to senseless lives as religion may do, and that is how people’s altruistic instinct along the Camino prompted me to return the same gesture to those who were truly in need, for whom my month illusion was a life reality. Thus, that is the apotheosis of the utopia, when one obeys its own instincts without reflection, without asking why these moral values have suddenly such effect on one’s actions as if the coherence of the argument was reasonably convincing. Before engaging myself as a charitable soul, a wall had to be taken to honour the Camino’s legacy, with a pseudo-artwork that I painted and stuck near Plaza del Sol – the sun square – predicting the next steps to follow.