EXCERPT from Chapter One:
Insanity. Clearly, this was evidence of certifiable insanity. What had I been thinking? It was my first full day on the Camino and I was already in serious trouble. I had badly misjudged the amount of distance I had covered and my water supply was almost gone. The trail from Puente la Reina started easily enough, it was relatively flat and the trail wound through a peaceful rural landscape. But even in mid-September, the extreme summer heat and humidity were persisting in northern Spain and I was sweating profusely. It wasn’t only the unaccustomed weight of a 25-pound knapsack on my back, it was also the heaviness of my body and spirit that had accumulated over the last three disastrous years. And there was the fact that I hadn’t even begun the kind of training that I should have done prior to attempting anything even remotely like this.
“This” was the Camino Francés, one of a network of routes that are referred to collectively as the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (the Way of St. James of Compostela). The Camino Francés begins in southern France, passes through the Pyrenees Mountains and continues across northern Spain almost to the Atlantic coast. From the 12th century onward (and with recently
renewed interest), a pilgrimage to Santiago was a performance of faith, a petition for some desired outcome, an act of penance, a plea for redemption or simply a test of mental and physical stamina. It became all of those things for me over the next few weeks although at the start, my motivation was simply to accomplish something that was so beyond anything I had ever done in the physical realm that it would somehow create a definitive rupture with the past few years that I so longed to leave behind.
The different routes start in various places around Europe including the British Isles (with several of them originating in different regions of Spain) but they all end at the same place: the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in the northwest province of Galicia. The route I was following is by far the most heavily trafficked; tens of thousands of peregrinos now travel it every year. Known as the Camino Francés, it is almost 500 miles in length from its origin in St. Jean Pied de Port in southern France to Santiago de Compostela across the expanse of northern Spain.
In what apparently had been one of the last rational thoughts to enter my head, I had decided that starting the trip by hiking across the Pyrenees was probably a tad ambitious for someone so utterly out of shape. This decision was reinforced when, shortly before I left for Europe, I heard about a movie written and directed by Emilio Estevez entitled The Way. It was not yet released in the States but I had read the plot summary that began with the story of a man who goes to Spain to recover the remains of his son who had died while walking the Camino when he was caught in an unseasonal snowstorm in the Pyrenees. That seemed to support the soundness of my decision to bump up my starting point. So, I opted instead to begin in the city of Pamplona in the verdant, mountainous Spanish province of Navarre. As it turned out, hiking across the Pyrenees may have taken less exertion and time than it took me to get from London to Pamplona. I have traveled extensively in my work but this became a lesson in the difference between the usual, “I need to go to Geneva for a two day meeting next week” and all of the possible complications that can ensue while traveling on a very small budget carrying a 25-pound knapsack.