A few years ago I was sitting in the pub at Kirk Yetholm on the final night of a three-week hike along the Pennine Way, that magnificent walk of hill, dale and moorland along England's backbone. My drinking companion was a fellow walker and hiker who had also just completed the trail. I think his name was John, but I can't remember for certain. In the time-honoured way of those who confide in strangers they've just met and will never meet again, he told me his life story.
John was a merchant seaman and spent half the year doing backbreaking work on cargo and container ships. Though he'd travelled the oceans of the world, he didn't really feel he'd seen the world properly, seen it as closely as he'd like to have seen it. During a voyage, shore leave was limited, and most of the time he had his nose to the grindstone. For the rest of the year he squandered the cash he'd earned in a non-stop merry-go-round of drink, drugs, call girls and expensive resort hotels. He was young and fancy-free. This went on for many years. Then, one morning, as he lay by a hotel pool in Monte Carlo recovering from a hangover, he realised in a blinding flash that not only was he bored, but that he was totally wasting his life. He suddenly recalled a friend once mentioning the existence of an ancient network of pathways criss-crossing Europe, pilgrim trails which led either to Jerusalem, Rome or Santiago de Compostela. He decided that in future he'd spend all his spare time following these paths and other long-distance trails. And that, for all I know, is what he's doing still.
The trail became an obsession for him, in the manner of an addict giving up one drug for another, like an alcoholic radically converting into a teetotal, bible-thumping evangelist. Though John's new addiction is, I think, quite a benign one — healthy, wholesome, laudable even. I must admit I have this Camino addiction myself, latent at present, but liable to burst forth at any moment. A harmless obsession, to be sure; though, be warned, it is no panacea for life's problems.
There have been lots of books written about the Camino — many of them mediocre, pretentious, full of hyperbole and romantic claims. Increasing numbers of pilgrims flock to walk it each year — especially the Camino Francés route — full of expectation. But, at the end of the day, despite its uniqueness, its history, its religious resonances, its popularity, its promise of friendship and spiritual enlightenment, its cheap and hospitable accommodation — it is just a path, after all. (I'm not talking it down. I love the Camino. I'm just saying that there are lots of paths, and any one of them could bring illumination.) I myself — contrary to the experience of many — had a feeling of confusion and anti-climax on reaching Santiago. Perhaps the goal is the path itself, and the meaning lies in the walking. As Bashō wrote: The journey itself is home.
The Camino is not all sweetness and light. As in life itself, the good, the bad and the ugly punish their feet along its straight lines and sinuous curves. You'll traverse monotonous, grain-growing flatlands, which test your mental stamina. You'll walk stretches next to busy highways, which almost drive you insane. You'll meet bandits as well as angels, bores as well as beautiful people. You'll meet tramps, saints, poets, escapees from troubled relationships, thieves, vagabonds, seekers of all kinds. And you can't get away from them at night like you could at home, because they're right there in the dormitory, snoring beside you. However, most people you'll encounter — both natives and pilgrims alike — are perfectly nice, friendly, helpful and generous, tolerant about your sketchy grasp of Spanish, and ready and willing to share their bowl of soup or pasta with you. Don't go with preconceived ideas, don't go expecting too much, don't believe all the books and blogs and films about it. Just go with an open mind and see for yourself. Buen Camino!