El Camino

I don’t really remember when I first heard about the camino, the thousand-year old pilgrimage route across Northern Spain to the tomb of St James in the Galician town of Santiago de Compostela. It was probably back in the days when Paulo Coelho got so famous for his book on the pilgrimage to Compostela. No, I’m not one of those people who first became attracted to the camino by Coelho. If anything, he probably threw me off it for a while. I didn’t like his writing at the time and couldn’t really understand how a man that wrote so poorly could become so famous. But I digress…

It was back in 2003 when I first decided that the camino was something I needed to do. Studying premodern history, I had always been fascinated by trips where the journey meant as much as the destination. I read books about English immigrants to Australia or Hong Kong who would spend six months on a boat to get to their destination. Six months of their lives. Spent on their trip to visit Uncle Ted. The idea was so foreign in today’s world, where we don’t give a passing thought to the in between stage of our next vacations to Mexico or Paris. The more I read about the camino, the more it called me. It struck a deep cord. So deep that I don’t dare attempt the walk before my thesis is done.

When I first got to Toronto, back in 2003, I joined a listserv dedicated to discussing the Camino de Santiago. It was a place where people exchanged tips, itineraries, lists. It was fairly active and I would find myself starting to dream about the walk every time a new email went through. I signed out of the list because I couldn’t get any work done.

But when the camino starts to walk you, it never stops. It made sure to remind me of its existence quite frequently. During my first year at U of T, I met Steve Pede in one of my classes. He had been a business man in the States, who, after walking the camino, decided that he wanted to quit his job, sell his house, and come up to Toronto for a year to get a master degree in Medieval Studies.  Over Latin homework, he would tell me of his camino and of a great gathering of pilgrims that he was helping organize in Toronto in 2005. I quickly jumped on board and helped him in whatever way I could.

That was in May 2005. In April 2006 I went to Spain for a year. I toyed with the idea of  doing a part of the camino while I was there but there wasn’t the time and it wasn’t the right moment. But over the summer we met Franko. An amazing guy who had walked from Lake Constance, in Switzerland, all the way to Santiago de Compostella. 2,444 km. And he had just finished it. I saw his backpack, his walking stick, and he showed me his pilgrim passport with all the stamps he got along the way. The dream was kept alive yet again.

Now it’s a year later and while browsing through Chapters yesterday, I came across Robert Ward‘s book All the Good Pilgrims. Robert had been part of the organizing committee for the gathering back in 2005 and we had many pleasant conversations. I started the book immediately after walking out of the bookstore and had tears in my eyes before I hit page 20. I haven’t finished it yet but finding the book was enough to bring me back to that mental state of needing to do this pilgrimage. It also reconnected me to Robert. I emailed him to say hello and thank for the book only to find out he had started drafting an email to me just the night before. Was it just a coincidence or another one of those camino moments?