Monthly Archives: October 2010

Pilgrimage as Story

[Cross and birds]Walking the Camino de Santiago was possibly the most intense, the most real experience I’ve ever had. I suspect there are a number of reasons for this, and I’ll write about some more of them later. But I just had a revelation about one of the reasons, and that’s the one I want to write about today.

But first, bear with me as I detour away from the Camino, as I walk away from the yellow arrows to start. I promise it’ll all come together in the end.

I’m partway through reading a non-fiction book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life by Donald Miller. (Note: The book is classified as a Christian book, but you can get a lot out of it whether you’re Christian or not. At least, I’m not exactly Christian, and I’m already convinced it has life-changing potential.)

The book follows Miller as he helps write a screenplay based on a memoir he’d written. In the process, he becomes convinced that the guidelines for writing a good story are the same as those for living a good life. As his roommate sums up, after a seminar on story with creative writing instructor Robert McKee: “A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”

Looking back at my life (all thirty years of it so far), I realize I haven’t really had a lot of serious goals—things I wanted and overcame conflict to get. There have been things I kind of sort of wanted to do, at the moment, but nothing I’ve seriously gone after despite all obstacles.

The longest time I’ve dedicated to anything in my adult life was four years of working toward a B.A. in history. But really, I didn’t do that because I really wanted a history degree for any particular reason. It was because I didn’t know what else to do, and I sometimes enjoyed studying history.

Walking over 1,500 kilometres from Le Puy-en-Velay to Santiago de Compostela was one of the few serious goals I’ve had. One of the few things I’ve been determined to do despite all obstacles. One of the few times I’ve lived my life as a story. I knew when I got my Compostela certificate that it meant more to me than my university diploma. I didn’t know why—but now it’s beginning to make sense.

Almost every day on the Camino, I was (quite literally) taking a few more steps toward my goal.

Having a Direction

Toward the end of my Camino journey, I had to get a second pilgrim’s passport for stamps from the refugios along the way. I was talking to a friend as I filled out the basic information. All the instructions were in Spanish, and one of the fields said “dirección.”

“Direction?” I said to my friend. I had already been walking for two months. “Santiago—where else?”

And then I remembered that in Spanish, dirección means address, and we laughed.

But it just goes to show that while I was walking, I knew where I was going. I was following the yellow arrows to Santiago.

Bringing the Experience Home

I felt totally alive on the Camino—not all the time, but much more than I ever have in the rest of my life.

If I can understand why that was, maybe I can bring some of whatever-it-was back into my life in the ordinary world.

I imagine it’s somewhat different for every pilgrim. What each finds on the Camino depends on her own life, on what he’s lacking.

This is a new thought, in relation to the Camino, but it makes sense to me. Maybe one of the things the Camino tried to teach me—if I’d only been listening—is that I need a goal, something to pursue despite all obstacles, something that matters.

I need to live my life as if it’s a story, not just on the Camino, but at home, too.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 9:20 pm
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Leaping Small Hills in a Single Bound

Photo with PyreneesI wrote in my diary, ruefully, a few weeks into my pilgrimage across France, that I’d thought by now I should be able to leap at least small hills in a single bound. But even after weeks of walking, I still struggled up steep inclines, stopping intermittently to catch my breath.

And then one day, suddenly, I could fly.

I like to blame it on the mountains, the Pyrenees, swelling on the horizon as I walked.

I’ve approached mountains before. When I was young, every few summers my family would drive from Winnipeg, in the prairies, through the Rockies to Vancouver, where my dad’s family lived. It was always an exciting moment, when someone saw the mountains, a tiny jagged line on the horizon.

But back then, we were in the Rockies within a few hours. Approaching the Pyrenees was different. I was walking.

It took a few days, from the first time I spotted the mountains until the day I began to climb them. I liked the idea of the approach as much as the reality of it, I think. Just the thought of walking up to a mountain range and through it was magical.

Soon after I began to see the Pyrenees, I wrote in my journal: “This trip has so many moments … where it’s worth all the trouble of being human just to be walking across France in the rain, looking at the Pyrenees.”

I wound my way up hills and down into valleys in the days before I reached St. Jean Pied-de-Port, at the beginning of the pass. Dipping into valleys, I wouldn’t be able to see the snow-tipped peaks strung out along the horizon. A French friend I walked with awhile would laugh at me because I would constantly exclaim, “Les Pyrenees! The Pyrenees!” when they reappeared.

Field with Pyrenees

It might sound corny, but they filled my heart with joy. My diary is full of references to the mountains:

“… they are just so much more pointy and mountainy-looking than anything I’ve seen so far. (How’s that for a description from someone who wants to be a professional writer?)”

“It’s magical, watching them slowly grow bigger. I love it, love it, love it.”

“There were some nice foresty bits today, and cow-y bits, and some rather boring town-y and corn-y parts. Sometimes it feels so flat, but then you go up a hill or the trees clear away and there are the Pyrenees.”

I am the sort of person who can always find something to worry about, but in general I was filled with joy those days before the mountains. I was feeling good physically, too.

At the beginning of the trip, I wasn’t in terribly good shape, so negotiating the frequent hills and valleys of the Chemin du Puy (one of the French routes of the Camino de Santiago) was a constant challenge. And just when I was feeling like I could handle going about 20 kilometres a day, my feet developed blisters. They weren’t terrible—just two per heel—but they did bring a bit of pain to every step. Finally, just as the blisters were turning into sturdy callouses on my heels, I got bronchitis—coughing, fever and all.

As I approached the Pyrenees, I was still coughing, but my illness was only a cold, not really so bad at all. My body, finally, was not only working but quite possibly in better shape than it had ever been in before.

The day before I reached St. Jean Pied-de-Port, I had a ridiculous amount of energy. I had a choice between two route variants. I took the shorter, flatter one, since I’d climbed enough hills that I automatically bypassed any I could possibly avoid.

Halfway through the bypass route, I lunched with some friends, new and old (old being acquaintances of more than a few days, on the Camino). Then I set out on my own, and soon came to the juncture where the two routes rejoined. Consulting my Miam Miam Dodo—most useful of guidebooks—I discovered I was only a few kilometres from the town where I planned to spend the night.

And so I backtracked, up the high route, about a kilometre uphill, heading for a place where my guidebook showed a small chapel. I was exhilarated. I was alive. I sang as I almost bounded up the hill.

I got there to find the view spread out magnificently below me, of the towns, of the Pyranees still in the distance.

[View from the chapel]

The chapel itself was locked, but I didn’t care. I felt like doing something ridiculous. It was warm for an autumn day, but not swelteringly summer anymore. I was hot from the climb, though, so I decided to dump water from a tap outside the chapel on my head. I immediately began to cough, and decided I was insane, but I didn’t care.

I sat down on a lovely little bench to rest, but I didn’t feel like resting that day. For the first time I can remember, I only felt like moving, moving, moving.

Then I went back down the hill again, feeling alive and ridiculously energetic.

I had amazing days and more difficult days after that, but none matched the sheer exhilaration of that day in early October when I felt like I could fly.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 8:03 pm
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What is the Camino de Santiago?

[Camino Road]When most people talk about the Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James), they mean the Camino Francés, a route that leads walkers, cyclists and others across northern Spain, from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, on the French side of the border, to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the Apostle Saint James (Santiago) is said to be buried.

The modern Camino Francés more or less follows a medieval pilgrimage route across Spain to Santiago. Over the last few decades it’s grown popular with people who, like their medieval counterparts, walk it for a variety of reasons—religious, spiritual, sport, historical or cultural, or for another reason entirely.

There are a lot of refugios or pilgrim refuges with dorm accommodation along the route, and it’s relatively easy to find food and drink along the way.

But the Camino de Santiago is more than just the Camino Francés. It’s a network of routes across Europe that lead to Santiago de Compostela. The most developed routes are in Spain and France, but historic routes—some of which you can still follow today—start as far away as Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.

And in fact, on a metaphorical level, you could say any way you use to get to Santiago—on foot or by bike, by car, boat, airplane or train—is a Camino de Santiago. As the poet Antonio Machado wrote, “Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.”

Traveller, there is no road; the way is made by walking.

Learn more about the Camino de Santiago

If you’re interested in walking the route, the Confraternity of Saint James is a great place to start. It has a lot of practical information, route overviews, and articles on the history of the Camino.

A Squidoo page I wrote on the Camino de Santiago has a bit of information on the history of the route, and also gives a brief overview of many of the routes in Spain and France.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 10:38 pm
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Ithaka: A Wonderful Poem for a Journey

I first came across the poem “Ithaka” by C. P. Cavafy when I read my first book about the Camino, Elyn Aviva’s Following the Milky Way: A Pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago.

Years later, when I set out on the Camino de Santiago, I carried a small notebook in which I’d written out inspirational quotes and poems, including “Ithaka.”

I walked alone a fair bit on the Le Puy route. One of the things I did to keep myself interested was memorize some of the quotes and poems I’d brought. “Ithaka” was the first I memorized. (Alas, I don’t remember all of it any more.)

I was recently reminded of this poem on the Camino de Santiago Forum, in a post by Timid that linked to the video below. I hope you enjoy the poem as much as I do.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 9:05 pm