One of the things I miss about the Camino is the smallness of life there.
I know that doesn’t necessarily sound like a good thing, since most of us want to live larger lives. But one of the things I loved about the Camino was that it let me temporarily live a larger life through a series of small but meaningful moments.
When I first trudged out of Le Puy-en-Velay at the end of August 2008, I had more than 1,500 kilometres of walking ahead of me. For the first few days, I would look at the numbers on the occasional signs giving the distance to Santiago, and think about how I could easily be there in two days if I were driving. I could probably do it in one day if I really tried.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but within a few days of walking out of Le Puy, I was fully immersed in the smaller walker’s world. The 18 or so kilometres I averaged during the first weeks of my journey were enough. The first day I walked 26 kilometres, the distance felt enormous.
Once, talking to my mum in Canada, I said I had “only” walked 16 kilometres that day. She laughed and said she’d thought the hour-long walk she’d taken that day was impressive.
The cars that hurtled past when I walked along roads and highways came to seem like alien beings. Sometimes I’d come across a sign warning of an intersection five kilometres ahead. I’d laugh to myself, because I’d be lucky to reach that intersection within the hour.
On my sixth day of walking, I was about four kilometres out of Aumont-Aubrac when I realized I’d left my best hiking socks hanging on the clothesline at the gîte d’étape where I’d spent the night.
A little voice from the car-world I’d left behind told me four kilometres was nothing and I should go back. But I didn’t seriously consider it. Going back would mean an extra two hours of walking, and the socks weren’t worth that.
It wasn’t just distances that grew large in my new walking life. Mid-sized towns suddenly felt big enough. Cities seemed huge and foreign (and not because I was from another country) after days of walking through the countryside. I always hurried through to their medieval centres. These were usually limited to pedestrians, and felt like they’d been designed for people rather than cars.
In France, where the churches and cathedrals were often open, they felt like true places of refuge, providing shelter from the sun and the rain, and quiet spaces to stop and think and feel the weight of centuries of history.
World events felt far away. I was in Moissac when I heard about the economy collapsing, and after a brief panic, I mostly forgot about it. I got the gossip on Canada’s federal election from an Ontarian pilgrim one afternoon as we relaxed in a Spanish village after a day’s walk. And an Irishman told me about Obama’s presidential victory the morning after it happened, in a freezing pilgrim refuge in an even smaller Spanish village. But like the cars, these major events belonged to another world.
What mattered on the Camino was finding food and a bed for the night, meeting up with friends both old and new, keeping myself and my clothes relatively clean, tending to injuries so they didn’t get worse, and every day getting a little closer to Santiago.
Walking so slowly, I noticed and appreciated little things like fresh blackberries, the occasional washing machine, relaxing with friends after a hard day’s walk, shelter from sweltering heat and freezing rain, and small kindnesses, both from pilgrim friends and total strangers.
And in the small world of the Camino, those little things were huge.