A Slow Camino: Interview with Robert Townshend


[Stone wall]

The Causses in spring: a great place for a slow walk.
Photo courtesy Robert Townshend.

I recently came across Robert Townshend’s SlowCamino blog, which he describes as “an account of one pilgrim’s sluggish progress toward Compostela.”

Rob, an Australian, walked from Le Puy-en-Velay to Pamplona in April and May 2009, and his blog documents the journey in retrospect.

Rob describes himself as “a dawdler, a daydreamer, a mucker-about. An impurist.” His blog is a mix of travelogue, practical advice, history, and observations on slow Camino travel—which, in his case, involved walking the Chemin du Puy in about sixty days without, he claims, losing any weight.

As I started reading SlowCamino, I thought I might like to interview Rob. When I read the following, I was sure of it.

I distinguished myself in the company by having travelled half the distance of the other pilgrims at our large table. They must have been impressed, since they all wore surprised expressions when told I’d come only from Estaing. I was then treated with a kind of embarrassed benevolence, especially when I declared my intention of stopping at Senergues the next day, only twelve kilometres distant.

I must admit to a tinge of competitiveness the next morning. A young lady was dawdling in the foyer, in an obvious attempt to be the last to leave.

That’s my gig, honeybunch!

When I e-mailed Rob, I discovered he’s about to embark on the next leg of his slow journey: Pamplona to Santiago on the Camino Francés, and Santiago to Tui on the Camino Portugués.

But he answered my questions quite speedily.

[Bread and cheese]

Rob writes: 'My lunch! One of the great edible joys of southern France is brebis, sheep's milk cheese. I love it in all its forms, Roquefort, Basque, Corsican or other—unpasteurised for preference.'
Photo courtesy Robert Townshend.

Anna-Marie: What made you decide to do a very slow Camino? What are the advantages of travelling so slowly?

Rob: I didn’t decide to do a slow Camino. I’m constitutionally slow, and merely build upon this god-given quality by heavy eating, aimless chatter, drinking lakes of tea, watching Fox etc. The advantage of travelling slowly is that you meet more people, and none of them feel badly about a person who is so easily overtaken. In particular, English males are delighted to get the best of an Australian in a physical pursuit—it happens so rarely!

You said on the forum: “Please be advised that serious dawdling requires a massive lack of focus and determination.” How did you maintain that lack of focus and determination?

Well, Anna-Marie, tonight’s preparation for the Frances and Portugues consisted of eating beef casserole, sunk into a lounge while watching the original 1974 Death Wish on an enormous TV screen. The combination of stewed steak and Charles Bronson has made me little more than an amoeba with hair.

This is ideal mental preparation for dawdling.

How many rest days did you take? What were your criteria for a good rest day location?

I’m guessing I took five or six rest days, usually in towns with a good food supply. In nice rural gîtes, like Montredon and that of our friends at Gîte Dubarry, one can be underfoot on a rest day. In towns, one can be out of people’s way.

[Snow on the Camino]

Even slow pilgrims have to trudge through snow. Writing about Aumont-Aubrac, Rob says: 'Wind, rain, snow, sleet, ice, mud... Did I leave anything out? Here’s the view from our last shared accommodation.'
Photo courtesy Robert Townshend.

Do you think a slow Camino is particularly difficult for men? What advice would you give men who wanted to cultivate, as you say, an Omega male attitude?

I find pilgrims of both sexes to be sprinters, men for obvious male reasons, women because they’re all a bit hyperactive. (Did I just break a Canadian law?)

Men who wish to cultivate an Omega male attitude should watch a lot of Humphrey Bogart movies … but model themselves on the Peter Lorre characters, not the Bogies. Just lying around watching old movies is pretty Omega.

As much as you can call any day on the Camino “typical,” how would you describe a typical slow Camino day?

You meet heaps of people. Really.

You write in your blog about walking twenty-seven kilometres in one day to keep up with friends, but many of the people you met ended up ahead of you. Were you ever tempted to permanently abandon your slow philosophy to keep up?

[Pilgrims]

Rob says: 'Here we are before the descent to Cajarc. The lady on the left was born in Clochemerle, which I had always believed to be a fictional town, subject of Gabriel Chevalier’s wonderful novel of small town politics centred on the erection of a public urinal. It seems that Clochemerle is real ... and the urinal is still there! More lessons of the Camino.'
Photo courtesy Robert Townshend.

It happened that my three friends that day were all doctors and had achieved much in their lives. I find achievement very fatiguing.

Maybe one’s Camino reflects one’s career and outlook, regardless of usual disclaimers about leaving accustomed life and attitudes behind. I was so lucky to link up with those three special people … but, no, I wasn’t tempted to abandon my dawdling. It’s what I do.

The big problem with dawdling is not losing friends, but having to make new friends daily. My chemin from Le Puy was a bloody conveyor-belt of acquaintances. Those who go slow will know.

What do you mean when you describe yourself as an impurist?

I’m a very conservative type in most things, so I believe in codes. I just don’t believe in manufacturing codes to make life more bothersome than it need be. The Camino should be fun, unless someone is paying you to do it in a certain way or to take on certain responsibilities.

At times I felt that there was some kind of Camino Calvinism in operation, directed at people who were taking it easy, using luggage services, taking easy routes. Also, though many of these purists are charming people, in conversation they can be a touch single-minded. They need to lay off, lighten up.

[Pamplona]

Pamplona, where Rob ended his last Camino ... and will begin his next Camino later this week. Stay tuned for his next blog installment.
Photo courtesy Robert Townshend.

You’re heading back to Pamplona to continue your trip to Santiago at the end of this month. Are you going to continue your blog?

I blog when I get back home. Nothing must interfere with the dawdling when it is being dawdled.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention? Do you have any other advice for aspiring slow pilgrims?

The great golfer Ben Hogan refused to help younger players because he felt he was self-made and shouldn’t have to create competition for himself. I feel the same way. It will be a bitter day for me when someone completes the Chemin du Puy in over sixty days.

I know it will happen eventually, but why should I help someone steal my crown?

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Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 9:41 am
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4 Comments

4 Responses to A Slow Camino: Interview with Robert Townshend

  1. Ralph Alcorn says:

    Slow Pilgrim. That’s a theme I can get behind. We must be a couple of thousand miles into pilgrimage trails by now, and three thousand and counting of USA national trails, but the story of our trail life is people whizzing past us, existential friends, close as kin for a couple of days, then gone forever.

    • Anna-Marie says:

      Yeah, I can’t compete with Rob’s slow Camino, but I was slow enough that the same thing happened a fair bit to me, too.

      Which trails trails have you walked?

  2. Lesley says:

    Great interview. Looking forward to the second half of Robert’s walk, oops, stroll.

  3. Berit Trædal says:

    Hi !
    Wish I could find someone like you to walk with ! That is my dream too. Walking every day just from one albergue to another. I have walked 500km. in france,and 500 km.in Spain,but I would LOVE to use about twice as much time than we did. Not sure if I will be able to do it alone,and I prefer Spain because I speak a little spanish.In France I had problems with the language.
    I am so glad I have found this Camino-sites. My feet will start to walk alone-if I do not come with them.