I took this photo of a cathedral detail just before the pilgrims' blessing, the day I walked out of Le Puy.
Furthermore, we have not even to risk the journey alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.
—Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (and quoted in The Power of Myth)
I’ve written before about the end of my Camino, and the post-Camino blues that followed.
Now, as I get ready to walk the Vía de la Plata, I’m thinking of beginnings rather than endings. And I’m hoping not to duplicate the beginning of my last Camino.
Here’s the thing: I wish I were more like Rob from SlowCamino. I really do.
But while I am a relatively slow walker, and I can be laid back about some aspects of life, I am also a first-class worrier.
So here’s me, the night I reach Le Puy-en-Velay at the end of August 2008.
I’m pacing up and down a hill that seems more vertical than horizontal. I’m trying to convince myself that my boots fit, but can’t escape the reality that they’re rubbing against my heels: a blister just waiting to happen.
My head itches. Part of me is sure this is psychosomatic—in my head rather than on it. The other part, the louder one, is convinced it’s fleas or lice or something worse, which I must have picked up in the hostel in Chartres and am now going to spread around the Camino.
Then there are my pants (that’s trousers for you British folks), which I suddenly realize I should have worn for more than three minutes back home. A piece of plastic-covered fabric scratches constantly against my leg as I walk. Later, I’ll find that my leg is bleeding.
And I don’t have a sleeping bag liner. I hadn’t considered this item before, but it suddenly seems a necessity on the Chemin du Puy. It’s hot out and my sleeping bag is too warm, but a gîte d’étape blanket with a sleeping bag liner, like the one the pilgrim in the next bunk has, would be perfect.
Then there’s the sheer fact of the hills. I’d walked around with my backpack a little at home, but I’m not really in great shape. I’d seen pictures of the hills around Le Puy before leaving home, but I didn’t understand, then, how steep they really are.
I am a complete fool, I decide, walking up and down that hill in the darkness, still trying to convince myself that my boots fit.
There are a lot of kilometres between me and Santiago de Compostela. My plan to walk them all, which seemed so reasonable at home, suddenly seems the height of hubris.
* * *
The Chapel of St Michael d'Aiguilhe, in Le Puy-en-Velay. The Chemin du Puy, I must admit, didn't ascend quite that vertically, though it sometimes felt like it.
The late mythologist Joseph Campbell outlined the “hero’s journey,” which shows patterns that he said are found in many stories from a variety of cultures around the world.
After showing the hero in her normal world, the story really takes off with a call to adventure—something that warns the hero she’s in for a journey, even if she doesn’t realize it yet.
The next stage of the journey (and not all stages are found in all stories, but this one is quite common), is the refusal of the call. It can range from a flicker of doubt to an outright refusal.
Or maybe the panic I felt that night in Le Puy-en-Velay as I paced under the streetlights.
Now, I’m no hero.
My point is that this refusal, which is part of so many myths and other stories, reflects a universal truth: doing something big and different is scary. It’s tough, too, even when we’re beginning something we really want to do.
And if galaxy-saving heroes like Luke Skywalker (Star Wars always comes up in a discussion of the hero’s journey, and who am I to break tradition?) can refuse their journeys, shouldn’t we be able to do it, too?
The problem is when the refusal becomes the story: it’s never overcome. Looking at my own life, I can see a number of times when I was living a refusal instead of an adventure.
But Campbell said we should choose the adventure, every time.
He was using the term “adventure” in its broadest sense here. You don’t have to leave home to have one. It could be taking a job you’re afraid you can’t do, or asking someone on a date when you’re afraid they’ll say no. Or, of course, (to choose an example totally at random) it can involve walking across a country or two.
Adventure is risk. It can be frightening. It can be tough.
But in the end it’s absolutely worth it.
* * *
Some of the simple, beautiful stained glass in the Chapel of St Michael d'Aiguilhe.
I didn’t reach a firm decision that evening I paced the streets of Le Puy.
The next morning, I woke up when my roommates got up to head for the pilgrim’s blessing at the cathedral. Then I rolled over and went back to sleep.
That day, instead of beginning my pilgrimage, I went on a long walk to a sports store, where I bought new pants and a silk sleeping bag liner. I decided my boots fit after all—and they really did, once my feet had swelled up from all that walking. I found a pharmacy and asked for anti-flea shampoo, after summoning all my French to describe “shampoo for the little bugs that bite in the hair.” (I’m still not sure if I actually had fleas—but at least it had a placebo effect.) I climbed the many steps to the lovely little Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe Chapel, and that alone made the delay worthwhile.
The next day, I got up early and trudged up the hill to the cathedral for the pilgrim mass. And when the mass was over, I started walking.
It was tough sometimes, the adventure I started that day— mentally, and emotionally exhausting.
But I walked into Santiago, almost three months after that evening in Le Puy, having walked the whole way. And I wouldn’t trade that journey for anything.