The pilgrimage tour continues today. The most popular continues to be the Compostela route. Every year, more than two hundred thousand follow the ancient route on foot, from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela on Spain’s most westerly coast. Some do it for religious reasons but many for sport or the challenge or as a way of leaving the cacophony of modern life for a few weeks of exercise and meditation.
A friend of mine, Stephen Zinn, made the trip, and my husband and I went to Compostela to greet him when he arrived. He has given me a wonderful description of the experience. That he is a psychiatrist adds an extra layer of interest for me.
“I first heard about the Compostela Trail in college when I read The Canterbury Tales, which fascinated me. The story of the Wife of Bath traveling alone to this exotic place, Compostela, stuck in my mind, and over time I began to learn that people took these trips for multiple reasons. Some were sent for punitive reasons; some went for health reasons or to reverse their luck or for adventure — I just found this fascinating. Then, I love hiking and always have. Overtime, I became haunted by the idea of this medieval trail to which people have been drawn for centuries, and I finally decided to fulfill this long-held dream for my 60th birthday.
My major concern was that I would find too many people doing the pilgrimage for religious reasons, since my own interests were entirely secular. My joy and delight was that wonderful, healthy, vivacious, entirely secular pilgrims were on the trail for the same reason as I — and for the same reasons that so many of the original pilgrims had gone. Within the first 2 or 3 days, a hundred miles into the trip, I found myself in a core group of about 10 and knew another 30 or so people by name. Most of the people on the trail were in their 20 and 30s, and our group at least was incredibly heterogeneous: an orthodox Jew from South Africa in her 40s, an English sheep herder, an Austrian airport controller, an Austrian primary school teacher, an Est trainer from Hong Kong, and I’m an American child psychiatrist. We all started out at the same time with many more people, but we formed our group as we found themselves particularly compatible and as others who were not fell by the wayside.
The pattern was that every morning we left early — you have to be out of the refugios by 7. (One morning, nuns came around banging on pots to get us out by 6:30!) We didn’t normally hike together but always agreed where to meet at night. Usually, you arrived at next refugio around 2 or 3 and did your wash and wrote mail or whatever until about 5, when we’d meet at a bar and spend the rest of the evening together, eating and drinking and talking. At about 10 you had to be back at the refugio, some of which locked their doors. We did this every day for 31 days.
The nature of the refugios was that everything was open and exposed, and yet nothing was stolen or ever misused. The honesty of the pilgrims was very striking. Despite the physical intimacy, there was also very little sex on the trail. Our group developed almost immediately into one of tremendous trust; we watched out for one another, and we became committed to meeting in Compostela on a specific day (which we did). The goal was not the church but the fulfillment of the promise to one another. It was quite extraordinary, as we were complete strangers, brought together by the coincidence of our date setting out.
The hiking itself was very meditative and intense. Every day was an adventure, physically exhausting and thrilling, In my case, one of my sons, a cousin and another friend met me for brief parts of the trail, and these experiences with them were wonderfully intense and memorable. I hadn’t had an experience like this away from my marriage and on my own for 35 years, which itself felt extraordinary. My wife and two other friends met me at the end of the trip, but forming such intense friendships outside my normal life, spending so much time alone, in contemplation and physical activity –I lost 27 pounds on the trail– felt life-altering. It was my fantasy of a Chaucerian pilgrimage come to reality. I did this age-old thing in the same way and over the same ground that millions of people have for centuries.
To some extent, I saw people work things out and heal something in their lives. The bonding and introspection, hearing one another’s stories, all contributed to personal transformations. One woman had been intimidated by her husband’s physical pursuits and wanted to do something he’d never taken on; she proved something to herself –as many of us did– and her self esteem soared. What I personally hoped to gain from the trip was the ability to say no to certain things in my professional life I no longer enjoyed, and I was able to do this. So beyond giving me a tremendous sense of accomplishment, many wonderful, unique memories, the trp has had a lasting impact on my life. It’s an experience I encourage everyone to undertake.”
David Lodge wrote a very good book that is centered on the trail, Therapy. Like all of Lodge’s books, it is funny and smart.
The 2010 film, The Way, starring Martin Sheen and written and produced by his son Emilio Estevez, is about the Compostela pilgrimage but is not a good film. The characters are undeveloped, the dialogue cliched, the narrative predictable. But the film apparently does give an accurate sense of what the pilgrimage looks and feels like. In the film, Sheen plays the aggrieved father who walks the trail on which his son has just died; Estevez makes a few appearances as the deceased son in brief flashbacks. What the film gets right—beyond the beautiful scenery—is the psychological journey that accompanies the physical one. My friend Stephen, who made the trek, confirmed this for me.
On the trail, groups of largely compatible people form casually, and very quickly strong bonds develop between the members. Generally, people make the pilgrimage with the hope of working something out in their lives, and they invest a lot of time and effort in this pursuit. The days of the pilgrimage are intense, full of expectation, and have an out-of-time quality, since everything in one’s normal life is temporarily abandoned. The result is a unique intimacy between strangers that is sustained over the six weeks or so of the experience. During it, much is exchanged—griefs, disappointments, aspirations, regrets—and often transformations are achieved. All this, comes through in the film.
Curiously, though, the friendships are not usually resumed after the pilgrims return home. The group members exchange addresses but the friendships, like those made in summer camp or on exchange programs abroad, tend to be enshrined in memory rather than incorporated into regular lives. Why this is so is an interesting question.