Walking The Way: Lessons from the Road to Santiago

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by Danny Long

Imaginary lines are powerful things. They tell us who we are, where we belong, whom to befriend. They tell us where to go, what to do, how to act. We don’t see them, but we know they’re there, and we feel their sway. This is because these imaginary lines, according to John Pickles, professor of geography and international studies at the University of North Carolina, reside deep down within the bedrock of modern civilization. “The world,” he says in A History of Spaces, “has literally been made, domesticated and ordered by drawing lines, distinctions, taxonomies and hierarchies.” Draw a line — on a map, in the sand, in your mind — and separation automatically ensues. You’re either in or out, here or there, on this side or that. These divisions consequently construct our sense of reality. We come to accept them uncritically. “I’m American,” one says; another, “I’m Dutch.” “I’m Canadian,” one proclaims; still another, “I’m Irish.” And the longer we accept them the more natural they appear and the more difficult they are to overcome.

But difficult or not, that’s precisely what writer/actor/director Emilio Estevez sets out to accomplish in his latest movie, The Way, which is about walking the Camino de Santiago. This thousand-year-old pilgrimage route starts in France, stretches across northern Spain, and ends at the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, the supposed resting place of St. James’s remains. It’s important to note, however, that Estevez does not dismiss categorization entirely; he’s wise enough to acknowledge how deeply the lines of separation have been etched into humanity’s subconscious. Instead, Estevez uses the road to Santiago — itself a line of sorts — to cut through these categories and bring people together from across the globe.

In the movie, Tom Avery, played by Martin Sheen, learns that his only child, Daniel (Estevez, Sheen’s son), has died in the Pyrenees on his first day walking the Camino (Spanish for “the way”). He travels to France to retrieve Daniel’s body and while there decides to cremate it and walk the Camino himself, scattering the ashes as he goes. The thing is, Tom — grumpy, gray, withdrawn — isn’t your average peregrino. He certainly doesn’t approve of his son’s decision to make the journey, deeming it an escape from the pressures of real life, a deferral of adulthood. “You know,” he tells Daniel in one of the movie’s many flashbacks, “most people don’t have the luxury of just picking up and leaving it all behind.” So when he decides to follow in his son’s footsteps, it comes as something of a surprise — and a pleasure.

Tom learns that walking the Camino is anything but a luxury. The road to Santiago is hard, emotionally and physically. Pilgrims walk an average of twelve to fifteen miles a day, weighed down by large backpacks and the skeletons in their closets — bad habits, fractured relationships, personal tragedies. Indeed, as Captain Henri (Tchéky Kario), the man who informs Tom of his son’s death, says, “The way is a very personal journey.” No two pilgrims experience it in exactly the same way and Tom proves to be no exception. The once solitary curmudgeon slowly lets his guard down and finds the joy of fellowship by befriending three other pilgrims who become his constant companions — his new family, as it were: a Dutchmen named Joost (Yorick Van Wageningan), a Canadian named Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), and an Irishman named Jack (James Nesbitt).

Fellowship is, to be sure, part of the Camino’s character. Millions of peregrinos, from the Middle Ages to the Age of Information, from all continents and all denominations, have trekked the 800 kilometers to Spain’s western coast. And as those who have made the pilgrimage will tell you, one of its most unforgettable experiences is the simple yet extraordinary realization that the ground beneath your feet has touched the feet of generations of pilgrims before you and will touch the feet of generations of pilgrims after.

In the end, such realizations as this are what The Way is all about. It’s about becoming aware of the divisions to which we have so long subscribed — divisions of time, place, nationality; it’s about understanding that these divisions aren’t natural but created; and it’s about recognizing that we’re the ones who have created them. But it also teaches us that we can uncreate these divisions and, by doing so, perceive the world anew. After all, that’s what happens to Tom. As he walks the Camino he finally sees Daniel, really sees his venturesome pilgrim son, curious and courageous, no longer here but in the hereafter, marching alongside him, raising a glass at dinner and swinging the incense in the Cathedral. There are greater things in life than obeying imaginary lines, Tom discovers. We just have to be willing to find them and to let them find us.

_A recent graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s master’s program in English, Danny Long has decided to take his chances as a freelance writer and copyeditor. In the past, he’s taught literature, reading, and writing courses to students of all ages, from kindergarteners to retirees. <dannylong449@gmail.com>

                Know The Way to the Library?

A lot has been written about the Camino de Santiago, which is an indication of how influential pilgrims of the past have found it. Below is just some of this written work. While this list is by no means exhaustive, it will get you started on your way. Buen Camino!

Aviva, Elyn. Following the Milky Way: A Pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1989.

Brierly, John. A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago: The Way of St. James. 5th ed. Forres, Scotland: Findhorn Press, 2009.

Coelho, Paulo. The Pilgrimage: A Contemporary Quest for Ancient Wisdom. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998.

Frey, Nancy Louise. Pilgrim Stories: On and off the Road to Santiago. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

MacLaine, Shirley. The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 2000.

Melczer, William. The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela: First English Translation, with Introduction, Commentaries, and Notes. New York: Italica Press, 1993. A translation of Book V of the Codex Calixtinus, the earliest known guidebook to the Camino de Santiago, written in the twelfth century.

Mullen, Robert. Call of the Camino: Myths, Legends, and Pilgrim Stories on the Way to Santiago de Compostela. Forres, Scotland: Findhorn Press, 2010.

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