Preparing for the Camino de Santiago

I just finished reading Keith Foskett’s account of his walk on the Camino in his book, The Journey in Between. What I find interesting is how Foskett had been unaware of the existence of the Camino, but once he was introduced to the idea of walking it by a friend, with very little research or fanfare, he found himself at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port within two weeks, ready with backpack and poles to march west through the Pyrenees toward Santiago de Compostela. And although this is in contrast to the majority of people who walk the Camino, who have spent years dreaming about, planning, and pining for the Camino, Foskett shows us really how easily and quickly we can mount an expedition in the twenty-first century.

During the Middle Ages, there was quite a bit of fanfare surrounding a pilgrimage. According to Frederic Gros, in his book, A Philosophy of Walking, a specific juridical status was afforded a pilgrim. To obtain the status meant to declare yourself publically, and to be sanctioned during mass, after which your walking stick and pouch containing your food and documents would be blessed by a bishop. The ceremony was a big deal because frequently pilgrims didn’t return home. Pilgrimage was often dangerous and could take months or even years to complete. Death from exhaustion, injury, or by robbers was common, which is why pilgrims tended to travel in groups. You would have had to make a will, settle your financial affairs, and make peace with your enemies before you left on your pilgrimage.

Some people still participate in ceremonies today to sanction their pilgrimages. One of the people I will be travelling with on the Camino was officially blessed by the Catholic church in a Quebec ceremony, where she also received her credencial, a document wherein you collect stamps along your route as proof of your completion of the pilgrimage, and her pilgrim’s badge, which has been sewn into her pilgrim’s hat. The idea of the badge on the hat has a long tradition. Even in the Middle Ages, pilgrims who had been to the Camino displayed a scallop shell, a Christian symbol of Saint James, on the upturned brims of their hats. I am told that the pilgrim blessing ceremony can be quite emotional for those who participate in it.

I didn’t participate in such a ceremony myself. I would have liked to, not because I’m religious, but more to bear witness of my intent and to participate in a long tradition. It’s too late to do it before I leave Canada, but I may have an opportunity to participate in a pilgrim blessing ceremony in the church at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, just prior to commencing the walk. We’ll see what solutions present themselves.

My preparation consisted of things one would normally do before travelling abroad – buy an airline ticket, buy some local currency, in this case Euros, and buy some travel insurance. (Which reminds me, I still have to buy travel insurance.) What I did a little differently this time was to put more effort into researching the trail I’ll be following. I don’t get into the nitty-gritty with my travel agenda, but it was nice for a change to read extensively about other people’s practical and spiritual experiences on the Camino and to dig into the art and philosophy of walking and pilgrimage.

Now here I am on the morning of my departure. My kit is scattered about the floor in front of me. What will be going into my 60-litre pack, and what will be staying? While it’s true that we can become used to just about any amount of weight we throw on our backs, I must consider that my body is aging and that my knees, one of which contains a torn meniscus from a soccer injury, must be able to support my walking habit well into old age.

So weight matters. I think of my gear as being part of distinctive systems – sleeping system, shelter system, cooking system, hygiene system, clothing, and accessories. For the Camino, I’ll really only need a sleeping bag for my stays at the albergues, or pilgrim hostels. But I won’t be coming home again after the Camino before my next hiking adventure, so I’ll need to bring my tent and air mattress. The good news is that I will probably not need to cook for the next few months, so I can ditch my stove, cooking pot, and bowl. I’ll still keep my spork and cup.

Spare clothing, or not? Shaving cream and razor blade, or just let my beard grow? I won’t be able to wear my hiking shoes inside the alburgues, so throw a pair of sandals into the pack, or cut a few ounces and trust to a pair of thick socks? Sun hat? Toque? Gloves? Ooh, decisions, decisions.

I struggle most with decisions involving electronics. Without question, I’ll bring my headlamp. It’s one of my most useful pieces of kit. I’ll need my phone. But what about a camera? My phone takes pictures that are adequate for my purpose. Why bother taking both? But what about my Kindle? And what about a power pack? I shouldn’t have trouble charging my phone in the alburgues, but my next adventure after the Camino will potentially find me without a power source for days at a time. I have a power pack that can charge my phone ten times before it needs to be charged itself again. That would provide about twenty days worth of cell phone power. But the power pack is heavy. I hold it in my hand and my knees moan.

I have a mild anxiety attack when I think of leaving my Kindle behind. Reading and Walking share the pedestal when it comes to my greatest loves. But I’m already carrying a required book, a guidebook for the trail I’ll be walking after the Camino. It isn’t particularly light. The idea of having more weight from reading material goes against my instinct.

So I’m trying something new to satisfy my need to read while also reducing my pack weight. I’ve created a motivational journal. I’ve taken an 80-page Moleskine journal, which is as thin and light as a chocolate wafer, and written inspirational phrases and passages from the many books I’ve been reading lately. In fact, this is the new way that I’m reading books. I’ve read nearly 400 books in the last couple of years, and when I go back and look at the list, I realize I’ve forgotten what many of them are about. So I’ve decided to write down key concepts and turns of phrase that delight me. For example, here’s one of my favourites from Rumi:

“Why do you stay in prison, when the door is so wide open?”

(I could spend an entire day meditating on that quote alone.)

I have also left a few pages at the back of the journal to write my own inspirational things. For this trip, I’m experimenting with the haiku form of verse, which follows a 5-7-5-syllable format. I like the haiku for its simplicity, for its goal of describing a single scene that is easy to visualize. Here are a couple of examples:

From my cross-Canada walk:

Raven hurt on road;
I carry him to safety,
Whisper healing words.

And while taking a break this morning:

A cup of mint tea.
Watching cedars through window.
Such tranquility.

What I’m hoping the haikus will do is help me capture at least one moment per day on the Camino, one moment of significance that collectively will provide me with an album, not unlike a photo album, of my adventure. I will continue to journal in my usual form of prose, of course, but it will be a nice addition to try a haiku every day.

Time grows short before my departure. Final decisions on gear need to be made. I put on the kettle and toss a mint tea bag into my hiking cup. Ten more minutes to procrastinate, I think to myself.

I look down at the bits and pieces of my gear on the floor. Each of them has been a loyal friend at some time or another on my past travels. Each piece is valuable and cherished. But they all won’t be making this trip. I won’t need everything for this pilgrimage.

I look to them to see which items will volunteer to be left behind. But no hands are raised.

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2 comments… add one
  • Keith Foskett Sep 13, 2017

    Hi Dave,
    There is an answer to why I hadn’t heard of the Camino! My trek took place in 2002 (I think – I still forget), and at that time the route was less well known than it is today. It was also fairly early on in my hiking ‘career’ so my route ignorance was high as well.
    However, yes, you can mount an expedition relatively quickly. I was fortunate that I had free time, wasn’t working, and could invest some time planning.
    Anyway, I hope you have a great Camino, I presume you’re already crunching the gravel.
    Stay safe and Ultreya!

    • Dave Sep 29, 2017

      Great to hear from you, Fozzie. I love your books. Yes, we’re on our way, currently in the village of Itero de la Vega. Great experience so far, and partly inspired by you. So thanks.

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