My September camino is on hold. My recent May one was done virtually. The 2021 Holy Year might go either way – boom or bust – and nobody knows when the camino as we know it will get back to normal, if it ever does. Chances are albergues will have to rethink, reorganise, refurbish and/or repurpose if they are to survive, and we pilgrims have to weigh up the risks and benefits of these changes against the dream we had about our adventure. For now, Stella and I can wait. (Just about.)
Stella is my lovely and beloved backpack. Not only do I love Stella for all the right reasons (features, size, weight, fit), I also love that the model is called the Escapist. That label fits not only the pack, but definitely also the wearer.
For I am under no illusion – the camino is my escapism, as it is for so many of you out there.
On the camino I can’t work, for one thing, so I don’t think about work. On the camino I am just one in a long line of walkers, dreamers, hopers, and yes, escapists, going back centuries. People have walked it searching for salvation, for forgiveness, to give thanks, to search for answers or to literally walk away from their normal life. That doesn’t seem to change much whether or not the walker is religious at the outset, or from one century to another. We all walk with intent. We all walk in hope. And while we walk, our hearts and minds are free to contemplate the deeper things in life or the issues in our own lives, whatever they may be. Or take a breather from them, leave them behind and concentrate on the here and now.
On the camino, something as natural and mundane as the sun rising every day becomes a reason to get up in the morning, to walk in the cold and dark (and without coffee) just to appreciate its beauty. How often do we do that at home? How often do we pause to watch the sunrise before work, or seek out the sunset from a hill in the evening? Or choose to be outdoors all day, exposed to the elements? Brave the cold and wet, fight through the wind without question or hesitation?
On the camino most people you meet are friendly, helpful, kind, positive, joyful and open. Maybe because we are all walking the same way, literally, and we are all in it together. We have all left our loved ones behind and now we seek friendship and understanding among our fellow walkers. Some of the relationships forged on the camino will last a lifetime, some just for the afternoon, or until reality kicks in. Some will never be forgotten, some won’t be remembered. People find love there, some walk with their loves, mourn them, fall out, get over breakups, learn to trust themselves and others again.
My religious friends say they feel God there, just like I feel the spirit of humanity. Maybe we’re talking about the same thing, maybe we just use different words; whatever it is, it strengthens my faith in people, just as it strengthens other people’s faith in God. You may have heard the expression ‘camino magic’, which covers a range of wonders, whether you call it mercy, serendipity, grace, fate, or luck.
Even the simplicity and constant forward momentum of a long walk can have immense transformative power. The camino teaches us – by example – that basic truth that every step, no matter how small, no matter how hard, provided it is in the right general direction, will eventually get you there. You just have to keep moving, not necessarily quickly, though the way ahead will have ups and downs and not always follow a straight line.
But is it real? If this idea of simplicity, contemplation and transformation, with its promise of answers and a deeper connection with God/yourself/humanity doesn’t last, if it needs doing again and again, is it not just pure escapism? A pretty walk in the countryside with interesting company, good wine and cheap food?
Maybe it is. Maybe it is a gradual thing, maybe it doesn’t and can’t change everything for good. Maybe we are simply not able to change overnight or in the space of a week or month. But as far as escapism goes, this bubble of kindness, understanding, openness, camaraderie and self-discovery is better than any TV show. It can build people up and tear prejudice down in the gentlest of ways, and give us a glimpse of who we are, who we can be, an insight into others, which can be as real and revealing as any therapy.
Right now I am having a bad case of the Postponed Camino Blues, and my trusty Stella, my fellow Escapist, is still in the front room, waiting. Oh we’ll go on other walks and short adventures locally, but it won’t be the same. For now I have to find some other way to practice positive escapism until I can hit the open road again and just walk.