The way of the stars

An excerpt from The Way of the Stars

Published by the University of Virginia Press.

Pilgrims are persons in motion—passing through territories not their own — seeking something we might call completion. — Richard R. Niebuhr, "Pilgrims and Pioneers"

I couldn’t see my son. He was somewhere ahead of me on the mountain, but I’d lost sight of him as I labored up the muddy, leaf-slippery slope, following the trail as it wound through a copse of mist-shrouded oak and beech trees. We had started out together, Daniel and I, two hours earlier, leaving Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees to take the Napoleon Route across the mountains to Roncesvalles on the Spanish side of the border. It was still dark, but the trek to Roncesvalles would take eight or nine hours and even longer if we ran into bad weather or inadvertently took the wrong trail.

Before we left Saint-Jean we had a quick, out-of-the-backpack breakfast of ham, cheese, and bread that we’d purchased the previous day. It had rained during the night, and we’d sat on a wet wooden bench beneath the dripping awning of the Brasserie Zuharpeta. The restaurant was dark and the windows shuttered. We’d made baguette sandwiches by the light of a street lamp across the road and eaten them in silence, looking out on the shiny wet asphalt. I’d felt oddly disoriented.

Eight years earlier, I had paused for a solitary predawn breakfast at the same shuttered café before embarking on my first pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Way of St. James, one of the most famous pilgrim routes in the Christian world. Now I was here with my son, fulfilling a commitment I’d made to him when I was about to head off on that first trek. He was in high school then, and I’d promised that if he finished school and got a university degree, I would pay for both of us to walk the Camino after his graduation. He had kept his part of the bargain. I was about to keep mine. Yet I wasn’t sure my heart was in it. I had fond memories of my previous journey, but I also knew how hard it could be.

As we ate I looked down Rue de Zuharpeta toward the town center and the long stonewall that enclosed the Parc des Remparts. On the far side of the park was the Hôtel des Remparts, also dark in the early hour. A gust of wind rippled the skin of rain on the road and rattled the awning, showering us with cold drops. I heard Daniel say, "Are we going to sit here forever?"

I smiled to myself. At twenty-four, he wanted to move. At fifty-seven, I wanted a nice warm bed. "Patience, my son. I was just remembering the last time I was here." Staring into the street I saw myself nearly a decade earlier trudging past, knapsack on my back, walking stick tapping the road, rain poncho flapping in the wind. As my younger self passed through my memory I asked him, "Why were you doing this? What were you thinking? Sure, you were excited, but weren’t you a little scared, too, wondering why on earth anyone would go on a religious pilgrimage nowadays?"

"Come on, Dad," Daniel said. "You’re always remembering something. Let’s go."

My son was right. I was procrastinating, but not only because I wanted to delay confronting what I knew lay ahead. I was at an age when memories claimed more and more of my waking thoughts. I tended to savor those fragments of my life that memory had shored against my eventual oblivion. Still, the urgency of youth will have its way.

We cleared away our breakfast fixings, shouldered our packs, and followed the curve of Rue de Zuharpeta to Chemin de Saint-Jacques. I felt a rush of pleasure walking the empty streets in the cool damp darkness before dawn, moving in and out of one circle of street light after another, gazing at the darkened windows of the houses while imagining the lives inside, and hearing the echo of our hiking sticks as we tapped along the narrow road between rows of buildings. You’re a pilgrim again, I told myself.

Yet as I tramped onward I kept thinking about my motives in wanting to make another pilgrimage. With the bounty of technology so readily available to make modern life comfortable and entertaining, there is something decidedly incongruous about undertaking a trek that entails considerable physical demands and long periods of solitude, facing the isolation of your own mind as you forego all the diversions our consumer society provides to keep us from thinking too much. Besides, ours is a hypersecular age that questions the point of a pilgrimage if there’s nothing, or no one, to hear your prayers or to witness your performance. If you want to walk twenty-five or thirty kilometers a day and get all sweaty and sore, you can do that on a treadmill in your basement.

Of course in a less secular time like the Middle Ages, pilgrimages were common. Indeed, pilgrimage is a deep-seated trope of Western culture. Many of the great works of Western literature--Dante’s Divine Comedy with its ascent to the stars, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with its not-so-saintly pilgrims, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress with its everyman seeker--involve pilgrimage, journeys both inward and outward. But in an age when supposedly no Westerner of intelligence believes in a divine entity, why would you go on a pilgrimage? Yet millions of modern-day Westerners undertake pilgrimages every year. I’d read that more than six thousand religious sites in Western Europe attract between 70 and 100 million people annually. Why? Is such an apparent spiritual longing simply a reflection of the millennial zeitgeist, a desperate desire for transcendent significance in an age of anxiety? Perhaps the travel writer Pico Iyer got it right when he remarked that the contemporary notion of pilgrimage has a lot to do with people wanting to retrieve a sense of purpose in their lives, a sense of constancy, and perhaps a connection with something greater than themselves. But why in an age that worships comfort and convenience, speed and efficiency, would you spend weeks walking hundreds of kilometers? Why would you abandon the highways and bright lights to become, in Iyer’s words, "a traveler into candlelight"?

Good question, I thought, as I splashed through a mud puddle. On the surface, my reason for undertaking a second Camino pilgrimage was straightforward: I was fulfilling a promise to my son. But in my heart of hearts I had to acknowledge a deeper motive, a deeper longing. I wanted to replicate the extraordinary experiences of that first pilgrimage, experiences that had awakened me in middle age from my spiritual slumbers.

The first couple of hours after we left Saint-Jean certainly didn’t promise anything out of the ordinary. We merely put one booted foot in front of the other as the trail grew steeper and a chill wind off the mountains blew in our faces. We hiked through the village of Huntto with its clutch of half a dozen houses. A pale strip of light broke through the overcast clouds on the eastern horizon. But it was still too dark to see much more than the vague shapes of farmhouses on either side of the road and silhouetted hedgerows cutting through the fields.

Daniel was already well ahead of me, but I lost sight of him only when we entered a dark wood. I told myself not to worry, though I knew how easy it was to get lost if you weren’t paying attention. Trails crisscrossed the mountains, and a pilgrim who missed a trail marker or made a wrong turn could easily wander off into some obscure valley. I hurried to catch up.

My fatherly concerns were unnecessary. The trail eventually emerged from the copse of trees. Rounding a curve, I came out of the woods and saw my son ahead on the crest of a hill, waiting for me. Good boy, I thought, waiting to see if the old man can make it without blowing a heart valve. Admittedly, I was huffing and puffing by the time I joined him. As I leaned on my walking stick and waited for my breathing to return to normal, I looked toward the mountain peaks we would pass beneath as we climbed higher. I turned to look back down the trail behind and below us, gazing at the small, dice-like clusters of buildings and fields that seemed to rise up from the valley floor as the darkness slowly gave way to dawn. I could make out the glow of lights in Saint-Jean. As we looked over the valley we heard a burst of birdsong from the beech and oak trees nearby. Almost at the same time, the top of the sun broke over the crest of the mountains in the east, and the valley was suddenly flooded with light. It was like watching lava flow. The light rolled and spread across the land as the sun rose, pushing back the night to reveal a panoramic checkerboard of green fields, small villages, and patches of forest. I glanced at Daniel. The sight absorbed him, too.

It was moments like this, I realized, that had made my previous pilgrimage so meaningful. As the valley filled with light, the memory of that first Camino flooded my mind. I don’t mean I suddenly recalled each and every event or detail. Rather, the sense of it as a whole, its meaningfulness, swept over me.

Now, nearly a decade later, while standing on a mountainside with my son, captivated by the glimmering green landscape, conscious of the pack on my back and the walking stick in my hand--the same one I had relied on previously—I felt the vault of memory open. And with the rush of memory came an emotional shift. I remembered the first time I’d seen this landscape and how it had occurred to me that if I’d come this way as a pilgrim three or four hundred years earlier, I would have confronted the same scene. With that awareness I journeyed across a psychic landscape. In a split second I felt myself restored to a premodern sensibility I’d encountered on my earlier pilgrimage. For a brief moment I dwelled simultaneously in two worlds, the modern and the medieval.

I glanced up at the still-dark western sky and saw a few stars between gaps in the cloud cover. A good omen, I thought, recalling how medieval astrologers believed the Milky Way hovered over the Camino and served as a guide to pilgrims. Once again I was a peregrino, a pilgrim on the starry way.

"Ultreya!" I said as I looked at the stars hanging above the mountain.

“"What?" asked Daniel.

"Ultreya. It’s Latin for ‘Go forward, go beyond.’ It was a pilgrim motto in the Middle Ages, something to encourage them."

"Sounds good to me," Daniel said.

And so onward and upward we walked — or, more accurately, climbed — in the light of a new day. I lost sight of Daniel again, but I didn’t worry about him, or not too much. He made it to Roncesvalles long before I did. When I finally arrived, we walked a few kilometers further to the little town of Burguete, spending the night at the Hostal Burguete, where Ernest Hemingway stayed during fishing trips to Spain in the 1920s. In the dining room there’s a piano inscribed with Hemingway’s signature and the date "25/7/1923."

But I’m getting ahead of myself and, perhaps, unintentionally misdirecting readers. The pilgrimage with my son is not the story I’m going to tell here. That story is Daniel’s, and maybe some day he’ll tell it. I want to relate my first pilgrimage. That month-long walk across northern Spain has proved to be one of the most remarkable experiences in my life, a journey whose significance has reverberated in subtle ways long after I returned home. As I trudged up the mountain after my son, and in the days that followed, I found myself remembering places I’d seen, people I’d met, and things that had happened to me, including things inward. But what I mostly recalled was how that first trek had been as much a psychological — and, some would say, a spiritual — journey as a geographical one. I had journeyed along the Camino, but the Camino had also journeyed through me. That’s the story I want to tell.

In this regard, I’m not offering a pilgrimage guidebook. There are numerous such books available as well as many websites devoted to the Camino.3 Nor am I providing advice on what to wear, how to pack, or how to prepare for the walk, psychologically or physically. Again, there are plenty of books on these subjects. In any case, whatever advice I could give is implicit in the description of my experiences. Besides, researching the Camino, reading the accounts of other pilgrims, training for the walk, selecting backpacks and boots and other equipment all foster a pilgrimage mindset. It is this "pilgrim mind" that particularly interests me — what can happen psychologically and spiritually when you walk for a long time with a spiritual purpose. In other words, my story is a phenomenology of pilgrimage.

What did I learn or acquire on my inner journey? Well, as any storyteller knows, the telling is in the showing. Suffice it to say that once you’ve been on a pilgrimage, you’re never quite the same.