“A line is a dot that went for a walk.” Paul Klee, the Swiss artist, is credited with saying this. I’ve not been able to track down where or when, but the phrase has traveled widely and is used in any number of exercise books for artists, catering to both children and adults. It calls attention to the hand and the page, the artist and the medium, and to questions of freedom and constraint or spontaneity and inheritance. In his Pedagogical Sketchbook, a book prepared for students at the Bauhaus School of Art, Klee wrote this version of that slogan: “An active line is a walk, moving freely, without a goal.”
A pilgrimage is as an active line, clearly. But the pilgrims we met on our walk were not moving freely. They were driven or compelled, and they were following a well-defined line marked by yellow blazes. They had a guidebook. And they had a goal.
In our case, the goal was the great Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, said to be the burial place of Saint James (Santiago). This is the greater of the several Jameses in the New Testament, the first of the apostles to be martyred. In paintings and carved in retablos, he is figured as a pilgrim walking with a staff, carrying a gourd, and wearing a scallop shell as a badge on his wide-brimmed hat. He is also figured (although, on the Camino, not nearly so prominently) as Santiago Matamoros — a warrior on a white horse, with a sword, slaughtering infidels or “moors” as part of the Christian reconquest of Spain.
The original pilgrimage route to Santiago stretched from Eastern Europe to the Spanish cathedral city on Atlantic (in that spit of coastline just north of Portugal). It was one of the three great pilgrimage routes of medieval Europe. (Rome and Jerusalem defined the others.)
We were walking the Camino to fulfill a promise we had made to ourselves many years ago, after Joyce, the pilgrim in these photographs, had survived two surgeries and two long rounds of chemotherapy in treatment for two separate breast cancers. She’s always there in these scenes, although she’s not always easy to spot.
We began our pilgrimage in Roncesvalles, a small stone village high in the Pyrenees at the border of France and Spain. We attended the pilgrim’s mass at the Iglesia de la Real Colegiata de Santa Maria (14th century), and the service included readings (in many languages) by pilgrims who were staying the night in bunk beds at the old pilgrim’s hospital that was attached to the church. In his homily, the Priest said that we should use our time walking the Camino to be quiet — to free ourselves from distraction and to listen for what we might hear.
After the mass, when we signed the registry, we were asked for our motive. Was ours a spiritual journey? Were we primarily interested in the history and culture of the medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago? Were we in pursuit of adventure? A physical challenge? Actually, all of the above were true, but to the official in Roncesvalles we said, “spiritual,” which would guarantee us a document at the end, the Compostela, prepared for us by the Reception Office next to the Cathedral where we would present a kind of passport full of stamps gathered from inns and churches along the way to prove our claim. The Compostela reads:
The Chapter of this Holy Apostolic and Metropolitan Cathedral of Compostela, custodian of the seal of the Altar of St. James, to all the Faithful and pilgrims who arrive from anywhere on the Orb of the Earth with an attitude of devotion or because of a vow or promise make a pilgrimage to the Tomb of the Apostle, Our Patron Saint and Protector of Spain, recognizes before all who observe this document that: …………… has devotedly visited this most sacred temple with Christian sentiment (pietatis causa).
We were moved by the spirit, but also by a long-standing interest in this history and culture of Spain, and the art and architecture of the medieval church. In retrospect, though, our goal can be simply stated. The route we followed, the Camino Francés, covered 756 kilometers or 470 miles, a little more than the distance between Pittsburgh (our home) and Chicago. It was a long walk and it traversed three mountain ranges, the highest point at about 1500 meters. We wanted to make it all the way. We wanted to complete this long walk, step by step, hour by hour, and day by day.
Every day we would start out with peregrinos from all over the world: Germany, France, Korea, Japan, Sweden, Australia, the US. But because people walk at different paces, soon we were walking alone. We walked usually 6 hours per day. We stayed in hostals (our own room!) and albergues (8 to 16 to a room, a shower down the hall, and a chorus of snoring at night) — all in small villages, many with buildings and bridges built in the 12th to the 14th century to support the pilgrimage and the pilgrims. We were served the pilgrim’s dinner—local wine, salad, bread, and (usually) lentils or stew.
According to the Codex Calixtinus (the 12th-century guide for pilgrims),
the Camino takes us away from luscious foods, it makes gluttonous fatness vanish, it restrains voluptuousness, constrains the appetites of the flesh which attack the fortress of the soul, cleanses the spirit, leads us to contemplation, humbles the haughty, raises up the lowly, and loves poverty.
We were too tired for much in the way of voluptuousness. And we learned that while the Camino may be good for the spirit, it is very hard on the feet.
“Traveler, there is no road; you make your own path as you walk.” Caminante, no hay camino; se hace camino al andar. This is one of the slogans for the road—and it is a theme song for the Camino de Santiago. It is reproduced on postcards and t-shirts; you’ll see it as graffiti; you’ll find it framed, painted or in tile on the wall in bars, inns, and albergues. It comes from a poem by Antonio Machado, part of a collection of “proverbs and songs” published in Campos de Castilla (1912). (Castilla is one of the historic regions of north-central Spain. It is the centerpiece of the Camino Frances.) Here is the full text with a translation by Mary G. Berg and Dennis Maloney:
Traveler, your footprints Caminante, son tus huellas
are the only road, nothing else. el camino y nada más;
Traveler, there is no road; caminante, no hay camino,
you make your own path as you walk. se hace camino al andar.
As you walk, you make your own road, Al andar se hace camino,
and when you look back y al volver la vista atrás
you see the path se ve la senda que nunca
you will never travel again. se ha de volver a pisar.
Traveler, there is no road; Caminante, no hay camino,
only a ship’s wake on the sea. sino estelas en la mar.
Robert Frost said that to be a good reader, you have to follow a metaphor to see where it leads. Then, you decide if it serves. In a talk to students at Amherst College, he said,
What I am pointing out is that unless you are at home in metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values, you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.
Machado’s poem didn’t work for me. I couldn’t ride it. I had it in my head, as I had other songs and poems, to pass the time and to mark the rhythm of my steps, but I couldn’t follow it on the ground. The metaphor was compelling, to be sure, you make your own path as you walk, but it had no descriptive truth or power which made it ring hollow on a hard 500 mile walk, a walk along a path that was well marked and that could be (and often is) walked a second time (or more). I couldn’t use it to think about where I was and what I was doing.
On the Camino, there was a road. And it was defined by more than my footprints — by maps and signs, by daily schedules, by memories, histories, desires, and, unless there had been hard rain, by the dusty footprints of others. All were as present as sharp rocks, bandages, and blisters.
“Facts for the walker, fictions for the viewer.” This comes from larger display of word and image prepared by Hamish Fulton, the “walking artist” whose walks all over the world (including Spain) are represented as art in galleries and museums: collections of photos, primitive maps, names and dates, timelines and elevations, and usually a few words, words which seldom amount to sentences but offer themselves as slogans. Eyes, Feet, Road.
Fulton, for example, spent seven days and seven nights walking through Myrdalssandur during March in 1996, an outwash plain in southern Iceland. The exhibit includes a poster with the details of place and time and these words stamped in random clusters around the word “boulder” at the lower center: stones, gravel, rock, black sand. If you go to Hamish Fulton’s website, which is certainly worth a visit, you can see photographs of his walking shoes as well as the paths they have walked. But what you can’t ignore is the sound of his footsteps, loud and crisp, one after another for as long as you choose to listen.
If we have a national road poem in the U.S., a prime candidate, at least for my generation, would be Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” I’ve taught this poem often and often used it as an opening moment in my lower division, general education course, “Reading Poetry.”
Frost used this poem as a test. Someone who reads poems badly would read this poem, he said, with the eyes only (and not with the ears). Someone who read it poorly would say, “Well, the poem tells us that we have to take the untrodden path.” Or, “Frost says that we have to head out on our own. We can’t follow the crowd.” Something like that.
But if you read with your ears — listening for a sense of the character, the person speaking, the situation, the dramatic moment of this utterance — then you find yourself inside the head of someone who is thinking about someday thinking back, hoping to be able to cast themselves in a heroic narrative. It is not a poem that offers advice. It is a poem about growing old. And it is a poem about the desire to (and the problem of) making a life (or a walk) worth something.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The poem acts out the desire to make something out of the ordinary, to give a walk a higher purpose. I would ask my students, “Who walks that way, already writing the story he or she will tell somewhere ages and ages hence? What are the alternatives? What else can you do with walk in the woods?
And I would ask them to read this stanza out loud, to find a way of inhabiting the moment that begins with a sigh. What does it sound like? Is it rehearsed? Spontaneous? Earned? Empty?
Does it speak an eternal longing? Is this a story of artistic creation? (I would phrase those two questions in a deep, professorial voice.) Or is this person a blow-hard, a show-off, a bully, a narcissist? How does a person become someone, become present in the world in a way that matters?
I have come to think that the speaker is like an old friend of mine who insists on telling stories of our high school football games, over and over again. My students, undergraduates usually, believe in the future, as they should. They are quicker to forgive this old man than I am.
Here is the full text of Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.” In the first two stanzas, you can see (and hear) the poet setting up not just the terms and conditions of the walk, but a tone of voice to use on the road.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
Then comes the dramatic gesture, where the tone changes; the speaker waxes Poetic and speaks self-consciously to an admiring audience: “Oh, I kept the first for another day!”
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
And, finally, we are invited to step back to assess the moment; the speaker is rehearsing a speech he plans to deliver to a rapt audience at some point in the future. In my skeptical reading of the poem, where I think of it as a cautionary tale, the speaker is an older man speaking to the young, perhaps young women. He could be a teacher addressing his students.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Facts for the walker; fictions for the viewer.
I started to walk down a hill of purple heather. The sun was straight ahead of me. Soon it would be getting dark, the sun would sink into the Atlantic. The colors of the vast panorama before me were sumptuous. The people were still working in the fields and I asked everyone if it was far to Triacastela. Four kilometers downhill, they said. The smell of grass and clover was sweet and powerful, and it was a great happiness, for once, not to have cheated. But it was more than four kilometers and it was not all downhill. It’s not far, they told me, when I asked again. Obviously, they were used to this. They told the same story to all pilgrims. The last half an hour of walking was pure agony, but the pain was nothing to the pleasure and the expectation as the rooftops of Triacastela gradually came into view.
This is the great Irish novelist, Colm Tóibín, writing about his time on the Camino de Santiago. The passage above comes from the chapter, “A Walk to the End of the Earth,” in Tóibín’s book of travel essays, The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe. The opening of this chapter sets both context and tone:
“Two months later, on a Sunday in July, I set out to walk from Leon in the north of Spain to Santiago de Compostela. I did not check the distance because I knew, from the very beginning, that I was going to cheat.”
And cheat he does. It is a fallen world, right? Pilgrims know this. It is why they have to walk. With sore feet, or bad weather, or the desire for another glass of wine, Toíbín abandoned the trail to grab a cab or a train or a bus to get him to his next stop.
In Tóibín’s account, stories can never be trusted; this is clear from the outset, including (I think we must believe) the stories told by writers who write such lovely sentences about grass and clover, about the vast panorama. “Soon it would be getting dark, the sun would sink into the Atlantic. The colours of the vast panorama before me were sumptuous . . . The smell of grass and clover was sweet and powerful, and it was a great happiness, for once, not to have cheated.” The writer may be a skeptic when it comes to the stories we tell, the slippage between word and deed, the temptations we face as tellers, but all the pressure here still is on prose that can show that something happened on the Camino de Santiago, something important.
We walked from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela, passing through the great Spanish cathedral cities of Burgos and Leon. In 2016, 277,854 people walked the Camino de Santiago. In 2017, there were 301,106. As I am writing this in early November 2018, the number has already reached 317,170. The Camino de Santiago is well known and well traveled.
And yet, for most of our time on the Camino, we walked alone. There were always other pilgrims in the towns we scheduled for the end of the day. And we would see them in the morning, drinking coffee and fresh orange juice, eating tortilla de patatas, although many left before we did, before the sun was up. It was common to see faces a second time during the day, but it was rare to see anyone a third time. We were in our 70s, older than most, and walked at our own determined pace.
We would start out together, of course, but Joyce walks faster than I do. This is just a matter of natural gait. I walk faster than she going uphill but much more slowly going down. On the flat, she would quickly pull ahead and sometimes disappear from view. On an average day, we’d each settle into our own stride; then after a half hour the one ahead would stop for water and to let the other, usually me, catch up. We didn’t make a point of matching stride for stride six hours a day. It would have been a distraction.
There were several long climbs — one for 11 hours, two days at our pace. The downhill route was brutally steep and had long stretches of scree. This took us into the green valleys of Galicia, with stone villages that smelled of wood smoke and cow dung. We’d hear the sounds of the herds, of cows and drovers, of sheep bells and sheepdogs, tractors and Land Rovers. And, as earlier along the Camino, we would hear the distinctive call of cuckoos. They sounded just like the cuckoos in Disney movies or, in my Dad’s old German clock, the family heirloom that no one wanted. A surprise but no surprise. As a boy, every seven days it was my job to pull the chains and raise the metal pine cone weights to reset the clock that hung by his chair. Even then I thought the sound more than a little silly. But here, in the mountains, the sound of the cuckoos rang clear and true; it was welcoming, even reassuring.
On flatter land, we walked through vineyards, wheat fields, and long tracts of sunflowers, bright yellow in the Spring but with brown, drooping faces in the Fall. Because I had a winter work schedule, we divided our walk between the two seasons. Summer was too hot and too crowded.
In the Spring, we saw the damage done by jabalíes on the banks of grass, bramble, and fern that ran along the side of the trail, but we saw no wild boar. In the vineyards, the vines had been pruned severely, right down to the old stock. Each was maybe three feet tall, stocky at the core. The remaining trailing branches, one on each side, pointed in unison to the north and the south. Each vine looked like a tiny old man — dark, scraggly, and twisted, struggling to get up and out of the ground.
The vineyards held troops of these little old men, lined up as though for battle. I thought of my Dad, 98, once a talented musician and a fine athlete, chief of staff at the city hospital, now a baby in a bed at a nursing home. When I ran out of songs or poems, and I was sick of just counting numbers, I would count his heart beat as I walked.
In the fall, after the harvest, we could eat the sweet grapes left on the vines, now five to six feet tall and with branches trained along guide wires to support the hanging fruit. It was a dry fall, and the morning air had the spicy smell of holm oak, dry grass, and broken fern.
We walked one morning out of Reliegos de las Matas, a stone village (population 236) in the province of Leon. This was the region of sunflowers, not vineyards. Suddenly, the drove road we were walking was overtaken by a flock of sheep, at least 200. It was as though they came on cue. At the back of the flock were the animals with sore feet and sore joints, hobbling along as were we by that time in our journey. And behind them was the sag wagon — a tractor with a pen that held those who could walk no further. We suspected that the sheep were marching to the matadero, the last stop for them on life’s dusty road. This is the area famous for lechazo or roast suckling lamb.
We completed our pilgrimage in October 2018. This, actually, was our second journey on the Camino. In 1973, while living in Oxford, we took our bikes via train and ferry to Santurce, north of Bilbao, to bike to Burgos and from there to Santiago. This was before the Camino was a major tourist initiative. We planned the trip by consulting history books, including Walter Starkie’s The Road to Santiago. We took notes on the key stops in the ancient pilgrimage route, many of them distinguished by 12th and 13th-century Romanesque churches, hospitals, and monasteries, some still in ruins in the 1970s though many are now well restored.
As I planned the trip in Oxford, where I was writing a dissertation, it never occurred to me to work from a topographical map. And so we were more than a little surprised to find the mountains of northern Spain. After several difficult days of biking up and down mountain roads, we abandoned our bikes to complete the journey by walking, by hitch-hiking (auto-stop, a safe and common practice at the time), and by bus and train. This was still Franco’s Spain. He died in 1975. While on our bikes, we would see armed members of the Guardia Civil, wearing their black patent leather, tricorn caps, guarding the passes into and out of the Basque Country.
It was on this trip that we first saw the art and architecture of the pilgrimage route, where local craftsmen had carved retablos and painted saints on canvas, all following images carried from France and beyond. San Roque, with a dog licking the wound on his leg. The young Virgin, Purisima, dressed in blue, standing on a cloud of angels, cradled by a quarter moon. Michael, the archangel, with a young boy’s face and elaborate flowered robes, standing on the chest of the devil, a spear in his hand.
Later, we moved to Pittsburgh, got jobs, raised children, and began to collect santos from northern Spain, all of them carved from wood, most of them from the 1600s. For the two of us, these recalled pieces we had seen standing unguarded in the old stone churches along the way. We’d walk into town, ask at a bar, and be directed to a house where a wounded man or a widow in black, faces marked by the struggles of the Spanish Civil War, would gather keys and open doors so that we could sit and rest.
Most of my photographs from the Camino are of a long road winding off to the horizon, with a lone figure in mid-range or in the distance. Our good friend, Mary Rawson, would say, “Received the recent installment of your flipbook. Lovely.” Joyce said, “Would you please stop taking pictures of my butt.” But I loved these long shots—a dot on a road that stretched far beyond what I could see. There was a hard truth in them, something about time and distance.
What I most recall of our pilgrimage is getting up every morning and putting one foot in front of the other, day after day, for seven weeks. Joyce was my guide. She is also writing about the Camino. She says, “There were days when I was tired and sore and cold, even scared, but there was never a day when I didn’t want to take the next steps.” The truth is, we know we did something important, and we’ll tell that story to anyone who will listen.
Images provided by the author.
Edited by Barbara Chernyavsky.