Slacking the Saint James

Doing the Camino de Santiago Your Way

When the going gets tough, the tough get going—after a cappuccino or two, anyway.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going—after a cappuccino or two, anyway.

The little nagging fear about embarking on a pilgrimage is, at least in my case, that everyone else on the trail will be a whole lot more religious than I am. So it is with some pleasure that I pick up yet another book about someone walking the path of Saint James from France to Spain and discover that the author, like me, goes at his own pace, whether intense or intentionally slow, likes a whole lot of latte, and doesn’t take an institutional approach to God.

German comedian Hape Kerkeling walks the Saint James in summer 2001 at a moment in his life when he is working too hard and not getting outdoors enough. He hasn’t been working in preparation for his walk, doesn’t have reservations at each town he will stay in, and doesn’t always have the most chipper of attitudes. Here is a pilgrim I can identify with. He writes about his experience well in I’m Off Then (published in German in 2006 and in English by Simon & Schuster in 2009).

Scallop markers point the way on the Walk of Saint James.

Scallop markers point the way on the Walk of Saint James.

The story of Saint James, more specifically, his body, is a bit of a tortured one; after being killed in Jerusalem in 44 C.E., his body managed to wash up in Spain—a place he purportedly had visited—possibly covered in scallop shells. His body rests in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. The path to this place has been a walk for pilgrims since the Middle Ages. This Saint James is not James the brother of Jesus but the fellow known as James the Greater, one of the apostles who knew Jesus.

The path of Saint James, also known as the Camino de Santiago, runs about 500 miles from France to Spain.

The path of Saint James, also known as the Camino de Santiago, runs about 500 miles from France to Spain.

Some people walk the Pacific Crest Trail, others the Appalachian Trail; still others just make their way to Key West. Some find their way to the Inca Trail in Peru on the way up to Machu Picchu. For others, there’s Alaska. There’s a long path for everyone. When your life’s not going right, you’ve got to get going. Why not take a 500-mile walk from France to Spain? Surely, it will be good for your soul.

Some don’t make it, though. The path can be arduous. Pilgrims walk 10 to 20 miles a day and then tend to sleep communally in little towns along the way. Some pilgrims opt for the greater privacy of a hotel room. Some pilgrims bike. Some pilgrims just go for a week or so a year, then pick up where they left off the year before.

Hape Kerkeling does the whole thing and goes from barely being able to walk the distance the first day to barely being able to contain what I perceive as his joy by the end. Along the way, he keeps a journal, makes new friends, drinks some wine, drinks more coffee, walks silently, walks with a partner, and amuses his readers as he encounters any number of interesting characters on his journey. He’s not above a little bit of luxury, taking a day off, hopping on some forms of transportation every now and then. This road is a hard one, and it is only natural that at one point he will think about quitting it.

The goal of pilgrims walking the path of Saint James is the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.

The goal of pilgrims walking the path of Saint James is the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.

Kerkeling finished his walk in July 2001 and his book has sold well in Germany and been translated into English. It has also been made into a German film.

What is there for the reader? It can be instructive to read about a pilgrimage made by one who does not strive so hard but who still finds his way.

Incense at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela makes for a pleasantly fragrant experience for pilgrims.

Incense at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela makes for a pleasantly fragrant experience for pilgrims.

I only wish he’d added a more recent addendum to let readers know what has transpired in the decade and a half since he made his journey just months before 9/11. I would be interested to know how his outlook has changed in the years since, and whether he has ever felt the need to go back.

—Lori Tripoli

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