This post explores some of the parallels between walking and coping with grief.
This is Part 2 of a series of posts that have taken inspiration from long-distance and pilgrimage walking routes, such as the Camino de Santiago and the North Wales Pilgrim Path (pictures below). For Part 1 of this series, visit: Walking the Way – Part 1
Reading a good book is an enjoyable way to relax. I tend to stick with a genre for awhile and then move on to something completely different. One summer it was the Outlander series; another the amusing tales of the Best Ladies Detective Agency; I’ve had Tolstoy and Dostoevsky summers, as well as the complete works of H.G. Wells. Recently, thanks to “Amazon Prime”, I’ve been reading book after book by people who have walked the Camino de Santiago.
I think I’ve read about 20 different stories so far, not counting the blogs I’ve found with many more accounts (just google “Camino blog” and you’ll see what I mean).
The authors – mostly walkers, but also one cyclist and one runner – come from a variety of backgrounds and walk for different reasons. Some don’t seem to have too many reasons to make this pilgrimage except it’s a challenge. Others seek peace of some sort. Some are quite serious and others less so. One of my favourites was the tale of an obese Irishman (17 stone). His struggle to get up the first mountain, stopping at every available bench to catch his breath, was something I could relate to. He certainly lost weight and got fitter over his 500 mile walk!
Some people’s accounts focussed on the food they ate – lots about tortillas and paella and pain au chocolat and bocadillo sandwiches. Some on the excellent wine, drunk in copious quantities, or the enjoyment of a chilled cerveza (beer).
Most of them wrote about the accommodations. Some stayed mostly at the pilgrim albergues (hostels) with rows of bunks beds, replete with sound effects – snoring, people getting up at 4 am to leave before dawn, toilets flushing… Others stayed in private hotels and rooms. These had more comfort – having a private room was definitely easier – but several of the women mentioned how it was lonely as they missed the conversation and fellowship of the crowds of peregrinos and peregrinas (pilgrims) in the albergues.
Some of the walkers were out of shape and had never tried anything like this before, whereas others were fit to start with, and this may not have even been their first long distance walk. Some walked the complete Camino Frances of 500 miles (roughly a million steps). Some walked much less, and some much more, such as one young man who began his walk in Canterbury (England) and busked his way across the Belgium, France and then finally Spain. (Out of interest, he was the only one of the books I have read so far who was specifically walking in memory of someone, also busking in support of a charity. His book is “The Pilgrim Snail.“)
Some of the very fit walkers were quite dismissive of those who walked lesser distances or took taxis or an occasional bus, or sent their luggage on ahead. (I think if I ever did this, I would likely be in their number of those who needed a bit of help!) Some recounted lively discussions on the Way on what makes a true pilgrim. There is apparently a bit of snobbery from the purists towards those who maybe cannot make it on their own steam. On the other hand, those who travel by coach and just pop on and off the bus to get their pilgrim passport stamped really aren’t making the effort that a pilgrimage seems to require. They are sometimes referred to as touragrinas.
There were different attitudes towards religion. Some were believers and looking for spiritual input – one lady stopped once a day at a chapel or church to say a prayer for her grandchild who was being treated for leukemia. For others there was no direct religious or spiritual basis for their walk.
Some embarked on the Way by themselves, others with a partner (husband or wife) or friend. Invariably, even they would end up walking much of the day alone and meeting up at the next town. There were different reasons for this – different walking paces, or a desire to meet and chat with other pilgrims, or a desire for quietness and solitude.
Naturally there were many descriptions of the scenery as well as the weather. Some encountered snow in the first days whereas others ended up walking through the rain. The most difficult weather seemed to be the heat of the middle of summer. Many walkers would start off at 6 am or even earlier, trying to get their main walk done before the heat became unbearable.
For many, it seemed the camaraderie on the route was a high point of the experience, and some lasting friendships were made. Conversations seemed to go quite deep, more than is typical in our usual daily lives. This was true for the most part but not exclusively, as there were groups enjoying the walk more as a holiday or month-long party. The first book I read of someone who didn’t complete the Way had been walking with his cousin and basically it was a gastronomic and drinking experience – and what with their hangovers and sleeping in each day, it wasn’t enough to motivate them to continue until the end.
I have a fairly good picture now of the route. I know about the famous sites – the steel figures of pilgrims on the hill where the “where the path of the wind crosses that of the stars“ ; the church with a tap pouring out free wine to refresh the weary wanderers; the beautiful villages; the Cruz de Ferro – a cross on the mountainside where people lay a stone representing their burdens; and of course, the Cathedral of Santiago which is the goal of the route, although some continue onwards to the sea, literally to the world’s end at Finisterre.
This is something else I have a picture of: Feet.
Feet. Blisters. Feet. Blisters. Ankles. Knees. Tendons. Feet. Blisters. Wrapping feet. Airing feet. Caring for feet. Blisters. Sore feet. Dragging feet. Feet. – Everybody had quite a bit of say about the state of their feet and/or the state of other people’s feet.
The books I read had many differences. There were different personalities, different backgrounds, different motivations, different abilities, different routes, different modes of travel. Each book tended to focus on a different aspect – the food, or the people they met, or their personal growth and reflections, or the scenery, and so on.
But there was one element in common in each and every book: The only way to keep going was to keep going.
There was (with very few exceptions) a determination to carry on, no matter how difficult, and even if it meant occasionally taking a taxi or a bus.
Being willing to walk on. Step after step. One step at a time.
Just like grief.
It doesn’t matter where we are on our journey or the route that life has taken us. No matter how exhausted we are, however much pain we are enduring, however lonely or however much we’re seeking peace – no matter our condition – the way to live with loss is to keep going.
Step after step.
One step at a time.
Even if we need a bit of external help sometimes – like those who take the taxi or bus due to exhaustion or difficult terrain.
We keep going.
We take a deep breath in, we breathe out, and we manage to say :
That is all that is required.
And in this way, we live with our loss, we survive our grief, and we walk on.
A CAMINO PRAYER
Excerpts of the Pilgrim Prayer from the 12th century Camino pilgrim guide, the Codex Calixtinus. This can quite appropriately apply to our grief journeys.
Lord, we ask you to watch over us…
Be for us, a companion on our journey,
Our guide at the crossroads,
Our strength in tiredness
Our stronghold in danger.
Be the inspiration for our walking,
The shade in our heat,
The light in our darkness,
Our consolation in dejection.
The power in our intention.
So that, under your guidance
We may reach the end of our journey…
(this should open in Spotify)
The pilgrim path in North Wales – a few pictures
I have walked much of this route – this section is in the Llyn Peninsula.
Have you walked the Camino or any long-distance route? And/or have you walked in memory of a loved one? You are welcome to share your story in the comments. Thanks!
For a variety of reading on a range of grief-related topics, pop over to the Subject Index here.