The Rhythms of the Camino

People ask me – often in solicitous tones – why I keep coming back to the Camino de Santiago, or more precisely, to the Camino Francés, the great pilgrim trunk-road that runs from the Spanish Pyrenees west across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. “You’re in a rut,” the questioners seem to imply. “It’s a big world, there are other experiences to be had, other roads to walk. Why …. again?”

I tell them they’re absolutely right, and swear I’ll someday walk to Rome, and make the Buddhist pilgrimage to the Japanese island of Shikoku, and check out the Portuguese route to Santiago …. But in the meantime, I’m still far from wearing out the novelty of the good old Camino Francés.

“Every time,” (I explain) “I walk it in a different season, sleep in different places, find new ways to get somewhere familiar – and new ways to get lost. I turn left where before I turned right, look up where last time I looked down. But most of all, I meet a whole new cast of pilgrims, all with their own stories, their own novel ways of looking at our shared experience. I do the Camino again because every time it ’s different.”

But that’s still not the whole answer. For while half the appeal of the Camino is the surprises, the eternal newness of the familiar, the other half is what does not change: the deep, persistent rhythms of the road.

What are the Rhythms of the Camino?

I suppose the obvious one is the rhythm of the pilgrim’s day, the waking and walking and eating and sleeping and waking and walking and…. though for me, I never established much in the way of a daily rhythm. Some days I walked fifteen kilometers, others forty. There were nights I slept the sleep of the just. Others when I lay awake till dawn.

I usually set out in the morning with an idea of where I wanted to end up that night, but if it transpired that the Camino had other ideas for me, I didn’t put up a fight. I’ve learned not to argue with the Camino. This is not to say that other pilgrims didn’t find or create order in the Camino’s rush and flux. But the only fixed star in my pilgrim sky was a morning coffee.

What, then, were the rhythms I felt? Well, first and last, the rhythm we pound with the steps of our journey, the rhythm of walking. What rhythm, save our heartbeat, our breathing, is more basic to life? It was the steady metronome of footsteps that took our kind out of Africa a million years ago and carried us to the farthest ends of the Earth – for better or for worse. Walking defines us. We are the creature who goes on four legs in the morning and two in the afternoon.

But walking is a rhythm that’s hard to find in the life most of us live today. A city is a choppy sea for walkers, with its crowded sidewalks and stop-and-go traffic lights, its traffic and distractions. The leveled surfaces meant to facilitate our progress are rock-hard, we pay for convenience with sore feet. And city journeys are Ulyssean, returning us at the end of the day to the place we left in the morning. To follow the ribbon of the Camino ever westward across Spain is to rediscover another way of walking – strong, calm, purposeful.

And as we walk through this particular landscape, we become aware of another rhythm: the rhythm of the rural and the urban. At least until we reach Galicia, with its loose scattering of farms and byres, there is little continuous human settlement on the Camino. What we find instead are long stretches of emptiness punctuated at regular intervals by a compact village or town.

This pattern was laid down in Spain’s olden days of chronic warfare, when people went out to farm the fields by day, then huddled in their villages at night. It was shaped by the pilgrimage, too – big towns pop up at roughly the distance of a day’s walk from each other. What counts for us today, however, is that this alternation between habitation and emptiness creates another rhythm: the rhythm of solitude and community.

I have used the word “emptiness” to describe the spaces between the Camino’s towns, and perhaps that is how we would experience them – if we were driving. But when we walk, they are anything but. They are full, full beyond measure, of space and sky, clouds and silence, wind and earth and wheat. They are places where the mind can expand and soar – or conversely, feel its smallness upon the vast face of our planet. They are places to be alone, with eyes set on the horizon, footsteps marking off the beat, while the spirit walks its own Camino.

And then, with a roll of drums, our lonely, peaceful road enters a human settlement, a little urbs spun tight around its civic square, its well, and its bar (or two, or three…). We join the pilgrims lazing around the fountain (drying their laundry, sharing fruit, comparing blisters), or duck out of the rain to share a coffee or a glass of wine, or come to the refuge where we will spend the night and scan the register for familiar names. And we are reminded, if we needed reminding, that the Camino is and always has been not a solitary endeavour but a collaboration.

My perfect Camino days, the ones I walk again in my thoughts and dreams, are the ones when all the rhythms run together, when fellowship and solitude, the sense of a lonely journey and the knowledge that the journey is shared, play off of and balance each other, as surely as a step with the left foot balances a step with the right.

– Robert Ward 


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