Having entertained (and depressed) the world with what looked like a very public drug-mediated nervous breakdown, Charlie Sheen seems to have faded into the tabloid backdrop. But even though the public may no longer care about him (we are a fickle bunch) his father and brother appear to be taking some cinematic deep breaths and reflecting on family and loss.
For those of you who don’t know, Charlie Sheen is the brother of Emilio Estevez (star of The Mighty Ducks movies) and the son of veteran American actor, Martin Sheen. Estevez recently directed a movie starring the elder Sheen about a father who attempts to complete “The Way”, a journey on which his son had tragically perished. Somehow I resisted the urge to see this new-age rendition of the famed Camino de Santiago (also known as The Way of St. James) and so I can’t tell you how well it reflects the real thing. If you are reading this and have seen the movie, feel free to let me know how “Hollywood” our experience was…
Generally speaking, it is access to the world’s wild places that render the trekker wide-eyed. The third day of a hike in Gros Morne National Park brings you to the top of Newfoundland, Canada’s highlands where you can see for hundreds of kilometres, quickly realizing that you are completely alone. The West Coast Trail in British Columbia offers slightly less-isolated but equally stunning views of the rugged coast of Vancouver Island, and the technical nature of the trail itself challenges every ounce of balance and coordination.
The Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain (or at least the final 110 km stretch from Sarria to Santiago) offers little of the above. There are stunning views to be sure (Galicia is beautiful) but rarely is one out of sight of a small town or a cafe-bar/gift shop catering to pilgrims. Since the “official” Camino starts in France and extends some 700 kilometres, it is possible that the tourist-oriented aspects of the trek kick into high gear as the end approaches and the number of pilgrims swells (we weren’t the only ones to opt for the short road to absolution) but a rugged backcountry trek this is not. Similarly, the trail is, by hiking standards, not so much a trail but a road.
All this begins to make sense once you remember that the Camino de Santiago is unlike most treks because it is NOT a trek – it is a pilgrimage! Historically, pilgrims were not being tested for their mountaineering and orienteering abilities, but for their commitment to God. While the Camino appears to have morphed into a pseudo-secular hybrid of its former self, its original purpose was to offer worshippers a chance to clear their minds and prove their devotion. This is reflected by the fact that the number of kilometres between “checkpoints” is very long (twenty-five or so) and the terrain relatively easy to navigate. In this way, pilgrims would have had ample time to think (or not think), contemplate, and (I’m assuming) pray.
What do these realities mean for the modern-day pilgrim? First of all, it makes the Camino de Santiago accessible to a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and age groups. On a given day you will encounter families with young children, athletic couples (and far less athletic ones), solo travellers, retirees, and the occasional and endlessly impressive octogenarian. Any seasoned trekker will also quickly realize how mentally strenuous the Camino can be. Because the path itself is unremarkable and the scenery relatively consistent (at least in the section we tackled), it takes a certain determination to put one foot in front of the other for twenty five kilometres.
The most significant difference from a “regular” trek, however, is the Camino’s religious element (or undertone). The first order of business when you arrive at your starting point is to head to a church or monastery to buy your credencial, or “Pilgrim’s Pass”. For the duration of the Camino, this little document is more important than any other piece of identification. It determines what lodgings will accept you along the way and is used as a tracking device for your journey. In order to “complete” the Camino, you must prove that you have walked at least 100 kilometres. In practice, this means collecting stamps in your credencial as you go. Since the Camino is divided into major legs separated by small cities, pilgrims are required to get at least one stamp from a church or a cafe between these checkpoints to prove that the distance was indeed walked (not travelled by bus). If you manage (and remember) to do this, you are rewarded with a Pilgrim’s Certificate at the cathedral in Santiago and all the accolades that come with it.
These are the rules, and your guess is as good as mine as to how closely they approximate those of the traditional pilgrimage (see the Estevez version for more details?). I mentioned earlier that the Camino appears to have morphed into something rather different than a religious endeavour. What I mean is that The Church, while never too far away (in body and spirit), seems to have become a secondary consideration. There are certainly overtly religious pilgrims (some hiking in religious dress or praying along the way) but these individuals appeared to be in the minority. What I found interesting was, when asked, most people we met would say that they were on the trip for “spiritual” or “sporting” reasons. We got a lot of replies like, “My friend told me about the trek and it sounded interesting…” which, although uncontroversial, seemed strange on a religious pilgrimage, particularly when preceded by a variety of disclaimers explaining how they were “not church people.”
Even more confusing was, when asked to check a box at the end of the hike indicating one’s motivation for completing the Camino – and given options of “religious”, “spiritual”, or “athletic/sporting” – almost ALL pilgrims on the long list of names that preceded ours had selected “religious.” So, to my mind there are two possible explanations for this (or three, since I could be wrong altogether). Either people were too scared (as I was, since I selected “spiritual”) to tell the truth with a lovely but slightly judgemental-looking woman watching over them at the Pilgrim’s Office or, and I think this is the most intriguing possibility, many of our fellow pilgrims were more religious than they let on but were reluctant to tell us.
The latter possibility is so interesting because we were, at least nominally, on a religious excursion. And though I would have been honest if asked, I certainly did not have a sign on my back or a tattoo on my chest advertising any unbelief. In essence, no new acquaintance should have had any reason not to tell me that they were indeed religious and completing the pilgrimage for said reasons. This leads me to wonder if the kind of self-censorship (or respect, as it is sometimes called) practiced by, and expected of, non-believers was being perpetrated by the “other side.” An overt declaration of atheistic zeal would likely have been met with resentment (and possibly contempt) on the Camino, but the possibility that religious pilgrims felt a similar hesitation is, I think you will agree, not without its implications.