Sometimes you need to take a long walk. Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist test the limits of that advice on the Camino.
We’re in sight of Scoffera when the rain comes down, hard, turning the steep downhill track into a muddy obstacle course. By the time we’ve connected with the road into town, our “waterproof” pants, jackets and shoes are soaked through, and there’s no sign of the hostel where we plan to spend the night. It’s Sunday afternoon, the main street empty except for a woman standing in a doorway, watching us. The wind is picking up. We’re on Day 37 of a walk from central France to Rome. Less than halfway. Why are we doing this?
A hard-earned glass of red, a blazing fire and a hot meal (or in summer a chilled rosé as we watch the setting sun) is part of the answer. Though in down-at-heel Liguria, it’s more likely to be pasta with a can of tomatoes and frizzante wine in an unheated kitchen. Something else keeps us going.
This is our third walk of over 1600 kilometres – 1000 miles. The first was in 2011. We were hunkered down in a French village on long-service leave: in need of rest, reflection and renewal. One day, we spotted a scallop-shell symbol fixed to a lamp post and discovered that it was a waymark for the famous pilgrims’ walk to western Spain: the Camino de Santiago.
We knew a few people who’d “done” the 800-kilometre Camino, beginning in St Jean Pied de Port on the French-Spanish border, more than a thousand kilometres from where we were staying. But there are many routes to Santiago, and all over Europe are scallop-shell signs: follow them, and you’ll be walking, more or less, in the footsteps of the medieval pilgrims who couldn’t take a bus to the border. It’s a romantic notion and we decided we’d have a taste of it by attempting the two-week first stage to Le Puy, where several trails meet.
So, as uncounted pilgrims have done since the ninth century, we packed a change of clothes, walked out our door, and headed in the direction of Santiago. In February. There would be snow on the ground and in the air. We would find that much of the accommodation in our photocopied guide was closed. We would meet only one other walker. But there was always a scallop shell to guide us and an affordable room, food and wine to sustain us. When we reached Le Puy, we decided to keep going as long as our feet and resolve held out. And after 87 days and 2038 kilometres of walking, we arrived in Santiago.
What did we take from three months of doing nothing much besides putting one foot in front of the other? Why are we doing it again? It’s not a question we can answer with one voice.
Getting fit, and in touch with my body again, was really important. Three weeks into the first Camino, my bunions started giving me grief and I needed to take breaks more and more frequently; for a while I feared I’d have to stop altogether. Two weeks later, they stopped hurting, and 10 years later they still don’t hurt. Knees and ankles were always better the next morning, though we saw walkers much younger than us crippled by blisters. I think we’ll be able to walk for many years to come – a sustaining thought as we grow older.
The walks reconnect me with nature; snow whirling around me on Day 11 of the Camino transported me to fairyland and reminded me I was only a tiny speck of a much greater whole. There were David Attenborough moments when I saw the first bud in spring or watched a green snake take a frog larger than it was.
The longer walks bring something more: lessons that have stayed with me. We travel light – very light – and you’re reminded that “stuff” is so unimportant. I’ve learned that when you set out to walk hundreds or thousands of kilometres you can’t think about the end – it’s too far off. It has to be one day at a time. It’s a hugely important lesson that has served me well: from writing novels to enduring COVID lockdowns without end dates.
Walking is also healing; many people walk the Camino to grieve or to reassess their life. I hadn’t realised until near the end of my first long walk that the loss of a patient had been why I had needed the timeout – and the walk. Before I left I hadn’t been able to mention her name without crying. The hours of walking each day, and the distance from everything else, gave me time to reflect and to put this and other problems into perspective.
In Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries, a character has shipped all his belongings from Canada to England: on a whim he decides not to collect them but to begin walking “forever”. The sense of freedom, of carrying all you needed on your back, spoke to me at the time, and even more strongly as we set out on that first long walk. I still feel it as a yearning when I spot a scallop-shell sign in some village or on the road. It’s what’s made me want to walk again.
Often, we were alone all day, in places that no motorist was likely to see – and if they did, they’d see them differently. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M Pirsig talks about the difference between observing from a car and being on a motorbike, out in the environment. Walking gives you that too, at a gentler pace.
The trails take you places you’d not visit otherwise. That rainy Ligurian town isn’t on any must-see lists and our accommodation wouldn’t rate on an online booking site. But our expectations are different and so is our state of mind…we’re not stressed or fussy. There’s that same motorcycle sense of being part of the world we’re travelling through, rather than tourists being served by it.
For someone who spends a lot of time in his head, walking was a form of forced mindfulness. I’d expected to spend the time reflecting, imagining a new novel, making plans. But if I didn’t want to trip over or get lost, I needed to be in touch with my surroundings. I watched winter turn to spring, day by day, and realised I’d never done it before.
Anne and I had time together – a lot of it. It was a test and a validation of our relationship, and a reminder of the importance of planning and doing things together. We researched our books Two Steps Forward and Two Steps Onward on walks but didn’t write much. Like a meditation exercise, the walk is simple, but consuming.
We found the hostel in Scoffera – the owner was the woman in the doorway, waiting for us – and reached Rome in March 2020. COVID was spreading from Lombardy and would chase us to Melbourne. The silver lining: over six months of lockdown, one of the legitimate reasons to leave home was exercise. We could walk.
Anne Buist is chair of Women’s Health at the University of Melbourne, and a writer of psychological thrillers. Graeme Simsion is the author of The Rosie Project series. They live (and sometimes write) together in Melbourne: Two Steps Forward was an international bestseller; their latest is the sequel Two Steps Onward.
This piece was originally published in Edition #642.
Illustration by Annie Davidson.