Walking To Santiago
We start a journey without ever knowing
Where the road will end,
Or what we there may find;
The land rolls out and shapes with every step
A novel contour
In the heart and mind.
I am a shell, but know not what I hold,
Until the winding path reveals
Myself unto myself;
Uncovering the fault lines of the man
I think I am, or hope to be:
In the shadow lies the wealth.
We walk, and hope, and persevere;
We ache and sweat,
And shed familiar skin;
And all we know encompassed by
One foot in front, and then the other,
Safely gathered in
The swinging incense, soaring voice
Crown the heavy miles
With sacred sound and smell;
The journey has unfolded of itself
A gift to me,
And all again is well..
When one walks with intent, towards a goal, then the unexpected can happen. In the Spring of 2014, recuperating from my kidney donation operation, I decided that it felt right to make a donation as a thank-you to Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge. They had orchestrated Sam’s treatment and my health screening, and guided us though the complex process of arriving together in adjoining operating theatres early one morning in February of that year, and cared for us afterwards with great professionalism and kindness. I was grateful for the opportunity they gave my son to lead a normal life, and for the opportunity they gave me to reassess my life and experience one of the most around acts of giving that a human being can undertake.
A little while later I was pondering on this process of showing gratitude when the notion of a pilgrimage surfaced in my mind, which duly morphed into a sponsored walk. Immediately it occurred to me that I didn’t want to lose track of my own commitment to make a financial donation, and so the idea of matching donations was born: I had been prepared to donate £2,000, and so I would match any third-party donations up to that amount, giving my friends and family the perverse pleasure of simultaneously giving to a just cause and costing me money!
And so, three years later, Jane and I found ourselves on a train heading North from Porto to the small coastal town of Viana do Castelo where we were to join the Camino Portugues and begin our pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. We would be walking approximately 225 kilometres along the coast of Portugal and Spain over ten days. The weather would be warm (20-25C) and dry, and we had arranged accommodation in small hotels rather than hostels as the daily distances would be more manageable (averaging around 23 kilometres), and we would only be carrying day packs as our main luggage would be transported by van between overnight stops.
We had a very detailed itinerary from our travel company of every day’s route which seemed to exhaustively document every twist and turn of the route. We had also arranged some company: Jane’s sister Lucy would fly out to join us on the evening of Day 3 for five days, and Sam and his partner Helen would join us in Redondela on Day 7 and would walk the rest of the way to Santiago with us.
Our preparations had been exhaustive but insufficient. During the twelve months prior to our departure from Porto we had walked over 1500 miles, mostly in and around Cambridge, including some long walks along the Fen River Way. We had bought new walking trainers and new walking boots, some new lightweight walking clothes and Jane had a pair of new walking sticks (I was using my old clunky pair). We had bought a supply of Clif protein bars (they are good, but take a bit of eating and are rather dry on a sweltering Portuguese afternoon), new water bottles and a Camino Guidebook.
What we had not practised was walking 15 miles day for several days. We had done some consecutive walks, but only over shorter distances of 5-10 miles a day. Jane told me later that she has deliberately avoided this as she wasn’t really sure she could do it, and she didn’t want to find out before we got to Portugal. It set up an interesting training dynamic that I was to have to confront on the actual walk: my impatience and drive to prepare properly against her reluctance to confront a possible weakness or make it worse by over-training.
Training had been disrupted in any case in the summer as a result of my sister Jo’s illness and subsequent death at the end of July. Her illness and decline had accompanied us from the turn of the year when it had become clear that it was very unlikely that the treatment she was undergoing for stomach cancer would provide a cure. Treatment turned into palliative care, and our priority shifted to proving whatever support we could to her stricken family, and training walks took a distant second to frequent 300-mile round trips to visit her.
The pilgrimage then took on two aspects: in addition to expressing gratitude for Sam’s life, it became also a way for me of begin to leave behind (walk away from) the dreadful experience of Jo’s final weeks and to try to re-orient my memories around the warm, kind vibrant sister I had known in her prime.
And so, on the evening of Saturday the 16th September 2017 Jane and I settled down in our hotel room in Viana do Castelo, prepared now as best we could to being our walk.