The Camino is actually a collection of pilgrimage routes that stretch for more than 500 miles across the north of Spain, from the borders of France in the north-east to Santiago in the far north-west.  Pilgrims have been making their way along routes that have their beginnings at points from all over Europe to worship at the shrine of St. James de Compostella, for more than 1000 years.  Chaucer himself trod the Camino or rather rode the Camino, much as those other pilgrims from the Canterbury Tales did so many years ago.  Since Chaucer’s time many thousands of pilgrims both famous and infamous have walked the pilgrim way, including Shirley MacLean, and John Pratt, a recently retired English Professor from Tumwater, Washington who took a much-needed year’s sabbatical so that he could sample first-hand the experiences of the medieval pilgrim.  Part guide book/tour guide and part biographical ‘one man’s journey’  – ‘Walking the Camino in An Age of Anxiety’ introduces us to a time that now bears little resemblance to the world the ancient pilgrim knew – an age that has witnessed the horrific events of 9/11 plus the subsequent war in Iraq and a myriad of localized conflicts that never ever seem to end.    It is no wonder then that John Pratt and his wife Sonya decided to get away from the rat-race and to spend a month for the good of their souls walking the Way of St. James – and besides, from a practical point of view, the subject matter might fit in well with the courses he taught at college and, with a view to the future, might even provide some retirement income through presentations to a wider audience when they returned.

With this pragmatic rather than spiritual goal in mind  they spent a long year preparing – taking hikes in the mountains, getting used to rough terrain and the weight of back-packs that must contain everything they would need along the way.  The writings of Domenico Laffii, a seventeenth-century priest who actually travelled the Camino several times, provided a guide to some of the wonders to be seen – and the rigors to be felt as a result of the “ceaseless motion” to be experienced day in and day out. 

The Book provides plenty of helpful common-sense advice [with much historical detail thrown in] for the would-be pilgrim i.e. make sure you take easily washed and dried clothing, a good pair of boots, a thin sleeping bag so that you don’t have to share the same sheets as others, a small pillow, a back-pack with medical essentials, the right amount of money to pay for the ‘refugios’ [hostels for travelers], the occasional taxi-ride [sometimes you just can’t walk any further] and be prepared for extremes of weather, from rain to snow to sun to mud depending upon the time of year you choose to go.  Health hazards to be endured would often be blisters and sore feet, twisted ankles and sunstroke – or in the author’s case, tendonitis, which laid him up for a few days and threatened to cut short the entire journey.  These hazards pale however when set against the plight of the poor medieval pilgrim – which could range from encountering Basque bandits in Navarre  to being gulled by more enterprising villains who merely poisoned the streams and made off with everything you owned once you were dead.

This is an enjoyable book that carries you along with the group– laughing and talking, pointing out [and sometimes visiting] the sights, sometimes despairing and crying, sometimes going it alone and sometimes feeling too tired to even sleep, but forging unique friendships as you walk that will last for a lifetime.  As the author says, the Camino is a metaphor for life – you take it in your own time and at your own pace and gather from it what you will.  There is an extensive ‘works cited’ section included for further serious study as you prepare for your own Camino – either by actually walking the route or by merely following along in your arm-chair.  And don’t forget your walking stick!

You can get your own copy from Amazon.

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