Wanderer, The Road Is Made By Walking
--Nipun Mehta
6 minute read
Apr 7, 2009


I was reminded why I like walking, when I read an "article yesterday with the subtitle: "When we walk we stop killing. We take our place in nature and restore our humanity. "  It posted some interesting facts.

For one, wildlife has trouble with drivers; North American drivers kill 1 million animals each day, nearly 12 animals per second.  And in fact, so do humans; the 210 million vehicles on North America's 4.5 million miles of roads cause 47,000 human deaths a year.  In addition, you miss things when you move fast; when you drive, say at 62 mph, your field of vision contracts to 40 degrees, as opposed to 180 degrees when you're walking.

Walking serves as a bridge between other humans and other animals. Humans tend to walk between 2 and 5 miles per hour -- an average of around 3 miles per hour. Dogs walk at speeds between 2 and 4 miles per hour. Camels walk an average speed of 3 miles per hour. Horses and mules, when walking, operate at speeds of 3 to 4 miles per hour. Elephant walk at 4 miles per hour. The old friendships between humans and some animals partly depend on a shared walking speed. A walking pace is the speed of community.  

When I recently met Cara Jones -- a news anchor who is deeply passionate about producing "good news" -- my eyes naturally lit up as she shared her story of quitting her job one day to head to the Camino de Santiago (and then eventually end up in North India).  Below is the email she had sent to her friends, as she ended her walking pilgrimage.

"A year ago I was in the Boston Public Library and happened to flip through a book by Shirley MacLaine called "The Camino." In Spanish the word means road, path or journey depending on the context. In Spain, it means only one thing: a month long experience of walking from one side of the country to the next. For some it's a religious pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela ... the resting place of the apostle St. James. For others, it's a challenging and unconventional means for sightseeing and self-discovery. Regardless, everyone along the path is called a "pelegrino" -- a pilgrim -- and for a mere 1 Euro each is afforded a pilgrims passport that will allow you to stay at a series of inexpensive, often government subsidized "albergues" or hostels along the way.

I hadn't planned on this. I knew very little about the Camino when I arrived at the Spanish/French border with my backpack and old pair of running shoes. I just knew that I wanted to walk. I loved the idea that there was this one road that crossed one country yet drew people from all over the world ... one road that stretches through mountains and fields and big cities and tiny villages ... one road for which you can't buy an exact map because its bends, turns and straightaways are too numerous to describe over 546 miles. Instead you have to rely on a series of bright yellow arrows to guide the way. These arrows are posted on trees, painted on rocks, scribbled on street signs. Over time, they start to feel like old friends ... and their symbolism for the guidance that is always there in life is hard to overlook: sometimes in unexpected places, sometimes leading you up roads you'd rather not go, sometimes hidden ... but always there ... always there if you're just willing to look. Pay attention to these arrows and the path is simpler, shorter. Lose sight of them and you may find yourself lost in a maze of city streets or in cornfields 3 miles off track ... not that that ever happened to me or anything. :)

At times along the path you can be so alone that no one can be seen for miles ahead or behind. Still it's not scary aloneness.  Its the liberating kind, the kind that allows you to think your thoughts, sing your songs, and give any worries so much space they can't help but unwind. It's just you and scenery that makes you feel so big -- and so small -- and after so many days surrounded by these simple, uncomplicated and most beautiful landscapes, your internal world can't help but mirror them.

At night extreme solitude turned into an extraordinary social experience with the other pilgrims. Back in the often cramped albergues we shared blister stories, life stories and usually enough bread and Spanish wine to ensure that no one lost too much weight. My friends included a Spanish musician, a Hungarian lawyer, a Swedish hairdresser/philosopher, a history teacher from Idaho, an Australian Moulin Rouge dancer, a Danish life coach, a Slovenian librarian, a Canadian teaching in Kuait.

They were really the only ones who could understand how your feet could feel like there were rocks stitched to the bottoms of them after walking an average of 20 miles a day with the weight of a small child on your back. They could empathize with what it was like to try and sleep through snoring so loud at times the sounds didn´t seem like they could possibly be coming from other human beings. And they too could laugh at the regular sight of the I-don´t-believe-in-boxers old European men who loved to prance around in their little underwear. These fellow walkers were a great source of inspiration too. Among those more determined than I was a small army of heavy set Hungarian women who consistently blew by me, a 75 year old man who walked having endured 5 bypass surgeries, a woman with bandaged legs and bleeding heels I saw hobbling along the path, a man with no legs wheeling himself along the same road I walked.

The beauty of life on the Camino is found in its simplicity.  Every article of clothing is hand washed daily, everyone is asleep by 10 and up by 6, and everyday your only task is to put one foot in front of the other. Over the course of a month I survived with 4 shirts, 2 shorts and only the bare essentials. Progress on this road is not measured by what you bring with you ... but instead by what you're able to leave behind. Along the way you'll find piles of stones representing burdens pilgrims have left there.  Whether you leave a stone, a pair of shoes, or those two extra tank tops you didn't think you could possibly live without, the idea is to travel as we all should in life ...lightly.

True to character, I had my minor tearful moments on the path. I cried on day 2 as I hobbled into a pharmacy with 3 giant open blisters on my feet. I cried on a street corner one day after walking 26 miles in the rain -- only to arrive at an albergue with no free beds. I cried 3 days before I arrived in Santiago when I twisted my knee and wasn´t sure I would make it. But never did I cry like I did on my last day ... when I reached the coast of Finisterre, once thought to be end of the earth, where the yellow arrows stop and the kilometer marker reads "0." In accordance with pilgrim tradition, I jumped into the ocean there, watched the sunset over the Atlantic, burned my Camino clothes and later cried because I was so happy ... and so sad that it was all over.

So again true to character I think I was secretly hoping that if I walked all those days and all those miles the universe might reward me by opening up the heavens and projecting all the answers I was looking for in the skies. Didn't happen. 

Still, I am grateful still for the many meaningful little messages I got along the way. One I will share was in the form of a Spanish poem that keeps popping up along my travels. The gist of it is that there really is no where-to-go-what-to-do-who-to-love correct answers in life.  There is simply a path, a path that is made right for us because we choose it as our own. The longer version of this poem was first handed to me in a cafe in Chile, then sung by a group of guitar strumming nuns in a convent in Spain. Then the day before I arrived in Santiago, the skies didn't open up but it was raining pretty hard ... the creator's cursive didn't appear in the clouds, but I stopped in my tracks as if it had when I stumbled on my poem again!  This time scribbled on the side of a big plastic garbage can: "Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar." 

[Translation] Wanderer, there is no road.  The road is made by walking.


Posted by Nipun Mehta on Apr 7, 2009

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