The Camino de Santiago across the mighty pastoral breadth of northern Spain is no normal pilgrimage. Far from it: non-believers appear to outnumber believers. Then there is the contradictory character of it all: a mind-boggling mixture of the sacred and profane, spanning candle-lighting in Baroque churches and incantations from Spanish priests, to lusty fiestas and hangovers in red wine-saturated cities, punctuating a route stretching more than 560 miles if you push on through Santiago de Compostela – the proclaimed resting place of St James – to the logical terminus of the Galician coastal town Finisterre.
For this British Army veteran, it also proved a blast from the past, returning me to those wonderful days of yomping for Queen and country. I can’t claim to have been a natural at soldiering. But place an absurdly heavy Bergen on my back and a rifle in my hand and something clicked – I was off like a thunderbolt on route marches through Sandhurst or over the Welsh mountains.
Hence throughout the Camino, as I set off early in the Spanish morning, the rising sun over my right shoulder and rucksack, I couldn’t have been happier. The British Army had tutored me in pilgrim manoeuvres. Upon encountering others sat by the track distraught at the ineffectiveness of their expensive Compeed blister kits, I’d whip out a roll of medical tape from my army days and employ the simple taping method taught back then. This would get pilgrims back on the road.
On top of all this endorphin-laced bracing physicality, each day was satisfyingly goal-orientated: cover 15 miles (or more) before resting up for the night. This lent proceedings the reassuring simplicity and austere aesthetic of military operations: keep walking, just worry about the state of your feet, shovel enough calories down your throat – as on military exercises, I grazed continually throughout the day – wash your kit after arriving at a hostel and hang it to dry, and finally get your head down in a dormitory before an early reveille.
This Camino life was blissfully free of the concerns, trappings and tumult of modern society: bills, work commitments, Brexit, familial demands, the soul-sapping media, the impression of the world going to hell in a handcart.
“I expected to use the walk as a time to reflect on my life thus far and reset goals for the future,” fellow pilgrim Jessi Whitby from Australia told me. “However, most of the time I only thought about where to put my foot next or how my body was feeling. It took me a while to realise that this was the mental break I was looking for – no need to think and puzzle over things or big questions. I was completely present in the moment.”
The presence of so many pilgrims sharing the same goal engendered on the Camino the Army’s finest asset: camaraderie, and all that goes with it – banter, loyalty, generosity.
Thirty-three days of this Camino-inculcated fraternity had the effect of restoring my faith in humanity. By which, speaking as a military veteran, I mean those often suspect individuals: civilians. For ever since I left the Army in 2010, I’ve despaired at the incongruity of how supposedly civilised society exhibits so few of the virtues of self-sacrifice, loyalty and duty of care that appeared axiomatic to the military.
Through the pilgrims encountered on the Camino, however, I was given proof of how wonderfully radical, intelligent, funny, kind, beautiful and graceful people are, as well as how generous and courageous they can be: a German couple in their early 30s carrying backpacks while sweating and pushing two heavy-duty prams containing a baby and two young girls as their dog trotted beside; two Scottish women, one a teacher, the other a carer for stroke victims, using their precious summer holiday to guide a hulking 6ft 5in, visually impaired man up and down the mountainous terrain; pilgrims bedeviled by blisters and swollen tendons, or covered in bedbug bites from head to toe, fighting through tears to the next hostel.
As a result, the Camino illustrated to me how there was far more at stake than a nostalgic elegy for halcyon military days. It rammed home how civilian life is such a wonderfully radical proposition, how fleeting it most certainly is, and how we are all united by our shared participation in what theologian George Weigel calls “the whole mad, sad, noble, degraded, endlessly fascinating human story”.
Although that perhaps takes us back to the Army – while not being limited to military service, far from it – because the freedoms nourishing that human story must always be defended. These words are written after the demented terrorist attack in Barcelona, which took place a month after my return from the Camino. Such a man-made cataclysm is all but unfathomable. But what can we do other than mourn before continuing onward in hope?
“The Cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms forever without altering its shape,” wrote GK Chesterton. “The Cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travellers.”
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist dividing his time between Ethiopia, America and the UK, reporting and writing for various international media. Twitter: @jamesinaddis
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