Globally, across religions and cultural traditions, the last half to three-quarters century has witnessed a dramatic resurgence in pilgrimage. Partially the result of increases in leisure time combined with the availability of reasonably-priced transport for returning home after reaching a terminus, pilgrimage traffic includes those motivated by spiritual drivers as well as eco-tourists seeking to experience historical and cultural treasures, including UNESCO sites. Across all forms of pilgrimage, one thing is constant: pilgrims move—usually by foot, but also by bike, horseback, donkey, or wheelchair—from their place of origin toward a distant place regarded as sacred within certain religious traditions.
The pilgrimage with whichWesterners are most familiar ends at the Cathedral in Santiago, most often known as the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrimage to Santiago began in the late 9th century after a drunken shepherd awoke in the middle of the night having dreamed he saw the location of the remains of the apostle St. James the Greater. By the 11th century, pilgrimage traffic was starting to gather steam. People journeyed to Santiago from all over Europe, usually on foot, with smaller trails feeding into more heavily trafficked trails ultimately leading to a single distant place.
For most of human history, people died in, or not far from, the villages in which they were born. However, from the 11th through 13th centuries, European Christians were expected in their lifetimes to make at least one major journey to a distant place—to the East in the form of a Crusade or to the West in the form of a pilgrimage. Typically, pilgrimage routes knit together places of lesser sacred and cultural significance to reinforce the motivation to continue the journey. So while pilgrims continuously held in mind the distant, ultimate destination, their purpose was reinforced along the way; or, as we now refer to it, The Way, or the Way of Saint James; in French, le chemin Sainte-Jacques de Compostele.
Several years ago, I decided to walk toward Santiago on the greenest of the four major trails across France that connect to the trails in Spain. My motivations were spiritual in a contemporary sense. I was also interested in the cultural significance of the villages that sprang up mostly in the 12th and 13th centuries to support the pilgrims. But, like pilgrims throughout history and across religious traditions, I sought to escape from my day-to-day life to seek a type of healing and change in perspective. From talking with other pilgrims, it seemed that most had motivations similar to mine.
Some modern pilgrims are ecotourists who merely want to get away from their routine lives. Some, nevertheless, bring with them a tendency to structure whatever they encounter. Wherever possible, they get advance reservations at hotels or Gites for pilgrims, and they make sure to arrive in time for certain events, such as the ringing of the bells, tours of an abbey or museum, or a religious service to welcome pilgrims. I had a contrary view, that throughout history almost no pilgrims had advance reservations. They didn’t create schedules and certainly didn’t carry smartphones. Instead, they went stride by stride, trusting that when they arrived at the end of their walking day, The Way would provide them with food, lodging, and other necessities. Qué será será. What will be, will be.
So, with the distant Santiago always in mind, I walked stride by stride, focusing on the next step, hardly ever thinking about where I would sleep that night. With one exception, I made no lodging reservations. I carried no food other than a block of hard cheese and a small bag of dried blueberries. I walked solo except for brief, almost random, tandem walking with other pilgrims, who typically forged ahead because they found me too slow. I surrendered to The Way and let it work its wonders.
I grew accustomed to walking around twelve to fifteen miles a day on the via podiensis, also known as the GR65. It links roads—often the ancient pilgrim’s route paved over—with dirt or grassy trails cutting through forests and farmers’ fields. While the route is reasonably well-marked, there’s always the possibility of missing a turn sign and going the wrong way. I viewed my wrong turns as an essential, and frankly, rather exciting part of the experience as whenever I travel to a new place, I choose initially to get lost. Because I chose to trust The Way, made no lodging reservations, and often had no firm notion of what villages I would spend the night in, I often reached the night’s stopping place after dark, and even after dinner. Yet keeping the destination in mind while focusing on the immediate, The Way did somehow provide, often in ways that in hindsight are hard to believe.
I offer one day as an example. That morning, I left Conques, a beautiful medieval village long considered a sacred place in its own right. I’d hiked through the mountains on the ancient pilgrim’s route (now considered a variant) to a small village. Straddling the town line, I was considering my next move when the brown eyes of a tired, lean German shepherd caught mine. Ten feet away, she turned, took a few steps, stopped, turned her head toward me again, and seemed to say, “Follow me.” So I followed. What did I have to lose? I trusted.
We walked together up a long, muddy hill. Periodically, she stopped and looked back to confirm I was still there. After a while, I realized that along the hill were the Catholic stations of the Cross, where, without missing a beat, she stopped and peed at each one. Atop the hill, she led me to a small stone chapel dedicated to St. Roch, patron saint of dog lovers and dogs. I told her, “Please go right in.” She led me in and sat in the second pew on the right with me behind. After a few minutes of reverent silence, she arose and wandered toward the rear door. I followed.
I suggested we share lunch. She wouldn’t touch stale baguettes but liked the hard cheese and kept asking for more dried blueberries. After lunch, I stood and said, “Good to meet you. Thank you for bringing me here. I’ve got to be on my way.” However, the shepherd continued walking right alongside me, as if saying, “Where d’ you get the idea you’re going anywhere without me?”
We walked together along a rolling, asphalt road. Occasionally, she scooted under barbed wire and ran across vast green fields in wide, interlocking circles. If she ran ahead, she either waited for me or ran back to place herself like a shield between me and oncoming cars.
A long-horned, red-eyed, mottled (brown-and-white) cow caught my eye. I stopped to take her photo. Irritated, she kicked up wads of grass with her hind hooves and charged. I’d been warned that barbed wire wouldn’t hold a cow charging full tilt. The shepherd darted under the barbed wire and counter-charged. The cow reared up on her hind legs. Then the shepherd and cow exchanged glances, the cow exited stage right, and the shepherd glided under the barbed wire as if nothing phenomenal had happened.
Over the next few hours, we only once encountered other people — two bent-over, smiling old men and an old woman donning a sunhat — who welcomed the shepherd like an old friend. “Mon cheri,” one addressed her. If other dogs paced and barked loudly to guard their property, mine did not engage. We ran out of water long before I began questioning: How much daylight remains? Where will we sleep tonight? I clearly envisioned sleeping alongside the shepherd.
Signage directed us to turn left onto a dirt road. The first fruit trees we’d noticed all day — apple, pear, fig — stood by the roadside. I helped myself to apples and pears off the branches but the figs were moldy and overripe. The shepherd picked over the fallen fruit as if she’d hunted it down.
With residual light fast diminishing, we had no choice but to follow the path when it turned into a forest. My companion seemed as unperturbed by darkness as she was fending off the fussy cow. She sensed barbed wire and scooted under it.
She led. I kept talking. She stayed close. Repeating “steady now” kept me calm. As we approached an “electric fence” sign, she strolled beneath safely, so using a limbo-style maneuver, I followed. As long as I focused on my connection to my companion, my feet somehow eluded the fallen chestnuts littering the trail.
“My dog is my shepherd. I shall not want,” I joked. Then, I repeated: “Dog is love.” I began to envision spending a night in the forest with all its uncertainties.
Just as my adrenaline dipped, we saw a house abutting the forest. The full moonlight made the tips of the tall, pampas grass surrounding the house look like flames. “We’re almost there,” I told my companion, feeding her dried blueberries.
We came upon a road of smooth asphalt running mostly in a straight line with adequate overhead lighting. It became apparent my companion was unaccustomed to such roads, especially after dark. She wandered into the road and, when cars intermittently came through, didn’t have the sense to get out of the way. The drivers didn’t seem keen on slowing down either. One driver saw her late, swerved, temporarily lost control, slammed on his brakes, shouted at us, and drove on.
I tried an experiment. After I saw or heard a car coming, I commanded firmly, “Come here now.” My companion ran to me immediately and stood by my left side as I faced the road. When it was safe, I told her using a less commanding tone, “It’s okay now,” turned, and walked forward, thereby granting her license to roam freely. I added an element: when she came and stood by me, I took my left walking stick and held it in front of her to demonstrate, symbolically, I was a pilgrim, and I was protecting her. In response, she then cuddled my leg for the first time. That became our modus operandi.
When we reached the town and stopped at the first bar, the bartender said they were closed but not to lose hope, there was another bar just down the block. Two minutes later, when we reached the next bar, a mug of beer waited for me and a two-liter bowl of water awaited my companion, who splashed water all around but cleaned up before leaving.
Irrationally, I continued walking as if the sun were rising. I had no glimmering of how to find shelter or what to do about my companion. I worried that she had wandered so far from where we met. Would she be safe on the street alone at night? What if she wandered back to the busy road where she’d nearly gotten killed? Assuming she survived the night, could she find her way home come morning? Was someone worried about her? I preferred the prospect of snuggling with my companion in a cold alley over finding a warm bed and being separated.
A car pulled up on my left. The driver—whom I recognized from the abbey in Conques—asked: “Why are you out so late? D’you need help?” She jumped out and put my walking sticks and backpack in the hatch. As I sat down, the driver heard my companion whining and said, “I don’t know what to do about the dog.” My companion then jumped into the car, squeezed into a ball, and sought refuge under my legs. “I guess that settles that. .for now,” she said. I reached down and held my companion, who seemed frightened of imminent separation.
After finding the town’s only two hotels were closed for the winter, as most area hotels do by mid to late October, the driver said, “We have one more option. I just left a meeting at the priest’s house.” We drove there, she spoke with the priest, returned to the car, and said, “You’re in. I’ll take the dog home and keep her outside tonight. In the morning, I’ll take her back to the neighborhood shown on her collar.”
I squatted down, held my companion, and said, “I’ll see you again. I promise.”
The priest led me upstairs to the kitchen, where he made me a sandwich, then led me downstairs to a second kitchen where he gave me a sheet of yellow bubble wrap to use as my mattress and pointed to the spot on the floor where I was to sleep. Many times during the sleepless night it crossed my mind: it would have been softer, warmer, and kinder huddling anywhere with my companion. Qué será será
Come morning, my first thought was, “Where is she?” Then, I wondered was she safely home by now? Would I be safe without her?
I walked on. At some point, when I learned a Gite was 3 km away, I figured I would stay there. When I reached it, I discovered it too had just closed for the winter. I suspended any concern that I would find food and lodging, going step by step, trusting that The Way would provide while keeping in mind the destination that remained distant.