|Sobrado de Monxes Cathedral, Galicia, Spain.
He asked if there was water nearby.
The two dogs, attached to his belt by lengths of thick rope, were thirsty.
We were about sixty kilometers (or several days) outside of Santiago when we met him. I regret that we didn’t get a chance to ask his name.
He carried a huge walking stick, clearly decorated and carved by him, and an unraveling straw hat with a green band around it advertising for Amstel. He carried fishing gear, slept in a tent with his dogs and was running out of money. He had lost his passport one night in a flash flood, given away his watch. His hair and beard were unkempt and reddish brown. His eyes, wide, never quite focused on ours.
In a thick, thick accent, he briefly told us his story.
He had been a farmer in the Czech Republic. In December of 2015, the bank took his farm and everything he owned. So, he left with his dog and started walking. The second dog they found drowning in a river one night—still a puppy, it had huge paws, sure to be a big dog.
When he reached Santiago via the Camino Frances (the most popular route, a bit farther south), he turned around and started walking the other direction along the Camino Norte (the Northern Way, where we met him). After telling us about the dog, the money, the passport and the watch, he concluded:
“So probably I will spend my life walking. Just me, the dogs. I speak Spanish, so when I run out of money maybe I will find work somewhere, for a while. I think it is a good way to live, just to walk.”
I think I can empathize. If I lost everything like that, I would probably lose any faith I had in property, money, things. I would probably—maybe—start walking and settle into a state of non-owning, non-needing, non-grasping, too.
On the Camino, you run into a few of these modern-day renunciates.
They’re not out for a month-long holiday, or even a six-month sabbatical. They’ve dropped—or lost—everything, and they’re walking, not for pilgrimage, not for a temporary detox, but for life.
I admire them, just as I admire anyone with a single-minded passion so single-minded that it borders on pathological. I think I understand the impulse, though I can’t imagine ever committing my life to just one activity. Different strokes, is all.
More than anything, I’m fascinated by what appears to me to be a growing global trend, as the “real world” becomes harder and harder to stomach, of starting walking (or traveling, or what have you) and never stopping.
Society has always had its renunciates. Those who live outside the bounds of normalcy—normal time, normal family, normal work, normal life—and follow another Way. I suppose the only difference is that our modern world doesn’t know as well what to do with them. It demands passports. It requires that we identify our place, our role, our function. It is, quite frankly, nonplussed by this growing race of outsiders. And yet, they are growing.
If you ask me, there will always be renunciates—those who chose not to participate in the world offered to them. And if you ask me, it’s not a problem; rather, it is for the rest of us to accept and allow their presence, walking the narrow paths between the borders of society.
We told the former Czech farmer that there was a small shop in a house in the next town, just a kilometer farther along. He woke the dogs from their nap on the sidewalk, and we set off in opposite directions.
Without a doubt, he is still walking.