Adventure, Europe

This Is Why We Walk—Maybe

spain, camino, walk

Ancient Practice in the Modern Landscape


Sixteen kilometers of open road. No turns. No twists.
The trees are thick on either side, and I’m grateful for the shade they provide. The road tilts up, then drops down again. Relentless.
It is my third-to-last day on the Camino del Norte. My legs are already tired, my feet already sore. I have walked already ten kilometers when I begin this section of road.
Normally, there are trails, or a dirt edge to walk on at the least. Not today.
The occasional car speeds past. They will arrive at the end of the road in minutes.
The road is hard. Straight. Empty.


I’ve said it before: traditions have a way of reviving themselves.

We as humans are wired for ritual. We seek it, gravitate toward it and cling to it, and when we don’t find it the world suffers.

It has been theorized that there is a cross-cultural link between lack of ritual and conflict. Or, to put it positively, ritual is a necessary component of conflict resolution. That’s a longer discussion I’d love to have with you personally.

If this gravitation is (as theorized) a response to a lack of ritual in modern society, the wild success of trends like yoga and meditation would arguably be the same. I believe that tendency to seek meaning through practice has everything to do with the recent resurgence of interest in the Camino—and other pilgrimage.

The juxtaposition of this ancient journey with the modern landscape through which it now passes fascinated me from start to finish.

What does it mean to walk a centuries-old trail alongside a six-lane highway? Beside a railroad track? Through a buzzing city like Bilbao?

How does the addition of asphalt, smartphones, gortex and wifi change the experience? Enhance it? Devalue it?

If you change everything—the trappings, the clothing, often the landscape, the food, the language, the Road itself—but keep the journey, is it still the same Camino?

I’m inclined to say yes—in spirit.

If you take a human body, give it artificial limbs, blood transfusions, organ transplants—replace everything, say—do you still have the same person?

Your answer may depend on whether or not you believe in a consciousness, a soul, a Self (call it what you will) that is greater than the sum of all its parts.

If you change every piece of the Camino, from the culture around it and the people walking it to the very structure and environment of the journey, what remains the same?

In my opinion, it is the spirit of the journey. It is the seeking, the act of walking, that has somehow drawn us across history to follow the same path.

And you can lament the omnipresence of wifi or cell service, you can dismiss the validity of smartphone navigation, you can wax poetic about the good old days when pilgrims carried nothing but a skein of water and the cloaks on their backs…but to what end?

This is our world.

There is asphalt that wears down our joints. There are trains that travel many times faster than our feet. There is social media and multiculturalism and sturdy trekking gear.

One thing has not changed.


We still walk on two feet (when we choose).

We still require food and water to survive—for now.

We still seek—relentlessly—to create meaning in our lives.

That is why, I believe, an ancient rite like the Camino de Santiago still makes sense. In spite of this modern world and modern landscape. Maybe because of it.

It is not just possible, but perhaps necessary to walk the same paths we have walked for centuries. Maybe that connection is the ritual we’re seeking.<

What do you think?

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Did You Find What You Were Looking For? (Camino Reflections, Part 10000)

My last visit to London, in July of this year, I had dinner with a former classmate. We had taken “Intro to Buddhism” together.
I didn’t know it then, in my first semester at Middlebury College, but many themes from that course would wind their way through the following years of my life.
Over our glasses of red wine—Merlot, I think—I recounted a memory of that class that stands out from the rest. It’s funny, sometimes, what ends up sticking in our minds.
Someone had asked our professor if he wanted to reach enlightenment—if that’s what he was seeking.
He had answered softly (he always spoke softly):

“I’m not so interested in enlightenment. I’m interested in the possibility of expanding my awareness.”

Maybe this is unhelpful, and maybe I’ve spent too much time around Buddhist philosophy, but this is what I have to say in answer to that oft-repeated question, “Did you find what you were looking for.”


Longer answer: 

I wasn’t looking for anything, so I doubt I would find it. That’s the difference between a trip and a journey—only one has a destination.
I found no thing on my Camino journey. Nothing. I did not have any epiphany. My life did not change.
If you set out walking (meditating, praying, anything) in search of enlightenment, I think you will be disappointed.
And that’s not depressing; it’s inspiring. It is exhilarating, this not knowing. It is enthralling, this seeking-but-not-finding. It is magnetic, this grey in-between-ness of no-thing—neither empty of wisdom nor full of answers.
If “no” is not a satisfying response, I’m sorry, but it’s the only one I’ll give—at least for now.
No, I did not find what I was looking for.
I wasn’t looking for, you see.
Something on the same subject I wrote about halfway through the Camino, in a moment of clarity:

“Will I come back wiser?” asked my ego. 

I don’t know, my more honest self replied. I think I’d be the last to know.Do any of us come back “wiser” from anything? 

I have my doubts. 

I will come back with bigger calves from walking and stronger shoulders from carrying my pack. 

This is certain. 

I will carry in my heart thirty peaceful mornings where dawn breaks over still meadows, and the wind whispers a song only I can hear. 

This is certain.

I’m not interested in finding. The beauty is in the in-between.

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Pilgrimage Today—It’s Still Relevant

Pilgrimage Museum, Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain

I placed the noise canceling headphones over my ears, and an ancient melody flowed straight to my soul.
It was my foodsteps—hundreds, thousands of them—plucked from a harp. It was the daily rhythm of walking made song.
I stood at that display in the Pilgrimage Museum for a long time, and I listened to some of the recordings of the Resonet Musica Antiga group more than once. Recreated from sheets music in the Cathedral’s archives and reconstructed medieval instruments, the music might have run through my head at a distance.
But somehow it didn’t. Somehow it connected.
I arrived in Santiago on Friday, July 1, 2016. That Friday marked the culmination of a month of walking across Northern Spain (approximately 800 kilometers) begun in the vague interest of “seeking.”
(We can talk about what I “found” once I figure that out—story for another day.)
Pilgrimage is an ancient phenomenon. Historians have found evidence of its occurrence in Mesopotamia, Vedic India and ancient Egypt. Wherever it appears in human history, it follows the same principle: an outward, often arduous journey serving as an allegory for the spiritual path.
Since the alleged discovery of the remains of Saint James (one of the Twelve Apostles) in the ninth century, Santiago—and its cathedral—has been one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the world. It is said that the Camino de Santiago—the Way to Santiago, and there are many—is a metaphor for the trail marked by the Milky Way across the sky. Again, a physical manifestation of a metaphysical path.
That sounds heady and outmoded, right?
In the last decade, traffic on the Camino Frances (the most popular route) has surged into the thousands. Clearly, the ancient tradition still resonates. And lately, its popularity is growing fast.
Just as ritual will always revive itself and traditions will be reborn, pilgrimage is finding its place in the modern world.
The scallop shell, long worn as an insignia by peregrinos walking to Santiago, now hangs from my backpack, too. Symbol of water, life and healing, it is as timeless, endlessly resonant, as it is timeworn.
These themes are eternal:

WanderingSeekingThe JourneyWalkingLooking to the SkyWalking upon the Earth

The WarriorThe SeekerThe Scholar [1]

As I listened to those modern recordings of centuries-old music, I heard my experience translated—so precisely—into sound. I walked a path that thousands, perhaps millions, had walked before me, and though the asphalt beneath my feet and electric lights in the distance were new, the the experience had somehow been the same. [2]

That, in short, is why pilgrimage is still deeply relevant today.


[1] The Warrior, The Seeker and The Scholar are the three archetypes represented by Saint James.
[2] Sadly I have not been able to find the same recordings anywhere online. This is the closest I could find, but you may have to visit the Pilgrimage Museum in Santiago to hear the music I’ve described:

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Off to the Camino… Travel Update and See You Later!

On Sunday, June fifth (yes, that’s tomorrow), I will close my laptop. I will put it on a shelf, and I will not see it again for a month. I will put two pairs of pants, three shirts and a sleeping bag into my backpack, and I will head to San Sebastian in the Northeast of Spain.

I’ve been waiting for this day for a while now.

I need a vacation, yes. I need a total break from society—also yes.

But it’s more than that. It always is.

The Camino de Santiago has been on my list for awhile now. (It’s not a bucket list. I like to call it my, “Do These Things as Soon as Possible List.”)

I don’t know why I want to do it, just like I don’t know why I want to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway, ride on horseback across Mongolia or sail the seven seas (all on my list). Except, I know that it calls to me; I know that adventure is my way of searching—of seeking.

I know that a search need not have an object—that it is the act of searching that matters—sometimes…


So, that’s about it. I’m not packing my camera, so I’m sorry to say I may not have many beautiful pictures to show for this trip at the end of the month. I also haven’t decided how much, if at all, I’ll stay connected. I may be updating here over the next month—or I may not. If not, I’ll be back in a month with a whole lot of stories to tell. See you then! 🙂
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Asia, Nature

One, Two, Tsum*!

How about an update on my seventeen-day trekking adventure in fast-forward journal mode? Let’s go!
Day 1 (September 26): Kathmandu (elevation 1400 meters) to Arughat (elevation 600 meters). Ten hours by bus, pointy seats, enough said.

Day 2 (September 27): Arughat to Lapu Besi (884m). Approximately four hours walking.
Jesus Travels (our bus, so named for the words painted on its front) takes us from Arughat to Arkhet Bazaar, the starting point of our trek.
I am content. Sore knee, smushed toe, sore thumb, but wholly content.  Rivers and jagged green valleys—my element.  No thoughts today.  First night of camping, last real shower of the excursion.
Day 3 (September 28): Lapu Besi to Korlabesi (970m). Three and a half hours, Sherpa flat.
 A waterfall (bpap chu, Tib.) around every corner.  Trail is ‘Sherpa flat,’ meaning little net gain in elevation, but almost constant up and down. Lungi time (bathing wrapped in cotton fabric to preserve modesty) at the river.
Day 4 (September 29): Korlabesi to Jagat (1340m). About five and a half hours.
Sitting on the ‘front porch’ of my tent, looking out at the sparsely green cliffs that drop into the icy Buddhi Gandaki river below, the taste of Hannah’s sawdust-flavored oat squares in my mouth, I am taking a break from thinking beyond “how beautiful.”  My thoughts today? “When’s dinner?” Should I put on sunblock? Nah.” “Chill out and enjoy the breaks, Toby; they’re good for you.”  It’s good to be moving, waking up to these mountains (and a donkey outside my tent); it is enough for the moment.
Day 5 (September 30): Jagat to Lokpa (2040m).  About six hours.
Walking donkey pace the last two hours—getting stuck behind our donkey train an unfortunate development in the day.  We find out that stealthy leeches abound at this campsite, but I manage to escape leech-free.
Day 6 (October 1): Lokpa to Chumling (2363m). About three hours, all uphill.
Happy October. Woke up to rain throughout the night; all gear soaking wet.  Happy October—orange leaves on the ground today!  The most awkward bucket bath of my life, trying to rinse my hair under the waist-high spigot.  One mitten down, one to go.

Day 7 (October 2): Chumling to Chhekam (3010m).  About three hours, very steep uphill.

It’s cold here! Trying to finish crocheting mitten number two before my fingers fall off.  The winter hat and down jacket have made it out of my backpack.  Landscape shifted to pine forests today.  Rock cairns emerging from the mist along the trail.  Real cowbell music, accompanied by the very talkative wearers.  A horse and rider trot smartly across an iron suspension bridge: hello, Tsum.
Day 8 (October 3): Chhekam to Ngakhu (~3100m). Less than an hour.
The present has become very much a mystery, as well as a gift.  Popo-lak(grandfather, Tib. The lak, pronounced ‘la,’ is honorific) Dawa Doje and Amma-lak (mother, Tib. Used indiscriminately to address village women) Pasang Dolma wander in and out of the kitchen while Traci and I wonder what exactly to do in our new homestay.
Day 8-11 (October 3-6): Homestay at Ngakhu.
Grain threshing, snot-nosed children spinning, bag carrying and other fun and games (and work) at the field behind our house.  The women here are beautiful and ageless; twenty or fifty, they look older than their years and do the same back-breaking work together.  A day long trail ride through the surrounding area in the most uncomfortable saddle I have ever experienced. Still, I can’t think of a better way to see Tsum than cantering along a narrow alley between stone walls, slouched back slightly the way they ride here.  Pancakes for breakfast: inji (foreigner) food, I suspect.  The rhythmic clicking of amma-lak’sloom fills the sun-lightened air for a few minutes one morning.  Strips of blue green turquoise, red pink burgundy, thread onto the empty page and the music fills with pattern.  Little brother Samden sings Justin Bieber’s “Baby” to baby shimi (cat, Tib.): the silliest thing ever.  Pasang Dolma drags a bull three times her size by his nose ring.  She ties the legs of the female tso(yak-cow hybrids) together and the lilt of her humming draws milk into the wood pail between her knees.  Her head scarf tied neatly, mountains framing the picture—no photos of this moment; memories will last longer.  A sick and sleepless night slows me down, and I spend some time recuperating from a sinus infection/cold.
Day 11 (October 6): Move to campsite at Lar (3245m). Colder and windier.

Day 12 (October 7): Camping in Lar.

Hot sun, cold wind, wide expanse of bleached, smooth stones hiding trickling tributaries to the icy blue river beyond.
Day 13 (October 8): Lar to Chumling. A few hours downhill.
Hannah and I do a bit of stretching on the second story of the building by our campsite.  Apparently the most interesting to happen to our riveted audience in weeks.
Day 14 (October 9): Chumling to Jagat.  About ten hours, including a long lunch break.
5:00 am wake-up. 3:45, really, thanks to the porters’ usual habit of regular pot banging as they make breakfast.  Snickers bar turned white and crumbly from two weeks of rough travel. Still tasty.  I have had more candy bars in the last month than in my entire life prior.
Day 15 (October 10): Jagat to Kani Besi (~720m) Ten hours, lunch break included.
Many more trekkers heading up as we hike out.  Glad to miss the crowds.
Day 16 (October 11): Kani Besi to Arughat.  Many hours.
Happy birthday to me! Hot walk in the sun and a long wait for trusty Jesus Travels to deliver us from Arkhet Bazaar.  A rum and coke to celebrate twenty-one years of life, a lovely birthday cake, and a night sleeping under the stars make up for it.
Day 17 (October 12): Arughat to Kathmandu. Ten-ish hours.
Wake-up at some horrible pre-five o’clock hour. Much more comfortable bus. Cappuccino and a slice of chocolate musse cake at Flavors Cafe to celebrate my return to Bodha.

Lest you think classes were absent from this trip, most mornings featured Tibetan language class, and many afternoons we heard lectures from our traveling entourage of teachers and scholars. Unfortunately, these happenings failed to make the final cut for this post.

*Tsum is the name of the valley where we trekked. Sum means three in Tibetan. Chik, Nyi, Sum translates as One, Two, Three!
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