Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 10, 2012

Thanks! You’ve saved me a trip.

Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain, Jack Hitt (1994/2005), 255 pp.

For a few years I’ve been wondering if I could do a long walk, with the one across northern Spain (Camino de Santiago de Compostela) high on my list of options. Which may strike those who know me as strange, since I find a 30-minute stroll through a shopping center too tiresome for words. But there’s something idealistically appealing about setting off on foot, a small pack of essentials over my shoulder, a map in my hand, and a well-endowed credit card in my pocket.

Part of the appeal is in having the time to savor the scenery – mountains, valleys, trees of all shapes, clouds – vistas to make an artist plead for the ability to capture their essences.

Another part is in accomplishing something astounding. You walked how far? It took how long? So that’s how you lost all that weight!

A few weeks ago I watched The WayEmilio Estevez’s film about a man walking the Camino after his son dies on it. The film doesn’t sugar-coat the walk, but you have to admit that there’s no way to put all the hardships of a 60-day hike into a 90-minute film. Jack Hitt’s book, one of the sources for Estevez’s script, doesn’t sugar-coat either, and he draws a more thorough picture of what it’s like to walk 500 miles. Blisters. Lightning. Hunger. Filth. Stink. Other people. But also kindness, great food, generosity, self-understanding, and other people.

I’ve been a Hitt fan since hearing his story about a high school production of Peter Pan on This American Life way back in the 1990s (it was this story that made me a TAL fan). It was not long after that story aired that Hitt began his pilgrimage, and his book delivers history, culture, linguistics, and geography in prose that carries you along beside him, almost as if you were riding the mule that his group of travelers adopts. The Knights Templar, el Cid, Roland, Charlemagne, several popes, and even Shirley MacLaine (who claims to have known all the others) make their appearances.

The big issue for each traveler is two-fold: why they are doing this long walk, and what makes a “true” pilgrim. Hitt, appropriately for dramatic purposes, has an epiphany as he enters the cathedral at Santiago, and all he has written up to that point is evidence for his discovery. I won’t give it away here, but it does seem a bit stage-managed. Yet that doesn’t detract from his glorious writing.

And it’s with great relief that I realize this walk is not for me. Not just the length, but the crowds! As he neared the Camino’s terminus, Hitt found himself racing with dozens of other pilgrims for the few available beds each night, not to mention jockeying with them for safe passage across multi-lane highways. I imagine the trek is less populous between November and March, but winter weather could make the Camino impassible. My picture of the ideal hike includes solitude for good portions of each day, with quiet company in the evening to swap tales of the road with. I really don’t want to be elbowing people aside to get to the washing trough, only to find it muddied by many peoples’ worth of road dirt.

So thanks, Mr. Hitt, not just for the excellent read, but also for convincing me that I can skip the Camino and aim for something shorter. Or even just stick with my preferred long-distance transport: cycling.

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