Vezelay. Tannay. Varzy. La Charite-sur-Loire. Bourges. Saint Amand-Montrond. These are the names of the first 6 places that I walked through on the Camino de Santiago.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been exactly a year since I walked down a short flight of stairs past a man playing the bagpipes and emerged into the square in front of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. I wrote my Camino retrospective at a churreria not too far down the street in the old quarter of the city, sipping on hot chocolate. If my thoughts then had any sort of tangible weight, I confess that they were probably too elusive to capture in written form—there seems to be a greater significance to the Camino just beyond what words can express.
As a way to deal with the nostalgia of the Camino I have since followed a few blogs here and there by pilgrims undertaking the walk. My favorite is one written by Nadine, who finished the Camino just over 2 months ago. Already she notes how there is a blurring about the edges—which brings me back to those towns I mentioned at the beginning of this post.
A mental exercise I used to conjure up when I was particularly bored—I didn’t have an iPod or much company to distract me, especially during the first 4 weeks through France—involved reciting in chronological order the names of all the towns I had spent the night in. To challenge myself more I would also try to recall the names of places that I walked through or took a break in; dots on the map that are invisible in my pilgrim’s passport such as Chateauneuf-val-de-Bargis, Thiviers, and La Reole.
By the last few weeks of the Camino it took 30 or 40 minutes to remember these places—700 miles of roads reduced to the bare minutia of names that were brittle like bones of a fish. After finishing the Camino I still thought about it almost every day—that still doesn’t change—but lately it has been many months since the last time I seriously wracked my brain for the names and I can’t get past day 6 without forgetting a village here or there.
I suppose remembering this pivotal moment in my life works the same way that it does when I think about a girl I used to love. Time does not erase her name or the strongest feelings that well up when I hear a certain song or when the wind blows a certain way, but time does blur the edges of her face. The very smallest things—the crinkling around her eyes when she laughed or the light film of hair on her legs when I brushed against them—tend to become lost. So it goes with the infinitesimally precious details of my walk through France and Spain; I can still tell you about the big moments and probably always will. But the memories that occupy the deep strata of my consciousness—events as quotidian as washing clothes, or towns that I walked through—will eventually fade away. And yet as I observed a year ago, perhaps the sum of all the hours and days that I walked was the meaning behind why I walked, just as the impression I am left with today is not necessarily defined by the big moments and people I remember but by the unconscious accumulation of countless small memories gathered like dust on the thousand miles I walked between Vezelay and Santiago de Compostela.
Vezelay. Tannay. Varzy. La Charite-sur-Loire. Bourges. Saint Amand-Montrond. And on, and on, and on.
But you know what? It’s hardly the road that I walked which I remember or recall with much fondness. My journey on the Camino and in the year since has been defined not by the places I go to, but by the people I meet. There you go, readers: that’s the meaning of the Camino, boiled down to fortune cookie size.