Sunday, July 18, 2010

Be On Your Way

by Gideon Lewis-Krause

This was one of those news magazine articles that I start reading, with the expectation that I won't get more than a couple of pages before I skip over it and move on to the rest.  The prosaic landscape photos and lead-in copy about a pilgrimage being a 'life-changing experience' didn't grab me, but I've been having a lot of luck reading the San Francisco Panorama - the McSweeney's newspaper one-off, so I figured I'd give it a try.  I found the article, which clocks in at nineteen oversized magazine pages (not counting full-page photos), accompanied by a sidebar article that is another five pages, to be riveting.

Apparently, since medieval times, people have been walking the Camino de Santiago, an almost 800 kilometre (500 miles) journey across Spain, ending off at Santiago.  The author was invited by his friend (and author of the sidebar) Tom Bissell, to accompany him on the trip, which he was undertaking as part of his research for a book on the apostles.  Neither pilgrim has any religious leanings, and so the trip was more of an exercise in endurance and novelty.

Endurance is what it took.  Walking 20 - 30 kilometres a day can be very taxing, as Bissell quickly learned when his new hiking boots skinned his heels of all flesh.  Lewis-Krause writes of the journey, with it's endless hiking and nights in noisy, crowded albergues (think monastic hostel), in a series of diary-like entries, demarcating the events of each day in linear fashion.  The reader is able to see the two go through many different levels of despair and enjoyment, and gets to meet with them the other pilgrims on the journey.

The profiles that Lewis-Krause writes of his fellow travelers became the parts of the article that I read most eagerly, as I tried to figure out what kind of person would do something like this.  Of course, by the end of the article, I started to wonder if it was something I could survive.

The writing in this article is unfailingly honest, and frequently very funny.  The contempt that our two heroes had for people more fit than them was only overshadowed by their growing hatred of John Brierley, the man who wrote the guidebook they were consulting, and his tendency to wax poetic in a most irritating fashion.

At its core, this is a long piece of writing about enduring friendship, and I found it touching.

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