Politics on the Camino

In the United States, it’s a long-standing tradition among long-distance hikers to celebrate the Summer Solstice by hiking naked.  Because it didn’t quite seem appropriate to walk through tiny Spanish towns in the buff, I decided to commemorate the longest day of the year by taking a zero and heading by bus to San Juan de la Pena, a monastery built into the side of a cliff a millennium ago, with additions built onto it and onto it again, a testament of faith through the various architectural styles of the last 1000 years.

From the old monastery, I hitched a ride down to the sleeping village at the base of the mountain, where I enjoyed talking to a local ceramic artist and looking around two small churches.  When the couple who’d given me a ride into town were done their supper, they offered to take me back to Jaca.  It was perhaps a 30-minute drive, and, in broken English and more-broken Spanish, we spent the time talking about the upcoming Spanish election, where (just as in the then-upcoming elections in the US and UK) the country had the potential to set off in a very different direction.

With the US election results in, I’m reminded of the many Europeans I spoke with this summer who — without fail — asked some variant of “How could America support Donald Trump?”  Many asked why we couldn’t elect Bernie Sanders.  (I explained that I’d tried.)

As I wasn’t able to describe abstract ideas in Spanish, French, Italian, or German, I had to save my more elaborate responses for pilgrims and hospitaler@s who spoke fluent English.  I explained the dissatisfaction in our country and the fission of the traditional parties.  (Once Brexit happened, it was easy to point to other examples of conservative undercurrents.)  The response from my conversation partners was often something along the lines of hope and faith, a certainty that our young but powerful country would be wise enough not to give the nuclear codes to a volatile demagogue.  I wasn’t so certain.

Lacking wealth (and, often, health), straightness, and maleness, I’m afraid about the future of our country, especially now that our highest branches of government share one political party, making checks and balances far less likely.  Like many other liberals, I’m appalled that our next president will be a man who has mocked just about every minority in our nation, from women to Muslims to people who are disabled.  Presidential elections aren’t, as some take comfort in claiming, distant races free of repercussions for us average Americans.  Obama’s choices helped give me health insurance, helped keep a gas pipeline off my employer’s land, and helped ensure my friends could get married.

Soon, we will all live under a red president, a red Senate, and a red House of Representatives.  In Kentucky, we will also live under a Republican governor, with a red State Senate and a red State House of Representatives.  Our Washington Senators and most of our Representatives are Republicans.  In fact, there is one lone blue politician advocating for my county.

Wait.  Scratch that.  I just fact-checked myself and learned that, while our Democratic State Representative had won locally, he lost in the other counties.  So, that leaves Republicans, from Rand Paul to Donald Trump, attempting to protect our best interests.  We’re screwed.

I’m glad I got to see the AT while there were still mountains in Appalachia.

There are memes circulating about this election claiming that it was a case of hope vs. hate, but I disagree.  I live on the edge of Appalachia, in a state that went overwhelmingly red yesterday, but it’s not hate that I see everywhere; it’s a desire to be heard.  As Jonna Ivin wrote, “I know why poor whites chant Trump, Trump, Trump.”

Four years ago, I often said ruefully that when socially liberal people voted for Mitt Romney — oh, how I’d take him instead today! — they were deciding that their money was more important than other people’s rights.  Today, while the backing of Trump by wealthy voters is wholly unpalatable to me, I feel sympathy for — and even some empathy with — the poor who voted for Trump.

Classism is still very real in the US, and I have neighbors and coworkers who voted for Trump because they felt that he spoke to them, rather than about them.  He didn’t tell them they were uneducated hillbillies; he managed to inspire them and led them to believe that he’d change the narrative of their lives.  Like progressives hoping for a brighter future, their votes were also cast in hope.

That is the problem.

Yes, racism and bigotry may have bolstered Trump’s results significantly, pointing to insidious problems that we should make great efforts to solve.  However, hope for economic opportunity also figured into the results, and getting at the root of that is both more difficult and less complicated than eliminating hatred.

You don’t need me to tell you that our system is messed up, that our country is heading in a frightening direction; I’m certainly no authority, and I’m sure you worry about our trajectory yourself.  But, it is high time we reconsider who our opposition is:  There’s a whole lot more that my fellow impoverished Kentuckians have in common with seasonal Mexican farm workers than the election results indicate.

Amid all of the sadness and anger of yesterday, I saw the best side of America, too, when an 18-year-old waiting in line at the polls behind me gushed to her mother, “I’m about to vote for the President of the United States of America.”  Her enthusiasm, her hope, her passion choked me up.

In closing, I don’t have a conclusion — we’re all months away from that — but I have a beautiful quote from the Talmud:

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.  Do justly, now.  Love mercy, now.  Walk humbly, now.  You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”


A Dabbler of Caminos

In the US, when we talk about the Camino de Santiago, we are often referring to the Camino Francés, the most popular pilgrimage route.  However, Caminos extend throughout Europe, in a network of paths connecting notable relgious sites to one another.  The Camino Frances is tremendously popular, but many other Caminos offer more opportunities for solitude and tranquility.  Some Caminos are more developed than others and have better waymarks, guidebooks, and pilgrim services; others might regularly necessitate map reading and asking directions from locals.

While lying in bed last winter, distracting myself from Lyme by dreaming of the Camino, I planned a Camino dabbler for the summer (having no clue whether I would get the chance to even attempt to walk it).  I knew that walking a continuous footpath across Spain was important to me — chalk it up to my white-blazing sensibilities! — but I knew that I didn’t feel called to walk the most traditional route.  Instead, I wanted to explore as much of Spain as 43 days of walking would allow.  And thus, my “squiggly arrow Camino,” as an Irish pilgrim called it, was born.

My Camino would begin in Lescar, France, in part for the sake of convenience.  I had heard wonderful things about crossing the Pyrenees at the Col du Somport, so I knew that I wanted to follow the Chemin d’Arles/Via Tolosana from some point in France.  Given the higher bunkroom fees in France and my lack of understanding of the language, I thought that spending less than a week in the country would be ideal.  The city of Pau, of which Lescar is a suburb, was easy to get to by bus from any French airport.

From there, my plan was to cross the Pyrenees to join the Camino Aragonés, walk north to the Camino Frances, experience the history of the Camino’s thoroughfare for a bit before taking a right in León, enjoy the mountain scenery of the Camino de San Salvador, and then follow the Camino Primitivo to Santiago.  From there, I knew I wanted to keep walking to see Finisterre, the End of the Earth.

After a new treatment protocol helped me get Lyme solidly in remission on March 20, I decided to fly to Europe and try to walk to Santiago.  I spent two weeks visiting my sister in Wales, and then I flew to France on June 14 to begin my journey.

A Reluctant Pilgrim

When I selected the Camino as my 2016 hike, it was by process of elimination.  Hiking while I’m healthy is very important to me, but most of the long-distance hikes on my bucket list were off-limits after what had been a rather Lymey spring:  I didn’t have the strength for long resupplies, high altitude trails would tax my bartonella-infected bone marrow, and I wasn’t in a hurry to hike a remote trail and find myself reenacting Escape from the High Sierra (Part I or II).

And so, I chose the Camino, where I knew I was likely to carry a light backpack, stay at low elevations, and be near other walkers.  I was thrilled about the excuse to travel overseas, but I wasn’t tremendously excited about walking the Camino.  I realized that doing so was a privilege — but I also thought of it as a confidence booster after the bad combination that was the PCT and Lyme, rather than an adventure in its own right.

While preparing for the trip, I read Camino trip reports and guidebooks, none of which made me especially enthused and some of which, like this scathing review, made me wonder whether I’d made a mistake in planning to walk the historic pilgrimage route.

Rereading that review now is actually trying because of how much it seems to me that the author missed the point.  My Camino — a squiggly yellow arrow of six different routes forming a continuous footpath from Lescar, France, to the Spanish coast, and then back to Santiago — was absolutely awe-inspiring.  It was different, special, magical, humbling, and absolutely transformative, in the way no other hike since my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail has been for me.

I’m looking forward to sharing my impressions and favorite memories of the pilgrimage here.