Believe me: they aren't! Clearly the author of "America the Beautiful," Katharine Lee Bates never went on pilgrimage. She didn't know what she was talking about. But she betrays a romanticized view of pilgrims and pilgrimage that we encountered on the road -- and in ourselves.
Like ooze from a blister, evenings quickly drained the romanticism out of us. Evenings often brought us to little villages whose only livelihood was the Camino. We could find little else going on. One town, Triacastela, had a listed population of about 90. That meant that when the three pilgrim hostels were full, the town's population more than doubled.
We sat one night on the main drag of Triacastela, writing postcards and watching people's feet. Most folks traded in their hiking boots for Crocs or flip-flops at night, so our view was unimpeded. As we observed them first-hand, pilgrim feet are not at all beautiful: they are bandaged, blistered, and wrapped in every manner of gauze. And the people attached to those feet were limping, leaning, and moving very slowly. A lot like us.
We packed sewing kits for potential wardrobe malfunctions; we used them on our feet. Both needle and thread: thread turns out to be cleverly helpful in keeping blisters drained. Applying the contents of a sewing kit to the feet, however, also invites infection, which could close down a pilgrimage. People walk through blisters; you can't walk through infection. That means a couple of days of topical and internal antibiotics. You toss a coin; you take your chances. Mutely offering a prayer to Nuestra Senora of Second Chances, we sewed our feet.
All the books tell hikers to break in their shoes. All the books tell hikers to pad the points of friction. All this we did. What the books didn't tell us -- at least not the ones I read -- is that everything I put in my pack would create a large sole-shaped pressure zone between my foot and the ground. Every ounce in the pack registered on the soles of my feet. I had to think about what I needed, ounce by precious ounce: my feet demanded it.
After a few days in Santiago, I ran into some fellow-travelers from an earlier stage of the Camino. "You look great!" someone said -- to me! But of course, she was right: I'd spent time that morning making up my face, not my feet. Dressing our feet became a necessary morning ritual. When we reached Santiago, we stopped. Our feet weren't carrying 20 pounds around all day, which lightened our load -- and our spirits. When I got to Santiago, I bought the Spanish pair of jeans I'd been fantasizing about for the last 100 miles. I did look great: I'd shifted from pilgrim to tourist with stunning speed.
Pilgrims don't look great: they look tired, weary, and stressed. Katharine Lee Bates gets the stress. She continues: "Whose stern impassioned stress/ A thoroughfare for freedom beat/ Across the wilderness!" But goodness! how purposeful pilgrims sound! In reality, we dawdle. I can't tell you how many times I packed and unpacked my frame during the course of a day. One friend told the story of a traveling companion who simply had to taste every blackberry bush she passed. This quickly became an ex-traveling companion: my friend went on ahead, leaving her behind to taste every berry in La Rioja. With all her companion's pauses, she simply couldn't get any forward momentum going.
Blackberry bushes aren't the only temptation. We so often saw people taking a break mid-morning for a bocadillo and a brew that we began calling this combination "The Breakfast of Champions." I won't even comment on the hordes of people standing outside the smoke-free zone of a hostel having a cigarette.
The reality of pilgrims and pilgrimage is pretty gritty. We're not Bates' beautiful and beautifully determined band of soldiers. We didn't march -- we writhed into Santiago, like some spineless, gelatinous mass. When we got there, we stank, we ached, we wanted nothing more spiritual than a shower. There's a big pot of incense that's often swung at the daily noon pilgrim Mass in the Santiago Cathedral, the butafumeiro. It's not there for decoration: it cuts the smell, it may even de-fumigate us all.
St. Augustine (d. 430) turned again and again to pilgrimage to describe the reality of the Christian church; he called the people in it pilgrims, peregrini. I used to hear "America the Beautiful" in the background whenever I read this. No more! Now I see that smelly, writhing mass that oozed into Santiago.
It's not pretty, but it comforts me.
It's a lot closer to the truth.