I wanted to read this book because I have always had a yen to be a pilgrim and travel the Camino de Santiago, one of the few ancient pilgrimage paths still available for Western people to traverse. Though it is devoted to St. James and is thoroughly Roman Catholic, the trail of the pilgrimage allows interested aspirants to dip into other religious streams as well.
There is no dogma that precludes anyone who sincerely wants to take the road that cuts across northern Spain and is, loosely, maintained. One can be of any religion. One can walk, bike, ride, or go by train. One can fast or eat like a pig, backpack and sleep on the ground or stay in hostels and fashionable paradors. One woman described in Fumbling got so fed up with her burdensome backpack that she began rolling it down the hills and lugging it up. Then she decided she’d take a cab, then inquired about buying a donkey. None of these were entirely effective methods for dealing with the bundles she had been determined to carry, but they were her burdens and her solutions. As the author points out, pilgrimage is very personal indeed.
There have a number of oddballs who have dedicated themselves to keeping the Camino vibrant through the centuries. One such oddball believes he is a descendant of the Knights Templar, and though his “village” is a ruin and his standards of sanitation a public disgrace, he managed to make Egan and her companion Alex feel loved and welcomed, ringing a bell to “announce” their arrival. At the beginning of the Camino in the Pyrenees, an “Amigo del Camino” checks “credenciales” and does not always issue her permission to potential pilgrims. The author (a student of Divinity at Harvard at the time she made her pilgrimage) somehow passed muster, possibly because she gave as her reason for the journey the recent death of her father.
It is grief that was the spur for Egan’s decision to take the journey, and the closer she gets to the shrine of St. James at Compostelo and the end of the trail, the more she understands how important it is to process that grief. Without really trying. Thus Part Ten of this fascinating and often humorous work is titled “Grieving.”
“I was glad there were rituals at the end of the pilgrimage,” Egan writes, “otherwise I don’t know what I would have done.” As it is, she giggles. Even as she embraces the statue of St. James, she is giggling. She remembers music where there was none, and concludes that on the Camino, it was impossible not to think of God. As good a reason as any for undertaking the journey.