“I may look calm, but in my head I’ve killed you three times.” ~ unknown philosopher
The hiking/walking/pilgrim community is a fairly tight-knit group bound together by some strange anomaly that’s hard to put into words. We are diverse and rebellious, yet kindred creatures of habit. Misfits, yet soul-searching sojourners. Focused, yet consumed with all possibilities. The World is our home.
With our diversity comes a fairly common maxim among hikers on the world’s great trails, and it’s quite simple. “Hike your own hike.” The Camino de Santiago version of the adage is, “It’s your Camino.” The translation is synonymous. There just is no right or wrong way to walk across a country. By and large, you’re at the helm of your own destiny. You’re free to do it your way.
Indeed, there are traditionalists who conform to certain standards and will even argue the nature of the “true pilgrim.” The thinking is that pilgrims carry the bare minimum of necessities, disconnect from the world at-large and stay in modest accommodations along the way. I met Camino pilgrims who had so little money, they didn’t know where they’d get their next meal. There were others who shipped their packs ahead via courier, reserved nice accommodations by phone, and dined daily on northern Spain’s finest cuisine. Neither way is more or less genuine. It’s your camino.
I fell somewhere in between all that, but had to learn it as I went.
At home, I’m generally a creature of habit when it comes to day-to-day things. I like a steady daily routine blended with big, unpredictable adventure a few times a year.
But the reality of pilgrimage is that whether it’s five-star accommodations or the simplest, unheated room with a floor mat, you’ll sleep in a different bed every night. You’ll eat differently, have different bunk mates, and the greatest challenge of all may be finding the bathroom in the middle of the night. It’s never where it was the night before. I walked through the darkness into walls more than once.
It’s debatable how much of a “true pilgrim” I really was on the Way, but I gravitated toward the most traditional experience I could enjoy. Among my highest priorities was experiencing life with others and making pilgrim companions from around the world. That was a success by whatever standard.
The best way to experience life with others on the Camino is to take up nightly residence in the municipal albergues. It’s cheap, communal, and requires most of us to go above and beyond our general understanding of order and solitude.
Open, dormitory-style living with rows of bunk beds is a common configuration in the albergues. At the most primitive level, this means you hear one another’s noises, smell one another’s smells, and tolerate every other idiosyncrasy that aggravates you. It’s a radical shift from the prim and proper lifestyle to which most of us are accustomed.
Some of my very best moments were those experienced in the albergues after a long day’s walk. There were random reunions with good friends, shared evening meals I’ll never forget, and a German pilgrim and I once found 20 euros on the floor no one would claim, so we bought wine for the house that night. It was a heck of a party. The treasured albergue stories are almost endless.
At the same time, I found myself becoming a little edgy every so often and didn’t really understand why until a long-distance phone call with my wife one day when she asked from nowhere about some things I missed most from home. It came out of my mouth before I could even think.
“Doors,” I said, without the slightest hesitation. Every so often I found myself really wanting that privacy that comes with a closed door.
(Above, a completely random, unscripted moment, that was one of my favorite interviews on the Way. I swear we didn’t script this.)
Whether you do so consciously or not, on the Camino de Santiago you’ll develop a certain tolerance level for the absence of privacy. For me it was a standard of measure I called my Municipal Albergue Tolerance Level (MATL). Mine was an eight or a nine. I could go almost 10 consecutive days with dormitory-style living before the need for privacy set in and required a room with a door and a private bath.
I thought it was a pretty good number, but Vegan Tom didn’t think so. After a night in the Santo Domingo Parador, and another night or two in a fairly modest hostel, he assigned me the trail name, High Roller. It was his insinuation of my inauthenticity as a “true pilgrim.”
It stuck, and however cynical it was, I actually loved the name.