When I say to people, I'm going to walk 700 km across Northern Spain, they immediately think of the physical exertion. How many miles is that? How many miles per day on average? Is that over flat terrain? Have you got good boots?
And that makes sense, really. That's a lot of steps. There will be some real physical exertion and I may very well have some tough days and even some injuries.
At the same time, though, most folks who take up an endurance sport like backpacking find that the physical is not where the real challenge lies. Marathon runners, for example, have to focus and exert themselves for about four consecutive hours on the day of the race. Before that day, though, they may clock sixty or seventy hours of focused solitude in shorter bits preparing for that race. They have to be able to handle that kind of silence and solitude. They have to find the inner strength to keep going through pains or aches. Many, many marathon runners are quick to say that mental fortitude is the no-question, number-one thing that makes their sport difficult.
Backpacking - alone or in a small crew - is a high-focus, intensely mental sport. Good treks are weeks or even months long. The PCT and the AT each take half a year to complete. Backpackers need plenty of physical strength and endurance, but they also need to be able to get into a frame of mind which appreciates nature and the wildlife and the dangerous edge of a cliff and the conservation of water and the limits of both body and equipment. Most backpackers - those who are religious and those who aren't - use spiritual and religious language to describe that frame of mind.
As such, while I've done a good bit of physical prep work and lost about 40 lbs, the bulk of my preparation has been aimed at acquiring the mental and spiritual frame of mind which makes a month-long trek like this possible.
Solitude is man's original state. Pope St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body begins with a masterful meditation upon the role of solitude at the beginning with Adam was alone with God. This original solitude the Pope wrote, never truly leaves our Human nature.
In our modern world, solitude is considered undesirable or even dangerous. No one seems to want to spend time with him- or herself. We are surrounded constantly by video and sound and light and interaction. At this moment, I hear music coming from the next room, I have not one, but three computer monitors keeping me up to date on Twitter, the weather and the news. I can hear my air conditioner, the traffic outside and our parish seminarian typing on his computer. My PC, iPhone and Kindle are within arms reach and so I have literally years of movies, music, ebooks and other distraction material if I were so inclined. Given this setup, I could potentially avoid spending time with myself for most of the rest of my natural life!
But solitude is also essential! It's necessary for our sanity and our health. Everyone - EVERYONE - should read Robert Cardinal Sarah's book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise! WOW!!! Solitude is nothing to be afraid of, but avoiding solitude can be a hard habit to break.
Thankfully, my habit of avoiding solitude was pointed out to me by an old priest I knew in seminary. He encouraged me to change the way I think about media and TV and music and noise. He encouraged me to develop an aptitude and a love for solitude and silence. To be honest, there have been some highs and lows. I'm a product of my generation, after all. But I've been conscious in preparing for the trip to take silence and solitude seriously and to practice them when I can. I've done this in little ways, really. Taking a long drive without listening to anything on the stereo. I've walked and hiked in silence. I've chosen to read rather than watch TV on some days. I don't know what the Camino holds for me - I may well have some jabbering B-Movie Comic Relief Character - I'm looking at you Jar Jar Binks - who wants to hike with me every day. Who knows?!? Still, solitude is important for me - whether or not it's one of the main lessons the Lord intends to teach me this time.
I am no great linguist. I'm ok in Latin reading. I'm ok in Spanish. I can order food and get directions in Italian. But I'm just not a natural speaker of other languages. I tend to get tongue tied trying to make sure I'm using the right tense and voice and accent and this lose my place in the conversation.
I've been studying Spanish in two ways. For reading Spanish, I love DuoLingo - it's such a great product and the price ($0) is perfect. For speaking and understanding conversations, I've been using Pimsleur's Spanish which is really quite accessible. I'll admit, though, that I've struggled with some of the past tenses.
Of course, we're not just talking about Spanish. On the Camino, I'm likely to encounter Castellano (which we call Spanish but which is pronounced a little differently), Basque (which is entirely unrelated to Spanish) and Galician (which sounds Celtic and really likes the letter X). Off the Camino, I'll encounter Italian, Polish, Hungarian, Czech, German, Dutch, French and Scottish-accented English (which is not at all easy for Americans to understand). This breath of language is not an accident. I've chosen destinations to challenge me and to keep me somewhat uncomfortable. That's part of the whole learning to be a pilgrim thing.
Beyond Language to Culture
The hardest thing for any student of any language to grasp is that the words of one language don't necessarily correspond exactly to the words of another language. The word in English for joy isn't really the same thing as the French idea of Joie or the Spanish alegría. The Greeks have four words for love and none of them really has a good English translation. For the Spanish, Jamón is not just lunch meat, it's a real cultural passion whereas the Inuit have real need to use fifty different words for snow.
The same way of thinking applies to ordinary, day to day things like hotel showers, shared meals, greetings in public and the like. For the Italians, supper lasts for a few hours and thirty minutes between courses is perfectly natural... For an American, a waiter who takes more than thirty seconds to bring another coke isn't going to get a tip... For the English, afternoon Tea is not the same as an American coffee break... A Spanish promenade after midnight on Friday with toddlers and teens alike is perfectly normal... A European shower almost never has a curtain and the splash guard almost never goes to the end of the tub - which means that I have never once taken a shower in Europe without splashing water everywhere. (C'mon Europe? I feel like Crocodile Dundee seeing a bidet for the first time.)
To engage a culture, you need more than the language, you need an open mind and a healthy sense of humility about the "right way" to do even the most ordinary kinds of things. Simple things like public greetings often reveal deep beliefs about human nature and what society itself is meant to be! Think about the southeast Asian aversion to touch in greetings compared to the French kiss on the cheek or the Inuit nose touch or the American handshake and sometimes hug. Which greeting we choose says a lot about what we think of ourselves, what we think about the person we're greeting (are they are friend? an acquaintance? a business partner? an opponent?) and even the purpose of our meeting. The same kind of thing goes for socializing in a pub or buying an apple at the market.
One of the most important values of travel is engaging foreign cultures and making friends who see the world differently. This is especially true in our very polar and politicized American culture. Disagreement in the US right now is basically absolute. If we see the immigration question differently, then we can't be friends... Now, that's insane... But it's the reality of the US at the moment. But that's not the reality anywhere else. In an Irish pub, two friends might insult and yell at each other and even get a little crowd gathered around, but that's what friendly debate looks like in Ireland. There just having a bit of the "craic". In Italy, that debate is likely to be more polite and subdued - but it would take two hours and a few bottles of wine. And lots of hand gestures - the Italians LOVE gesturing. And it's not just disagreement. If I'm chatting with a friend in Madrid about politics, he might remind me that until 1975, he lived under the fascist dictator Franco whom the Church supported vigorously. Another friend in Naples, where the mob is a daily reality, would have very different views about local government and the value of a police force. I can't describe the effect that visiting a barrio outside of Arteaga, Mexico had on my perception of what real poverty looks like. When you meet a mother of six living in a house made of shipping pallets, it tends to change your perspective on the "impoverished" person driving an SUV and calling for assistance from her iPhone.
Journaling & Blogging
One of the most helpful acts of preparation for the trip has been creating and planning my blog posts for the trip. I have created a unique post for every city and town I'll be visiting. Insofar as possible, I have some history and some points of interest for each one... That's been so helpful! I've been able to see what folks recommend and get an idea of the kind of town or city it is. I've been to some of these places before. I was in Assisi two months ago and in Santiago de Compostela about two years ago. Most of the villages will be totally new and I've never seen Budapest, Prague or Krakow either. Preparing and scheduling these posts has been a great help in the trip planning process.
I've also been preparing a series of more thoughtful posts - like this one - which are meant to give insight and a kind of journal-like experience to the reader. These have been helpful in their own way and they will be helpful as I travel because I can only pre-write the basic outline of these posts. I have to let the sabbatical do it's work on me before I can express the insights I hope to have.
Ready for Anything Ministry
One thing I can't prepare for is the people I will meet. Whether it's a Irishman in a Dublin pub who is reeling from the collapse of the Irish Church or a Millennial in León taking a free year between high school and college, I just can't predict what kind of ministry will be required. Some things I can't really prepare for beyond my usual reading and study.