Learning to Walk

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This is a special edition of A View from this Wilderness. About a month from now my book “Out of the Way: Walking with Francis in Spain” is being released, and this excerpt–which I reworked into a variant form here–is one of my favorites. I hope you enjoy this and thanks for reading: 

Learning To Walk

When my son and I decided to climb the Pyrenees on our pilgrimage to Santiago, Spain —a five hundred mile trek from France to the Spanish coast—I passed on carrying walking sticks. Now, I’m not always a stubborn or proud man; when someone told me to buy my hiking shoes one size larger than normal, I did and I’m glad; walking hundreds of miles really does make the feet bigger. And when I was told to drink a lot of water I made sure to stop at every well on the way. Not buying a walking stick wasn’t a matter of wanting to look strong; I simply didn’t want something else to carry.

Curiously, we were the only two pilgrims without walking sticks in all of St Jean Pied du Port, France, where we began our trek. They only cost about five euros for a good solid piece of oak about five feet tall, varnished, “Camino de Santiago” burned into it and a metal casing at the tip to hit the ground, with a tough cord through the handle. Some people carried fold away steel ski poles and others wood ones. Some pilgrims bought two and walked like cross country skiers; most found one would suffice, leaving the other hand free to point at the Pyrenees or hold a water bottle. And as I told my son: “I’ve been walking upright without assistance for a long time, uphill included.”

It turns out the Pyrenees are profoundly uphill. Those first three unassisted days crossing the mountains made for some interesting balancing acts. With both arms free it was too easy to move too fast and tire out or lean too far and stretch out a muscle. Instead, we took a lot of breaks and watched where we were going so not to step on endless small rocks and countless eight inch black slugs, bountiful in Basque country. Another reason I went without was my concern that on the Camino I’m come to carry the cane like a crutch and expect it to help me more than I should, especially once we moved past the Pyrenees. We were a rarity on this journey: a father and son together in peace for five weeks, talking, laughing, and sharing intimate moments in chapels and cafes.

We didn’t need the sticks; we would lean on each other.

          In Pamplona we bought two walking sticks.

We gave in when we realized we tired more quickly than our fellow pilgrims, and it felt awkward to let our arms dangle all day. Michael found one about five feet tall stained dark and rugged looking. Mine was a bit taller and tan. Both had thick cords through the handle for our wrists. It took some getting used to but somewhere on the way to Logrono, Spain, we found the rhythm and our walking sticks became an extension of our anatomy. I learned just the right timing to pick it up and how far in front of me to place it back down. I figured out when to not let the tip hit the ground, when to carry it on my shoulders, and when to lean heavy on it to relieve pressure on the knees or toes. I learned I needed it more down hill than up, on dry riverbeds more than the pavement, and not at all in larger towns and cities.

          And after another week or two that cane worked its way into my character, as did everyone’s. We would leave them on our bunks in the late afternoon after we checked into a place to stay and then went out to eat or drink. It marked our space, and a quick glance indicated whose bunk was whose faster than looking at the backpacks. Two mahogany walking canes told us the two men from Frankfort, Germany, were also staying; the silver ski poles with a Belgium flag sticker belonged to Sylvie. And others knew ours leaning against a wall, in a corner, or as they lay on the ground against the wall at night. At some point my walking stick was simply part of the pilgrimage as much as my water bottles, my backpack and my journals. Eventually I knew if I had to make a choice I’d have given up the backpack before the stick.

          It became a part of my walking style and I decided I’d continue to use it when we returned to the States. Since he had been old enough to walk Michael and I have explored woods and walkways together. At home he always grabbed a hand crafted walking stick from the pile he made from fallen branches, and off we would go. I adapted quickly to mine in Spain and when I wasn’t holding it, my hand felt empty.

          A few weeks later near the city of Sarria, it occurred to me I’d be using that stick the rest of my life. When I am in my eighties no one will need to convince me I’d be safer with a cane; by then this piece of wood with “Camino de Santiago” burned into the side will simply be understood. For my family it will be part of who I had become, the one who walks, who at one time when he was so much younger crossed Spain with his son, and the only items they brought back were their walking sticks.

          That was agreed on in Pamplona. With about five hundred miles before us, we knew we couldn’t carry much. In fact, shortly after arriving and evaluating my belongings, I ditched some clothes and equipment to lighten the load. We had been accustomed to acquiring souvenirs to remind us where we had been. When I was young my father always brought back glass mugs with the name of the city or state printed on the side. When I traveled during Michael’s youth I likewise found evidence to give him and make him feel part of my journeys. But this was different; this was a pilgrimage walked by saints and queens. This wasn’t a vacation; it was a brand new way of life. So as we walked Michael took pictures and I wrote in my journal and we decided those would be our mementos. We both knew no token could possibly represent the experience of sharing these five weeks, twenty-four hours a day, together.

          But as it turned out, soon after buying the walking sticks and getting used to them we realized doing so allowed us, quite ironically, the double pleasure of having an easier time of it on the pilgrimage as well as a very practical souvenir of our time together that summer. We would bring them home. Enough said.

          It was difficult not to think of my father when we first bought them. At almost ninety at the time of our pilgrimage, he sometimes needed to struggle out of his chair, but once he was up he kept going without assistance from a “third leg” as Sophocles suggested in the Sphinx’s oracle. Now here were his son and grandson deciding to carry a few canes for five weeks. That kind of time together, talking, walking, mostly remaining quiet and pointing out the beauty around us is simply not often shared between a parent and child. In fact, on our entire Camino we only met a few other similar relationships, a father and son from Holland and a mother and daughter from Sweden. The innkeepers and café owners would comment on how lucky we were to travel together. We knew this, though, and as time went on we both wanted the trip to continue. Together we met people from around the world, drank in cafes as varied as Hemingway’s favorite pub and a garage some woman turned into a bar. We prayed together in churches built before the time of Charlemange and chapels where St Francis of Assisi sought refuge. We shared every moment of every day surrounded by the finest scenery in Europe, and five weeks later we walked together into the sacred city of Santiago de Compostella aided by our walking sticks, which literally guided us across the country.

          In Santiago one afternoon we toured a museum which had on display relics of those who walked the Camino. One cane in particular was featured—that of St. Francis of Assisi, who walked the same pilgrimage exactly eight hundred years earlier. Encased under two glass boxes was a short, peasant’s staff used by Francis when he journeyed from Assisi to Santiago and back. He was thirty-three and traveled well over a thousand miles with this walking stick of his still in tact and on display nearly a millenium later. I was in awe. The significance of our canes became clearer. They would do more than simply link us to the Camino long after we were home; they linked us to every pilgrim who ever followed The Way.

          At the end of the journey one night in Fisterra, the ancient “end of the world,” I stared at our sticks as we sipped a local red wine and watched the small fishing boats in the harbor. We had done it; we completed the Camino, together, and we sat together, father and son, and gazed at the Atlantic.

          It gave me complete peace of mind to know that someday, hopefully a long time from now, it will be Michael’s. I wondered if long after his grandfather and I are both gone, when he is an old man himself, will he sit in a chair and stare with aging eyes at our two walking sticks leaning against a wall, probably long worn away at the tips. Will he someday pick one up in his fragile, elderly hands and remember his youth, coming of age on the Camino, walking more than twenty-miles a day with his father? I wondered if he would tell stories to his grandchildren about the great pilgrimage, and recall the time we wandered into Pamplona together and picked out those very walking sticks. I hoped he would remember the details while his grandchildren ask if they can hold them as he tells them the same stories again about how much we laughed so long ago in Spain. Yes, these were the perfect items to bring home, if there could be one.

          They will collect dust, I thought, much like memories collect dust and cover up some of the details, making them hard to recall. But they will stand as proof. Perhaps there will be small indents near the handle where over time my fingers rubbed away at the varnish. There was a time though, he might say to someone, when my father held this stick, and I held that one, and together we climbed mountains.

Then perhaps some unthinkable time from now he will leave them to his son or grandson. Those descendents won’t have memories from these two simple wooden staffs, but they might have stories of a father and grandfather who more than half a century earlier followed in the footsteps of saints.

 

          At the end of our trip we boarded a train for Pamplona and spent a few days celebrating. We went to the airport to fly home—we would visit my father and tell him about our journey: three generations sitting together sharing stories and memories. Then we got to security. Then we handed the security guard our backpacks and belongings, including the canes.

           “You can’t bring the walking sticks with you,” casually said the guard.

          “Why?”

          “Because they are considered dangerous.”

          “Yes, I understand, that is why I’m shipping them in cargo.”

          “They can’t go through cargo.”

          “Why?” My chest hurt.

          “They are too large and considered dangerous and also they are not in boxes.”

          “No one sells boxes to hold them and they’re not so big. Skiers ship skis and poles longer than these walking sticks!”     

“Skiers have them in specially made carriers and besides you are not skiers and these are not poles.”

          “Yes, they are! In fact they are a sort of religious object very similar to the holy relic cane of St. Francis of Assisi!” My anxiety showed as my voice got louder.

          “But still they are not wrapped correctly to be shipped through our mechanical equipment without a box and they will damage something.”

          “Would you say the same thing to an old man with a cane? Would you tell him he couldn’t bring his cane on the plane because it isn’t wrapped correctly?” Time had passed and the security guard was losing patience and a line had formed behind us with people carrying backpacks and boxes but no walking sticks.

          “No, the old man with the cane would be allowed to bring the walking stick on board with him. You’re not an old man and this isn’t a cane!”

          My heart sank. Michael’s heart sank. The argument continued but I had lost. I asked Michael to carry the canes to a corner and lean them against the wall for someone else to take; perhaps some father and son pilgrims would find them. Michael said if we hand known this would happen we could have left them at a place for others; now they’ll probably just be thrown in the trash.

          We were quiet a long time. It was as if they cut off my arm. I said, “Well, we promised each other last month up in France that we weren’t going to have any souvenirs so this just holds us to our original commitment.” Michael sighed and agreed but we were feeding each other’s disappointment by going on about it. So he brought them over to the wall and left them and I am sure he felt as guilty as if he had abandoned two family pets. He got back in line but before we made it through security I looked at the sticks and got out of line.

          I went over and took the thick cords from the handles and gave Michael his. Once through security we tied our journals with the cords and I felt somehow as if it was supposed to be like this. We left it all in Spain. There might come a time when I will forget the particulars, and even later when Michael will not recall the details. But for now when I go for walks I don’t use a walking stick at all. I doubt I ever will. I’m a lot like my father that way. Instead, I walk alone along the river and remember when we sat in St Jean Pied du Port, France, restless and anxious and ready to begin.

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