Walking Distance, a Camino memoir
David Hlavsa heads the Theatre Arts Department at St Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. His Camino memoir Walking Distance: Pilgrimage, Parenthood, Grief and Home Repairs remembers his trip to Santiago de Compostela with wife Lisa. Here’s an excerpt from his book:
Walking Distance: Pilgrimage, Parenthood, Grief, and Home Repairs by David Hlavsa
On pilgrimage, there is a constant sense of the body in motion, therefore in space, and of the space above and below. For those of us accustomed to spending most of our days indoors, earth and sky regain their significance, and we float free between them. Books, possessions of all kinds, are leaden things, distractions, anchors.
Fields of spring wild flowers drift by, poppies by the side of the path, huge purple thistles, sunflowers, gnarled grapevines, olive trees, cowpastures. Ruined castles on the hills. On the high ridges, in the land of Don Quixote, massive wind turbines whoosh and hum. Medieval towns rise in the distance, islands from a seaof cropland.
As we approach a town, there is none of the ill-defined transition from country toexurb to suburb to city that has become the norm in the States. The town looms larger, larger,and then we simply arrive, step from fields to town, as we might from a boat to a dock and comeupon, in medias res, the life of an insular community.
Most people do not speak to us, the alien beings passing through their lives like neutrinos through the planet. We nod in greeting, and they may nod back, just the slightest motion of the head, but often they, especially the older men in grey cloth caps, simply stare. We are not unwelcome; we are just unrecognizable as individuals, undifferentiated from the parade of strangers that has passed through these streets for a thousand years.
The entire length of the Camino is impossibly layered with history, myth, legend, rumor, literary reference, local tradition and religious anecdote. Story upon story in an absurd, indigestible Dagwood sandwich of narrative. Our guidebook attempts bite-sized summaries. At first, I try to keep track of it all, reading aloud to Lisa with all the reverence I can muster. Each time we pause to rest at some landmark, I once again whip out the guidebook. Ignoring my fellow traveler’s sour expression, I press on valiantly; but I soon find it’s impossible to keep a note of helium-high hysteria from creeping into my voice. This rock is famous for being the same length as the stride of the great Roland. After fighting off the Saracens, Charlemagne napped here. This is the very street where El Cid did his El Cid thing. This lovely little church is yet another example of late Gothic construction with Moorish influences – another gem of the Camino.
But wait, there’s more: In this church, in order to persuade a notorious skeptic of the reality of transubstantiation, the communion wafer turned into a chunk of bleeding flesh. In this town, in order to save the life of an innocent young man, a roast chicken came back to life and leapt around the table (I am not making this up); to this day, the townspeople keep a hen and rooster in the church in a golden cage. Hark! The rooster’s crow! It brings good luck to pilgrims. And so on. Another mile, another miracle.
Over the side goes the guidebook.
David Hlavsa’s Camino memoir Walking Distance: Pilgrimage, Parenthood, Grief and Home Repairs can be purchased at davidhlavsa.com
Pictured: David and Lisa during their Camino de Santiago trip back in 2000 and David and Lisa with their son Ben, today.
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