Footsteps and shadows: Inscribing our traces on the Camino

This spring I find my mind often returning to the Camino de Santiago. A year ago today I began my tenth day of walking: 140 miles down, 360 to go. But by then I had stopped counting. It was better – and less tiring – to be in the moment, to “cherish every step” as one pilgrim advised me early on.

When I run long distance, or backpack up a steep mountain pass, I try to apply the mindfulness of Zen walking. Don’t think about some other time, in the past or the future, when you are in a more comfortable state of rest. And stop wondering how far you have left to go. Simply be here now. Concentrate your attention on the physical act of lifting your foot, swinging it forward, setting it down. Take note of your breath. It’s not about forgetting the pain so much as accepting your present state of being-in-motion, not wishing you were doing something less strenuous or challenging.

When you walk ten to twenty miles day after day for over a month, this kind of attention becomes more automatic. Walking becomes what you do and who you are. As I wrote in one of my Camino posts, “Walking”:

The past week was spent traversing the immense agricultural plateau of the Meseta and Tierra de Campos. Few trees, big sky, only occasional villages, and long stretches where the only human presence was the long procession of pilgrims migrating westward. The lack of distractions and variations tends to make the very act of walking to be the mind’s principal occupation. As Robert Macfarlane puts it in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, walking becomes “sensational” – it isn’t just conducive to thought; it becomes the form thought takes. I walk, therefore I am. Perhaps it is similar to the way that cinema thinks through the movement of the camera. It isn’t forming propositional thought, but is simply absorbing through its attentive motion the shape of the world, the textures of existence.

I have noticed that I have fewer thoughts out here than I do at home when I run for an hour, or go on a week-long backpack. On the Camino, instead of a lot of thoughts, I simply have thought: not so much words or ideas as awareness. As Thich Nhat Hanh once put it to a walking companion who asked what he was thinking about: “I’m not thinking about anything. I’m aware of the sunlight.”

Macfarlane provides a memorable image of walking as a form of writing on the earth, with every traveler leaving his or her own imprint of dreams, stories and memories as they go. Centuries of pilgrims have been leaving such traces along the Camino, traces which now lie beneath our own feet every step of the Way.

The brief video clip records my shadow and footsteps leaving their faint traces: on the Meseta west of Burgos, on the 13th century bridge of Puente de Orbigo, and among the blooming shrubs of the Alto Predela, a high ridge west of Villafranca. I hope these few steps bring back happy memories for my fellow pilgrims. And for those who want to experience our cumulative act of walking in real time, just replay the 80-second video 11,000 times!

8 thoughts on “Footsteps and shadows: Inscribing our traces on the Camino

  1. Hi Jim – that post brings back memories. We used to live on the Camino – on the Camino Portugués – and I was always struck by the powerful sensation of treading in the footsteps of others, reaching back through human history, that was somehow focused by the lens of the Camino itself, especially the Roman bits. Even walking parts of it as a weekend stroll brought back that sense of connectedness.

    I used to wonder if I would have felt that feeling if I’d come upon the track by chance or whether I was adding an extra layer of ‘meaningfulness’ to the Camino because I knew its history and its reputation. At the moment I think that the Camino seems to hold a concentrated sensation of human thought and intent within it, as many churches, mosques and other sacred spots do. Tangible history.

    And I suppose, it carries a feeling of shared intent. When I go to our local shopping centre, I step in the footsteps of many others, but I don’t pick up a feeling of focused intent.

    I don’t know where you live now, but, as a question, how many footsteps do you think it would take to invest a path with ‘meaning’ that other humans could pick up, as other animals pick up physical scents?

    Thanks for writing the post – and thanks for directing me to it.
    Best wishes

    • Elaine – Many fascinating threads to explore here, such as how awareness of a path’s meaning is affected by prior knowledge, as opposed to an “innocent” encounter. I suppose I am partial to attributing something inherent to the path regardless of what the perceiver knows cognitively, but I also believe our quality of attention is deepened by an educated eye. Once again, you make me think, and I need to do some writing about it, if only to answer the question, “how many footsteps?” My own footsteps are in the Pacific Northwest these days, although I have left many in California as well.

      • I’ll be very interested to read your thoughts.

        The Pacific Northwest is a land of trees, isn’t it? I only strayed a little to the north when I lived in San Francisco, but I remember trees on a scale and in numbers that we don’t see over here on our little island.

      • So many trees. Fir, pine, spruce, cedar, aspen, alder, oaks, big leaf maple, various hardwoods. A green world, sometimes paid for with a few too many wet days, though not lately. Walking in an old growth forest feels like a return to an ancient time.

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