The Road to Santiago

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Kathryn Harrison
National Geographic Press ($20)

by John Toren

Walking long distances on foot isn't easy. Neither is writing about it. Even the most compelling landscapes can only hold the reader's attention for so long, and the barking dogs, the missed turns of the path, the constant fatigue, and the dwindling water supplies become monotonous through daily repetition. In the end, long-distance walking instills a mind-numbing simplicity in many trekkers, and this may be precisely the desired effect, but readers are looking for something more interesting. Some classic walking books—Camilo José Cela's Journey to the Alcarria, for example—benefit from the crusty personality of the narrator himself, whose brutal perceptions and cantankerous spirit fit the landscape, and involve him in plenty of adventures with the locals in towns and villages along the way. Kathryn Harrison, the young American memoirist and novelist, is less well suited to describe what it's like to walk the most venerable footpath in Western Europe.

The Compostela Trail runs for 440 miles from the pass at Roncesvalles through the hilly countryside of northern Spain on its way to the famous shrine at Santiago. To her credit, Harrison did walk portions of this trail on three occasions. Yet there is little in her recount of those experiences to suggest that she ever entered fully into the spirit of the endeavor. On her most recent trek, which is the first she describes, she's accompanied by her twelve-year-old daughter, and her attention is largely focused on the child's state of health, her attitude toward the hardships they're both undergoing, and Harrison's speculations about her relationships with her daughter, her own mother, about mothers and daughters generally, and so on. The mother-daughter dialog brings a degree of relief from the descriptions of field and forest, but it never really develops much, and in time it removes us unduly from the experience of actually being on the road. Meanwhile, the historical information Harrison inserts is perfunctory and frequently wrong. For example, she observes at one point that two million pilgrims walk the trail each year—a colossal exaggeration—and she relates a few of the myths associated with the pilgrimage tradition as if they were well-known fact, evidently oblivious to the countless vagaries and variations that have kept scholars busy for centuries. Similarly, her recount of the part played by Charlemagne in the lore of the shrine inexplicably leaves out the Basques, and has the roles of the Moors and Christians reversed.

All the same, there is pleasure to be gotten from experiencing, even at second-hand, the foibles that make foot travel both enticing and daunting. Harrison agonizes over the weight of the packs, while finding it impossible to discard a cumbersome manuscript (safely stored on disc back home) that she's not even working on; and her daughter, for her part, refuses to give up her large supply of glossy teen magazines. Harrison observes time and again, in an absurdist frenzy, that she's carrying too many maps, too many guides, yet also chides herself repeatedly for not knowing if the town up ahead will have food and supplies for sale (information that's available in even the slimmest guide.) The afternoon heat on the trail is sweltering, yet the two never seem to set out before the morning is well advanced. Descriptions of sights along the trail have a similar giddy, rhapsodic inconsequence, swinging from insight to exaggeration to cliché like a cathedral censer:

At Ciraqui, eight kilometers into our day, we walk a stretch of Roman road bordered by cypress; it's the kind of experience I find at once reassuring and terrifying. Here are stones set in place two thousand years before, a road that, inanimate, endures. And here am I, sentient, overfilled with hopes and longings, and evanescent. My life added to my daughter's is a minute fraction of the life of a stone, and I've spent so much of that morsel already.

Or this thumbnail sketch of Catholic doctrine:

Through the plastic film of the grocery bag I touch what I've bought at the market: water, half a baguette, a container of yogurt, an apple. I wanted chocolate, weighed a bar in my hands, considered it, and then replaced it on the shelf. How many centuries has it been that the church has equated the sacrifice of the body's demands, its pleasures, with the growth of the spirit?

Yet we also come upon fine passages that make us wish Harrison had put more of the trail into her book, and less of herself:

Just beyond the town of Barbadelo a man is burning scrub to clear a patch of land. Wind carries ash far from his fire, and I watch the black fragments drift across the blue sky, a few falling on the path before me. Roosters crow; I've been hearing them all morning. And the way is peppered with old women, ubiquitous and emblematic old women moving slowly among the oak trees, the green fields. It seems as if the process of aging has stripped away whatever modernity they might once have possessed, that the present with its cars and computers has peeled off these women like a second skin, to reveal crones the same as those pictured in books of fairy tales.

The best part of the book is the last one, detailing a solo trip Harrison took as a young woman along the final segment of the trail. She experiences the same hardships, suffers the same dangerous lapses in judgment, and serves up the same rhetorical questions and specious asides—"Why does bathing, washing, folding, cleaning have such a profoundly calming effect?"—but with no one to talk to, Harrison finds herself more doggedly bent on the pilgrimage experience itself, and the patchy character of her remarks leave us with the tantalizing thought that the best thing, perhaps, would be for us simply to hike the trail ourselves.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004