In Santa Domingo, a small town on the early part of the Camino, I began talking with an Englishman shortly after lunch in a local restaurant. I asked his reasons for walking from Paris? (I estimated his walk to have been about a thousand miles and would be double this if he retraced his steps) He explained that his wife had recently died of cancer and that his retirement as a Captain in the British Army at the age of fifty-five years meant that he had the time to mourn her in the way he wanted which was to walk forty miles a day on his extra long Camino. Others sat listening to his story and we learnt that he had been as far as Leon but was forced to turn back as his wallet was stolen in a youth hostel while he was taking a shower, and was now returning whence he came. There were more questions to ask but he appeared slightly agitated as the story progressed which deterred my wanting to ask further details. I would be very careful with my money when or if I stayed in a certain youth hostel in Leon but I kept these thoughts to myself. After coffee and farewells, everyone got up and went their separate ways.
About ten days later I met another Englishman. His expression appeared morbid and did not encourage conversation, but after several weeks walking I felt emboldened to talk candidly with complete strangers even when it seemed they did not want to chat. Now walking at a similar pace and parallel to each other, I noticed a glance, his expression changing in intensity to something more amiable and relaxed. He ventured, without my asking, his reasons for walking the Camino. His wife, he said, had died of cancer and he was impressed with the quality of palliative care she had received. The least he could do, he explained, would be to raise money for the hospital that had cared for her during her last days. He wanted to do a sponsored walk and someone suggested The Way of Saint James. We talked for some while thereafter exchanging anecdotes and experiences. The ice was well and truly broken when we spoke about carrying too much weight. Among other things he had felt the need to dispose of several precious books on the way. It is a familiar story. He also revealed that he was now much slimmer than he had been at the start of the journey. I tried to imagine what he looked like a month or so before, as he was not the slimmest person I had met on my journey.
We then arrived at a bridge where I chose to stop to take some photographs. I watched him continue on his way across the bridge, stick in hand and a thatch of dark blond hair atop a face taut with determination. This was a man on a mission. As he disappeared into the distance I recalled the details of our conversation. He had spoken about an Englishman he had met earlier in his journey. They had drunk together in a bar, so I asked him if this man was a Captain in the British Army?
It was the same man whom I had met ten days beforehand in a restaurant. He knew about the wallet stolen in Leon. At that moment I realized both men had spent time together without knowing they shared similar reasons for their journey. Perhaps they found peace in each other’s company relieved not to discuss deeper reasons for their Camino. My thoughts then wandered and considered the progress so far made and that I had reached some two-thirds of the way to Santiago de Compestela from the mountains of the Pyrenees.
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