You Choose With Whom You Walk

One of the things you’ll hear people on the Camino talk about a great deal is the strange and wonderful way you meet and find yourself talking with people from all walks of life during the journey. Yesterday morning, after what was my hardest day on the Camino, spent almost entirely alone in the rain, I walked back 100 meters or so to walk with a person who’d shared my room the night before, simply because he’d seemed like such a friendly person. We ended up, as people seem to do, walking together the whole day, talking about topics from guns in the United States to very personal observations about ourselves. The hours flew by, and we both said that the day was one of the easiest we’d spent on the journey.

One of the ideas we talked about is the idea that it seems like you find the person you want to walk with on the Camino. In other words, if you’re enjoying the experience, you’ll find people with the same attitude and sense of fun. On days (or for some people, it seemed, weeks), if you’re not looking for that, you’ll find the opposite. It’s not so much about the other people, but the frame of mind you have that seems to decide who becomes your companion for a moment, a day, or even weeks on the trip.

Perhaps more importantly, what I thought about today was the idea that the one person you’re always going to be walking with is yourself. Whether you’re walking alone in silence, with companions speaking broken English in response to your shattered Spanish, listening to the full run of Serial over two days, or in great, philosophical conversation, you’re always walking with the person you’re creating in the moment. That person decides whether that next hill is an insurmountable challenge that requires three rest stops or a fun peak to top; it decides whether the group of young German missionaries next to you who are loving life with their 10km/day pace and support buses are profoundly annoying or just having a great time; it decides if you’re going to take joy in the moment or embrace pain and hardship.

Today, when I was tired and lost for a bit in Santiago de Compostela, I heard that voice transform my morning joy into real frustration that made me appreciate the city less. Throughout this trip, the least stressful time in my life since I was 10, I can think of those moments, when the person I was walking with, the voice I was hearing, was so frustrated that I wasn’t really experiencing what was in front of me. To be fair, nearly running out of gas twice in the Westfjords of Iceland twice were totally legitimate moments of frustration and fear, but the rest were pretty silly in retrospect—and I know that I made them worse by walking as a person who wanted to make them worse.

Of course, that voice isn’t some separate part of us. It’s something we create for ourselves, every day. While I’m certain that I’m not going to change the core of my being, a person who becomes righteously indignant about the battles I find myself fighting, I do think it’s possible to walk with someone who’s just a bit more likely to see the positive, or even the absurd, rather than the infuriating, as I go forward. As Conrad writes in Typhoon, some people “are always meeting trouble half way,” and I know that I sometimes walk three-quarters of the way there.

We can’t be happy all the time. We can’t avoid sorrow, rage, fear, or regret. I think the one thing the Camino has helped me see more clearly, though, is that it’s not just the path we take that determines how we feel, but the person we bring along on that path.