A friend once told me, “when you’re bored of London, you’re bored of life”. I’m not sure this was strictly true for me, but at the end of 2010, I missed my family and friends and yearned for the sun-filled Australian summers of my childhood. So after seven years of cheap beers at Wetherspoons (and even cheaper flights through Ryanair), I decided to return to Melbourne.
I made a list of all the things I’d do upon my return: watch the Pies play at the G; move into an apartment close to the beach; finish my novel. The Devil’s in the Detail was a satirical commentary about good versus evil, played out through a London cabbie’s trial in the Court of Saint Peter. For five years, I’d worked on it, tapping away whenever inspiration arrived. But the long hours in the office at Canary Wharf had taken their toll, causing inspiration to come far less frequently. My story had a beginning and an end but a novel-shaped hole in its middle.
Walking has always been my chosen method to overcome writer’s block – it still is. I’d heard about a hike across Spain called the Camino de Santiago (“the Way of Saint James”), an 800-kilometre trek across Spain. Thinking it might offer the creative tonic I needed and a fitting bookend to my time in Europe, I packed a backpack and bought one final cheap Ryanair to the European continent.
There are several different Caminos – one which snakes along Spain’s northern coast, and another which emerges from the country’s south. I walked the Camino Frances, which begins at the picturesque village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees. Like the other Caminos, mine would also eventually arrive at the city of Santiago de Compostela – the final resting place of Saint James. And while the Camino is traditionally a Catholic pilgrimage, thousands of non-religious people like me walk it every year. Some for reflection, others for exercise, many embark upon it to simply marvel at the country’s breathtaking scenery.
The path itself is straightforward. No maps or guidebooks were required, just a series of yellow arrows or clamshells marked the way. For 30 straight days, I woke at first light, ate a small breakfast and drank a bitter café con leche (coffee) before setting off. On average, I walked 30 kilometres a day. On the hottest days, I walked less, while my longest stretch was a gruelling 43 kilometres from Burgos to Castrojerez. Each night I’d sleep in a different albergue (hostel), where I’d have my credencial (pilgrim’s passport) stamped as proof of my eventual journey.
To some, this could easily sound like a month of hell, but for me, it was bliss. Sure, there were trials along the way – golf-ball-sized blisters and sleepless nights in hostels filled with orchestras of snorers, rustlers and farters. But it was also a month devoid of any form of decision-making or planning. When I was hungry, I ate; when I was tired, I found an albergue for the night.
Temporarily unburdened by the usual responsibilities of real life, I found my thoughts beginning to slow and my other senses reawakening. With no pre-determined schedule to keep, I took the time to read the plaques below the statues and paintings in the villages I passed through. Each town seemed to have its own story, and I slowly pieced together more of the fascinating history of the country I was traversing. Walking alone also allowed me to meet people from across the world and listen to how their own paths had temporarily entwined with mine. I made new friends. Sometimes we walked together for weeks, while other times it was just a few hours. I practised my Spanish, eventually talking about topics other than food and the weather. But mostly, I had time to daydream and think. So when I finally reached Santiago four weeks after beginning my journey, I arrived with the remaining plot and characters I needed to finish my novel. And an ill-advised beard which was more ginger than I’d hoped.
A few days later, as I sat at the airport and waited for my flight back to Melbourne, I sipped on my last café con leche and took out my notebook. I began jotting down some thoughts about the novel. I wrote down a few plot points and a handful of scenes I’d dreamt up along my hike. But what I’d written down wasn’t my existing novel; it was a collection of ideas that might one day make a new story. There was an ill-fated marriage proposal, a journey across Spain in search of answers, and a story that could somehow tell slices of the colourful Spanish history I’d learned on my journey.
There wasn’t enough for a new novel – not yet – but it had a name. At the top of the page, I wrote down “Once Upon a Camino”.
Once Upon a Camino is Matthew S. Wilson’s second novel, and will be available in 2022.