lip lit: memoirs of a pilgrim
A pilgrimage is a spiritual journey. It’s a trip far away, towards a holy place, every stride on the road a step closer to self-discovery. El Camino de Santiago, or the ‘Way of St James’, is an ancient pilgrimage path to Santiago de Compostela in the Northwest of Spain.
The concept of exploring the soul whilst trekking towards a sacred site is incarnated in stories, Facebook photos and the 2010 film The Way. But who takes these journeys? Wizened spiritual teachers? Disenchanted priests and nuns in disguise?
Brad Kyle, writing from the perspective of an ordinary guy in his book Memoirs of a Pilgrim, assures us that anyone can embark on the Camino. The Australian accountant took the journey following his father’s death. His hardships range from being physically underprepared to the agony of fellow peregrinos’ snores, all recorded with Kyle’s sardonic humour.
Constructing the book as a collection of journal entries, each day’s physical trial is painstakingly described, along with his swarming emotions and newfound friendships.
Kyle begins by voicing the uncertain exhilaration of embarking on a new adventure.
“I feel like a skydiver with nothing more than a crocheted grocery bag as a parachute. This is sheer madness!”
Often panicked and worried, he exhibits the typical untrained Western mind; constantly focused on the immediate situation.
With only the next step on the trail to consider, the Camino provides space for personal exploration, giving travellers the opportunity to analyse their attitudes and basic assumptions. Kyle describes being forced to face mindsets he has carried for years:
Deep-seated fears, or perhaps even beliefs, that my life ultimately brings failure and disappointment are being stirred into a feeding frenzy, their monstrous forms animating again after years of lying dormant.
As well as acknowledging unknown parts of himself, Kyle learns to accept life as a blessing, and to bask in daily wonders.
“For not the first time on the Camino, I feel overwhelmingly thankful for the experience of life,” he writes, following a particularly emotional experience.
The touch of the divine is evident throughout the narrative. Kyle describes small miracles he encounters: the sun shines brightly when he arrives at a town, against inexplicable odds he and his friends continue to cross paths, and a choir of birds call out in a mist-filled forest.
There are many aspects of this story that travellers will connect with. Distance from the daily grind brings unspoken revelation, not to mention the joy of connecting with fellow pilgrims, and the “gut-wrenching” farewells when each explorer moves on.
Travel writing is in the details. And boy, does Kyle get wrapped up in the finer points. The journey from Biarritz airport to the beginning of the Camino is 80 minutes. An albergue (pilgrim hostel) serves coffee in a cup as large as a soup bowl. Getting tangled in the inner-lining of a sleeping bag can make the sleeper panicky.
This information would be helpful to those planning to walk the Camino, or for those who already have and who want to remember every step. And while it could appeal to readers who wish to imagine all features of a journey, I found this aspect of the writing tedious.
Beyond the small details, the author articulates the inner turmoil of the pilgrim. When he reaches the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Kyle feels hollow and disappointed, and is disheartened by the town’s commodification of spirituality.
But with his newfound gratitude and mindfulness, he realises that his life has only begun on the Camino.
Khalil Gibran said: “A traveller am I and a navigator, and every day I discover a new region within my soul.” With the help of a long road, the Pyrenees and an open mind, Kyle has successfully captured the discovery of new regions of himself.
Memoirs of A Pilgrim is published by Zeus Publications.
By Louise Heinrich