I was familiar with the famed Camino de Santiago, but thought it was a single long trail through the Pyrenees. It actually is a web of trails across France, Portugal, and Spain that gradually converge as they approach the gravesite of the Christian disciple James at the Santiago de Compostela. The symbol of the Camino is the scallop shell, and the ridges of the shell represent the various routes coming together at a single point. True pilgrims do not even necessarily start on an established trail, but leave directly from their homes in Denmark or Germany or wherever home is, walk or take a train to the nearest trailhead, then hike for weeks or months to the trail’s end in western Spain.

When my French brother-in-law Claude invited Manyu and me to join him and Manyu’s sister Shauyu on a five-day trek along a French segment of the Camino de Santiago, we saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Claude’s cousin Martine, who has hiked a dozen different sections over a thirty-year period, planned our itinerary and joined us. Our route took us from Nasbinals to St. Chély d’Aubrac to St. Côme d’Olt to Estaing to Golinhac to Conques. I’d never heard of any of these French villages prior to our trip, and I don’t expect most people reading this blog have ever heard of them either. 

Calling our route a trail is a bit misleading. Some sections were classic hiking trail, eighteen-inch wide pathways of packed earth running through a woods or atop a hilltop. Just as often, however, we were walking through pastureland or along a country road. Our branch of the Camino was GS 65 (don’t know what GS stands for), and it was represented by a white stripe over a red stripe. Whenever we reached an intersection of any kind, the correct route was marked by this logo. Even though I was disoriented from the moment we set off on the first day, I never felt lost. So long as we followed the white and red markers, we eventually reached the next village on our route. 

Other than a retired French Canadian couple, I think everyone we encountered on the Camino was from France. I have no idea what gave me away, but all of the other pilgrims seemed to know I was American. Even to my Asian wife and Asian sister-in-law, strangers greeted them with a friendly “Bonjour.” When they got to me, they switched to English and said either “Good morning” or “Hello.” Full beard, wool hat, one walking stick when everyone else had two –  something identified me as a foreigner. If I said “Bonjour” first, my accented greeting certainly gave me away, but even when I kept my mouth shut until a fellow hiker spoke, he or she knew I was from somewhere else. 

Rather telling a particular story about our five-day pilgrimage on the Camino, I’d really like to give a few very strong general impressions. I will post them in a follow-up blog on Wednesday.

Steven Simpson