The Cult of Authenticity

People make their journey on the camino for a very wide variety of reasons and in a very wide variety of ways. Most walk, some cycle, a few ride horses or donkeys (I saw horses on the camino in Spain, a donkey on the Chemin de Saint Jacques in France). Some of them are pilgrims, travelling the route for religious or spiritual reasons. Others walk the camino for sport, for culture, for architecture or for the history of the region. Most carry a backpack with whatever they think they will need en route. For those who cannot or choose not to carry their pack all day, there are companies set up which will transport your backpack from point to point on the camino for a modest fee. They will also carry you, if you are tired or bored or pressed for time.

The camino is also a popular active tourism route, in which travel companies set up an itinerary, often a week or ten days, for a small group of travelers who travel by bus, walk a portion of the camino each day, carrying only a daypack, then retire to a comfortable hotel for the night. I don’t think that these folks see themselves as pilgrims, more as tourists or travelers, but they seem to enjoy the experience. And if they do see themselves as pilgrims, so what? It is their camino. I DO object if these same folks fill up the albergues, leaving no room for the walkers or cyclist who arrive later.

In recent years there has started to be a disturbing trend, fostered by a few – a very few, I think – of the dedicated walkers about how the camino is “supposed” to be travelled. Here are the rules: First of all “real” pilgrims start in Saint Jean Pied de Port (or farther away), in order to traverse the Pyrenees on their first days of walking. They must carry their own gear, they must not accept a ride or allow their gear to be carried for them, they must stay in albergues, they must stay on the trail, above all they mustn’t cycle. It is the cult of authenticity. I am a little surprised that they don’t require that you flagellate yourself as you walk.

I heard about one American pilgrim cyclist who was told, by someone who had walked the camino, that he had only had a “shallow” experience because he had cycled. I also talked to a Canadian pilgrim who had cycled the route, but was reluctant to tell others how she had done it, because of her expectation that the walkers would look down on her experience. It seems to me that if these dedicated “real” pilgrims thought about it, they would not be so disparaging of others.

First of all, the trail we walk today is generally not the trail that the early pilgrims walked. They walked on what was then the road and is now the path of heavily travelled highways. If they really want to be authentic, they should walk on the highways … and take their lumps.

Secondly, one of the things that I re-learned on the camino was not to judge others. Who knows why someone has their pack carried for them or why they accept a ride? My recent experience in France taught me that when you hit your personal physical limits, which I did on several days, it would be foolhardy and perhaps risky to continue walking. If there had been a place available to stop overnight, perhaps I would have, but there wasn’t. I sought out a ride to my planned destination and I don’t feel any the less of a pilgrim for it.

Thirdly, if  the church authorities who dispense the formal document at the end of the journey in Santiago accept cyclists, why wouldn’t other pilgrims? I thought that completing the pilgrimage would teach tolerance and compassion, not closed-mindedness and bigotry.

People have to make their own camino and if that includes having your pack carried or yourself carried or staying in hotels rather than albergues, well, it’s your camino, not theirs. I find nothing wrong with people wanting to have the most authentic experience possible for themselves, based on their perception of what is authentic, but that does not give them the right to denigrate the experiences of others. Pride is not a good pilgrim emotion.

So the next time you hear someone extolling their “authentic” experience, congratulate them. But if they continue on to point out the shallow or false experience of others, because they didn’t do the authentic camino, stop them gently and remind them that each person has to experience his or her own camino, just as each one of us has to experience our own life.

2 thoughts on “The Cult of Authenticity

  1. I wonder why so many think that thier own personal way is the only correct way. I met a fellow hiker, on Mt. Katahdin in Maine last summer, who was completing the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine,(in two summers)hiking the southern half in 2009, and finishing the northern half in 2010. Another “thru-hiker” who was also finishing, proclaimed that he did it “the right way” yet the other Gentleman did not. Just his oppinion, I guess. I felt both were worthy of congratulations, but not one more than the other.

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