1844 A ‘trek of her own’
Walking the Camino: On Earth As It Is
By Maryanna Gabriel
Lawrencetown Beach, NS: Pottersfield Press, 2023
$21.95 / 9781990770180
Reviewed by Carellin Brooks
Maryanna Gabriel’s Walking the Camino has little in the way of conventional plot, but a journey of eight hundred kilometres and forty-plus days imposes its own narrative urgency. The route propels the story and also the reader, driving us to discover what set this quest in motion.
Gabriel provides clues as to why she embarks on this walk. Not for her the traditional Catholic reasons of penitence, prayer, and blessing, but in order to lose and also find herself. Although these are general goals for the modern pilgrim, it’s the specifics here that compel attention. Is it Gabriel’s troubled history with her intermittently heartless mother, who offers a last blessing of peaceful tranquility just before flying to Mexico to die in her sleep, a puzzle that the walker must solve? Or is it the sometimes-stormy relationship with her own daughters? (Gabriel raised them alone, on a budget so stringent that a pair of sunglasses carelessly bestowed by their absent father brought tears: they cost half the monthly food bill.)
Perhaps Gabriel ultimately seeks an understanding of herself, who she is and why. If so, the Camino offers–as it does to all pilgrims, secular and religious melding until the distinction seems merely academic–space, time, and, yes, the pain to reflect at leisure on one’s worlds, inner as well as outer.
We meet Maryanna pre-trek, ensconced in her Salt Spring Island home and garden, determinedly planning a trip with the help of the Camino’s Victoria chapter, the Internet, and guidebooks. This section could have been shortened to bring us to the trek itself sooner, but it does set the stage for the walk to come: the author repeatedly climbing a local mountain until she is sure she can manage the elevation.
A friend of mine, declining camping invitations, would observe: “Our ancestors lived in sod huts on the prairies so we wouldn’t have to.” Our ancestors also trekked on shanks’ pony, a more picturesque term for feet, so that we would be able to whisk ourselves between cities, countries, and continents in air-conditioned comfort. Yet the reported 200,000 pilgrims who venture from France to Spain on the Camino each year have deliberately chosen to eschew such luxuries. As with those who climb Everest or swim the Channel, the question put by those of us who stay at home is usually: why bother?
Walking provides both imperative and answer. Mornings with not a creature stirring besides pilgrims, too early for even a coffee for the road, and dark paths lit only by headlamps, give way to vividly etched dawns, pinks and purples staining the awakening day. Monuments and landmarks passed tell the history of the Camino, more than a millennium of saints, seers, and visionaries as well as ordinary folks caught up in the physical and spiritual journey. Long-ago love affairs, dastardly deeds, and miraculous happenings pepper the path. So do mundane details: the next rest stop, place to find water, meal break, Gabriel records it all: the suddenly threatening weather, plods beside the highway, and isolated cafés where pilgrim hordes, like locusts, have eaten every crumb.
When Gabriel was a child, her artist mother told her she had no artistic ability. This is plainly untrue. Seeing the road with a painter’s eye, the author sketches the scene for us in words. Fellow pilgrims make comical faces at stressful moments, relate their own stories of the despair they’re trying to out-walk, or falter, to be helped along the way. Friends are quickly made, waved on, then discovered again sitting in restaurants at the end of the day’s trek. Rapacious, indifferent innkeepers serve stingy breakfasts to ravenous trekkers, saintly ones caper clown-like and offer bountiful dinners. A woman washes Gabriel’s suffering feet; she asks only prayers in return. The full spectrum of humanity, all of its greed and selflessness, is here for observation, and observe Gabriel does.
More than a mere observer, though, she’s a full participant in this peripatetic slice of life. Aching, tired, her knees protesting the punishing ascents and descents, beside highways, and through towns where the pre-booked accommodation more often than not turns out to be another five kilometres away, Gabriel perseveres. Fellow pilgrims walk with her to keep her spirits up, share the fare they discover at each stop, and nourish each other in temporal and spiritual ways. Other pilgrims suffer heart attacks and accidents. Death along the trail is always a possibility.
The natural world, too, is by turns balm and punishment. A wild boar glimpsed in pre-dawn dark, the rough bark of a tree trunk where the author leans exhausted, another day of unrelenting heat turning the walk into a seemingly never-ending plod. Why does she do it? Why do any of us? In the end, Maryanna Gabriel has always known what the walk tells her: who she is, and why. She returns to her garden, where the gate hangs open and the deer, in her absence, have eaten their fill.
This book, along with other Camino memoirs by women writers, is an invaluable resource to the reader contemplating a Camino trek of her own: its description of the physical hardships, and its tender attention to the rewards of such rigour, paint a full picture of what the novice trekker can expect. The more casual reader may long for more of a narrative throughline à la Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love or Cheryl Stray’s Wild, with the goal of the journey the protagonist undertakes more sharply defined and the stakes higher. But reality doesn’t always deliver such tidy endings. This memoir’s loose threads speak to a life caught, still, in the living.
Vancouver’s Carellin Brooks is the author of several books, including One Hundred Days of Rain, Fresh Hell, and Every Inch a Woman. Learned (Book*hug, 2022), a poetry collection about Brooks’ time at Oxford and in the fleshpots of London, was reviewed in BCR by Linda Rogers.
The British Columbia Review
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Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
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