When I made plans to hike from Southern France to the west coast of Spain—roughly five hundred miles, I bought hiking shoes one size larger than normal because walking hundreds of miles every few weeks really does make the feet bigger. I also made a note to stop at every well on the way since water was essential. But when my twenty-one-year-old son and I stood in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, about to climb the Pyrenees on our pilgrimage to Santiago, Spain, we passed on carrying the walking sticks my dad so hypocritically suggested we use, having read about it in the same article. But I didn’t see a need for canes, not out of pride—this wasn’t a matter of wanting to look strong—I simply didn’t want something else to carry.
Curiously, we were the only two pilgrims in town without walking sticks. They only cost about five euros for a good solid piece of oak about five feet tall, varnished, “Camino de Santiago,” the “Way of St. James,” burned into it and a metal casing at the tip to hit the ground, with a tough cord through the handle to slip about the wrist. Some people carried fold-away steel ski poles and others wood ones. Some pilgrims bought two and walked like cross country skiers; most found one would suffice, leaving the other hand free to point at the Pyrenees or hold a water bottle. I simply figured I’d been walking upright without assistance for a long time, uphill included.
It turns out the Pyrenees are profoundly uphill. Those first three unassisted days crossing the mountains made for some interesting balancing acts. It was too easy to move too fast with both arms free and tire out or lean too far and stretch out a muscle. Instead, we took a lot of breaks and watched where we were going to not step on endless small rocks and countless eight-inch black slugs, bountiful in the Basque country. I also feared I’d come to carry the cane like a crutch and expect it to help me more than it should, especially once we moved past the Pyrenees, where the terrain settles down a bit. We were a rarity on this journey: a father and son walking together in relative peace for five weeks, talking, laughing, and sharing meditative moments in chapels and cafés.
We didn’t need the sticks; we would lean on each other. Absolutely.
As soon as we arrived in Pamplona, we bought two walking sticks.
We gave in when we realized we tired more quickly than our fellow pilgrims, and it felt awkward to let our arms dangle all day. Michael found one about five feet tall, stained dark, and rugged looking. Mine was a bit taller and tan. Both had those thick cords through the handle for our wrists. It took some getting used to, but somewhere on the way to Logrono, Spain, we found the rhythm, and our walking sticks became an extension of our anatomy. I learned just the right timing to pick it up and how far in front of me to place it back down. I figured out when to not let the tip hit the ground, when to carry it on my shoulders, and when to lean heavily to relieve pressure on the knees or toes. I learned I needed it more downhill than up, on dry riverbeds more than the pavement, and not at all in larger towns and cities.
And after another week, that cane worked its way into our character. We would leave them on our bunks in the late afternoon after checking into a place to stay and then went out to eat or drink. It marked our space, and a glance indicated whose bunk was whose faster than looking at the backpacks. Two mahogany walking canes told us the two men from Frankfort, Germany, were also staying; the silver ski poles with a Belgium flag sticker belonged to Sylvie. And others knew ours leaning against a wall, in a corner, or as they lay on the ground against the wall at night. At some point my walking stick was simply part of the pilgrimage as much as my water bottles, my backpack, and my journals.
A few weeks later, with a few hundred more miles behind us, it occurred to me I’d be using that stick the rest of my life. Since he was old enough to walk, Michael and I have explored woods and walkways together. He always grabs a hand-crafted walking stick from the pile of fallen branches at home, and off we go. And someday, when I am in my eighties, no one will need to convince me I’d be safer with a cane; by then, this piece of wood with “Camino de Santiago” burned into the side will simply be understood. For my family, it will be part of who I had become, the one who walks, who at one time when he was so much younger crossed Spain with his son, and the only items they brought back were their walking sticks. I’ll proudly walk my way to the river near my home with this sole souvenir from Spain.
With about five hundred miles before us when we started, we knew we couldn’t carry much. In fact, I ditched some clothes and equipment to lighten the load. In our other travels, we had been accustomed to acquiring souvenirs. But this was different; this was a pilgrimage walked by saints and queens. This wasn’t a vacation; it was to be a new way of life. So as we walked, Michael took pictures, and I wrote in my journal, and we decided those would be our mementos. We both knew no token could possibly represent the experience of sharing these five weeks, twenty-four hours a day, together. Plus, as it turned out, these walking sticks allowed us, quite ironically, the double pleasure of having an easier time of it on the pilgrimage as well as a very practical souvenir of our time together that summer.
It was difficult not to think of my father when we first bought them. He sees no reason for a cane. And here were his son and grandson in need of a few canes for five weeks. Still, that kind of time together, talking, walking, mostly remaining quiet, and pointing out the beauty around us is simply not often shared between a parent and child. In fact, on our entire Camino we only met a few similar relationships—a father and son from Holland and a mother and daughter from Sweden. The innkeepers and café owners would comment on how lucky we were to travel together. We knew this, though, and as time went on, we both wanted the trip to continue. Together we met people from around the world, drank in cafés as varied as Hemingway’s favorite pub and a garage some woman turned into a bar. We lit candles in churches built before Charlemange and chapels where St Francis of Assisi sought refuge. We shared every moment of every day surrounded by the finest scenery in Europe. Five weeks later, we walked together into the sacred city of Santiago de Compostella, aided by our walking sticks, which literally guided us across the country.
In Santiago one afternoon, we toured a museum that displayed relics of those who walked the Camino. One cane, in particular, was featured—that of St. Francis of Assisi, who walked the same pilgrimage precisely eight hundred years earlier. Encased under two glass boxes was a short peasant’s staff used by Francis when he journeyed from Assisi to Santiago and back. He’d been thirty-three and had traveled well over a thousand miles with this walking stick of his, still intact and on display nearly a millennium later. I was in awe. The significance of our canes became clearer. They would do more than simply link us to the Camino long after we were home; they linked us to every pilgrim who had ever followed The Way.
At the end of the journey one night in Fisterra, the ancient “end of the world” where maps marked the ocean as “Here there be dragons,” I stared at our sticks as we sipped local red wine and watched the small fishing boats in the harbor. We had done it; we completed the Camino, and now we sat and gazed at the Atlantic. “I’m glad we did this together,” I told him.
It gave me complete peace of mind to know that someday, hopefully, my walking stick will be Michael’s a long time from now. I wondered if long after his grandfather and I are both gone, when he is an old man himself, will he sit in a chair and stare with aging eyes at our two walking sticks leaning against a wall, both probably long worn away at the tips. Will he someday pick one up in his fragile, elderly hands and remember his youth, coming of age on the Camino, walking more than twenty miles a day with his father? I wondered if he would tell stories to his grandchildren about the great pilgrimage and recall the time we wandered into Pamplona together and picked out those very walking sticks.
They will collect dust, I thought, much like memories collect dust and cover up some of the details, making them hard to recall. But they will stand as proof. Perhaps there will be small indentations near the handle where over time, my fingers rubbed away at the varnish. There was a time, though, when my son might say, “My father held this stick, and I held that one, and together we climbed mountains.”
Then perhaps some unthinkable time from now, he will leave them to his son or grandson. Those descendants won’t have memories from these two simple wooden staffs, but they might have stories of a father and grandfather who more than half a century earlier followed in the footsteps of saints.
At the end of our trip, we boarded a train for Pamplona and spent a few days celebrating. We went to the airport to fly home—we would visit my father and tell him about our journey: three generations sitting together sharing stories and memories.
Then we got to security.
Then we handed the security guard our backpacks and belongings, including the canes.
“You can’t bring the walking sticks with you,” the guard told us quite matter-of-factly.
“Because they are considered dangerous.”
“Yes, I understand. That is why I’m shipping them in cargo.”
“They can’t go through cargo.”
“Why?” My chest hurt.
“They are too large and considered dangerous, and also they are not in boxes.”
“No one sells boxes to hold them, and they’re not so big. Skiers ship skis and poles longer than these walking sticks!”
“Skiers have them in specially made carriers, and besides, you are not skiers, and these are not poles.”
“Yes, they are! In fact, they are a sort of religious object very similar to the holy relic cane of St. Francis of Assisi!” My anxiety showed as my voice got louder.
“But still, they are not wrapped correctly to be shipped through our mechanical equipment without a box, and they will damage something.”
“Would you say the same thing to an old man with a cane? Would you tell him he couldn’t bring his cane on the plane because it isn’t wrapped correctly?” Time had passed, and the security guard was losing patience, and a line had formed behind us with people carrying backpacks and boxes but no walking sticks.
“No, the old man with the cane wouldn’t be allowed to bring the walking stick on board with him. He would have a wheelchair, and we would return the cane at the end of the trip.”
“Yes! Then do that!”
“You’re not an old man, and this isn’t a cane!”
My heart sank. Michael’s heart sank. The argument continued, but I had lost. I asked Michael to carry the canes to a corner and lean them against the wall for someone else to take; perhaps some father and son pilgrims would find them. Michael said that if we had known this would happen, we could have left them at a place for others; now, they would probably be thrown in the trash.
We were quiet for a long time. It was as if they’d cut off my arm. Finally, I said, “Well, we promised each other last month up in France that we weren’t going to have any souvenirs, so this just holds us to our original commitment.” Michael sighed and agreed, but we were feeding each other’s disappointment by going on about it. So he brought them over to the wall and left them, and I am sure he felt as guilty as if he had abandoned two family pets. He got back in line, but before we made it through security, I looked at the sticks and got out of line.
I went over and took the thick cords from the handles and gave Michel his. Once through security, we tied our journals with the cords; I felt somehow as if it was supposed to be like this. We left it all in Spain.
There might come a time when I will forget the particulars and even later when Michael will not recall the details. But for now, when I go for walks, I don’t use a walking stick at all. I doubt I ever will. I’m a lot like my father that way. Family members tell me I shouldn’t walk out there by myself, but I’m fine. I think of Spain, and my legs feel stronger, my back straighter. I walk alone and unassisted along the river and remember when we sat in St Jean Pied du Port, France, restless and anxious and ready to begin.
BIO: Bob Kunzinger’s work has appeared before in Wanderlust, the Washington Post, and more. He is the author of nine collections of travel essays. TAG: Camino. Kunzinger. Spain. Santiago.
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