When I walked a portion of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela back in 2014, I found everything about the journey to be inspirational. The people, the breathtaking landscapes, the allegories and symbolism…everything. It was a life-changing experience. Having walked only a portion of the Camino, I have come to understand that it calls one to it. And when one heeds the call, it becomes a lifetime passion. I know several people who have revisited the pilgrimage multiple times. I myself plan to walk it again in 2019, if all goes as planned. In the meantime, I never tire of talking about the Camino. Thankfully, others who have walked feel the same way. Russell Kenny is one of those people.
One of the wonderful things I noticed on my pilgrimage were the messages you find along the way from past peregrinos (pilgrims) who have already made their way to Santiago. These could be found in the form of graffiti, meticulously spelled out using twigs and stones, in long cloth ribbons hanging from trees, etc. Everywhere, it seemed, was the desire to share the wonderment and inspiration. I imagined people who were heavily burdened by their packs, having their aha! moments, stopping and saying, “I gotta get this down! I gotta get this down!” They’d stop and jot down their thoughts on whatever they could find and leave the golden nuggets of wisdom behind for future peregrinos.
Words will always stop a writer in his or her tracks. And so will symbolism. Some left messages of hope, others inspirational quotes from favourite songs, and others still simply proof that they were there. Often, the message wasn’t even in the form of words at all. If you’re looking for the message, you’ll find it. The above pics are only a few of the messages I came across. There’s not enough space on the internet to share all of them.
Russell Kenny is one of the Camino’s inspirational messengers. Russell was able to track me down through my blog when he discovered the picture above. When he told me he has walked the Camino Frances from St Jean Pied De Port to Santiago–and further on to Finisterre and Muxia–9 times in 10 years, I knew I had to hear more. So I asked him if I could interview him for my blog. Thankfully, he readily agreed. Here’s what Russell had to say about his experiences on the Camino de Santiago!
1. First I’d like to ask you a little about your own Camino experiences in general. How many Camino pilgrimages have you walked? And which routes have you taken?
1st year (2007) I cycled from England to Spain through France and started in St Jean Pied De Port to Santiago and cycled back to UK. I decided after that walking was the only way to do the Camino. I have since walked from St Jean To Santiago, then onto Finsterre and Muxia, nine times in ten years. Some Caminos I did back to back because I could not face coming home. So I did the ‘Camino Levante’ from Valencia to Santiago and then ‘Via De La Plata’ from Seville to Santiago and also part of ‘Camino Del Norte’ from Irun, But I walk backwards and forwards on many Caminos because I am addicted to it. So in all 13 Caminos.
2. What was your inspiration for leaving messages for fellow peregrinos along the way to Santiago? What are some of your favourite messages? Either ones you have left or ones you have found on the path?
My inspiration to leave messages, I do not understand myself. But when a thought comes to mind and there’s nobody around to share it with, I write it down quickly… any hour of the day. Even if I wake up at 3am sometimes with an idea, I’ll get my headlamp on in the tent to write it down. I guess I leave the messages because later people pass by me and say “Hey I saw your messages along the Camino and they made me think. Thanks!” That’s a good feeling. 🙂
3. Have you had a lot of response from the messages you left on the path? Were you able to connect with people who found your notes?
Yes I get many a-response. People I have not even met on the Camino track me down on Facebook and send me photos of the messages via my name I leave on the messages. And people I have met also contact me, obviously.
4. Can you tell us what it was like walking the Camino with a tent and living out in the elements, as opposed to staying in albergues (hostels)? Any harrowing experiences or interesting tales arise from camping along the Camino?
Most of the time I create my own hiking trailer that I pull behind me, connected to a little rucksack on my shoulders. I make a new trailer each year and then leave them on the Camino for some other pilgrims to find and hopefully use. I make my trailers as cheaply as possible from things I dig out of rubbish skips.
Albergues, I do not like. It feels like being captive in somebody’s idea of how a pilgrim should live. Lights out and doors locked at 10pm in a lot of albergues, people snoring or talking in the early hours of the morning, people switching on their headlamps or the room lights at silly o’clock in the morning. A tent is freedom, washing in rivers, sleeping and waking when I am ready to do so…plus there’s an increase of bed bugs along the Camino.
No bad experiences from sleeping in tent, just that the lamps of the early walkers sometimes wakes me up.
5. Do you have any experiences to share in relation with your guitar? Any out-of-the-blue moments arise from being a peregrino with the ability to make song?
There’s one experience on the Camino this year (2017) involving the guitar whilst i was camping in a little forest near Pedrouzo. I always run out of money because I sometimes stay on the Camino for up to 8 months. Well, this one morning I had just enough money for a coffee and walked into town not knowing if I was going to eat that day or not. When I returned to my tent the pilgrims that had passed by in those few short hours of me being in town having a coffee etc had put 147 euros inside my tent. I cried for the fact they cared that much. It was so moving. A lot of pilgrims either left notes or talked to me later along the Camino saying they had left me money because I made their day good somewhere along the Camino a few days or a week ago by playing the guitar, but they didn’t get a chance to thank me at the time. So they left money when they saw my tent. 🙂 Experiences like this are countless and priceless…so nice. And they make me feel wanted. I don’t often get that feeling back home.
6. Any advise for those who have dreamed of walking the Camino de Santiago but have not yet taken the plunge? What is it about the Camino? As a fellow peregrino, I am at times overwhelmed with emotion just thinking about my love of the Camino. In your experience, and in your own words, what makes the Camino such a transformative life-changing experience that keeps drawing you back?
Those that dream of walking the Camino… just get off your ass and do it. Think of those that cannot do the Camino for health reasons, family reasons, trapped in the wrong marriage or relationship reasons.
The Camino is a reflection of life, but you have the choice to walk away from a situation you do not like. This is not always the same in real life. Meeting new people from all over the world is healthy…we take our masks off for those few short weeks, talk to strangers about life’s ups and downs, step out of our comfort zones because we are out of the system that blackmails us to live the life of system-slavery.
A lot of the time I cry about the conversations I have had with people after listening to some of the horrific or sad things that have happened in their lives. Getting to Santiago is not the answer for anyone along the Camino. The magic of the answers a lot of us seek are in the walking and the talking with certain people you connect with mentally while sharing each others stories…free therapy from real people rather than a trained therapist that knows nothing of real pain.
Advice for those walking the Camino for the first time? Buy boots 2 sizes too big and wear thick socks. Or wear sandals the whole Camino in rain or sun. Losing toenails is a painful shame that could lead to further infection, so give as much room to your feet as you can in your footwear.
(Above two photos courtesy Russell Kenny)
8. Finally, when is your next Camino? And which path will you be walking?
Camino 2018…I will walk the Portuguese Camino in reverse from Santiago to Lagos.
Thank you so much for sharing your Camino thoughts here, Russell. And a hearty thanks for the messages you leave along the pilgrimage! I was happy to find them along MY way. The constant connections to past peregrinos was a great inspiration to this–at times–weary pilgrim. Know that your gifted words are touching people in the exact way you hope them to. Buen Camino, my friend!
ETA: In 2020 my first novel set on the Camino, THE CAMINO CLUB, was released. This is a young adult novel. You can check it out here: THE CAMINO CLUB