Travel Lit Tuesday: “Call of the Camino” by Robert Mullen

bookIt’s been about a year since my first and last Travel Lit Tuesday, so I decided it was time to re-establish my weekly practice of reviewing some fine examples of travel memoirs. To pick up where I left off, and to make good use of the bookshelf worth of books I have on the Camino de Santiago, today I’ll be sharing with you one of the titles that I own that has become a favourite of mine — Robert Mullen’s Call of the Camino.

First published in 2010, Call of the Camino documents Mullen’s own experiences on the pilgrimage route to Santiago. Mullen, a resident of Scotland, hiked the entire Camino Francés in 2005, beginning in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Instead of solely providing us with a detailed journal of his journey, however, Mullen intertwines his stories with myths and legends about Saint James and the Camino itself, as well as vignettes of his own history spread throughout Canada, Lebanon and Scotland.

One part of his story which made me chuckle out loud occurred after Robert’s night stay in the village of Astorga. The previous night saw him staying in a pilgrim’s hostel situated in a pine forest beside a river, just outside the town of Hospital de Órbigo. The forest hostel was deserted, allowing him the luxury of spending the night alone in solitude, and waking up the next morning to the songs of forest birds and not the whispers and packing of pilgrims. His stay in Astorga, however, was the complete opposite.

It was the worst night’s sleep that I had so far suffered. The bunk above me had been occupied by an immense pilgrim who snored without cease the whole night through, but so strained the springs of his bed that they had sagged to within inches of my chest. What price now the peace and the silence of the albergue in the pine forest?

Astorga is where I’ll lay my head after my second day of hiking the Camino. Hopefully I won’t have the same luck as Robert and wake up with a sleeping bear of a man above me and his bed springs within inches of my body.

Throughout the first half of the book Mullen would, during breaks in his Camino story, provide a historical background and analysis of the concept of myths and their role in human history. During the latter half he moves to the concept of “self”. One passage in particular stood out for me.

What is more mysterious to us than ourselves? What is more in need of explanation? Why else do we feel the need, not just in adolescence but at various stages of our lives, to go in search of who we are? Just what is it that we wish to discover and why venture so far afield to conduct the search? Where, if not within us, could the self be lodged, and how could it possibly have escaped?

After rereading this book for the second time, I realized I thoroughly enjoy it not just for its relevance to the Camino, but also because Mullen touches upon issues with the human psyche that I have personally been dealing with for years now.

Who doesn’t find themselves questioning “who am I?”, and then feel the need to go away to a country different from their own in search of their answer? Travel has always provided an “out” for those wishing to escape their everyday lives in search of the extraordinary. The Camino is no exception to this, and I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m looking to answer my own questions about who I am as an individual while I’m hiking those twenty to thirty kilometers a day.

As with most books that chronicle the pilgrimage to Santiago, Call of the Camino introduces the reader to the cornucopia of characters met by the author. One of the very first pilgrims we meet is Park — a surgeon from Korea who had converted to Catholicism later in life. Park would always greet our author with “hermano!“, an undying amount of optimism and a calmness and serenity that would make me smile whenever he spoke. On a route that requires a hiker to pack only the necessities, Park seemed to have a bottomless bag filled with items one would never think to bring on a cross-country hike (including a framed picture of his family as well as one of the Pope).

Along with Park, we are also introduced to a slew of other pilgrims from Australia, England, Portugal, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland. Each new person that Mullen meets along the way enriches his story as he hikes the pilgrimage route from start to finish.

Call of the Camino is a book that reads gracefully and with ease. I would include it on a list of required reading for anyone researching the Camino, or for anyone who enjoys a good travel story. I’ll be hiking the Camino myself in under four months, and I can guarantee that I’ll be rereading this book once more before I leave.

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