(Blogger’s Note: I’m excited for the release of Beth Jusino’s Walking to the End of the World. She’s one of the more gifted Camino authors you’ll find. Beth’s book is an account of a 2015 pilgrimage she made with her husband, Eric, on the Le Puy route. Beth is an author, editor, and public speaker who makes her home in Seattle. This is a conversation we had recently about her pilgrimage and her book. She is also the author of The Author’s Guide to Marketing and a contributor to Choosing Higher Ground.)
1. Steve: First let me ask you about the incredible distance you walked and cover in this book – one thousand miles. That’s like walking from your home in Seattle to Bakersfield, CA. Can you discuss the mental and physical challenges that arise in a trek of that distance? It must have felt as if you truly did walk to the end of the world.
Beth: A thousand miles sounds like such a huge number, doesn’t it? Before Eric and I set out for Le Puy, that number used to excite me. All I could imagine was the sense of satisfaction I would feel at the end of a thousand miles. But then, once we actually started walking, “a thousand miles” started to weigh me down. My first week of walking was harder than I thought it would be. I wasn’t in great physical shape, I was still jetlagged and culture shocked, and it was quickly apparent that my tender feet would be a problem. When I tried to think about carrying that pack and walking for a THOUSAND MILES, I would panic. I couldn’t possibly go that far!
Quitting just a week into a 3-month trip wasn’t an option, though, so I made a conscious choice to stop thinking about “a thousand miles,” and instead to focus on a day at a time. Eric and I averaged 22 kilometers (almost 14 miles) a day, which is pretty standard pace for Camino pilgrims, so that didn’t seem so extreme. I could handle 22 kilometers.
2. Steve: You’ve referred to yourself more than once as a “Jersey girl” who wasn’t much into outdoor kinds of things, or even travel for that matter, yet you completed the Le Puy route and have returned to Spain for two more experiences. How do you reconcile the background you describe with what you’ve pursued here?
Beth: That’s true. After we got back from that first Camino, someone told me “Oh, I could never do what you did. I’m not into extreme sports.” And I had to laugh, because trust me, I’m not, either. I’m a writer and editor who prefers my couch, a book, and a cat to almost anything. Before 2015, I thought a good hike was 3 miles on the paved path around our local urban lake. I’d never been backpacking, never slept in a hostel, and never been to France. Eric had never traveled farther than Canada.
The initial decision to go was scary, and we talked about it for more than a year before we bought plane tickets. But the pull to go—to step away for a season from the relentless pace of modern life and experience a piece of history at a more human pace—was stronger than the fear of being uncomfortable.
Also, we knew that we weren’t throwing ourselves into something genuinely dangerous. It’s not like I went from being a couch potato to camping with the bears on the PCT. France and Spain are modern, safe countries with great healthcare and plenty of services. We were going to walk an established, well-marked trail, where I was assured that beds and bathrooms and cheap meals were provided at regular intervals. Yes, it was often uncomfortable, but it’s never threatening.
3. Steve: You walked the Le Puy with your husband. What does sharing an experience like this eventually tell you about your most important relationship? And in retrospect, do you think you came away with similar or different experiences?
Beth: There was one day when Eric and I were walking and talking about some arcane subject, and it occurred to me that we’d been together 24 hours a day for almost two months. That’s an intensive amount of time that few couples will ever get together, especially not in the mid-stream of their marriage. And yet we still had things to talk about. We still liked each other!
That wasn’t a huge surprise, though. Eric and I knew before we left that we generally
travel well together. Our strengths complement each other in terms of organizing, engaging, and pacing. But most important, we’ve always been friends, and we can talk about anything. It’s an incredible gift to have a partnership like this.
We met a lot of people on the Way who were walking without their spouse or significant other, sometimes because of scheduling issues but usually because the pilgrimage appealed to one and not the other. (And despite what I said about the Camino being safe, it’s still a tough trip; I don’t recommend bringing along a reluctant spouse.)
As for our experiences? It’s hard for me to answer that for him. We had the same surface experiences, of course, but I know if you asked us to each name our three most meaningful moments of the trip, you’d hear different things. And part of the fun of writing a book about our shared experience was the chance to read through Eric’s journal and talk with him about his memories and recollections.
4. Steve: Authors write books about the Camino for different reasons. Some simply want to share a profound experience, others are writing as they still process the walk. What was the contribution you wanted to make to the body of work that conveys this pilgrimage?
Beth: I wanted to write the book that I looked for and couldn’t find before my first Camino. I had so many questions about what it was like to be a pilgrim on the way to Santiago. How do you know where the gites/albergues are? What are the trails like? What time do people wake up? And the all important one: where are the bathrooms?
“I hope that I’ve painted a picture of a normal person on a great adventure, and give the reader lots of space to see themselves there. “
So when I got home, I started to write a narrative travel guide masquerading as a memoir. Walking to the End of the World isn’t a book where you’ll see me doing a lot of soul-searching or emotional processing about some painful thing back at home. Instead, I keep the camera aimed squarely on what it’s like to walk on the Way of Saint James. I hope that I’ve painted a picture of a normal person on a great adventure, and give the reader lots of space to see themselves there.
Also, I should mention here that I wanted to expand the narrative of “the Camino” to something beyond the Camino Frances. There’s so little written about walking the historic French paths that are referenced in the earliest Santiago literature, or on the web of trails that crisscross Spain and end in Santiago. It leads to the misconception that “the whole” Camino is just a single 500-mile stretch.
5. Steve: Many pilgrims inevitably have several “what have I done” moments. Will you share one from your pilgrimage?
Beth: Sometime during that first difficult week, Eric and I reached the highlands of the Massif Central, irregular rolling hills on a high-altitude plateau in the center of France. It was beautiful, dramatic, windswept country, but I was miserable.
On the outside, everything looked fine. I didn’t have a single blister. But inside, the tendons of my poor inflamed feet screamed in pain with every step, and they made me a terrible travel companion.
Things were tense when I limped into Finieyrols, a cluster of houses too small to be a town. Eric left me slumped on a rock outside while he got us checked into the gite. Completely dejected, I sulked in the late afternoon sun and imagined everyone’s reactions when I went home and confessed that I’d quit the Camino. Because clearly, I wasn’t up for this. We’d walked barely 15 kilometers that day, and I was a wreck.
I’d known, intellectually, that this walk would be hard, but it had never occurred to me that I would have to stop. That I would want to stop.
That was the thought that jerked me out of my sulk. Did I WANT to stop?
I dragged myself off the rock and down to the main building, where I bought a local beer appropriately called Antidote, tucked myself behind a picnic table, and looked around for the first time. I’d never seen a place like this. It was so beautiful. The treeless hills stretched as far as I could see in every direction. I watched two kids hanging over a fence at the edge of the property, trying to pet the shaggy, wild-looking horses.
Yes, my feet hurt, but that didn’t change the opportunity in front of me. I was in the middle of an area so remote that few French citizens see it, let alone a couple of American tourists. I’d walked here because there was really no other way to arrive, and unless those horses were tamer than they looked, I was going to walk out of here, too.
I never considered quitting again, although there were plenty of other days when my feet left me in frustrated tears.
6. Steve: In the grand scheme of life experiences, where does this experience rank in terms of things that have shaped you as a person? Also, how you view the world?
“News from around the world takes on a new light when you’ve spent time with people who live in different corners.”
Beth: By my late thirties, most social scientists would say that I was already pretty well shaped as a person, and Eric likes to remind me that “wherever you go, you’ll be there.” But walking a thousand miles on the road to Santiago definitely expanded the way I see the world culturally and historically.
News from around the world takes on a new light when you’ve spent time with people who live in different corners. Not long after we got home there was a bombing in Paris. It wasn’t the first shocking terrorist attack there, but it was the first since I had formed a Camino family that included Parisans. My response wasn’t “oh, such a terrible thing.” It was “Where’s Caroline? Is she safe?”
Engaged travel like this, where you really experience a place and form lasting relationships, makes the world smaller, but also so much bigger. Spending almost three months outdoors, seeing new places every day, meeting people from around the globe, and sinking into centuries of history made me realize just how small is my piece of the global story. Millions of pilgrims walked this way before me, and they did it as empires rose and fell, wars raged and ended, families and whole cities grew, and people died. And yet this path, and the human desire to follow it, continues.
7. Steve: What is someone thinking/feeling as they take the final steps in a thousand-mile walk?
Beth: Everyone’s Camino experience is different, of course, but as I walked the final kilometers to the lighthouse and “the end of the world” in Finisterre, I had this very simple thought that “this part is over.” That this was it.
As I saw the Atlantic Ocean pushing up to the rocks at my feet and watched the sun sink into clouds above the horizon, I was okay with being done. I was exhausted mentally as well as physically. I’d taken in as much “new” as I could handle for a while. Seventy-nine days of constant change, it turns out, was my limit. And the beauty of that is that I experienced Finisterre without any regret. I wasn’t sad that my Camino was over. I felt very calm, knowing that I’d been here long enough to get what I needed.
After that, Eric and I stayed in Finisterre for three days, visiting beaches and eating seafood and seeing friends, and it was this delightful period of celebration and joy, something I’d recommend for anyone taking a long walk like this. Give yourself time at the end to just linger in the moment with people who have shared it with you.
8. Steve: Sometimes Camino veterans speak of a “rhythm” that comes with the daily simplicity of eat/walk/sleep/repeat. Can you speak to this?
Beth: I love routines, and there’s a comfort to the pattern of the pilgrim, of living a simple life.
What impacted me more, though, was the contrast: while our rhythm was the same every day, our surroundings were constantly changing. Every day, and often every hour, I was challenged to walk-eat-sleep-repeat in a new place, with new people, in a new way. Every town we passed had a story, every church had its own icons. Our Camino family grew and shrunk and changed, with new people every day. Every bed was different. Every host and hospitalero was unpredictable; some were generous, some were surly, some were there to serve and others to make money. Every meal was an unknown. (They all looked the same on paper, but I had some four-star pilgrim’s meals and some utterly inedible ones.) The land and the weather changed around us. Would it rain? Would the hill be steep? Would the albergue still have beds?
This constant level of surprise and change was a challenge for me. It’s what left me exhausted at the end, longing only to sleep in the same bed for three nights in a row. But it’s also what makes the Camino so life-changing. There’s nothing static about it, and it stretches its pilgrims to not be static, either.
9. Steve: Your best moment out there?
Beth: GR65, which is the French Grand Randonee number for the Le Puy Camino route, climbs and descends steep, rocky river valleys. One morning, the air was cool and the sun was out, and Eric and I climbed for about 5 km until, just past a cluster of houses guarded by well-fed French chats, the trees cleared and left only bright green, early spring scrub grass on a rocky outcropping. And on top of the rock, there was a castle. Or, at least, the ruins of a castle. A crumbling keep kept watch over the river valley, while an intact chapel built of stone seemed to extend directly from the hillside.
The date on the lintel read 1328. My American brain couldn’t find a context for a date like that. Where I grew up, a building 300 years younger than this would be designated a national monument, with school tours and park rangers. Here, though, there weren’t even fences.
Eric and I shed our packs, and I climbed onto a rock beside the chapel and looked out over the valley below. I could see a train winding along the river, and in the distance I could make out that town that was our halfway point for the day. It seemed impossibly far away, but at least it was downhill. I tried not to look at the rows of mountains behind it, between me and Santiago.
I love the quote from Robyn Davidson’s memoir Tracks, where she says, “There are some moments in life that are pivots around which your existence turns—small intuitive flashes, when you know you have done something correct for a change, when you think you are on the right track….[This] was one of them. It was a moment of pure, uncomplicated confidence—and lasted about ten seconds.”
That was me. I was on top of a mountain, next to a French castle, on a spring morning. I was past my lists, my maps, my plans.
For ten seconds, I was entirely present.
10. Steve: How can people follow your work, tour schedule, obtain signed copies, all that kind of thing?
Beth: My website is www.caminotimestwo.com. There are links there to order copies of Walking to the End of the World from your favorite online or brick-and-mortar store, a full page of book appearances and events, plus lots of extra articles, packing tips, albergue recommendations, photos, and more.
(That’s also where you can contact me if you’re interested in me visiting your book club, hiking club, adventure group, library, or bookstore.)
If you’re interested in more pictures, I spent the summer doing an Instagram countdown to the book release, with one photo from each day of our 79-day walk: http://www.instagram.com/bethjusino/