I’m Off Then
June 9, 2001 Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port
I’m off then!” I didn’t tell my friends much more than that before I started out—just that I was going to hike through Spain. My friend Isabel had only this to say: “Have you lost your mind?”
I’d decided to go on a pilgrimage.
My grandma Bertha always knew something like this would happen: “If we don’t watch out, our Hans Peter is going to fly the coop someday!”
I guess that’s why she always fed me so well.
I could be lying on my favorite red couch right now, comfortably sipping a hot chocolate and savoring a luscious piece of cheesecake, but instead I’m shivering in some café at the foot of the Pyrenees in a tiny medieval town called Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. An enchanting postcard idyll, minus the sun.
Unable to make a complete break with civilization, I sit down right by the main road. Although I’ve never even heard of this place before, there seems to be an unbelievable amount of traffic whizzing down the road.
On the rickety bistro table lies my nearly blank diary, which
seems to have as hearty an appetite as I. I’ve never felt the need to capture my life in words before—but since this morning I’ve had the urge to record every detail of my unfolding adventure in my little orange notebook.
So here begins my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
The journey will take me along the Camino Francés, one of the official European Cultural Routes. I’ll be trekking over the Pyrenees, across the Basque country, the Navarre and Rioja regions, Castile and León, and Galicia, and after about five hundred miles I will stand right in front of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. According to legend, this is the location of the grave of Saint James, the great missionary for the Iberian people.
Just thinking about the long trek makes me want to take a long nap.
And here’s the amazing part: I’ll hike it! The entire length. I will hike. I have to read that again to believe it. I won’t be alone, of course: I’ll be toting my twenty-four-and-a-quarter-pound, fire-engine red backpack. That way, if I keel over along the route—and there is a real chance of that happening—at least they can see me from the sky.
At home I don’t even take the stairs to the second floor, yet sstarting tomorrow I’ll have to cover between 12 and 18 miles a day to reach my destination in about 35 days. The couch potato takes to the road! It’s a good thing none of my friends knows exactly what I’m up to. If I have to call the whole thing off by tomorrow afternoon it won’t be too embarrassing.
This morning I took my first wary peek at the start of the official Camino de Santiago. Uphill from the city gate, on the other side of the turrets and walls of Saint-Jean, is the entrance to the Spanish Pyrenees, and the first segment of the Camino Francés is marked by a steep cobblestone path.
My route begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
I see a gentleman of around seventy who has difficulty walking, yet is evidently quite determined to undertake this pilgrim’s marathon. I watch him in disbelief for a good five minutes until he slowly disappears into the morning fog.
My guidebook—I chose a wafer-thin one, since I’ll have to lug it with me over the snowcapped peaks of the Pyrenees—says that for centuries, people have undertaken the journey to Saint James when they have no other way of going on with their lives—figuratively or literally.
Since I have just dealt with sudden hearing loss and surgery to remove my gallbladder—two ailments that I think are perfectly suited to a comedian—it’s high time for me to readjust my own thinking. It’s time for a pilgrimage.
I paid the price for ignoring the inner voice that had been hollering “TAKE A BREAK!” for months. When I forged ahead with my work, my body took revenge and shut down my hearing. An eerie experience! I was so furious at my own folly that my gallbladder exploded, and the next thing I knew, I was back in the emergency room with the symptoms of a heart attack.
I finally paid attention and drifted into the travel section of a well-stocked bookstore in Düsseldorf, looking for a suitable destination with one thought in mind: I’ve got to get away! It was high time for a time-out.
The first book I happened upon was Bert Teklenborg’s The Joy of the Camino de Santiago.
What an outrageous title! Eating chocolate can be a joyful experience—or maybe drinking whiskey—but can a route bring you joy? Even so, I bought this presumptuously titled book. And devoured it in a single night.
The way to Santiago de Compostela is one of the three great Christian pilgrims’ trails—the others are the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem from anywhere.
According to legend, the Santiago trail was used by the Celts in pre-Christian times as a path of initiation. Veins of electromagnetic power in the earth and lines of energy (called ley lines) are said to be aligned with the Milky Way along the entire trail, all the way to Santiago de Compostela (which may mean “field of stars”), and even beyond that to Finisterre at the Atlantic coast in Spain (then considered “the end of the world”). The Catholic Church kindheartedly forgives the sins of people who complete a pilgrimage to Santiago. But that’s not my primary incentive; I’m drawn to the idea that the pilgrimage will help me find my way to God and thus to myself. That’s certainly worth a try.
I spend the next few days in a near trance, scoping out my itinerary and buying a backpack, a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, and a pilgrim’s passport, but once I’m on the flight to Bordeaux, I emerge from my daze and hear myself say out loud: “Am I nuts?”
It’s been two decades since I first visited Bordeaux. Perhaps I’ve been in a bad mood ever since? I arrived there for the second time, only to discover that it is just as ugly and gray as it was when I visited at sixteen. I decided to spend the night at the Atlantic Hotel, a stately neoclassical building across the street from the train station. This is meant to be a consolation for the coming five weeks of dilapidated dormitories filled with snoring Americans and belching Frenchmen and no decent sanitary facilities.
It turns out I would have been better off in a dormitory. I was greeted with a friendly smile, shown to a drab little hole-in-the-wall, and quoted an exorbitant price. Instead of a window, the room offered harsh blue fluorescent lighting. I didn’t complain, but I could feel my nonexistent gallbladder acting up!
If Bordeaux had been nicer, I might not have continued on.
But there is nothing to keep me in the room, since the last guy to sleep here had the good sense to empty out the minibar. So, out I go, back to the train station.
In the gigantic main hall, I marshal my high school French to issue this halfway decent sentence: “Mademoiselle, one ticket from Bordeaux to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, one way, second class, please.” The charming lady behind the counter beams at me.
“À quelle heure, monsieur?”—Ah, yes; at what time do I want to travel? That’s a good question.
“At about seven A.M.” I decide on the spot, which is how I do things.
“What was the name of that place again?”
Great! None of the maps I studied listed a train connection to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port—so there must not be one! I mumble the name again while she pores over enormous timetables from past centuries with a quizzical look on her face, then announces, to my complete surprise, “Monsieur, there is no such place in France.”
I am as flummoxed as if she’d just claimed that God is dead.
“Waaait a minute,” I say, “the place does exist, but maybe the railroad doesn’t go there. Surely there’s an interstate bus or something of that sort.” The lady politely stands her ground: “No, no, the place does not exist. Believe me.” Naturally I don’t. There’s a principle at stake here!
Who could seriously doubt the existence of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port?
After an excruciating couple of minutes, she discovers that the place exists after all! And there’s even a convenient set of connections. I feel as if I’d wished this place into existence. Maybe I’ll have the same good luck with God?
I leave the train station with my ticket in hand, wondering what I’m actually doing here, whether any of this makes sense. I look up, only to see a huge billboard advertising the latest technological gadget with the catchphrase “Do you know who you really are?” My answer is quick and clear-cut: “Non, pas du tout!”
I decide to give that some thought once I’m back in my hotel room. I leaf listlessly through a tattered city guide to Bordeaux to find out what I missed last week, and come across another version of the same ad campaign. This one declares, “Welcome to Reality!” Touché!
My room hasn’t sprouted any windows since I left. My cell phone charger doesn’t fit into the French outlet, and as a matter of fact I would like to go back home already—or should I go on? I opt for going on. Then I fall asleep.
When I arrive this morning, Saint-Jean is already packed with pilgrims of all ages and nationalities. The city evidently reaps a handsome profit from pilgrim business. Rustic walking sticks and scallop-shell pendants—the pilgrims’ insignia—are sold on every corner. There are kitschy statues of saints, pilgrims’ lunch platters—think French fries with meat course—and hiking guides in every conceivable modern language. I opt for a simple walking stick, although it seems much too long, much too heavy, and much too unwieldy.
On the way to the local pilgrims’ hostel I turn over in my mind how to say stamp in French. In Spanish it’s sello—that’s written in
the pilgrim’s passport, the credencial del peregrino. In the entryway the word finally occurs to me: Timbre! Naturellement. I’ve got my sentence formulated in my head: J’ai besoin d’un timbre. Then I hear the elderly gentleman at the table speaking Oxford English while stamping the passports of a young four-man band from Idaho and assigning them beds one through four. It turns out he’s British and spends his summer vacations here in this little office, endorsing pilgrims’ passports and assigning bed numbers. And he seems to be enjoying it. My own enjoyment drains away the moment I realize that I am about to be allotted bed number five in an ice-cold, twenty-man dormitory, right next to the high-spirited country quartet from Idaho. Sure enough, they have their dreadfully heavy instruments in tow: three guitars and some sort of flute.
When my turn comes, the nice man asks me: “What’s your profession, sir?” I mull over some possible responses, then loudly announce, “Artist!” The man looks at me dubiously. This question didn’t come up with the musicians. The billboard said, “Do you know who you really are?” Evidently I don’t. Though my little white sunhat does make me look like Elmer Fudd.
Before he gets around to assigning me bed number five, I flee with my first official stamp in hand, although I have yet to trek a single foot. To make up for the previous night in Bordeaux, I’m going to stay at the Hôtel des Pyrénées, the best address in town! The albergue (pilgrims’ hostel) here is a bit too—shall we say—chummy for my liking. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious that I’m from Düsseldorf, Germany’s premier status-conscious city.
So the Catholic Church has it on record that I began my pilgrimage here. At the end, in Santiago, there’ll be a fabulous gilt-edged certificate in Latin—the compostela—signed by Secretarius Capitularis. And all my sins, which, as the Catholic Church sees
it, are many, will be forgiven. I feel as though I’ve stepped into a clergy sitcom.
The stamps are issued only in official albergues, churches, and monasteries along the route. If you travel by car or train, you can’t get your hands on a pilgrim’s certificate, because the places that issue stamps can be reached only by foot or bicycle. You can claim to be a true pilgrim only if you have completed at least the last 62 miles before you get to Santiago de Compostela on foot, or the last 124 miles by bicycle or horse. Most people choose to trek the entire Camino Francés, the traditional pilgrim’s route. You don’t have to be Catholic to get a pilgrim’s passport. Though I was raised Catholic, I would describe myself as a kind of Buddhist with a Christian veneer, though that sounds more complicated than it is. You just have to embark on a spiritual quest—and that is what I am doing.
While I sit in the bistro sipping away at my café au lait, I consider my expectations for the pilgrimage. I could set off with this question in my head: Is there a God? Or a Yahweh, Shiva, Ganesha, Brahma, Zeus, Ram, Vishnu, Wotan, Manitu, Buddha, Allah, Krishna, Jehovah, etc.?
Since my earliest childhood I have devoted a good deal of thought to this question. As an eight-year-old, I enjoyed going to communion instruction, and I recall to this day exactly what was taught there. I felt the same way later in confession training, religious instruction, and confirmation classes. I never had to be coaxed into going (no one would have pushed me anyway, since I’m not from a strict Catholic family). My interest in all things religious ran high throughout my high school years.
While other children had to be dragged to mass kicking and screaming, I really enjoyed it, though I kept these feelings to myself. Of course, our parish priest’s sermons didn’t bowl me over,
but they couldn’t squelch my keen interest. There wasn’t a single spiritual course that left me cold; every type of worldview fascinated me. For a while I seriously toyed with the idea of becoming a theologian or converting so I could become a Lutheran minister. As a child I hadn’t the slightest doubt about the existence of God, but as a supposedly enlightened adult I have to consider the question again.
What will happen if at the end of the journey the answer comes back: No, sorry, He doesn’t exist. There is NOTHING. Believe me, monsieur!
Could I live with that? With Nothingness? Wouldn’t life on this funny little planet seem altogether pointless? I would imagine that everyone wants to find God…or at least know whether He does, or did, or will exist…or something.
Maybe the better question would be: Who is God?
Or where, or why?
This is how scientists go about it.
I’ll start with a hypothesis: There is a God!
Since it would be pointless to fritter away my limited time seeking something that ultimately might not even be there, I’ll go ahead and assert that it is! I just don’t know where. And should there turn out to be a creator, He will be pleased as punch that I never doubted His, or Her, or Its existence.
In the worst-case scenario, the answer would be: “There is a God and at the same time there isn’t one; you may not understand that, but once again, I’m sorry—those are the facts, monsieur!”
I could live with that, because it would be a kind of compromise. Some Hindus, by the way, subscribe to this seemingly illogical view.
So: Who is looking for God here, anyway?
I am! Hans Peter Wilhelm Kerkeling, thirty-six years old, Sagittarius, Taurus Ascendant, German, European, adoptive Rhinelander, Westphalian, artist, smoker, dragon (in the Chinese zodiac), swimmer, motorist, utilities customer, TV viewer, comedian, bicyclist, author, voter, fellow citizen, reader, listener, and monsieur.
Apparently I don’t have a very clear idea of who I am, so how am I supposed to figure out who God is? Maybe I should start with the smaller of these questions: Who am I?
At first I had no interest in confronting that issue, but since I am being called upon to do so by a constant stream of advertisements, I guess I have no other choice. The first step will be to discover myself; then I’ll take it from there. Maybe I’ll get lucky, and discover God here. Of course, it’s possible that he lives right around the corner from me in Germany, and I could have saved myself lots of trouble.
In my oxygen-deprived French cell last night, I got three hours of sleep, tops, which probably explains this muddled train of thought. Today I’ll get to bed early; tomorrow I want to be up and out by 6 A.M.
If there is a God, at least He has a sense of humor. Here I am, sitting with a café au lait on a potato-shaped planet racing at top speed through the universe. Not that I notice it, but it’s a fault.
Insight of the day: Start by figuring out who I am.