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Off the Road

A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim's Route into Spain

About The Book

When Jack Hitt set out to walk the 500 miles from France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, he submitted to the rigorous traditions of Europe's oldest form of packaged tour, a pilgrimage that has been walked by millions in the history of Christendom.
Off the Road is an unforgettable exploration of the sites that people believe God once touched: the strange fortress said to contain the real secret Adam learned when he bit into the apple; the sites associated with the murderous monks known as the Knights Templar; and the places housing relics ranging from a vial of the Virgin Mary's milk to a sheet of Saint Bartholomew's skin.
Along the way, Jack Hitt finds himself persevering by day and bunking down by night with an unlikely and colorful cast of fellow pilgrims -- a Flemish film crew, a drunken gypsy, a draconian Belgian air force officer, a man who speaks no languages, a one-legged pilgrim, and a Welsh family with a mule.
In the day-to-day grind of walking under a hot Spanish sun, Jack Hitt and his cohorts not only find occasional good meals and dry shelter but they also stumble upon some fresh ideas about old-time zealotry and modern belief. Off the Road is an engaging and witty travel memoir of an offbeat journey through history that turns into a provocative rethinking of the past.



Where does the road to Santiago begin? It was a question my medieval predecessors never had to consider. In those days, a pilgrim simply stepped out of his hut and declared his intention. Then he might report to a cloister and receive a signed letter to serve as proof of intent. Afterward, the pilgrim walked west until he picked up any of the established routes in Europe. From the east and south, the pilgrim followed any of four established roads that fanned like fingers across France and converged at the palm of Spain. A few miles inside the Pyrenees, they formed a single unified road shooting straight across the breadth of the country.

I lived a few doors off Washington Square Park in New York City and an ocean away from my destination. I couldn't just walk out my door. For reasons of symmetry and authenticity, this bothered me. I thought I would toss a coin onto a map of France and proceed from there, but this seemed too haphazard. It felt wrong to begin this trip with such an American sense of abandon. I studied a map of France to see if any of the cities had a personal significance. I checked my family's records to see if any ancestors a few centuries back might have had some interaction in this part of Europe, but according to all available information, one branch was too busy fleeing Prussian law while the other was stuffing a sheep's stomach for a weekend of haggis. Arles, Montpellier, Carcasonne, and Toulouse were not likely vacation spots for Teutonic horse thieves or Scottish presbyters.

One Saturday I happened upon a brochure that offered a solution. Not only could I walk out my front door, I could take the New York subway. I boarded the A train, immortalized by Duke Ellington, and took it almost to the end, where the Metropolitan Museum of Art maintains a branch called the Cloisters. The museum is an assemblage of ruins from four medieval cloisters, dating from the Romanesque and Gothic periods, and once located on the road to Santiago. I resolved to spend a quiet afternoon among the weathered columns and begin there.

The most beautiful -- the cloister of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert -- is covered by a plastic dome. Fat gobs of New York City rain fell the afternoon I visited, making a bass-drum thump that left me feeling strangely dry. Instead of the customary central garden, there is a marble floor, giving the space the linoleum acoustics of a grade school cafeteria. My attempt at meaningful silence was carefully monitored by a suspicious security guard who understood museum policy and the slight reach of his power only too well. At one point he chased a camera-toting teenager in a ludicrous race around the columns after a disagreement over competing interpretations of the flash-attachment policy. Packs of schoolchildren snickered and laughed at the often lewd capital carvings, and the guard's echoing shouts of "Quiet!" were louder still. In a moment of pure museum irony, a man who had been there quite a while was asked to leave because he was loitering.

After the rain broke, I went out back where a stone porch opened to a view of the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades. It all fell into place: I would begin here, fly to Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert in France, visit the original site, and take up the walk from there.

The cloister is, like a pilgrimage, the literal representation of the same idea. On a pilgrimage and in a cloister, the longer journey of three score and ten is reduced symbolically to something much smaller -- a few months of walking or a stroll around the cloister's four-sided garden. Both have a beginning, middle, and end. Both force upon the visitor a number of encounters -- on the road, these are random events; in the cloister, these are sculpture. And both offer a finale of redemption. On the road, it is the physical exhilaration of arrival. At the cloister, it's the walk into the direct center, a place the monks called paradeisos. So I thought a visit to a monastery cloister would be appropriate.

The idea of a monastery grew out of the thinking of a hermit named Benedict who lived in the sixth century during the declining days of the Roman Empire. He had committed himself to the reigning idea of his day -- a life of utter solitude in the wilderness. This idea had been imported from the Holy Land, where hermits pursued different fashions of isolation. The stylites sat on the top of a pole. The dendrites carved a hole in a tree and lived inside. For his effort, Benedict isolated himself in Italy at the mouth of a cave not far from Nero's summer house. He clothed himself in animal skins, which his biographer reports frightened the local shepherds. He ate berries.

But the call of the hermit's life was not attracting too many Europeans. It was a bad time to be alone in the woods. The sixth century saw the continuing collapse of Roman order, opening the door to the invading Huns, Visigoths, and Longobards. From time to time, the barbarians would drop down to cut the tongues from women and disembowel the men. This was the era when the famously airy architecture of Roman atriums and columned porticoes closed up. Castles were built, moats were dug, drawbridges were engineered. It would not be long before the religious orders sought a similar kind of protection. Benedict is credited with solving these problems. His innovation offered isolated monks a sliver of companionship and physical protection: a monastery.

Like all good ideas, Benedict's was not immediately embraced. His first collective of monks didn't appreciate his harsh rules and tried to murder him. But others liked the idea, and eventually Benedict wrote a strict code of monastic living called Benedict's Rule, which is still observed today. Reading Benedict's Rule, though, one can sense a yearning for utter solitude -- not the minimal society of the monastery, but the pure singularity of the desert, far from the corruption of man, alone in nature. To stand in a cloister, even skylighted in plastic and teeming with riotous schoolchildren, is to feel the architectural memory of Benedict's original idea. The cloister is a patch of that wilderness, imported and modified to the demands of society. It is a bit of desert, open directly to the original skyward view of the hermit, secreted away in the center of the monastery. The cloister is not the perfection of an idea, but rather a constant reminder of its compromise. The cloister is nostalgia. It is an original plan fallen short, a vestige of an older and purer sense of purpose. Like my own effort, the cloister is somewhat corrupt, an acknowledgment of failure.

As I began to read up on these particular cloisters in New York, I marveled at how perfect they were for my beginning. The reason they're in Manhattan and not on the road to Santiago is because of a desperate American sculptor. At the turn of the century, Robert Barnard made his rent money by buying medieval artworks from guileless French rustics and selling them for impressive profits. He began with small statues but eventually was buying entire monasteries. When the French government found out that the nation's patrimony was being shipped off to serve as lawn ornaments in the front yards of American millionaires, a huzzah went up in Paris. Just days before December 31, 1913 -- when the French parliament outlawed Barnard's hobby -- he packed 116 crates of his precious cargo, each numbered and cataloged, and sailed for New York on the next boat.

For a while, Barnard ran his own museum in Manhattan, but when money problems arose again, he offered to sell his medieval cloisters to some Californians for use in an amusement park. A cry went up among the Fifth Avenue set in New York, and the call for a white knight was heard.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was a curious savior from West Coast tastelessness. Among his architectural achievements, he had spent millions erecting his idea of "colonial America" in Williamsburg, Virginia, where women in Betsy Ross dresses and men in breeches escorted tourists to the town stockades for a wry photo opportunity.

With his new cloisters, Rockefeller ran through a number of plans. At one point he wanted to create a feeling of lost grandeur he associated with abandoned castles and King Arthur, but the most sophisticated architects of the day cautiously explained the logistical difficulty of using religious carvings from France to construct a secular castle from England. Rockefeller caught on and soon realized that what he had purchased was the emblem of the solitary search, that desire for monkish isolation, Benedict's idea. Rockefeller grew obsessed with the Cloisters and demanded daily briefings. He had notions of his own.

Across the Hudson River, seen from the parapet of the Cloisters, are the vast cliffs known as the New Jersey Palisades. This state park extends from the George Washington Bridge all the way upriver to the state border. One might assume that this preservation was the result of some antidevelopment politician. Actually John D. Rockefeller bought that thirteen-mile stretch. He wanted to preserve the quiet contemplation of his Cloisters -- to carve out of the thickest clot of American urbanity a bit of nature that straddled a river and gave almost no hint of the presence of man. Rockefeller understood the idea of the cloister. He imported that ancient yearning for the desert, via Benedict, into New York City. I had found my place in America to begin.

The only duty remaining was what to wear. I am not being coy. Pilgrim fashion is not a glib subject. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the clothes a pilgrim wore became a style as widely known in its symbolism as a king's crown. Parliaments met and debated pilgrim's clothes. Their sale was licensed and regulated by bureaucracies. Underground markets for certain pilgrim items flourished at times. Kings corresponded on the subject. Some legal scholars argue that pilgrim fashion created its own brand of law. Any person -- peasant or noble -- wearing the official pilgrim's garb was exempt from the laws of the country through which he was passing and was judged instead under a special collection of statutes written expressly for pilgrims -- the first international law.

This outfit became so recognized that pilgrims en route to Santiago had to wear it if they expected to receive the benefits of the road -- free lodging, food, and respect. Obviously, with such perks available, the clothing had to be regulated. Four popes issued decrees, backed up by excommunication, outlining the rules and regulations for the sale of the pilgrim's outfit and even its duplication in souvenirs. In 1590 King Philip II issued a decree restricting the donning of this apparel in Spain to a narrow corridor running the length of the road from the Pyrenees to Santiago.

A pilgrim wore a dashing full-length black cape to serve as protection from wind by day and to provide a blanket by night. On his feet were strong boots. To block the sun and rain, he wore on his head a fetching broad-brimmed black hat. He carried a staff for protection and tied to it a gourd for carrying water. At the waist was a small satchel called a crip for carrying money, a knife, and toiletries. On the cape or hat, or hanging around the neck, or fastened almost anywhere, was at least one scallop shell, the symbol of the Santiago pilgrim.

Once I got familiar with this classic image, it began to appear everywhere, even in New York. Walking to the Spanish embassy one day, I passed Saint Bartholomew's Church on Park Avenue. A giant stone Saint James, fully dressed, stands beside the front entrance. As I did my homework, I discovered the pilgrim in the paintings of Bosch, El Greco, Rubens, Ribera, Murillo, and Raphael. Either as the main subject or in the background, the wayfaring pilgrim in trademark apparel can be seen drifting through centuries of European landscapes.

By the late Middle Ages the Catholic missal included a "prayer for the walking stick," which stated that as the pilgrim's third leg, the staff represented the trinity. There was also a "blessing of the backpack," which taught that the "backpack is made of the rawhide of a dead beast" because "the pilgrim ought to torment his own depraved and lusting flesh with hunger and thirst, with great abstinence, with cold and destitution, with punishment and hard labor."

The thought of dressing up this way and tormenting my own depraved, lusting flesh didn't really fit in with my plans. I grew up Episcopalian after all. Yet wouldn't it be a more authentic experience if I were to wear the clothes described in the medieval documents?

Then I asked myself, Did the pilgrims take along a staff because they wanted that three-legged symbolism? Or did they carry a sturdy piece of oak to beat wild dogs in the head? Did they tote the rucksack because they wanted something abrasive to give them blisters and rashes? Or did they originally carry their food in it? Wasn't all this gear -- the hat to block the sun, the cape for warmth at night -- originally meant to reduce suffering? These other meanings were imposed. Which came first: the backpack as a device to ease portage or the backpack as a tormentor of depraved and lusting flesh? I set off immediately to a shop called EMS: The Outdoor Specialists.

The manager quickly discerned that I was not a rock-climbing hound who'd come to learn the latest advance in titanium carabiners. He knew what he saw: a gold-card-carrying desk jockey with a head full of distant vistas. He signaled a scattered pack of wilderness consultants, and they surrounded me.

When I was a teenager, camping gear was sold at the Army-Navy store. The place was located uptown, in a marginal neighborhood, and was operated by a chunky old man with thick glasses and a consumptive cough who dreamed of one day opening a gun shop. I still have in a closet at home an old green rucksack with U.S. ARMY stamped on it and long straps pinched with metal tips. I have my felt-covered canteen with a chain to hold the cap, now missing. The mess kit is in a plastic bag, blackened by its first and last use over a campfire. My bowie knife, in its handsome tooled-leather sheath, is in a drawer. As a boy I used to carry it on camp-outs, but it was soon retired since it was too big to use around a campfire and too small for the woods. A bowie knife is best for wrestling gators and killing nightstalkers, problems that never came up.

I briefly considered gathering up my old goods and flying to Europe. If it was authenticity I wanted, there was something exceedingly real, in my imagination, about this equipment. But my wilderness consultants knew better. By the time I left the store, I owned

· Lycra boots, "not waterproofed because you want your feet to breathe and not sweat."

· two-ply hiking socks, with thin tubing up the ankle to create a "capillary effect" for "chiropodic aspiration."

· a backpack with an interior frame bent into a "parabolic twist" to fit my spine.

· a sleeping bag that weighed about a pound.

· a tent, about two pounds, with magic poles connected by thin shock cords. Unfurl, shake a little, and the tent practically snapped into position in one minute. Neat.

· a poncho the size of a fist that nearly floated in air.

· an air mattress that self-inflated.

· a toilet bag, "a state-of-the-art advance over the old shaving kit," that unzipped and tumbled open to a three-tier set of tidy pouches and a dangling mesh net pocket to keep a toothbrush aerated.

· a Swiss Army knife, with a sharp saw that cut down trees (and it does).

I bought it all, of course, and tossed in a green rubber snake-bite kit and a tube of something called Instant Fire.

Only one piece of the traditional equipment called for special consideration. The shell was the sole item of dress that served no utilitarian purpose.

The shell was purely symbolic. According to one of the Finisterre legends, when James's disciples carried his sepulcher from the stone boat, they interrupted a pagan wedding. The sight of them spooked the groom's horse, which bolted into the sea where both drowned. James's first European miracle took place shortly thereafter when the horse and groom -- both alive -- rose majestically from the breaking waves, trailing garlands of seaweed laced with dozens of scallop shells.

This association of the shell with renewed life dates even further back to John the Baptist, who used a shell in his surfside christenings. Many baptismal fonts to this day take the shape of the scallop shell. It was a symbol of rebirth, the very task of the pilgrimage specifically and Christianity generally.

Other genealogies go back to images of pagan fertility -- a symbol not of rebirth but of birth itself. The hinged scallop opens and reveals something new, a meaning connected to the scallop's physical similarity to a vagina. Botticelli's Birth of Venus shows the goddess taking her first step onto the land from a giant Santiago shell.

Another Spanish interpretation holds that the fingered scallop is the hand of Saint James, outstretched in the open-palmed expression of comfort and encouragement. Hung around the neck, the shell taps gently with each step at the pilgrim's heart, a soft metronomic patting from James's hand that heartens the pilgrim to keep on.

Here is a symbol that transcends the road itself, with a meaning that has survived from primitive man's desire for fecundity through Christianity's idea of rebirth to the Hallmark card sentimentality of a hand tapping the rhythm of the pilgrim's heart. I had to have one.

The problem is, for the modern pilgrim, the shell no longer holds much significance. In Spanish and French cuisine, there is an elegant appetizer called vieiras de Santiago or coquille St. Jacques, literally "Saint James's shell." The only other surviving reference is a proofreading mark in French called a coquille. It is a circle with a line through it like a veined scallop and -- omen or no -- signifies a mistake.

Where was a modern pilgrim to find a shell? The medieval pilgrim could borrow a shell from a neighbor or a relative who had walked the road. Or a pilgrim might buy one from the local clergy or, during the road's peak, from itinerant shellmongers. This was one problem I couldn't solve in America. So I flew to Madrid, bought my train ticket to the town nearest Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, and spent my few days in Spain's capital reconnoitering for shells.

I'm not sure what was going through my mind when I flew into Madrid. Did I think the Spaniards would have shell shops? Or that humpbacked peddlers on the street would open their coats and show off a selection of scallops, large and small?

Moreover, once I made the commitment of actually flying to Spain, the embarrassment of calling myself a pilgrim consumed me. An idea that had seemed so suggestive as I scanned the New Jersey Palisades shriveled upon my arrival, into something small, dark, and stupid, and it sat in my gut like lead. When I landed at the Madrid International Airport, I began to ask myself once again: What in hell am I doing here? I stood at the baggage conveyor, moronically hypnotized as the arriving luggage piled up and spun round and round, hundreds of bags, skis, suitcases, and trunks -- each plastered with a yellow bumper sticker announcing Madrid's airport abbreviation in big black letters. Eventually my backpack belched from a hole and rode around in a circle, mocking me in agreement with the other packages: MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD.

I resolved to end my shell crisis practically. I talked to people I knew in Spain. The only good advice was to find a gourmet food store that might specialize in the finest cooking accessories since vieiras de Santiago were cooked in the shell. The department store, Corte Inglés, usually carried them, but since they weren't in season, the clerk told me no one would have them. He was a nice man, a seafood connoisseur. When I told him why I really wanted the shell, he plopped his beefy arm on my shoulder, snorted witheringly, and pointed in the direction of the store's gag and novelty section.

I checked my train ticket to France. No question about it, unrefundable.

The novelty shop did offer the modern pilgrim a wide selection of shells. There was a monstrous scallop practically the size of a head with hand-painted wooden figurines sloppily glued inside to form a crèche. There was a glass lamp full of shells. Another objet d'art was a shapeless glop of shell sculpture, either of the Dada school or evidence that shells, mucilage, and LSD do not mix. It was selling for twenty dollars. I opted for a handmade model of Columbus's caravel, the Santa María -- a hull of plastic with sawed-off pencils for masts and three scallop shells serving as billowing sails. I spent my last afternoon in Madrid with a bottle of nailpolish remover carefully ungluing and unshellacking my little ship, transforming a new souvenir into an old one.

In Montpellier, France, everyone knows the little town of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, but no one except an odd man with a car for hire can remember the location of the old cloister. My driver is friendly with the cheerful habit of answering every question, "Oui." After a thirty-minute ride, he deposits me before a small stone edifice, all that Robert Barnard has left to the locals of the once great monastery.

For a thirteenth-century ruin, it is simple and well preserved. I step back among the olive trees to take in the ancient yellow stone. The ground has linear features. I make right-angled gestures with my hands and try to conjure where the cloister once stood. I amble down to the building itself, walking around the corners, trailing a finger along the forlorn, ancient stone until I come upon a small dirty window set in a corrugated steel door. I wipe away some dust and peer in to discover that I am contemplating the ineffability of a garage housing a rusting Citroën.

My driver is slightly embarrassed at my architectural prowess and, grinning maniacally and honking many a "Oui" through his nose, makes several other attempts to locate the scarred site of the old cloister. At the center of Saint Guilhem-le-Désert, I set off on foot. But I find that each local points me farther and farther out of town to another set of scattered stones. Hell, I am pretty sure I did find it. I'm just not certain which of the many piles of stones belonged to the old monastery.

It begins to rain. By the time I return to the car, I am agitated for the less-than-noble reason that I have spent $50 to get rained on in a quaint French village. In the meantime, the driver has made some inquiries on my behalf among the locals at a bar. He and his new acquaintances are waiting by the car, and he is enthusiastic to make his report.

"Eh, Americaine, the cloister you are looking for?"


"It is in New York!"

I board the next train out of town. I don't exactly know why. I guess it's cheating. But I am wasting money, and I feel lacking in basic pilgrim skills. When it comes right down to it -- and major experts will back me up here -- I don't really know what I am doing.

I disembark in Orthez, France. It is only a few days' walk from an important village, Saint-Jean Pied de Port, where two of the French trails converge before threading into the Pyrenees and then to Spain. When British pilgrims crossed the English Channel by boat in the Middle Ages, they often drifted south to towns such as Orthez. Then they would gather to cross the Pyrenees in huge groups for protection against -- as every history book says -- blackguards and highwaymen. I figure this is a more fitting place to really begin.

The way out of Orthez is a narrow industrial highway and a favorite of amphetamine-powered, speeding truckers. Ten minutes into my first (true) steps of walking as a pilgrim, it begins to rain. I struggle into my lighter-than-air poncho. Each passing semi cracks a whip of stinging droplets against my legs and face. How serendipitous. Now I don't need to flagellate myself.

Everything mocks me this morning. All my doubts about this pilgrimage find expression in this valley. The roar of each truck is a chorus of humiliating laughter. The billboards continuously advertise a soft drink called "Pschitt." The otherwise serene French countryside is populated by stubby pine trees, each branch ending in a tight fist of dark green needles from which shoots up, like a taunting obscene gesture, a single finger of tender growth. The pathetic fallacy is getting on my nerves.

The danger of the speeding traffic reaches critical mass when one truck passes another beside me. Suddenly a truck rattling at eighty miles per hour is kissing my elbow. The air foil at that speed slugs me with the force of a body blow, pitching me into a drainage ditch. I brush myself off. My shoulder is sore. The rain quickens its pace to a full gallop.

As I enter the village of Saliers de Bearn, I consult my map carefully. The next two days are nothing but trucking highways, danger, Pschitt ads, and certain death. But after Saint-Jean Pied de Port, the road is less traveled, more pilgrimesque. A short note on my pilgrim's map mentions that in Saint-Jean there lives an old woman named Madame Debril who has been greeting pilgrims for decades. Here is authenticity. The tradition of the humble volunteer who lives on the road to help pilgrims has a long historical pedigree. In the account of his 1726 pilgrimage, a French pilgrim named Guillaume Manier wrote admiringly of one Mme. Belcourt of Bayonne who lived "in the first house on the right, which has a sign of Santiago applied above her door. There all pilgrims coming and going rest. This woman is known on the four continents of the world for that." Madame Debril and Saint-Jean sounded like a proper beginning for a modern pilgrimage.

I sit on a public bench, consider the prospect of two days on a truckers' highway, and remind myself of the rich tradition of human frailty associated with the road.

I think about Benedict and his monasteries, and about Saint James, and about the very origin of the road itself. The first "proof" the early promoters of the road cited of Saint James's presence in Spain came from the writings of a man named St. Beatus. He lived fifty years before the discovery of the tomb, and he had heavily publicized Saint James's association with Spain (the "most worthy and holy apostle, radiant, gold-glittering leader of Spain"). Beatus used a simple list of the apostles and the places where they had proselytized as an original source of James's visit to Spain. This list had been copied by an anonymous scribe who mistakenly wrote that James's territory was "Hispaniam," or Spain, rather than "Hierosolyman," or Jerusalem. So the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela -- which has been credited with forging Spain into a nation, defeating the Moors, sending Arab learning into central Europe, bringing light to the Dark Ages, sparking the Renaissance, fashioning the first international laws, and conjuring the idea of a unified Europe -- owes its origin to a typo.

I hail a cab.

Copyright © 1994, 2005 by Jack Hitt

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Jack Hitt is a contributing writer for Harper's and GQ. He also writes for The New York Times Magazine, Outside, and Mother Jones, and contributes frequently to public radio's This American Life.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (March 1, 2005)
  • Length: 272 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743261111

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Raves and Reviews

"Hitt's humble pilgrimage stands out as a welcome change. Engaging and offbeat...this modern-day version of Chaucer's tale is lively enough to wake St. Thomas from the dead."
-- The San Francisco Chronicle

"Hitt...recounts his hajj in luminous prose. At times Chaucerian in tone and scope, at times reflective, even magical, Hitt's chronicle resounds with wit, wonder, and curiosity satisfied."
-- Los Angeles Times

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