“It’s a lot harder,” pilgrims protest.
“Well yeah, it’s harder,” I agree.
“But I hear it goes straight up and straight down.”
“It’s got some steep parts,” I admit. “But honestly, anybody who can do the Camino is at the very least a candidate for the Appalachian Trail.”
This is a sample conversation that I have had many times in my three traverses of the Camino de Santiago. They usually start when a pilgrim asks me, “What are the best hiking trails in America?” But other times, it starts when I make a voluntary suggestion to pilgrims who seem epecially conscientious or determined in going about their daily tasks on the Camino. And there are a lot of such people. Honest to God, I have not seen many slackers on the Camino. Pilgrims show up from all over the continent with their game faces on.
Personally, I would greatly like to see more international participation on both the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail (both currently have modest international contingents).For starters, it would be nice for people to see us Americans at our best, which I steadfastly maintain is on the two great national scenic trails mentioned above, as opposed to seeing us at our most mediocre, such as at Disney World or Las Vegas. For those who have ventured abroad much in recent years, you are well aware that the din of anti-Americanism can be almost deafening. But how often have I heard foreigners who spend quality time with Americans, whether it be on foot or wherever, remark in a state of virtual shock, “Gosh, I never thought I would enjoy the company of Americans so much.” Solvitur ambulando (Walking solves all), St. Augustine wrote. Yes, and long-distance hiking is an especial tonic.
But there are other profound reasons for Camino de Santiago pilgrims to consider crossing ‘The Big Pond’ to seek out our great wilderness footpaths. The Camino de Santiago is not easy. Don’t get me wrong. In fact, the very first day out of St. Jean’s Pied de Port sees a 4,300 foot (1,400 meter) climb over the lush Pyrenees. The stark and forbidding terrain of the meseta greets pilgrims midway through their journey. And green, hilly Galicia was a perfect way to top off the journey. And by all means, I beseech you to please continue from Santiago de Compostela to Finistierre (The ‘End of the World’).
As a veteran of both the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, I found it impressive the way pilgrims were only allowed to stay one night in an albergue and, thus, were effectively denied the days off (so-called ‘zero days’) that AT and PCT hikers take. In fact, the Camino de Santiago was bit more difficult than I had expected. Nonetheless, it is true that the Camino is significantly less difficult than the Appalachian Trail (AT)or Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
The AT and PCT are much, much longer, the climbs are steeper, the hikers usually sleep outside, and are called on to hike more miles per day and be generally more self-reliant. So have I been urging my fellow pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago to attempt the AT and PCT out of sadistic instincts? Not for a minute.
Having seen the often erratic hiking habits of my fellow thru-hikers on both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trail, I was genuinely impressed by the dedication evinced by my fellow pilgrims. Unlike many AT and PCT hikers who often sleep in, Camino pilgrims beat the door down en masse every morning. In fact, complaints were so common about pilgrims trying to leave at 5:00 in the morning, that some albergues had to resort to putting up signs saying that pilgrims were not allowed until 6:00 a.m. When I let each morning around 8:00, I was invariably the last person to leave. Yes, pilgrims took coffee breaks. But these were not the several hours long breaks that AT and PCT hikers often take, followed by mad rushes to make up the time before or even after dark. Yes, Camino pilgrims are generally more disciplined (And there was an interesting sub-phenomenon as well. The older pilgrims were especially disciplined). Of course, pilgrims don’t hike for several months and they have specific destinations they are trying to reach every day, which makes for a more task-oriented approach. But the efforts are impressive to watch and these habits would be a good building block for the much longer and more difficult American hiking trails.
At the end of the day, humans see adventure. The Camino de Santiago is a different type of journey from my prior thru-hikes on the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. I treasure my time on the Camino. But the day-in, day out struggle, the amazing geographical diversity, the wide array of characters, and the eye-opening views and animal life that a thru-hikers encounters, make the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail the journeys of my lifetime. I am doing my utmost to share their glories to Camino pilgrims to give them the chance to also take the journeys of their lifetimes. And pilgrims, please don’t believe the most haunting things you hear. If you have done the Camino de Santiago, then believe me–you are, at the very least, a prime candidate to take on the more difficult challenges of the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail.
Bill Walker is the author of The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago (2012). He is also the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail (2008), as well as Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail. Walker, who is just shy of 7-feet tall, is currently working on a whimsical book on the subject of height.