Knowing what to carry in one’s backpack on the trail to Santiago de Compostela is serious business.
I’m not kidding.
There are books on the subject. I own two of them, in fact.
There’s a lot of consensus among veteran pilgrims regarding the essential items one needs: the right kind of footwear, the ideal type of socks to avoid blisters, the best quick-drying clothes, the foolproof rain gear, the ultimate backpack, and the list goes on and on. Still, in spite of the general agreement, every single item is open to debate.
What is paramount is to travel light. The lighter the pilgrim’s load, the easier the journey will be on the body.
Without exaggeration, I’ve spent close to a year thinking about the things I will carry on the Camino.
Among the items in my backpack as I prepare to walk across Spain, a few have become my favorites —some are essential, others sentimental, and a couple of them frivolous.
Among the essential are the guidebooks.
The Camino experts will gasp in horror when they learn that I intend to carry two guidebooks. (God forbid the unnecessary weight!) John Brierley’s The Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago is the classic choice among English speakers. Indeed, he provides a wealth of detailed information as well as spiritual guidance for readers to reflect upon. His book is a wonderful resource.
Nevertheless, I also love Anna Dintaman and David Landis’s Hiking the Camino de Santiago. With the authors being from the United States, their guide is organized in a way that makes it more accessible to me.
Still, I had a difficult time choosing between these guides, so I’m taking both.
And then there’s the lovely notebook that my wife Erinn gave me a couple of years ago. How can a writer even dream of traveling without one?
One of the high school students who went with us on the pilgrimage last April gave me his bandana —which had become famous within our group— and a photograph of the pilgrims so that I can take them along once again on this journey.
Rummaging through my things, I found a few lapel pins of the Panamanian flag. They begged me to take them on the Camino and give them away as a souvenirs of my adoptive country to any person who somehow makes my journey lighter during challenging times.
And then there’s Camila, the Rubber Chicken. She has been a part of our family for thirteen years and has enjoyed countless adventures and travels. She traveled in one of the pouches of my backpack during the first pilgrimage and turned out to be quite an ice-breaker with strangers. Camila certainly deserves to go again.
But the item that has come to mean the most to me is the shell I’ll be carrying in memory of Denise Thiem.
On April 5 Denise, a Chinese-American from Arizona, disappeared near the city of Astorga while on the pilgrimage. As it was in my case, the film The Way inspired her to make the journey.
Tragically, her body was found last Saturday and the person responsible for her death has confessed and is now awaiting trial.
The Camino has a large, online English-speaking community. The Pilgrim House in Santiago de Campostela has announced that it plans to build a memorial in Denise’s honor. They have asked pilgrims to carry an extra shell —the symbol of the pilgrimage— to help Denise complete her journey.
This has become the most precious object I’ll be carrying.
Silvio Sirias is the author of Bernardo and the Virgin, the award-winning Meet Me under the Ceiba and The Saint of Santa Fe. You can follow him on Twitter @silviosirias.