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Tread softly on dreams: A 500-mile hike

From personal and physical trauma to the remains of Saint James the Great, the inspiration behind Duncan McNamara’s pilgrimage, Walk This Way.
Defaced STOP sign.
Photos: Duncan McNamara

I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

IN ALL OF THE HASTILY daubed graffiti that caught my eye throughout 4 weeks of pilgrimage, it was only this quote by Irish poet, William Butler Yeats that could come anywhere close to being fairly described as ‘profound’. The extract (spray painted surprisingly neatly) on the bridge underpass forms the final couplet in the writer’s poem, Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, published in 1899. While I had no interest or knowledge in Yeats’ poetry (or any poetry for that matter), after the best part of 800 kilometres, poorly rendered swastikas or anti-Spanish sentiment had been the only vandalism I had seen on the move but now, for the final push, I had words to move my mind along with my feet, perhaps even beyond Santiago. The Camino de Santiago, also known as The Way of Saint James, is an ancient system of trails converging on the city of Santiago in northwestern Spain, leading walkers (or pilgrims) to the site at which the remains of Saint James the Great can be found.

Shoe sculpture on a rock by the sea.

In all the intervening years since finishing the Camino de Santiago, that passage has been a regular visitor to my memory and, in much the same way, the notion of the camino itself had managed to impress upon my subconscious several years before setting foot on the trail. After first hearing of the trail’s existence after, quite by accident, watching a travel documentary in which a unnoteworthy musician took his first steps of a 500-mile hike from the picturesque commune of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenean foothills to Santiago de Compostela near the windswept Galician coast, it was a full 3 years until I could do the same – during which the romance of doing so tugged away at me subliminally, yet steadily.

While it was true that events occurring almost directly after this would give me the necessary perspective and financial backing to take the plunge, I remain certain the trip would have taken place eventually, one way or the other. Still, less than a week after channel-surfing my way to an idea of something to do with my feet for at least a month, I found myself faced with my own mortality after being the victim of a savage, unprovoked attack by a group of four men while out for the evening with my wife. Relieved of several teeth, a functioning jaw but mercifully also any memory of the cause, a series of surgical procedures followed and, after a week under the care of the fantastic NHS staff at Wythenshawe Hospital, I was sent home to recover physically and mentally. The process was arduous, perhaps even agonising, but by the time the trial of two of the alleged attackers began in early 2012, I knew I was strong enough in both mind and body to move on with my life, whatever the outcome of the 3-day process. This mindset was just as well since the verdict could only be described as a partial success. After one defendant lost his nerve, changing his plea to not guilty on the morning of the opening day, the other was rewarded with a not guilty judgement, owing to the burden of proof for the charge of grievous bodily harm not being met.

Path marker by the side of the Camino trail.

It certainly was a bitter pill to swallow, but an award of compensation from the government scheme for blameless victims of violent crime made it somewhat palatable. Yet, despite my earlier sentiments, anxiety and depression became regular bedfellows of mine- perhaps they always will be- and a two year period saw me floundering emotionally. At the time I was working as a video editor and calculated that I would need around 2 months to prepare for, undertake and recover from the longest walk I would ever take. My employers had been wonderful during my time off following the assault, but their encouragement for my upcoming camino was well received all the same. Wanting to keep the momentum, I booked my flight to the nearest airport to the camino start line, Biarritz. With the help of my friends, family and employer, I had pulled myself together and was finally in a position to recognise that all the pieces were in place. The time had come to see if I had what it took to become a pilgrim after all.

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