I enjoy walking, and find enjoyment and connection in the outdoors. So I was interested in this book when I heard about it on a radio programme.
This is one man’s story of walking to Jerusalem from Canterbury, in an effort to understand himself and explore personal meaning in the tradition of pilgrimage. Like many who undertake the Camino to Santiago de Compostela he is not a Christian: the walk is about taking time out from the ordinary to have a mental and emotional sort out, and to experience something personally challenging.
Guy Stagg starts walking in January, and after crossing France faces crossing the Alps in winter, something he was told was neither possible nor wise. He reaches Rome at Easter, and the overwhelming crowds pitch him emotionally into a tragic episode of pilgrimage history when in 1450 hundreds of pilgrims died in a crushing crowd. Panic. He travels on through Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey reaching Istanbul during a period of anti-government protests, Cyprus, Lebanon to Israel and Jerusalem.
His descriptions of the landscape he passes through make this a beautiful read. The countryside, and his reaction to it, comes alive in passages like this one describing Lake Eğirdir in Turkey:
“On Saturday morning the air was hazy and water looked papery, while the cliffs were crumpled pieces of card. Approaching midday the air cleared and the water became a jewelled green. By teatime it was a fat blue, glinting as if smeared with grease, but in the late afternoon it changed again, filling with sunlight and turning bright white. Then the coastal road lifted and I could see the full length of the lake: folded spurs of land closing like curtains on a shining stage of water. I watched without tiredness, without delight, but with a steady sort of calm” p 286
The beautiful descriptions of place not only bring the experience alive in the mind of the reader. Stagg also explores the how he feels about a place, the experience of connection and disconnection, of being alone, alone in a crowd, and the impact of the hospitality of strangers.
The book is a description of a physical journey. Journey is an often used metaphor for the experience of self exploration. Here the two come together and his physical journey often seems to echo the experience of recovery, from mental and emotional distress, or addiction.
Stagg had experienced mental and emotional breakdown and alcohol misuse prior to his walk, and he describes his experience of himself at the time as:
“Brittle now, and hollow too, and knocked down by the slightest of blows, I thought the journey might build me up again. I walked to mend myself.” p 6
Initially he is built up by the hospitality he receives at various churches and monasteries, and from people along the way. Then it gets tougher. He regrets, he gets drunk, he loses any sense of purpose:
” I regretted coming to the Balkans, because I had lost all sense of purpose here. And I regretted the rest of my journey, too, for I had not healed during the walk, but spoilt any chance of recovery. As I circled the city, my self- pity became despair. I wanted to cry out- A mistake! A mistake! I did not mean to drink again! – but instead my thoughts collapsed into a single desire: to push myself past rescue.” p 211
From this low, something else comes:
” during those mornings, what was knotted within me began to work loose. I had not forgotten that weekend in Thessaloniki, but while on Mt Athos I was glad for the relapse. The thing I feared most had finally happened. My sense of anxious expectations was gone.” p 223
Eventually leading to finding connection with self and others:
“something had shifted in the last month. more and more I was grateful for what went wrong in the Balkans, because it made me appreciate the kindness I was shown in Turkey. Although I knew I was vulnerable here, there was a freedom in this knowledge, because rather than closing in on myself, I had no choice but to ask for help.” p 289
How does his journey end? He arrives in Jerusalem, the destination, and then carries on into the Judean Hills. And that feels right, because do we ever arrive at our destination?
The Crossway by Guy Stagg was published by Picador in 2018.