Do you think The Proclaimers knew about the Camino de Santiago? If you have any memory of the 1980s, you may recall the hit song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by this Scottish duo. However, if you weren’t born yet and only know the 1980s as a period of weird clothes and lots of hair, not to worry—I much prefer this recent cover by Sleeping At Last anyway.
After writing Beneath Wandering Stars, this song will forever make me think of my favorite character from the book–Seth Russo–but it also makes me think about all the reasons people might walk 500 miles in the first place. And yet thousands of people have and do, thanks to a trek known as the Camino de Santiago.
I only walked 150 miles of this ancient pilgrimage route (the most popular version, the Camino Frances, is roughly 500 miles), but even that was enough to inspire a story. People often ask where I got the idea for Beneath Wandering Stars and usually I refer to my own upbringing as the daughter of a U.S. soldier (Gabi, my protagonist, is also an Army “brat”), but there were other personal experiences that contributed to this story.
One was walking “the camino.” Or part of it, at least.
If you haven’t heard of the Camino de Santiago, you’re not alone. North Americans aren’t as familiar with this 2,000 year-old route across northern Spain (yet!)—a cultural and spiritual trek that has seen a resurgence of interest among Europeans in recent decades. I only learned about the route after studying abroad in Spain during college when I took a medieval history course. A few years later, in May 2011, I bought my first pair of hiking boots at R.E.I. and spent almost two weeks walking this ancient route with people from all over the world.
Parts of it were tough (emotionally more than physically), but it was also magical—one of the best travel experiences I’ve had, and from it Gabi and Seth were born. Readers and reviewers of Beneath Wandering Stars often comment on how authentic the setting details and characters feel, and I’m sure this has something to do with the fact that aspects of both those things were drawn from real life. I definitely met people as diverse and quirky as the characters Gabi and Seth encounter along “the way,” and I also tried to recall my own inner roller-coaster as I described my heroine’s internal and external journeys.
Also, there’s just something about lukewarm showers, hostels that perpetually smell like feet, and the constant availability of cafes con leche that sticks with you many years later. Spain is a beautiful country and I enjoyed the spirit of comradery among those walking the camino, but my favorite aspect of the journey had to be how awake it made me feel—perhaps because of the lack of creature comforts (minus all the amazing food).
For a few long days of walking without a phone, without email, and without a to-do list, I was able to focus. To pay attention to everything that truly matters. By the end of the pilgrimage, I knew writing fiction was what I wanted to do more than anything, and by the time I reached the route’s destination—the city of Santiago in the northwest corner of Spain—I almost had a story worth telling.
The details of that story weren’t fleshed out yet—those didn’t come until later. Yet I knew I wanted to write a story about real, imperfect human relationships and real, imperfect life—as well as the journeys of love and discovery that each of us must make if we are to experience a life truly worth living.
So would I walk 500 miles? You bet. 150 was just a warm-up.