Book Review: A Million Steps
Author: Kurt Koontz
Publisher: Lightning Source Inc.
Book Publication: 2013
The Camino de Santiago is an ancient route of pilgrimage, comparable to nothing else in Europe. It is believed the route began when St. James the Greater, one of the 12 apostles chosen by Jesus to spread Christian teachings, traveled to northern Spain. The body and relics of the martyr were found washed ashore on the site where today sits the famous Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela – the end point of the Camino. It has been the destination of millions of pilgrims ever since.
The reasons people walk the Camino are as numerous and varied as the individuals and the countries they come from. In A Million Steps, the author’s reasons are laid bare with honesty and candor and make for some compelling reading. Having retired at the tender age of thirty-six, Koontz’ mission was to contemplate the way forward for the next chapter in his life. Would he marry his girlfriend or find new love, leave retirement and begin a new career? He shares his determination to learn how to live in the present, a familiar theme in our hectic Western society. A product of our inability to be in the moment, we seem to be endlessly regretting events in the past or worrying about the future. My favourite quote from the book speaks to this preoccupation: “Worrying is praying for what you don’t want.” ~ A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago by John Brierley.
To be ‘in the present’ with nothing but beautiful scenery as backdrop and a silence broken only by the sound of his own footsteps on the path – these are conditions tailored made to invite reflection and ‘in the moment’ revelations. One of them revealed itself on Koontz’ seventh day on the trail and his description of it spoke to me, a fellow natural-born worrier.
He recounts making twenty minutes’ progress into his daily trek one morning before realizing he’s left his walking stick behind at the albergue where he’d spent the night. Doubling back to retrieve his ‘companion’, he got to thinking: how might this small detour affect his day, indeed the remainder of his journey on the Camino? Who might he meet, who might he miss meeting, what might the consequences be of this decision to go back for his stick? Letting go and going with the flow of what ‘feels’ right, rather than worrying about what might be missed if we don’t take a certain road – a seeming simple aha moment, but how many of us second guess ourselves and our actions many times each day?
At some point on his walk, giving up any expectation that walking the Camino in Spain could resolve the issues in his life brought with it a decision to stop worrying about things beyond his control which, in his words, “happens to be almost everything!” Life can only be lived and experienced in the moment or, as the well known adage goes, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.” It’s one thing to understand the meaning of the quote; it’s another to have the truth of its meaning float below the intellect into the cells of the soul where real change happens. And it appears walking the beautiful Camino, with nothing but your thoughts and your trusty walking stick as companion, is a great facilitator for change.
Unlike most books dedicated to the Camino, A Million Steps is a very personal journal shared by a pilgrim whose hope is to inspire others on their path to enlightenment and personal growth. So we get to meet all of the colourful individuals from many countries with whom Koontz breaks bread, shares sleeping quarters, and sometimes walks the Camino trail for a while. We also learn of the courtesies extended to pilgrims on the trail – from other pilgrims and hostel owners alike. Whether it’s the loan of a cell phone or the offer of a foot massage, all are offered with no expectation, or acceptance, of any compensation. I love the Chinese proverb the author shares, another nugget: If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.”
Many of the author’s descriptive passages made me feel I was right there. I could hear the bells ringing out from the many churches that nestle in the villages along the Camino and the photos throughout the book helped me further to imagine myself trekking along this sacred path.
If, like me, you find yourself at some point in the book starting to imagine walking the trail one fine day Koontz provides the practicalities that demand consideration. Walking the Camino turns out to be surprisingly affordable. Assuming you can get yourself to Spain and home again without breaking the bank, at $30 – $50 a day for food and lodging, attaining some peace, exercise and perhaps even a step toward enlightenment is an entirely feasible dream. And here’s something you may not know (I didn’t): a ‘mini-Camino’ version is available for those who cannot, for whatever reason – time, resources, health, complete the entire walk.
Not surprisingly, Koontz is big on appropriate foot ware, including the best sort of socks to purchase. As a measure of protection for this body part so vital to the walk, daily foot soaks (and massages whenever possible) are a must. As with every other necessity on the Camino, a culture of caring and sharing prevails, with all pilgrims dropping modesty and vanity both within ten minutes of the first day where feet – and their care – are concerned. Not for the faint of heart are the details of blistered soles, bleeding toes and infections above, below and in between. The author states, “Camino cancer erupted on all locations below the laces.” However Koontz felt lucky to be an experienced athlete, hardened and able to endure the 500 mile trek. He walked with the confidence that he would complete the trail free of blisters – until day number nine.
The physical pain he describes from the blisters that suddenly made an appearance was nothing compared to the mental anguish that came along for the ride. His thoughts took many turns: ‘How could this possibly happen to me?; My elite status is gone.; Will these blisters mate, have babies and cover my entire feet?; and finally, Should I sue Patagonia?’ Cue the next ‘aha’ moment on this pilgrim’s way. Koontz refers to this painful episode as his ‘Blistergate’. Dear reader, I won’t spoil it for you by describing what happens here. Suffice it to say the truth that reveals itself to him in this experience, he says, “still brings tears to my eyes.”
These days the author gives numerous presentations about the Camino. In them he talks about the ways that the lessons learned on his walk have been incorporated into his daily life. We could discover the venue for his next talk and hear the interesting revelations from the author himself….or we could walk our own Camino de Santiago. ‘The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’- Lao Tzu …or… A Million Steps.