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Travel for the soul: trains, Havasupai & Camino de Santiago

I’ve never understood the allure of Paris and this week, after reading Alain de Botton’s A World Without Planes, I think I know why: my soul has never had time to arrive. 

“Those who had known the age of planes would recall the confusion they had felt upon arriving in Mumbai or Rio, Auckland or Montego Bay, only hours after leaving home,” imagines de Botton in an article on the BBC website, “their slight sickness and bewilderment lending credence to the old Arabic saying that the soul invariably travels at the speed of a camel.”

I read this and it clicked: the city of love is one of the few European cities I’ve never entered by train. Flying into a place I rarely have the time to establish a sense of place in a place. And that is the problem with so much of travel these days. 

“Whatever the advantages of plentiful and convenient air travel,” argues de Botton, “we may curse it for being too easy, too unnoticeable – and thereby for subverting our sincere attempts at changing ourselves through our journeys”.

Where a Eurorail pass takes you

The magic of my first train vacation wasn’t in the cities or towns where my sister and I stayed when, at 18 and 20, we were visiting Europe for the first time, but all the people we met along the way (we slept on the boxcar floor with a Romanian camp troop on our trip from Italy to Vienna) and the huge variety of countryside we saw in between stops (traveling along the Cote D’Azur with the train doors open, we were able to breathe in the countryside).

If back in August of 1990, we had arrived in Amsterdam by plane, we would have found ourselves homeless (the city’s hotels were booked due to the Tall Ship Festival). Instead, during our 9 hour journey from Munich, we befriended a 30-something Dutch man who took pity on us and offered us his beautiful- and empty- apartment for the weekend (he was going on to another Dutch town for a holiday).

Our arrival in Budapest evolved over the course of two days. Beginning with an overnight train from Italy, we disembarked at the Austrian/Hungarian border to attempt a walk across the border to avoid the visa fee. After finally parting with the 30 odd dollars, we crossed legally, walking into a tiny station town where we met Vili, a Hungarian teen whose flat tire had ended his cycling excursion and forced him to await the next train to the capital. At lunch, he taught us how to avoid ordering a dish of pure fat and that evening and over the course of the following days in his native Budapest, he continued to show us how the locals live.

A journey to prepare your senses

Trains aren’t the only form of transport that has allowed my soul to travel at the same speed as my body. As a kid every year, I and my 5 siblings (and often assorted cousins, back before seatbelt laws) would pile into our old station wagon for the 14 hour drive from San Francisco to Sun Valley, Idaho. 

As we watched the landscape turn brown, sagebrush grow plentiful and the neon of casinos glow brighter, our souls had time to adjust to the idea that we were moving into high desert, to a place where the air was thinner and the smells and sounds felt sharper.

Where mail only arrives by mule

A descent into Supai, eight miles down into the Grand Canyon by foot taught me that walking is truly the soul’s transport. Pulling off from our journey along Route 66, my husband and I had a tent and a sleeping bag, but inappropriate rations or shoes for a spontaneous journey down to the capital of the Havasupai Indian Reservation (accessible only by foot or helicopter). 

The circles of our descent began in the parking lot on the canyon rim where members of an Amish hiking club- viewing my husband’s flimsy Vans sneakers no doubt- switched from Pennsylvania Dutch to ask us in English if we’d like the rest of their Gatorade stash. A couple hours lower we passed the mule train that carries mail out of the canyon (the only place in the U.S. to rely on these animals for delivery) and stopped for a quick chat with the mail carrier who didn’t appear to be in a huge hurry out. 

After a lunch picnic along the dry creek bed to empty the pebbles from our city shoes, we knew we’d completed the final couple hours of our 6 hour hike upon siting a small stream and feeling a rush of cool air rising from Havasu Falls. The final half mile into town we met a Supai native (one of 500 Havasupai tribe members) who invited us to his home for a cool drink and later showed us his favorite swimming holes.

A modern day pilgrimage in Northern Spain: “a trip to who we are”

Probably one of the most famous ambulatory journeys takes place every summer along Spain’s Camino de Santiago (St. James Way). Beginning somewhere in France (as far up as Paris or in the Spanish Pyrenees, depending on your point of view), every year tens of thousands of pilgrims (including celebrities like Shirley MacLaine and the Bush twins) walk hundreds of miles to the far NorthWest of Spain to end at Galicia’s Santiago de Compostela.

It’s a route walked by the faithful since the 8th Century when pilgrims believed they were visiting the remains of St. James. Today, the journey attracts more modern-day pilgrims, like my husband, who simply make the journey to leave behind their routines and to feel themselves truly grow a part of a place. My husband talked about crying at night from fatigue and pain (both when he made the trip with close friends and alone with his dog), but it is one of his most-cherished journeys (he also talks about the locals who offered free food and nights in refugios with fellow hikers).

Emilio Estevez, who in 2009 filmed the movie The Way about the area (with his father Martin Sheen as star), understands that this place can’t be visited like a tourist attraction, but as a place to heal the soul. “The Camino’s a place of healing, of getting to the spiritual center of who we are, and ultimately how much we need,” Estevez says. “We’ve been taught to want more: two cars, better clothing. But aren’t relationships with others — isn’t family — more important?”

Slow Travel at the speed of a camel

In a world without planes, as envisioned by de Botton, our travels might look more like a trip along the Camino de Santiago and less like something involving airport security lines, weather/volcano/technical delays and an impersonal, overstuffed aircraft where even a blanket now involves a pricetag.

“This new widespread ‘camel pace’ would return travellers to a wisdom that their medieval pilgrim ancestors had once known very well”, he writes. “These medieval pilgrims had gone out of their way to make travel as slow as possible, avoiding even the use of boats and horses in favour of their own feet. They were not being perverse, only aware that if one of our key motives for travelling is to try to put the past behind us, then we often need something very large and time-consuming, like the experience of a month long journey across an ocean or a hike over a mountain range, to establish a sufficient sense of distance.”