Thursday, May 3, 2012

Bill Walker’s Way is Not “The Best Way”

Continuing my survey of Amazon-ranked books about the Camino de Santiago, I come to The Best Way by Bill Walker. Cynicism drips off this top-selling acccount by a seven-foot American Episcopalian and experienced hiker with two previous hiking books—cynicism and lame humor. Walker traversed the Camino with his wise-guy French-speaking teenage nephew, and the author is a wise-guy himself, who cracks fart jokes while showing little sympathy for Catholic ways, traditions, or history.

The first two authorities Walker quotes at the start of the book are self-help psychologist M. Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled) and Dan Brown (The Davinci Code). Another "authority," JD Salinger, is quoted at the beginning of chapter 2. Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye says of St. James the Apostle, buried at Compostela, "The disciples annoy the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth . . . " These voices fairly reflect the attitudes of the author, who calls St. James "the ever-loyal screw-up," for returning to Jerusalem after evangelizing Spain and subsequently having his head cut off by Herod Agrippa.

It is odd that authors like Walker, who frontally assault the traditions of the Catholic Church, nevertheless credit the results of Catholic faith, like the Camino. He calls the 1000-year-old pilgrimage "the greatest peaceful movement of people in European history." This is a bit like saying that Mother Teresa was a great woman, except for all that crazy stuff she believed.

Turned off by Shirley Maclaine's account of her own pilgrimage ("incoherent spiritual gibberish"), the author was finally steered toward the Camino de Santiago when a friend referred to the 500-mile pilgrimage route as the European Divorcee Trail. Childless at 49, Walker thus posts a personal ad: "SWM, single and available."

For a 60-year-old preparing to walk the Camino, the advice of a fit man ten years younger is worth heeding, no matter how much I am annoyed by his attitudes. And there's a lot of inexplicit advice here. I have learned that I really should beware of the first day's ascent of the Pyrenees, especially in bad weather. The elevation change is 4,300 feet, or higher than any leg of the Appalachian Trail. A death here, like Emilio Estevez's at the beginning of "The Way," the recent film about the Camino, is not unheard of. Nor is the dank dormitory-style hostel on the first night in Roncevalles misrepresented by the film. Walker calls Roncevalles itself "one of the grimmest places I have ever seen." I have brought my eye mask, ear plugs, and an emergency supply of Advil PM, none of which Martin Sheen had with him on his first night in the Roncevalles barracks.

In describing this old pilgrim bunkhouse, Walker again betrays his anti-Catholic attitudes: "One could almost imagine cries of help emanating from down in the dungeon, along with the sounds of belts lashing, charges of heresy, spies, intrigue, escape attempts, waterboarding, deathbed conversions, sacred chants, and even a profound hush."

But Walker finally confronts religion straight-on in an odd chapter entitled "The 'R' Word." A resident of Asheville, North Carolina, when he isn't hiking some of the world's best-known trails, Walker begins the chapter with a bumper sticker that he says is popular in that haven for aging hippies and New Agers on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains: "Sorry I missed church. I was practicing witchcraft and becoming a lesbian." Just so we know.

In Asheville, he says, religion is referred to as the R word, and religious people looked down on as Flat-Earthers. Walker quotes best-selling atheists Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, but then allows a slim point to the religious side of the debate:

"What these people fail to take into account is that history's most savage murderers — Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot — have been utterly irreligious." Which is like saying, Mother Teresa may be crazy but at least she won't come after you with an ax.

Confessing himself an Episcopalian "back-bencher," the author reveals his "most profound personal breakthrough — coming to the conclusion that there is not a single earthly thing in this world worth praying for. I resist the strong temptation to make petitionary prayers to God for anything — making money, good health, saving my life, a loved one's life, you name it." If I haven't snarked sufficiently, I'll add that the redundancy of earthly and in this world in that first sentence is typical of this self-published effort. Like most self-published books, The Best Way could have used a better copyeditor.

I will dip further into Walker's book for advisories as the Camino looms (Marian and I start May 13-14), but my search continues for a genuinely religious account of the pilgrimage. Next up, Hiking the Camino: 500 Miles with Jesus, by Fr. Dave Pivonka, a Franciscan priest. Sounds promising.

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