Two steps forward
I was looking for something a little lighter to read after my foray into post-apocalyptic zombie-land, and I realized that I had never gone back to pick up the sequel to the delightful The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. Alas, all copies of the sequel were checked out at both libraries where I hold membership, and my book budget for June (and truthfully for July) was long since spent, so I opted instead for something else by Simsion. I had heard nothing about it previous to borrowing the e-book, but Two Steps Forward proved to be a new favorite.
I didn’t know much about El Camino de Santiago previous to about 2014, but in that year one of my Facebook artist acquaintances, Jennifer Lawson, decided to walk 500 miles along the Camino route and record her progress with sketches. Once she had achieved the feat, she came home, sorted out her sketchbook, and documented the experience in her book Walking with Watercolor.
I promptly bought it, mostly for her delightfully lively and effervescent watercolors rather than because I was intrigued by the topic, but as I read it, my interest grew. The idea of making such a walk, whether on the Appalachian Trail, through the Pacific Northwest, or meandering England’s Lake District, had always been appealing to me. It’s not something to which I could aspire at the moment, given the state of my knees, but who knows? Could happen someday before I die!
Simsion co-wrote Two Steps Forward with his wife, Anne Buist, and it is loosely based on their own experience of walking the Camino, although it is fiction. El Camino de Santiago is a centuries-old pilgrimage route that ends in Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. People walk the Camino for all sorts of reasons, though—not just as pilgrimage but as an athletic challenge, as a meditative exercise, as a vacation choice. They start the route from separate points, depending on where in Europe they are coming from, and all converge at the end to receive a certificate of completion and (if they want it) a blessing.
There are two main protagonists, and each author wrote from the viewpoint of one, then traded their writing, edited, added to and refined it, and put together a seamless story narrated by two.
Californian Zoe has recently taken some devastating hits in her life. First, her husband Keith has died in a car crash, a sufficient reason for grief; but a few weeks later, Zoe learns from her accountant that Keith’s business had been in trouble, and if she sells her house she may just barely be able to pay off the business debt—if she’s lucky. Devastated not only by this new catastrophe but by the thought that Keith didn’t sufficiently trust in their relationship to be honest with her about their financial situation, Zoe is at loose ends (and in a daze) when a friend from childhood invites her to France. Not knowing what else to do while waiting for the house to sell, Zoe decides a visit is in order. While out window-shopping in France, she sees a shell charm that inexplicably calls to her. When she discovers the scallop shell is a symbol for El Camino de Santiago, and that the town where she is visiting is a beginning point for part of the route, Zoe impulsively decides that a time-out from her life to grieve, ponder, and find a new direction is just what she needs and, spending most of the last of her money, kits herself out and departs on the route.
Martin, meanwhile, is walking the route primarily for commercial reasons. He is a British engineer, and has designed a cart that he believes will be a wonderful solution to pilgrims who have trouble carrying their belongings on their back. Since every prototype must be tested and proven before manufacturing takes place, Martin decides that the perfect antidote to hanging around dealing with the aftermath of a nasty divorce is to take his cart on “the Way.” With the promise of some interest by investors once they see the results of his walk, the “Buggy man” embarks only a day or two after Zoe on the same part of the path.
Zoe and Martin, along with a host of other colorful and memorable walkers, show the differences in the kind of walk or pilgrimage that is to be had along El Camino. Zoe, flat broke from the get-go, is hoarding her funds by staying in the cheapest of hostels, occasionally even sleeping in a church or barn, and cooking for herself or snacking on what she can carry. Martin, much more flush, is trying out B&Bs and hotels and savoring the local cuisine in the better restaurants in each town. Some travelers don’t think twice about taking a bus or a cab over a rough patch, while others believe that to gain one inch of progress on the Camino under anyone’s power but their own is cheating and nullifies the whole experience.
The delight of this book is its slow build as the walkers continually cross paths with one another. One will have a short day and the other a long one, and will pass each other, unknowing, but land in the same town in the same restaurant on the same night. Some are up and out the door at the crack of dawn, and walk until dusk, while others nurse a hangover, stop for a leisurely déjeuner, dawdle along for 10 kilometers, and call it a day. This all leads to both expected and unexpected encounters and near-misses.
The accompanying theme to the walk is, of course, what each walker gets out of it, and as both Zoe and Martin make progress in their individual quests for meaning, understanding, forgiveness, or whatever else they have come to see that they need or crave, their interactions with one another also change and grow. The book comes to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion, and then further gratifies the reader with an epilogue to reveal what happens to the characters after their “time out of time” interlude is over. Two Steps Forward is nearly as much a journey of discovery for its readers as it is for the walkers.
If you like this sort of book, you might also consider The Distance from Me to You, by Marina Gessner, a novel about a young woman who walks the length of the Appalachian Trail alone between high school and college, or Skywalker: Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail, a humorous nonfiction memoir by Bill Walker.
And if you liked what you saw of Jennifer Lawson’s drawings in her book about the Camino, be sure to check out her current series on Instagram. She’s drawing, painting, and collaging 100 dogs in 100 days, and they’re all delightful.