What do I use to solve mysteries, fact or imagination?

By From page A10 | April 06, 2014

It’s rare that something as small as an email will lead me to change my plans, plunk down money and enter a dark movie theatre on a sunny day.

But I did that last Sunday after I got an email from my friend Hieu Dovan recommending a new movie that is briefly at the Varsity Theatre.

“Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago” is a documentary about the 500-mile pilgrimage that people have been making on foot in Northern Spain since the 10th century.

Why do people undertake an endurance holiday like this, and what happens to them when they do? This is one of the human mysteries that has grabbed my attention and will not let go.

I’ve never put myself into an endurance situation of such length or difficulty and with a strong possibility of physical pain. But many people, young and old, including runners, bikers, and kayakers, choose this kind of experience. Why?

The new movie offered me a third chance to consider the example of the Camino de Santiago.

My first encounter with the Camino was through a Hollywood film by Emilio Estevez titled “The Way.” It tells the fictional story of a man who takes up the pilgrimage carrying the ashes of his son who perished there in a freak accident.

The father, played by Martin Sheen, puts on his son’s boots and backpack and hikes in his place, finally reaching the famous church at Santiago, along with a colorful set of newly acquired traveling companions.

After I watched the movie, I looked up a lot of details about the Camino, because I wasn’t sure which parts of the movie were “true” and which were not. I’m often frustrated in this way by made-up stories, and I’m always on the lookout for things that strain credibility.

I know, for example, that writers and directors like to add drama. Martin Sheen falls into a river. Does that happen on the Camino? He finds a set of companions that share his hike every day. My friend Hieu told me that groups rarely form in that way because everyone travels at a different pace.

Hieu himself was my second source of data. He hiked the trail in 2012 when he was 63 years old. I asked to meet with him after his trip.

So there he was, an articulate psychologist, sitting right in front of me, with some of his souvenirs spread on the table. He tried to explain the meditative nature of the Camino and what it meant to him. I listened as hard as I could.

But I still didn’t understand. Why did he go? When he injured his Achilles tendon just before the trip, why didn’t that stop him? How did he keep trekking when 27 out of 30 days brought only rain? What was the spiritual component for him? I listened to his explanations but I still didn’t get it.

That’s why I rushed to the new documentary. Surely the director would try to answer the questions that puzzle people like me. She focused on six participants, filming them on the walk, and she interviewed other people, such as local priests and villagers who run shelters for the pilgrims, to shed further light on their stories.

The movie follows one woman with severe physical problems, never quite enumerated, that lead her to walk slowly and painfully.

We also get to know a young couple, thrown together on the trail, who bond despite the woman’s being 10 years older.

We follow a French mom who hikes with her three-year-old son and her brother, of whom she says, “we always fight.”

Many questions come to my mind. Why do the single mom and her brother argue so much? Does the romantic couple stay together? What differentiates the few thousand people who follow the Camino from the millions of us who do not? Does it lie in the spiritual realm? How will I get that question answered?

I know more than I did before. I know why some people go, how they finish and what they learn about foot pain. I have a sense of the camaraderie and group resolve that keeps people going. It took all three perspectives, the Hollywood movie, Hieu’s account and the documentary, to get me this far.

To complete the puzzle I need one more thing: to take the walk myself. But with my famously difficult feet, I don’t plan to do that.

At least I’ve learned something about how I learn. Fictional accounts stimulate my curiosity by creating questions. Nothing draws me in like a movie where I want to know what happens next. Accounts by friends add new dimensions, intimacy and a real attempt to communicate with me. Non-fiction—in this case, a documentary–adds truths I can count on. Not the whole truth, but important tidbits.

These are key ingredients, like flour, butter and sugar in a cake. Put them together and something that mystifies me becomes just a little more clear.

Why some mysteries draw my attention more than others, inspiring column after column, I may never know.

— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected]

Marion Franck

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