Saturday, November 07, 2009

To the Field of Stars (A Book Review)

Kevin Codd, To the Field of Stars: A Pilgrim’s Journey to Santiago de Compostela (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 2008), 271 pages.

Pilgrims have been heading to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain for more than a millennium. The site, believed to be the burial of the Apostle James, was one of three most popular pilgrimages during the Middle Ages, the other two being Rome and Jerusalem. I first heard of the pilgrimage when hiking the Appalachian Trail and it’s always been lodged in the back of my mind as something I would like to do someday. So, with that in mind, I recently decided to read up on the journey and selected this book as my starting point. Kevin Codd is an American, a Catholic Priest who spent seven years running a seminary in Belgium. During this time he made a 35 day, 500 mile pilgrimage,. His journey began in the French border town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and from there he headed across the border and northern Spain, joining up with other pilgrims as they head east.

The pilgrim’s route is well marked and heavily traveled. Along the way, there are refugios (hostels) where for a few Euros, the pilgrims can spend the night. There are many towns and villages along the way, allowing the traveler to travel lighter and to carry only snacks. Codd quickly settles into a routine, leaving early in the morning in order to avoid the afternoon heat, stopping for coffee and a snack in the midmorning, often arriving at his destination by noon, allowing him time during the hot afternoons to nap, find a shady place to read, write, swim or drink beer and to wash clothes. In recalling the trip, we learn of his problems with blisters (he has this problem the entire time, possibly because he daily lathers his feet in Vaseline). He talks of being hot and dirty, the stiffness of muscles and the challenge of snorers in the hostels. Along the way, he has conversations with some mountain goats and a snail and, at the end, with Santiago. The mountain goats give him the best advice, “Remain humble on this road or the road will humble you.” (15) Santiago refused to answer if he was the one who saved him and his companions from a thunderstorm that split into two cells and missed them, telling Codd that he’d know the answer when he gets to heaven. (267)

Friendships become an important aspect of the journey and Codd tells about the many friends he makes as well as those who get on his nerves (including a number of fellow priest he meets along the way). His writing in introspective and he often begins to question his own feelings such as judging a priest harshly for a lifeless mass and then wondering what was going on in the priest‘s life or in his own to cause him to feel that way. In time, Codd settles into a group of pilgrims. As a group, they often eat their meals together (sometimes even preparing them, but most often eating in bars and restaurants along the way. They make fun of the “super walkers” who try to cover as much mileage as possible as well as those who make the journey with a car carrying their gear or who just do short sections of the walk. As pilgrims, they live by a creed, turistas manden; peregrinos agradeced (tourist demand, pilgrims thank, 145). Slowly, as they get closer to the end, they feel the draw of Santiago. There is also the problem of an increase in the number of pilgrims along the way and they have a harder time finding lodging, which necessitates them arriving at the cathedral at the end a day before they’d planned.

I love the title of the book, which is based on a Latin interpretation of “Compostela (Compo means field and stella means stars). However, I was sadden that Codd always spend nights inside and never got to experience the stars at night. He does tells of one pilgrim who decides to climb and camp next to an old castle just to watch the stars and I felt a certain kinship with that chap. As one who’d served Mexican missions, Cadd’s Spanish is good enough that few people realize he’s an American, which allows him to learn more about what other people in the world think about Americans (and it’s not always nice or pleasant).

Having done longer hikes, I related to a lot of Codd’s experiences along the way and enjoyed the book. As I’ve been working through my journals of my Appalachian Trail hikes, I realize that I was not nearly as detailed as Codd, who recorded thoughts and kept detail accounts of what his body was experiencing. For those who like to do long hikes, I recommend this book.

Since this hike, Codd has done another pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and blogged about it. There are many websites about the pilgrimage. This link is one that has maps as well as lots of photographs. Buen Caminio!

For more of Sage's book reviews, click here.


  1. As always, you make this book sound very interesting. I will certainly check out the link.

  2. How odd, I am in the planning stages of that walk. It will not be from France, I do not have that much time. And I am leaning towards the Camino from Asturias on the coast rather than via Burgos. Further, being realistic, this will be done in Spring.
    Oh, have you come across Compeed* made by Johnson&Johnson. It is truly a gift.

  3. I see what you meant in your comment on my post about moving. This book sounds like it's chock full of wisdom about the journey. It kind of reminds me of the Alchemist. ...especially the goat's wisdom. You did a lovely job reviewing it. Another to add to my list of eventual reads. :)

  4. I don't think I've ever been on anything even resembling a pilgrimage. It seems a common human desire but I don't think I share it. I need to give it more thought.

  5. I think the idea of pilgrimages is one, the loss of which makes us lesser people. Of course, it is not the destination, but the journey which allows us to purge our minds of the daily struggles we face and to focus on what God wishes to tell us. In our age, where travel is "easy," the journey ceases to be of any importance, but is rather an inconvenience to be tolerated.


  6. Kenju, ready for a hike?

    Vince, wow, I'm envious. You'll have to tell us about your experiences.

    Stephanie, Yes, there are some similarities to the "Alchemist." Coehlo actually wrote a book titled "The Pilgrimage" which is about this journey.

    Charles, I like journeys and often wonder if being drawn to a pilgrimage isn't a way for me to justify more hiking...

    Randall, good thoughts on the impact of easy travel making the journey an inconvenience.

  7. Hi Sage! As a Spaniard, and knowing a few people who have hiked some parts of the Camino de Santiago, I can say that nowadays it has lost to a large extent the religious meaning that it had in the past.

    You can do it hiking, riding a horse, or bicycling. There is a lot to see (beautiful art, wonderful towns and landscapes) and many people to meet on the way to Santiago, and at the end, the amazing city of Santiago de Compostela is worth the visit.

    There is also the consideration of the meaning of this pilgrimage for those who in the past centuries walked this way to the grave of the apostle Santiago, a number of auberges and hostels on the way and the pride for those who are able to finish the journey -it's hard-. It's an amazing adventure for many people who come over to Spain from all over the world to hike this way.

    Buen Camino for all those who decide to walk it!

  8. Sorry for missing your previous post (I had a bit of a crazy week and I couldn't blog much).

    But tomorrow is a holiday here, so i went to "This and that" to have a look and comment. I wouldn't miss that picture of you on that rock. My knees are still trembling, LOL.

  9. Can priest drink beer? That's a sin, isn't it? :)

  10. Sage - I guess I'm kind of a purist when it comes to doing things like that. I prefer to walk and take my time if given the opportunity. I, like you, would have preferred to sleep under the stars as well.

    My journals are not as detailed as I would like but I find them to be useful as sort of a framework for my memories as I write about earlier travels. I've found that time has a way of changing ones perspective on a trip, often towards the better.

  11. Mother Hen - He is Catholic! Catholics drink more than any other religion.

  12. This sounds like something I would like to do, but I would be sleeping in my tent as often as possible.

    Thank you for visiting my blog.

  13. Sage: Yes, friendships are an important part of each of our journeys. This one sounds quite difficult, but is a testament to what people are capable of doing when they put their mind to it! :)

  14. Leni, this book, written by a priest, is probably more "religious" than some of the others. I do think the journey would be fun and the friendships would be a big part of it.

    Mother Hen, yes, priests can drink and so can some Protestants I know and Jesus himself drank wine...

    Ed, I too have a lot of hikes that were not well journaled (and a few that I've lost the journals)--especially those hikes during the first 800 miles along the AT...

    Ed2, thanks to you Mother Hen is now signing up for confirmation classes :)

    Jen, you have an interesting blog--there is a community that you get in the hostels, but I'd have to break away on occasion to sleep under the stars in that desert climate

    Michael, you can develop deep friendship by walking with another person for a few days.

  15. Need to make more time to read books... keep saying that when I visit here.


  16. I can see how you can relate to his experiences, only you were able to appreciate the evening stars.

    PS - Seriously, when are you going to compile your own stories (the ones we've read...with pics) and write your own book?

  17. A rainy day has afforded me the opportunity to catch up on blogs. What a great review. I would love to go with you on one of your short hikes. But, like Codd, I prefer a bed and roof.

  18. Is it me or did Pat just ask you on a date?

    Sorry I haven't been by much. The new job is kicking my behind.

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