From Peril on the Mississippi to Plodding Spain’s Camino
Writer Wednesday: Book review of Stuck in the Weeds
Paul Stutzman is the writer of Hiking Through, about hiking the entire Appalachian Trail (AT) in five months, Biking Across America, two Amish novels in his “Wandering” series, and now, Stuck in the Weeds.
I read Hiking Through soon after it was published and enjoyed it immensely as it tells the compelling story of his heartbreak and grief from his wife dying of cancer, and how the tremendous discipline and strength (physical and mental) to hike the tough AT in one swoop (OK, with numerous off trail respites in B&Bs), helps him to heal and move on from his distressing, life-altering loss.
I’m sure my enjoyment of Hiking Through was heightened because we live so close to the famous trail and have crossed or hiked portions of it over the years in frequent forays to Shenandoah National Park. (For the best virtual AT through-hike re-creation, I still like my friend Kevin Gallagher’s photo collection that flips through in five minutes, here.)
When I realized Stuck in the Weeds was about more than just apparently a somewhat failed adventure along the Mississippi River and would take me, vicariously, along the now famed Camino de Santiago across the entire northern half of Spain, I was more eager to dig in. Faithful readers here will know why the Spain part of the book drew me in, having lived there a year as a college student in 1973-74 and authoring my own “travel memoir” published by Herald Press in 1992, Departure. (My boss at the time, who otherwise was a big fan and supporter of my writing efforts, never did quite get why anyone would want to read someone else’s glorified journal, as he considered my books On Troublesome Creek and Departure to be. I forgave him his opinion!)
At first I found myself kind of wondering the same thing about Stuck in the Weeds, especially the title (Stutzman could have used some help maybe finding a better title—maybe something along the lines of “From Peril on the Mississippi to Plodding Spain’s Camino”). I quibbled with the true stuff I knew about life in Spain that Paul glossed over or didn’t get quite right, such as the inference that all Spaniards take a nap from roughly 2 to 5 p.m. Siesta time lasts that long but it includes the family gathering for a leisurely main meal of the day around 2 p.m., and then napping or respite before heading back to work or school for a second stint from 5-7 or 8 p.m. At least that’s how it was when I was there in the 70s. But things change and I don’t claim to be up to date on life in Spain now!
I also thought a former restaurant manager such as Stutzman, well versed in foods, would have described the thinly sliced and cured “jamón serrano” ham (very much like the country ham we enjoy here in Virginia, and also a little like the prosciutto delicacy from Italy) as something other than “tough, almost like jerky, and sliced so thin it had only one side.” I’m also not quite ready to let his description of coastal Spain’s beloved paella dish as a “rice and vegetable dish with rice and more rice” go unchallenged. He adds that sometimes it includes chicken or seafood. Um, no. In my experience chicken or sea food is almost always present but perhaps it is now more frequently offered as a vegetarian offering. In any case, it was one of my favorite dishes in Spain, even though I’d heard that Spanish cooks often use up the leftovers in their fridge by throwing the week’s scraps in the paella. Maybe that’s what he didn’t like. Sorry, Paul.
But eventually I was drawn into the daily-ness of the pilgrimage trail, and the community spirit and bonds developed by the hikers. I was transported back to similar experiences I had, especially in the rural parts of northern Spain, particularly the unforgettable meal I had with my Spanish roommate and her friends on a trip back from skiing (they skied; me, not so much) in the Pyrenees mountain area, in an inn she had described as “muy encantadora y typico” (very enchanting and typical) of the area. As I read a little each evening, I began to look forward to traveling the pilgrimage with Stutzman, since at this point in my life I doubt I’ll ever have the opportunity to hike the Camino in person, although I certainly do hope to get back to Spain. Camino, by the way, is Spanish for road.
Stutzman does a good job writing descriptive action while holding you in a moderate amount of suspense for what is to come. Through a casual read you absorb snippets of the history of Spain, the biblical background of St. James (for whom the 491 mile Camino de Santiago is named), and a feel for the atmosphere of Spain’s centuries’ old monasteries and inns-turned-hostels, dedicated mostly to cheap lodging ($15-30 a night for pilgrims). Many of these serve communal meals of authentic Spanish fare.
Those on pilgrimage learn to sleep with the noises of 100 others in the same room (snoring, flatulence), and without seeming necessities like towels. Stutzman didn’t take along a bath towel and ends up using a T-shirt to dry off most of his trip. Stutzman felt that thankfully there has not been much commercialization along the Camino, even though the hostels and cafes mainly serve the needs of pilgrims in the tiny picturesque villages—and indeed thrive because of the many hikers.
Stutzman takes me back with lines like “scenes from the life of a town that had existed for centuries” as he scans Spain’s horizon, and descriptions of brightly colored geraniums in village window boxes brightening stone walls.
Hiking the Camino has long been a profoundly religious pilgrimage for the majority of hikers, which has rebounded in popularity in just the past 25 years; it is that for Paul. As a formerly conservative Mennonite who now considers himself somewhat of an outcast among certain religious persons while still deeply Christian, he longs to be invited to the communion table in the cathedrals they frequent in their trek, but understands the doctrines that prohibit him as a non-Catholic. He explains the historical roots of the pilgrimage going back to the time of the apostles after Christ’s death, including how the bones of the disciple James end up in the magnificent cathedral in Santiago—a high point for most on the spiritual pilgrimage. Weaving back and forth between a Camino journal that anyone (non-religious) would enjoy, to chapters that focus more on faith applications or narrative may seem like an incongruent leap for some. Paul’s faith shines keenest in the Mississippi River portion of the journal where he has a turn of heart about the trip and experiences the Providence of God in a pretty amazing way.
I must confess I skimmed parts of the Mississippi River adventure portion of the book. I’m sure if I had ever tried a similar expedition—or even a Mississippi River cruise which does sort of sound like an interesting adventure—I would have identified more with that portion. Although it did bring to mind various river trips my husband and family have done: rafting, fishing, and canoeing–and memories of how miserable you can become in too-long of day on an almost-dried up river … (Miller family—remember the Cumberland??)
Bottom line: this is a great read for anyone planning or even dreaming of a pilgrimage like Camino de Santiago or elsewhere. It is also a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks a lazy float down the Mississippi sounds like a fun Tom Sawyer kind of thing to do. I have nothing but admiration for a writer and adventure lover to have undertaken the kinds of trips Stutzman has tackled since his mid 50’s. What will he try next?! I’ll be along for the journey—at least in the book that is sure to come.
Have you read any of Paul’s books or heard him speak? Your favorite?
I like the main question on Paul’s blog:
Have you ever wanted to walk away from life?
He says, “I did; and in the process, I walked to new life.”
Your comments? Stories?