A Camino De Minnesota?

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In some ways, Christianity and other faiths created the concept of tourism. They created sacred sites and encouraged their followers to make pilgrimage trips to visit them. This created the need for food, lodging, souvenirs, and various other goods and services that form the backbone of modern tourism.

My wife recently got a small grant to walk part of the Camino de Santiago, a Christian pilgrimage trail in Spain, and interview American pilgrims. I tagged along. We walked from León to Santiago, averaging about 9 miles per day and covered a total of 180 miles. We stayed in albergues, which are cheap bunkhouses for pilgrims that cost about 5-10 euros per night ($6-$12). They supply a mattress, pillow and sometimes a blanket, usually on a bunk bed, with access to bathrooms, showers and sometimes coin-op washers and dryers. You have to bring your own soap, sheets and towels. Earplugs are also advised to block out the sound of others snoring. Some will rent you a private room for 25-30 euros, and some serve a large communal dinner for about 8 euros and a simple breakfast for 2-3 euros.

Each day, we woke up at 6:30 or 7 a.m., left the albergue by 8 a.m. and walked until noon or 1 p.m., often with a stop at a café to put our feet up and have a snack. By 1 p.m., having walked 9 or 10 miles, we’d check into another albergue. My wife would go look for people to interview and I’d spend the afternoon doing one or more drawings. Every day we’d meet and walk with other people. In addition to Spaniards and Americans, we met folks from the U.K., Canada, France, Germany, Belgium, Croatia, Brazil, Mexico, The Czech Republic, Denmark, Korea, Australia, South Africa and Japan. Some were very religious but most were just out to walk through some personal issue or meet people and see the Spanish countryside. The whole thing was kind of a large, moving, international hippie scene.

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stuporbowl_stampsIn order to stay at albergues, you get a “credential”—a kind of passport in which you enter your starting date and collect stamps from each albergue you stay in and from cafés or churches along the way. These credential stamps and the social vibe made the Camino feel like a giant multi-week version of the Stuporbowl—an annual Minneapolis bike race—except the Camino had less drinking, more ancient architecture and better scenery.

Most of the time we were walking along rural roads or separated trails. Occasionally we were in wilderness areas but most of the time we were walking from one village or town to the next. Spain, like much of Europe has far more compact land-use patterns than the United States. There simply isn’t the same amount of suburban sprawl around cities and towns. Not only does this make the cities and towns themselves more walkable, it means that you can easily access the countryside on foot. In most places if you walked for 10 or 15 minutes, you’d leave the town and be back in farmland. Instead of having back yards, some town residents have access to small farm plots on the edge of town. This arrangement makes walking very pleasant. Accommodations are made for crossings of freeways or railway lines, even in rural locations, and there are lots of services (restaurants, bars, albergues) that are geared towards walkers.

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I tried to imagine how we’d create something like this in the USA. We have great wilderness trails—like the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails—but these don’t constantly intersect towns or villages so you have to carry a tent, sleeping bag, food and a lot of other stuff. By contrast, Caminos or pilgrimage trails in Europe only require that you carry a sheet, towel, a few toiletries and a change of clothing—as little as 5-10 pounds. (We carried 10-15 pounds). If you tried to create a pilgrimage trail between inhabited areas in the USA, you’d spend much of your time walking through sprawl or vast areas of agricultural mono-crop nothingness. In Spain, if I walked for an hour from the centers of cities like León, Ponferrada or Santiago, I was in countryside and within a few miles of a small town or village. If I walked for an hour from my house in Saint Paul, I wouldn’t even make it to the border of Roseville, where I’d spend the next two or three hours crossing huge mall parking lots, trying to cross freeways and dodging traffic. It would be the same experience on the East Coast and much of the country.

There are just a few places in the USA with compact enough land-use and frequent enough human settlements to make a European-like pilgrimage trail possible. Some folks have created one connecting the Spanish missions on the California coast. It’s called “El Camino Real de California.” Getting through Los Angeles and certain other spots on the trail would be horrible, but the towns of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and others are well-spaced and reasonably compact, largely due to coastal geography rather than good zoning or land-use laws. Other than the California Mission Trail, however, I’m hard pressed to think of anything in the USA that even faintly resembles the Camino de Santiago.

In Minnesota everything is too spread out to create much of a walking trail. But we could create a bicycle pilgrimage using the MRT or some of our other, excellent bike trails. We just have to convince the Catholic Church to canonize Bob Dylan or some other internationally popular figure from Minnesota. Then we build a cathedral or giant temple around their birth or burial place and create a bike pilgrimage trail across the state of Minnesota to reach it. I bet Prince would be up for this.

…But I’m open to other ideas. If you’ve got some, please send them along.


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13 Responses to A Camino De Minnesota?

  1. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg November 2, 2015 at 10:24 am #

    Having hiked a couple sections of national trails in the UK, I share your preference for European trails for their connectedness to amenities. Hike a bit, find a pub, hike some more, find a small inn. The sharp line between urban and rural is amazing and jarring – one minute you are in the countryside and the next, BANG, you are in a hamlet or village. Also, you can arrive in one town by train, hike a day, two, or several, and catch a train from your endpoint. Simply wonderful!

    We have enough bike trails nearby in Minnesota/Wisconsin, I’m sure this sort of thing could emerge over time.

  2. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke November 2, 2015 at 11:18 am #

    You mention this at the end, but bicycle touring could be a lot like the camino experience. Little towns spread out 10-15 miles apart, bicycling for a few hours then having lunch. The only thing missing is the low-cost accommodation. I don’t think most people want to carry tents etc. with them on the bicycle.

    • Rosa November 2, 2015 at 10:04 pm #

      that’s what we did as a family on the Gateway trail this summer – the plan was brunch at home, dinner in Stillwater, stay overnight, brunch in Stillwater, dinner in Frogtown. We didn’t quite make that plan – it rained and I got a flat tire, so we ended up eating at 2 fast food places along the way to placate the damp 10 year old. But it was a totally achievable plan with slightly better luck.

      • Janelle Nivens
        Janelle November 4, 2015 at 7:35 am #

        Rosa, that plan is great! I’m going to try it next Spring. Thanks for the idea!

  3. Scott November 2, 2015 at 11:46 am #

    @ Bill – that was a great thing about steam locomotives – they needed water about every seven miles. That usually meant a stop, which meant a station, which meant a town.

    We reap the benefits of that thankfully outdated technology today on rural bike rides – a town conveniently located every 6 to 8 miles, with at least a place to get water, a beer, or a snack. In some areas, every other town has died out, leaving 12 or 15 miles between towns – still easily bike-able.

  4. Ken Avidor
    Ken Avidor November 2, 2015 at 12:42 pm #

    The Suburban Camino could be only 3 miles long since the landscape in the big, sprawly donut around the Twin Cities repeats itself every 3 miles (CVS, Burger King, McDonalds, Menards…).

    • Tom Clarke November 13, 2015 at 5:50 am #

      Great idea, Ken. If many suburban Catholic Churches hadn’t consolidated into often mega-churches with huge parking lot, we coulda walked from rectory to rectory with stops for bingo and fish fry’s!!

  5. Emily Metcalfe
    Emily Metcalfe November 2, 2015 at 3:38 pm #

    The sprawl-free distinction between city, village and forest/farm land was one thing that I loved about living in the Czech Republic. Living in a small city, I could be in the woods pretty quickly. Hiking from village to village and bus/train back was common there. Routes were marked through the woods to guide hikers to sights and villages.

  6. Andy Singer
    Andy Singer November 2, 2015 at 8:25 pm #

    I agree with everyone. It’s interesting to me that we traveled 180 miles in 20 days. Because of compact land use patterns and varied topography, it was this incredible adventure. We saw all these incredible things and met lots of new people. By contrast, you could cover this same distance by bus or car in just 3 hours of fairly boring driving …and this is another example of how the car cheapens space. If you give over your land-use laws and design standards to the automobile, space becomes disposable. Then you strip away the land’s potential for adventure, enjoyment and beauty. It becomes something to be gotten through rather than something to be enjoyed or appreciated. I’d post some drawings from my trip but they’re not really about “Minnesota” and hence not part of Streets.mn’s mission …but there were a lot of incredible things to draw.

    • Joseph Totten
      Joseph Totten November 3, 2015 at 8:37 pm #

      I’d say that trails up north (Paul Bunyon, Heartland and to Lake Woebegone) could all be made into a version of this. Park Rapids and Walker extend out further, but along the corridor itself they do not sprawl, as that occurred along the roadways instead of the abandoned rail corridors. So these just connect the pretty downtowns of small towns across the state.

    • Tom Clarke November 13, 2015 at 6:06 am #

      Thanks for the great blog, Andy. Its fun to get your take on camino walking in Spain and how that could work in the US or the upper midwest. After walking with an older couple training around the Mpls lakes with light packpacks who were going to Spain, and hearing about a couple local ministers who also walked the Camino, I have been thinking about how this could work in the upper midwest. As has been noted elsewhere, many small towns in MN and WI that were served by RR’s are nicely spaced out. Superior Trail has been mentioned with Inn to Inn arrangements. The Ice Age National Scenic Trail wends its way across WI with some similar arrangements. I love biking country roads with mixed woods, farm fields, small towns in western and south-western WI, and southeast MN. For walking I think the landscape and traffic needs to be safe and interesting, like some of the nice bike trails. Thanks for prompting the discussion. You got me thinking again. Maybe you and/or the Professor will be making a public presentation sometime about your experience!!??

  7. Janelle Nivens
    Janelle November 4, 2015 at 7:44 am #

    It’s been a goal of mine to try an inn to inn walk in the U.S. When I was researching this possibility, I discovered a Minnesotan, Tom Courtney, started Walk About California: http://walkaboutcalifornia.com/page/about-walkabout-california. It’d be fun to have him contribute to this discussion.

    I also found the concept of lodge to lodge hiking on the Lake Superior Trail. Here’s just one website related to this: http://www.boundarycountry.com/hiking.html

    Beyond all of the barriers noted by Andy to making something like this happen in Minnesota or elsewhere in the U.S., the cost of most inns and lodges would make a trip like this unattainable for many.