The faint sound of Radiohead. A phone vibrating with increasing urgency. The low-level rustling of sleeping bags.
I take out my earplugs and pull off my eye mask. The Radiohead gets louder. I look down at my watch: 4.30am. I look up – a naked septuagenarian Croat looms large less than a metre away. Reluctantly, I stand, roll up my sleeping bag and heave on my backpack.
So began my days walking the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route in northern Spain. Stretching from the Pyrenees to the holy city of Santiago de Compostela in the west, the route covers 780km and passes through mountain ranges and treeless plains, sprawling industrial estates and traditional villages. Its path is peppered with albergues (refuges) crammed full of pilgrims of all ages and backgrounds.
In the Middle Ages, the Way of Saint James – as it is known in English – was one of the Christian world’s three great pilgrimage routes, matched only by those to Jerusalem and Rome. What is rumoured to have begun with the discovery of St James’ remains at the turn of the ninth century peaked in the 14th and 15th, when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims would set out from across Europe to this new Rome of the West.
The route was on the frontline of the cultural battle against Moorish Spain, with the monasteries dotted along the route putting up pilgrims and hardening local Christian identity in equal measure. But a triple-whammy of religious war, plague and Reformation saw visitor numbers decline; by the mid-20th century, only a trickle of pilgrims made it to Santiago’s cathedral each year.
Recent decades have seen a remarkable resurgence: numbers have increased hundredfold in just 30 years, and I was one of more than 270,000 people who completed the pilgrimage in 2016.
The numbers may be back at their pre-Reformation levels, but the pilgrims have changed: for many, Christianity is incidental. The popular image of this new breed of pilgrim is of someone coming to terms with a life already largely lived. The divorced, the bereaved and the slightly New Age, looking for a modern kind of penance – and to lose a few pounds while they’re at it.
There is some truth in this image: the Radiohead-loving septuagenarian was not entirely atypical of the kind of people I met along the Way. But they weren’t the only punters. When I embarked on the walk, I was 21 and had just finished my degree. I was too young to marry let alone divorce, and I didn’t yet have a job from which to quit.
Nor was I alone. There is a small but growing contingent of fresh-faced pilgrims, straight out of school or university: In 2016, 75,000 people under the age of 30 walked the Camino, more than double the 30,000 young people who walked it in 2005.
What explains the rise of the millennial pilgrim? For many of us, the pilgrimage was an attempt to resolve the much-reported and rather tiring identity crisis that seems to plague our generation, which is more depressed than any before it: a recent Ipsos Mori survey found that in established economies, only 37 per cent of millennials feel their lives will be better than their parents’.
Millennial life is complicated, and most of us have no idea what we’re doing. Gone are the days of the single-track career, the house and the final salary pension. One study found that 19 of every 20 recent graduates moved jobs within three years of leaving university.
We have more choice than our parents in almost every aspect of our lives, from who we marry to where we work: while previous generations looked forward to predictable careers in big business or the professions, two-thirds of jobs created between 1998 and 2010 were in start-ups or firms with less than 50 employees. What millennial life lacks in security, it makes up for in variety.
But choice has the ability to cripple as much as to empower: deciding what you actually want is a question sufficiently difficult that many prefer to avoid it for as long as possible. While most of my friends didn’t respond by seeking to commune with pilgrims on a 500-mile hike, a significant number did take post-university gap years before starting work.
For me, the pilgrimage helped. It provided me with the sense of direction, however arbitrary, that normal life struggled to provide. Waking up every day with the same destination in mind, and putting one foot in front of the other until I got there, was purpose enough. I was too tired to worry about anything other than my blisters and the source of my next ham sandwich.
There was plenty of introspection, but also a sense of community – again, something my generation lack. We have grown up addicted to social media – which, ironically, has been shown to make people feel more alone – and our increasing geographic mobility has led local communities to become more fragmented.
While my friends looked for community in Peruvian youth hostels, I found it on the Camino. I was nothing like Swedish Hans, the middle-aged software developer, or West Coast Kevin, the retired lawyer getting over his second divorce. But, for four weeks last September, we shared a mission: to reach Santiago. Those I would never have dreamt of speaking to back in England became close confidants.
Norman Tebbit once described how his unemployed father ‘got on his bike’ to find a job. To my generation, many of whom are in pursuit of an elixir beyond ordinary employment, my prescription would simply be: put on your pack and walk.