A unique chronicle of a life-changing journey

By Jacob Hoytema – 

Walking the Camino de Santiago took Peter Coffman about two months in spring 2004. His book about the travel — appropriately titled, Camino — has gone through an even longer journey to manifestation, and will finally launch at an Ottawa event later this month.

Hintonburg resident, Peter Coffman, walked the Camino and has written a book about his journey. It’s being launched at a special event on November 10. Photo of Peter Coffman by Diane Laundy.

The Camino, whose name means “The Path of St. James,” is an ancient route of pilgrimage in northern Spain that ends at a cathedral in the city of Santiago de Compostela, the traditional burial site of St. James. Catholic pilgrims and other travellers have been making the journey to the shrine for about a millennium. Professional photographer, architecture history professor, and Hintonburg resident, Peter Coffman, decided to contribute his own footsteps to the path with a friend some fifteen years ago.

The idea arose when, on holiday in France, Peter and his wife encountered a pilgrim who would make music in each of the churches along the Camino’s traditional pathway. Peter was so intrigued that he proposed a similar pilgrimage to his friend Oliver Schroer, a violinist. After a few years, they finally decided to set aside time for the trip, and in May 2004 convened with their wives at a point in central France.

From there, the four of them hiked about a thousand kilometres to the route’s end, stopping in cathedrals and villages along the way, Peter taking photographs and Oliver setting up his recording equipment to capture pieces of warm, yet haunting violin music. Oliver would later release these recordings as the critically acclaimed album, also titled camino. Tragically, Oliver passed away in 2008.

In the thirteen years since returning from the journey, Peter has given numerous talks, presentations and exhibitions of his photography. Camino will feature Peter’s pictures and new writings and reflections arranged by themes, not chronologically. His pictures and Oliver’s music almost always accompany each other, and this new book is no different, as it comes with a download code for new bonus material from Oliver’s album.

“All the elements, the writing, the music, the photography, have converged in this book, now because of circumstances. Much like the Camino in a sense, that when the time is right, and when everything seems to point in a certain direction, then that’s the direction to go in,” Peter describes.

Hearing Peter speak about the Camino impresses on the listener just how powerful the journey is, as well as how passionate about it Peter remains. Although his visit was years ago, he still speaks of it with the same awe as if he had just returned yesterday. He refers several times to the feeling of “falling into fellowship” while walking the ancient road, finding community with fellow travellers, as well as with the countless pilgrims of the past.

(Click photos to enlarge)

Peter has been cultivating some praise for capturing in his book an accurate depiction of the traveller’s experiences along the Camino, a journey whose sensations are reputedly difficult to describe. “It is not easy to catch the subtle nuances of the inner journey but [Peter’s book] has succeeded where many fail,” writes John Brierly, an author of several guidebooks about the route.

One’s impressions of the pilgrimage seem to have an impact on the travelling experience itself, as expectations can fall out of line with the unique journey that actually occurs. Indeed, Peter said that while he hasn’t “ruled out” another visit to the Camino, he’d need to be careful not to let his memories of the first journey interfere with a new adventure.

“I’m not in any great rush to [do the Camino again]. If I did it again, I would have to find some way to do it very differently… what you don’t want to do, especially in this case because it was such a singular experience, I wouldn’t want to go do it again and have some little corner of my brain keep thinking ‘why isn’t this happening like it did last time.’”

The book launch will take place at Friends of Earth (251 Bank St.), at 7 p.m. on Friday, November 10.



Leave a comment