There can’t be many authors who have dedicated their book to a donkey. But then, there aren’t many who would take one on a 500-mile trek across northern Spain. That’s what Tim Moore did, and the result is an entertaining and informative account of his journey to the pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela.
Quirky one minute, cranky the next, Moore manages to gouge out the extraordinary from the everyday. The people he encounters become players in his crazy theatre of life, while he spares no ridicule for himself as he does battle against the elements, the landscape and his stubborn travelling companion.
Previous journeys have taken Moore across the London Monopoly board and the Tour de France route. So, making this pilgrimage in a conventional way just wouldn’t do. Realising the journey will require a shed-load of equipment, he certainly doesn’t want to be tainted with the label of a backpacker: “People with rucksacks don’t have fun, or if they do it’s the sort that involves a Thermos flask and brass rubbing.”
The solution, when it comes to him, is heaven-sent. A donkey carried Christ into Jerusalem, so what more appropriate beast of burden to carry the author's beastly burden on his own Via Dolorosa?
It becomes clear that Moore’s main purpose is not merely to complete the arduous journey with a moody mule but to recount how he did it. In other words, (and you’ll have been expecting this) he pins the tale on the donkey.
Shinto is indeed the star of the show, with more character in one of his animated ears than many of the two-legged pilgrims trudging along the camino. The author’s early attempts to get the reluctant creature across a wooden slatted bridge signals the beginning of a vexatious relationship between one man and his donk. Yet, as they make steady progress across the back of northern Spain, there is a bonding. Nothing untoward, of course, but eventually they reach an understanding about who’s really in charge – and it’s not the one with only two legs.
There are some genuinely sticky moments. During one especially arduous stretch when Shinto sinks to the ground, Moore is seriously concerned about his wonkey donkey. His remedy for setting Shinto back on his hooves is as surprising for the donkey as it is entertaining for the reader.
Moore has to face all of the challenges of any other pilgrim, but his difficulties in locating food and accommodation are compounded by the need to find somewhere to park his donkey. Some of the locals are helpful, some refuse them both point blank, while others provide the unlikeliest assistance. A drunken fireman, for instance, offers Shinto sanctuary in a deserted bullring.
Throughout the book, the author explains some of the background to the history of the pilgrimage. From its medieval origins to its rebirth as a purging exercise for New Age disciples, the route has attracted its fair share of eccentric travellers. Among its more famous aficionados is Shirley Maclaine, and Moore wastes no time in ripping apart the book describing her journey. “Shirl’s book is so mad it howls at the moon," he says, "a book that with any name on its cover but that of a Hollywood legend would have had orderlies with soft, placatory smiles knocking on the author’s door.”
The spiritual aspects of the pilgrim route seem lost on Moore, and he spends much of the time poking fun at his earnest fellow travellers. Two Germans who eat an inordinate amount of candy are dubbed "the German chocolate girls", and an American woman given to telling conflicting stories about her origins becomes "Baroness von Munchausen".
That said, the book isn't without its heartwarming moments. For part of the route, Moore is joined by his family. His wife is Icelandic and their children’s names – Valdis, Kristjan, Lilja – bring a fairytale quality to the story. But Moore’s treatment of his children isn't in the least sentimental, and he's not above allowing them to upstage their father. When Shinto balks at yet another small bridge, his youngest daughter takes over. A few whispered words, Shinto’s ears prick up, and he’s across the bridge in no time, leaving the author to wonder what mystical power over animals has been imparted to his daughter.
At times, one wonders if they will ever make it to journey's end, especially since Moore comes across as being unprepared and pretty incompetent. But his pain is our gain. Every sun-scorched, rain-soaked, donkey-driven, blister-bursting moment gives the author cause to amuse and enlighten his readers.
The worrying thing is what crazy scheme might he come up with next? Across the Atlantic in a wheelbarrow? The Trans-Siberian Express pulled by huskies? I can only hope he never reads this: it'll only give him ideas.