This is not my first book about the Camino de Santiago. In fact, there is a bit of a roaring industry (as much as you can use that term in travel literature) for personal accounts of walking the Christian pilgrimage route in Spain. In my experience, they tend to follow a similar path: some unexpected personal change or shift into a new stage of life, a waxing poetic on the challenges and rewards of long-distance walking, an ode to newfound serenity and a conclusion featuring some form of emotional catharsis or spiritual renewal.
Lyndon Penner, a curmudgeonly prairie gardener who walks the Camino with his friend Carol, does not follow this path, and for this, I thank him. He introduces his journey by telling how he stumbles upon the idea when a friend divulges her interest in walking it—an interest her husband doesn’t share. Penner casually commits and a few months later lands in Europe with a big backpack and about a dozen more pairs of underpants than he needs (which end up in a hotel waste bin).
In The Way of the Gardener, Penner provides a straightforward and unusually candid accounting of the 800-km journey. He likes some towns more than others, doesn’t have a lot of time for secondhand spirituality, and prefers the verdant vegetable gardens to the ostentatious cathedrals. He doesn’t hesitate to complain about uninspired chicken dinners, bedbugs or annoying fellow pilgrims. There is a diarrhea incident. It seems, almost without realizing it, Penner is a rebellious pilgrim.
The book is practical in its telling; Penner recounts his journey day by day in a diary style. He accentuates his steps not with spiritual musings, historical details or personal revelations but instead with the stories of the plants he identifies. If there is any altar he is prepared to worship at, it is clearly the flora and fauna, not the father and son. Penner’s holy trinity is the oak, the olive and the ancient magnolia. (The magnolias, I learn, predate dinosaurs. The book is full of little gems like that.)
Unlike the traditional “Camino memoir,” there are no maps in this book, no celebratory photos with the big backpack on and not a single statue of Mary. Instead the book is peppered with old-fashioned black and white plant illustrations. This is the Camino for the person who looks the roadside flower in the eye—greeting it by name. The Camino for the wanderer who might be interested in doing it “just because”—Penner at one point puts his legacy in the mouths of his nephews, asking, “Would they ever be inspired by the fact that Uncle Lyndon once walked 800 kilometres across Spain for no apparent reason?” The Way of the Gardener is a pilgrimage for the grumpy and the grounded and Penner is their patron saint. God love him.
—Megan Clark is a writer and public librarian from Lethbridge.