The Camino de Santiago in northwestern Spain has long fascinated me not only as a hiking route but as a spiritual phenomenon.
Catholics and others have walked the 500-mile trail for centuries, but I had been at a loss to find an engaging account of this famous route until I picked up “A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus.
The book is part travelogue, part memoir. The overriding arc of the story is the author’s strained relationship with his father, a rabbi who came out as a gay man late in life and left the home he shared with his wife and two sons. In his struggle to find himself and to come to terms with his father’s story and their relationship, Lewis-Kraus embarks on a series of pilgrimages around the world, including the Camino de Santiago.
I know what you’re thinking: If I have to read one more book about an American going overseas to find himself, I’m going to … But Lewis-Kraus has written a fascinating and engaging story of his journey in Spain, Japan and the Ukraine. Like Bill Bryson’s account of walking stretches of the Appalachian Trail in “A Walk in the Woods,” Lewis-Kraus captures the color and characters along these routes, as well as the endless drudgery and monotony – not to mention sore feet. His humor and wit carry the reader along this purposeful journey. Alone and with hiking companions, Lewis-Kraus has interesting encounters with pilgrims from all over the world, each walking for his own reasons, most of them secular.
After wrapping up his trip in Spain, Lewis-Kraus completes two lesser-known pilgrimages. One is a circuit of 88 Buddhist temples on the Japanese island of Shikoku. The other is in Uman, Ukraine, where author, father and brother — along with thousands of other religious Jews — pay homage to the tomb of a Hasidic mystic. There, the brothers finally get some answers and find a way forward with their father.