David Downie, author of Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James, was May's featured speaker at Left Coast Writers Literary Salon. Downie described his account of the 750-mile sojourn along El Camino de Santiago del Campostela as an "anti-pilgrimage" book; he originally wanted to title it The Other Way in opposition to the (schmaltzy, judging by the trailer) 2010 Martin Sheen film "The Way."
"You may have guessed, I'm not a believer. I went to seek enlightenment in the form of losing weight," the prolific food and wine writer joked, adding, "The process of walking three months on pilgrimage as an atheist was daunting."
But Paris to the Pyrenees isn't simply a personal memoir or travel book about the trail. The book that took years to write, sculpted from about 20 notebooks tucked into a Ziploc bag, is filled with the politics and history of the medieval route built over an ancient Roman road. The author of Paris, Paris, Journey into the City of Light as well as a dozen nonfiction books, two thrillers and features in more than 50 print publications says his fascination with ancient Rome began as a boy, when he moved to the city with his Roman mother.
Downie, who grew up in San Francisco, calls himself "an accidental Parisian." He was underwhelmed by Paris when he first visited the city in 1976, dismayed by how much had been torn down and rebuilt in cement in the brutalist style of Georges Pompidou. But when he returned to Paris ten years later, after leaving a job in Milan, he felt he'd "lived more in those few days than years in Italy."
He describes his first residence as a maid's room on the seventh floor (no elevator), with a bathroom down the hall shared by 20. There was no window--only a skylight. Now the author, along with his wife--photographer Alison Harris, who accompanied him and whose 80 photographs (of 8,000 taken) appear as a photo essay in the book--directs custom walking tours through their company Paris, Paris Tours.
Downie wrote his first few travel articles on spec many years ago for Don George, then-editor of the San Francisco Chronicle's travel section. Ironically, Downie had spent his youth in that office, where his father happened to be the paper's first travel editor. After years reporting for publications like Gourmet and the self-proclaimed hyperactive caffeine addict who experienced liver failure from excessive food and drink experienced the Saint Jacques pilgrimage as a "walking meditation."
"I rediscovered the sound of silence and reconnected with my body and feet," he said, also remarking on the difficulties of return to Paris life--paying the bills, haggling with the cheese monger.
Although Downie admitted his "knee-jerk anti-clericalism and militant atheism simmered down" while on the walk, he became convinced we humans are all "electromagnetic plants affected by light, heat and how much water you can get," citing daily concerns whittled down to the search for food, water and a place to sleep.
Did you feel a calling? someone in the audience asked, despite Downie's stalwart claims.
"If there's any calling, it's from within. I do think I was called to walk this to change my life," the skeptic said, confessing that the journey left him with "a heightened sense of the great mystery."