“Where the Waves Turn Back” is Tyson Motsenbocker’s memoir of walking the Camino Real from San Diego to San Francisco after the death of his mother. The book opens a few weeks before his mother’s death. She’s in hospice and the family has gathered to be with her. In one of her conversations with Tyson, she challenges him to take time to grieve and be sad. She knows that he doesn’t like to sit in sadness and wants him to process his feelings.
At first he is not sure how he will accomplish his mother’s challenge to him. As he reflects, he’s reminded of Junípero Serra who arrived in California during the Spanish colonial period and established a string of missions along the California coast. Tyson recognizes both Serra’s faith that inspired him to travel across the world and dedicate himself to do what God called him. Tyson doesn’t shy away from discussing the positives and negatives of Serra’s legacy; he’s direct about the brutality that colonization brought to the Native Californians. Tyson wonders if he, like Serra, is doing wrong even though he believes it is right. He is inspired to take this journey and test his own faith and pursue the pilgrimage to process both his grief and his faith and find out what kind of person he is.
Beginning at the mission in San Diego, Tyson begins his pilgrimage along the Camino Real and the California Coast. Each chapter is a segment of the trip, usually coinciding with the next mission along the trail. There are a lot of interesting incidents along the way due not only to the fact that the Camino Real is not a developed pilgrimage route ,such as the Spanish Camino de Santiago, but the fact that in many places the Camino Real has been developed into housing or freeways. For most of the pilgrimage, Tyson has to literally and figuratively forge his own trail.
One of the events that stood out to me is when Tyson is in Big Sur at the top of a mountain at sunset overlooking the Pacific. He’s admiring the hillside and all of the foliage, while a bunch of locals and tourists all have their phones out trying to catch a picture of the sunset. Tyson is frustrated that no one is paying attention to the non-cliche beauty of the area before realizing that maybe he is the problem. Just because he does not want another Pacific sunset photo, does not mean that the folks taking the pictures are experiencing any less beauty; for them, this is a special moment.
Tyson then wonders if this is like believers’ relationship with God. Sometimes people of faith think that how they see God is the ONLY way to see God. He considers that maybe God is bigger than one person’s perspective and can be experienced in many different ways, all of which are “correct.”
Along the way Tyson runs into several serious issues. His knees lock up the first day, he ends up covered in human excrement, and later experiences legit loneliness. However, whenever he’s in the midst of these crises, someone always comes along to help. Sometimes it is a stranger and sometimes it is friends who planned to spend time walking with him, the parents of friends who take him in for the night. It reminds me of the famous Mr. Rogers’ quote about always looking for the helpers whenever anything bad is going on.
The part I liked best is when he is at one of the stops towards the end of his journey. He really opens himself up to grief and the memory of his mother. The way he describes the moment is touching and beautiful. Having “traveled” with Tyson up to this point, the reader feels some of that same catharsis. Just as we feel sad for him and his grief, we celebrate that his pilgrimage is fulfilling the challenge.
After completing the book, I wondered what American culture would be like if we had a pilgrimage tradition. I wondered what trails would develop across the country besides the Camino Real. I know that many hikers traverse the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, but is that something that pilgrims of any ability would be able to attempt? And what changes would it bring to the greater culture when we see more and more pilgrims along these routes. Would it remind us that everyone grieves? That everyone needs time to step away from the comforts and recenter themselves?
I would recommend this book to those that enjoy travel narratives and to book clubs. There is a lot to digest and discuss whether individually or with a group. I will say, and this is coming from an English teacher, that some of the narrative structure and writing is not polished or what we might think of for most travel narratives. I can see it distracting some readers, but for me it gave it a more authentic feel, like he was telling me the story rather than me just reading it.