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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

November 20, 1994|DICK RORABACK

OFF THE ROAD: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim's Route Into Spain by Jack Hitt (Simon & Schuster; $22; 255 pp.) Pilgrim . There's a hum to it, a mantra, a must. "The more I tried on this awkward word, the more I liked its ill fit," writes Jack Hitt. Whatever possessed Hitt--Viking-sized, 35, American Episcopalian--to toss up a comfortable life and trek across northern Spain, Basque country, to westernmost Santiago de Compostela, the reader is the richer. Whether or not the apostle James is buried there (the ancient story owes its origins to a typo), Dante himself proclaimed the journey the One True Pilgrimage: There is no earthly reason to go to Santiago, but to go. Hitt went, and recounts his hajj in luminous prose. At times Chaucerian in tone and scope, at times reflective, even magical, Hitt's chronicle resounds with wit, wonder and curiosity satisfied. Side trips of speculation lead to a consideration of stylites and dendrites and Benedictines, Crusaders ("vulgar mercenaries") and Knights Templar ("a splendid drama of political jostling, gems, gold, forts, popes, kings and divine mysteries"), of the Song of Roland, the ecclesiastical origin of Friday the 13th, religious relics (a dispute over two heads of John the Baptist was resolved when it was declared that one was the head of John as a youth, the other as an adult). Closer to earth are Canterbury tales of wacky fellow travelers, of "rugged, ugly plains" and the "primal soup" of lanes well traveled by cows, of minor miracles and a village, where pilgrims used to wash in the river, called Lavacola (wash tail). And finally, the revelation that "the road takes up residence within us and becomes a way to something else."

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