Paul Catalanotto: The joy of a good nib

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Santiago de Compostela is a famous pilgrimage site drawing Catholics from around the world to venerate what are believed to be the remains of St James, and drawing travellers to the many paths of the Camino. Photo: caminodocumentary.org

I wanted a pen companion (a penpanion?) for a long walk across Spain on one of the millennia-old Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trails to record my day-to-day interactions and thoughts.

This sounds like an easy task, and it probably is for most people in the world. However, this is not the case when you are a pen enthusiast and have an overly analytical mind.

The plan was to walk the most popular Camino route known as the French Way, a 800-kilometre trek originating in St Jean Pied de Port, France then going over the Pyrenees Mountains, through Spanish wine country, across the meseta, and into the celtic-infused region of Galacia and finally finishing in Santiago, Spain, so the pen needed to last for the duration.

Before departing, I had an excellent feel for what I would experience: walking on dusty trails, over mountains, along roads for 8 hours, and then sharing rooms with other pilgrims (strangers at first but friends at the end), lots of sun, and a few plane flights.

Since I would be carrying all my gear with me in a backpack, weight was also a consideration. With this in mind, I asked for help on several popular pen forums and Facebook groups, hoping to find my perfect penpanion.

I quickly learned that asking people what they considered the best travel pen is like asking, “Who is the best footballer of all time?” You get all kinds of answers and recommendations.

Simply asking, “What is the best travel pen?” on the forums resulted in a similar sort of heated argument among pen fanatics of the kind you might see at a football match, where players – without the umpire – argue over whether or not the runner the ball was marked.

Some fans insisted that ballpoint pens were the way to go. Others believed fountain, rollerball, or gel pens were ideal.

They usually all had excellent reasons as to why their pen of choice was a good travel pen. One gentleman even seemed willing to die on his hill in believing that the Space Pen (which can write upside down) was the best pen ever made and would only recommend that pen for everything.

A smooth nib, a book to write in, ink that flows lusciously and a 500 kilometre jaunt can do a fellow a power of good.
A smooth nib, a book to write in, ink that flows lusciously and a 500 kilometre jaunt can do a fellow a power of good.

I knew my pen preference, so that helped narrow my search. I was looking for a fountain pen. Even by narrowing my search, there was still considerable debate as to what made a great and perfect travel pen.

We discussed and argued over the merits of weight, pen size, ink capacity, cost (particularly if the pen is lost or stolen), and material (plastic, resin, metal, wood, etc). We even weighed the virtues of cartridges (international or proprietary) and converters while traveling on a long trip in a foreign land.

Suggestions of pocket pens, old new stock pens slimmer than wooden school pencils, pens that would survive a nuclear explosion and subsequent fallout, and pens with huge ink reservoirs were all offered as possible solutions.

More pens than a person can possibly try in the course of a lifetime were recommended – I know because I tried and even hunted down some.

After trying, trying, and trying more pens than I think is healthy for one’s mental sanity and bank account, I finally found The Pen (actually two pens) that I wanted to take.

To my chagrin, my final decision was influenced not by any of the forums or question boards or Facebook groups, but by Stephen Covey and the late Reverend Billy Graham.

Drawing wisdom from Covey’s book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I took a step back and considered beginning with my end goal in mind.

As mentioned earlier, my goal was to keep a daily journal of my month-long walk across Spain. However, Covey’s wisdom was lacking, as any pen could still be used for that purpose. It wasn’t until I heard a little adage about the Reverend Billy Graham that I was able to conclude my search.

The Reverend Graham was often asked, “What translation of the Bible should I be using?” His response: “The one you read.”

If someone were to ask me what is the best pen to take on a trip across Spain, or a trip anywhere for that matter, the answer is simple. Take the pen you enjoy using and the pen you are going to use.
If someone were to ask me what is the best pen to take on a trip across Spain, or a trip anywhere for that matter, the answer is simple. Take the pen you enjoy using and the pen you are going to use.

Eureka! So, I asked myself, “What would be your perfect travel pen?” I responded: “The one I’m going to use to write with and that I am going to enjoy writing with.”

That’s when I realised I wasn’t looking for a travel pen, but a pen to use while travelling. Boom, done.

I grabbed my daily fountain pen writer and a rollerball from my shelf, and my search was complete. I had found my penpanions.

My problem, I didn’t realise until later, was that I became bogged down in specifications and details and forgot to factor-in purpose and enjoyment into the equation.

I could have used someone else’s perfect travel pen recommendation, and for them, it might have been the ideal travel pen and a pen perfect for traveling, but it would not have been my perfect traveling pen. It would not have been my penpanion.

Therefore, I would have used the pen sparingly, as I probably would not enjoy writing with it as much as some of my other pens, and thereby my journal would have minimal writing in it.

So, if someone were to ask me what is the best pen to take on a trip across Spain, or a trip anywhere for that matter, the answer is simple. Take the pen you enjoy using and the pen you are going to use.

That isn’t say that things like cost, material, size, trip location, and activities are not part of the final equation, but I believe use and enjoyment should be the things a person factors into choosing a pen to use when traveling.

If you are wondering, I took a Platinum 3776 Century in Chartres Blue with a small vial of Noodler’s Texas Black Bat ink, and my second was a pen with a Montblanc rollerball insert.