Elaine writes: I wake to total darkness in unfamiliar surroundings. It’s 5 o’clock in the morning and Joe isn’t laying there beside me. He’s sleeping on a twin bed on the other side of the room. We’ve just spent our first night in an albergue in St. Jean Pied de Port, a small town in southern France. We are nestled at the foot of the Pyrnees, a tall, broad mountain range that separates Spain from France. Even though I’m feeling a bit lonely in my solitary bed, I make a mental note that I will try to make every experience on this journey meaningful whether I’m scared and alone or with Joe.
Was I ready for this extended…what do I call it? Vacation? Pilgrimage? Trek? None of these words seem to capture what’s going on in my head, or what I am doing here. I am not particularly religious so I feel phony calling myself a “peregrino,” spanish for pilgrim. A vacation to me is relaxing with built-in itineraries, swimming pools, tropical drinks and cabanas. We don’t even know how many days it will take us to finish this journey and I suspect the cabanas will be few and far between. I finally decide I can live with the word “trek” because these can be as long and as primitive as I want. Is it wrong to wish for short and luxurious? If I have the stamina to finish this, it will be the longest journey of my lifetime. In fact, if I take every hike I have ever completed and strung them end-to-end, I would still have to multiply by 10 to reach the 800 kilometers laying between us and Santiago de Compostela.
Joe writes: Tuesday night was Poker Night. The six of us were sitting around a small, round table in the back room of an old auto repair garage. It’s a bit surreal, the smell of cigars and engine grease, the sound of a compressor occasionally starting up to replenish the slowly leaking air tank, a dog barking outside in the fenced storage lot. I was sitting across the table from my younger brother, Steve, and some childhood friends, all of them with greying hair and mid-life paunches. We’d all grown up in Holyoke or one of the other small surroundings towns here in western Massachusetts. I’d been gone for over 25 years now. My desire to explore the world, other cultures and ways of living had forced me to leave this comfortable community of family and friends. I was afraid that if I’d remained here I’d have stagnated. That fear kept me away for a very long time. After Elaine’s retirement last year we’d decided to return back home to be closer to our family and friends …..and here they were sitting in front of me as if I’d never left.
The next morning I woke up with a hangover, not from drinking but from smoking too many cigars. My lifestyle had diverged from theirs a long time ago and now my body couldn’t keep up with the abuse. I walked away from the poker table down 85 dollars and decided to spend the night at Steve’s house instead of making the hour long trip back home. Needing some aspirin and a strong cup of coffee I climbed out of bed and headed for the kitchen. Steve had beat me to the coffee maker and the smell of fresh brewed coffee filled the kitchen. While Steve and I were sitting at the kitchen table, I was still contemplating the next big trip for Elaine and me. We talked about it for a few minutes before moving on to more immediate topics like what our plans were for the day. We were sitting there in the morning sunshine with our coffee’s in hand when I heard a large, lumbering aircraft overhead. Glancing out the kitchen window, I saw the low flying C5 Transport. Steve reminded me that Westover Air Force Base was just a few minutes away and that there were several flights a week taking off for parts unknown. That simple observation is what started my gears in turning.
Elaine: Why am I sitting here on this bed packing all of my belongings into a bag that I’ll be carrying on my back for the next 500 miles? It’s because I am at a turning point in my life. I have decided to do something I have been way too scared to do…ever. I have left my job. I have left behind the security of a regular paycheck to pursue my dream to live life in the moment, to really live before I die. Sometimes I think about my decision and wonder if I have gone completely crazy. I am at the peak of my earning capacity, I am comfortable in my profession and recognized as an international expert in the field of psychopharmacology. I had worked long and hard, sacrificing many things, to build the solid reputation and work ethic that I have now walked away from. But none of that matters this morning. What matters is whether I can make it up, over and down the other side of the Pyrenees today. I am scared. I don’t know what to expect from myself or the mountains. Damn! I knew I should have trained for this. Why was I so content to just lay in bed reading books about the pilgrimage when I should have been backpacking on some mountains back home, or at least hiking over some hills! Well, it’s too late now. I need to just lace up these hiking shoes I bought last week and get moving. This is how I started my first day on the Camino de Santiago.
Joe: I explained to Steve over the kitchen table that one of the perks of retiring from the military is what’s called Space-A Travel. It’s a program where the military and their families can fly on military aircraft if there are empty seats available. “You mean you can fly for free anyplace in the world?” he asked. “Yes” with a sly grin on my face. I decided right there at the kitchen table that as soon as my coffee cup was empty I’d drive over to Westover Air Force Base to investigate. Steve taunted, “Here we go, Joe’s off again to prove that his career won’t run his life.” I quipped in return “Anybody can travel the world if they’re willing to make the right choices, even a homebody like you.”
I walked into the Space-A Terminal at Westover 30 minutes later. It was your typical military aircraft hanger with cinder block offices painted that pale-blue color I’d come to expect from the interiors of old Air Force buildings. It seemed completely empty until I walked down the hall into another room with benches, tables, TVs and a kitchenette. There were three men in casual attire just picking up their carry-on luggage. They were being escorted out the side door to the flight line by a young uniformed master sergeant. This must be the place. Dan, a white-haired Space-A representative walked up to me and asked if I needed assistance. I told him I wanted to learn everything there is to know about Space-A travel. Dan seemed to have more energy than someone half his age. He immediately took on the challenge and I began my first Space-A 101 class. How to sign up, where to go, when to go, best times to travel, how not to get bumped by high priority passengers. Over the next hour he covered it all. I learned that most of the Westover C5 flights go to Rota, Spain (Elaine has always wanted to visit Spain). When he began to explain all the cool things we could do while relaxing on the Mediterranean, I mentioned to him that we were looking for something a little more active, something that would expose us to the real people of Spain, someplace away from the typical tourist destinations. Dan’s eyes lit up and a sly smile slowly grew on his face. “Oh, then you need to walk the Camino de Santiago.” I looked at him quizzically and he quickly continued, “I did it myself last year!” As Dan went on I became aware of his strength of presence, his ability to focus on the here and now. We immediately became friends and sat down in his office. For the next two hours he told me everything there was to know about the Camino; what to expect, what to bring, where to go. The most important part of our conversation was when he said with such commitment, “The Camino changed my life” These are words I would soon hear repeatedly from others and see later in scores of blogs, books, and movies about the Camino. I left Dan that day with a sense of urgency to find out more about a journey that left such a imprint on a him.
The Way of Saint James (a.k.a. The Camino de Santiago) is a 500-mile spiritual pilgrimage across the Pyrenees, through the provinces of northern Spain, ending at the Saint James Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. The route has existed for over a thousand years. It was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times together with Rome and Jerusalem. I learned that a plenary indulgence (forgiveness on earth) could be earned with the completion of the Camino. Although neither of us were practicing Catholic’s, the idea of being pardoned on earth for our sins was intriguing.
It was the perfect journey; appealing to our desire to push both our physical and our mental limits. There was also a deeper meaning and purpose that pulled deeply at me. Several years ago, my dad, John, and I had made a pact to hike the Appalachian Trail. Not the whole trail at once, just parts of it each year. John died on the trail in 2007. It would have been our third year backpacking together. I had blown it off that year at the last minute because of work and other “perceived” demands on my time. We’d started this annual event after he’d had triple-bypass surgery and committed himself to living a more healthy and active lifestyle. I’d committed myself to accompanying him on these yearly hikes as “insurance.” He was alone that day when he stepped onto the trail and his death has left a permanent scar in me. After his funeral, I was cleaning out his camping van and found my old, well-worn hiking stick. He had brought it with him on the trip in the hopes that I would be there with him for the journey. I wasn’t. To this day I use his Kelty backpack for all my travels and my walking stick hangs on my office wall waiting for the next journey to begin. I will carry John with me for every step of this Camino, maybe a plenary indulgence really will earn this sinner a pardon for past sins.
Elaine: Before I step out onto this path I want to explain how my decision to walk the Camino came about. After all, it is usually one of the top questions trekkers ask each other during the course of the pilgrimage, “What made you decide to walk the Camino?” I would like to say that my decision was based on my desire to prove my faith and devotion to God but that would be a lie. I didn’t even want to consider walking the Camino when Joe told me it was 500 miles from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago. After learning about the Camino, Joe and I watched the movie “The Way”. It moved Joe in a way I hadn’t ever seen before. It had to do with the main character who had lost his son to the Camino but found himself when he flew to Spain to recover the body. The main character had resisted the idea of his son’s pilgrimage and bluntly declared it a waste of time. Once he arrives in Spain though, the “pull” of the Camino begins. His life takes a course he never expected, or even thought he wanted. This movie spoke to Joe because of the loss of his father on the Appalachian Trail and he lives with the regret of not being there for him. The reason the character spoke to me was because he was working and living a comfortable life as a doctor in a life that he had “chosen” for himself. There was one important difference though between the main character and me. He had never doubted the correctness of his decision until his son died. I knew I could no longer stay in my profession without getting sucked into a vortex of permanent anger, anxiety and stress.
As a military psychologist, I was treating warfighters who had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The stories that led them to my office were getting uglier and harder to listen to. Their deployments had been layered one on top of the other. It wasn’t just one or two years in the desert, it was 4, 5 and 6 deployments over the span of several years with more losses, more injuries, more tragedies. How many times can a person leave their family for 1 to 2 years at a clip, witness the death of close friends, and still have a viable, healthy bond with loved ones back home. How many times can you go to funerals for the people you love, who you might even owe your life to before becoming angry and mistrusting? I noticed that as the stories became more gut-wrenching, I was starting to feel like them, mostly agitated. I was taking their “stuff” home with me and into my personal life. The act of showering and imagining I was washing off all the turmoil, grief, anger, anxiety and hopelessness wasn’t working anymore. I was the person putting the oxygen mask on everyone else, and had forgotten to put it on myself. I turned in my notice at the hospital and left my old life behind.
Joe: Elaine and I have committed to taking unique, meaningful journeys each year. Journeys that push our limits, that break down the barriers caused by our fears and anxiety. Elaine’s views are different from mine, and because of that, our experiences when we travel are different. We may be on the same journey but there is an imbalance in our individual comfort levels that I must be vigilant in attending to. Because of my nature, I have sought unfamiliar paths all my life. My own anxieties of dying without making a difference in the world have kept me on the move. For me, the unexpected challenges that inevitably occur when stepping out onto an uncharted path are simply new opportunities to learn an alternate route. Most people are not as accepting when that plane flight gets diverted, when that paved road turns into a goat path, or when that last room at the inn is no longer available. After serving in the Air Force for 21 years, Elaine suffers from disturbing anxieties which cause her to be even more reactive when there’s a sudden change of events. For our journeys to be positive and meaningful, the compassion and understanding that we want to share must start at home. It must start in our marriage, the most important journey of all. When these inevitable changes happen, I must remember to be gentle as my partner fights her own reactions as she uncharacteristically tries to put our travel theory into practice. Our mantra: “the plan is not to have a plan.”
Elaine: Joe is right. For a person who suffers from anxiety over creating the best plan and then checking it twice, this mantra can be gut wrenching when put into action. Not having a plan means anything can happen-good or bad. I have a tendency to expect the bad.
Joe: So far our travels have taken us throughout Europe as well as Central and North America. Last year we’d explored Croatia and Slovenia and saw amazing openness and acceptance from a people that just a generation earlier had suffered great losses from a protracted war. This year, I’d been considering the Trans-Siberian Railway, a 9,000 kilometer trip that would take us across Russia, skirting Mongolia, Manchuria and China, eventually ending at the Sea of Japan. Elaine was pushing for something a little more healthy, a journey with more exercise than just sitting on a train. We continued to throw ideas (and fears) back and forth but hadn’t settled on any specific path. Then, by the simple twist of fate of a C5 flying overhead, we were introduced to “The Way of Saint James.” This is our story.
5 Days Ago: Our Private C5 Transport
09/11/2012, Westover AFB, MA
Elaine writes: The Camino is already pulling us into its circle of enlightenment. We left our comfortable home, loving family and friends and drove to Westover AFB in order to catch a military “hop” to Spain. Flying “Space A” on a military hop means that if space is available one can fly anywhere that plane is going for free. We considered this a perfect way to travel since I had recently retired from the Air Force and had earned not only the privilege but also the time to travel more liberally. Arriving at Westover, we found we were the only passengers waiting for a seat assignment. The downside was that we would only be able to fly as far as Dover AFB in Delaware. The C5 flying from Dover to Rota, Spain was already filled to capacity with equipment. They asked if we still wanted to take the chance and fly in to Dover anyway. We didn’t even have to check with each other before simultaneously responding, “yes!” Joe and I had already made the decision to remain completely flexible and spontaneous during our trip, our mantra leading up to this moment was: “the plan is not to have a plan” and we recited it daily for weeks before leaving home.
As I sat waiting for Joe to return from parking the car we were surprised by a visitor. It was Dan, who is also retired from the Air Force like me. He had walked the Camino the year prior. Dan had made a special trip to the terminal at Westover just to wish us a “Buen Camino” and to answer any last minute questions we might have about the trek. He probably regretted doing this because I bombarded him with questions non-stop:
- Do you think I should bring these walking sticks?
- Do blister-free socks really make a difference?
- What are the albergues like? Is it hard to sleep with so many people around you?
- Is it true you don’t really need much water because there are so many places along the way to get drinks?
- Should I wear ankle-high hiking boots or comfortable sneakers?
There were also unanswered questions that I kept to myself because they seemed too personal:
- When people say I am crazy for doing this, how do I stop myself from agreeing with them?
- Why are we as Americans more inclined to run marathons than walk a pilgrimage?
- What will motivate me to continue walking when my feet feel like they’re on fire?
I don’t think Dan was prepared for me. He and Joe had struck up a friendship during Joe’s previous Space-A “fact-finding” trips to Westover. It was easy to see he wanted to relive some of the wonder and excitement he experienced as part of his own life-altering Camino. As we talked, he spontaneously declared, “The Camino will change your life.” He didn’t just stop there; it was as if he was animated by some force prompting him to go on, “Even after it’s over, it will continue to teach you new lessons in your everyday life. You will find that the pilgrims you meet along the Way were placed on your same path for a reason. There is nothing random on the Camino. You will be amazed by what others are put there to teach you and by the things you will be put there to teach them. Months and years down the road, your life will continue to reveal the rewards of this journey in so many ways, it will thoroughly surprise you.”
Dan talked about how the Camino had helped him heal after the loss of his wife to cancer. They were just starting to hit a stride with their post-military retirement travels, they had just started living when she learned of her terminal illness. He thought his life was over after his wife passed. But the Camino changed all that. Dan quoted from a book by John Updike in which a character exclaims (I am paraphrasing), “I had no idea this experience would hold the key to the rest of my life.” Dan had gone on the Camino not entirely sure of his purpose but knowing he needed to continue healing. He walked away from his Camino with a new family of friends. He also met someone who continues to enrich his life in a new relationship and who makes him feel at the age of 60, that he can still have the romance and passion of a teenager.
As we prepared to leave Dan and our home, I wondered whether we would be as blessed as Dan. His courage to take the time to focus on his emotional recovery by changing the routine and sadness of his life had made all the difference in his life. So far, I can say the little surprises on just that first morning were both bountiful and wonderful. Besides the gift of Dan, we were given two tickets on a military flight that would carry us all the way to Rota, Spain.
We innocently chose September 11 as our departure date from the US. It just happened to work out that way but the symbolism could not be ignored. Legend has it that Saint James preached the words of Jesus and was beheaded in Jerusalem for his religious convictions by King Herod. After his death Queen Lupa and the Romans conspired to erase his Christian history by destroying his relics as well as killing his disciples. It is said that he then rose from the dead to battle the Moors (Muslims) who had later conquered this area of Europe. Interesting enough the Muslims had also introduced a peaceful period of democracy, tolerance and religious freedom. Our departure date reminded us of the conflict not only between Spain and the Muslim community, but the headline-grabbing American struggle between Christians and those of Islamic faith. What a perfect time, and occasion to show faith.
Our idea of traveling to a different land and embracing the diversity of our European brethren did not rest on fears about religious and political conflict or commemorating “anniversary attacks.” But then again, how much in life turns out exactly as planned? It reminded me of the old joke, “How do you make God laugh? Answer: Make plans.” We were to learn this lesson so many times along the Camino that it became natural for us to just let go of our need to control and act as spectators, trusting that events would unfold as they should. It is amazing how often trusting in the goodness of God or in the Perfection of life opens us up to experiences we would have never enjoyed had we remained locked into one outcome. Consider a quote from Kahlil Gibran:
“Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you as by the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens.”
This is exactly what the field of psychology is built upon. Here was a chance to take theory into the real world and where it really counts, on an unfamiliar path with unfamiliar faces converging from all over the world to walk for countless reasons down a path forged by peasants, royalty, doctors, artisans, priests and paupers. The “attitude” both Joe and I attempted to cultivate in this case was to learn from all of them, even the supernatural spirits we would meet as we passed simple memorials, ancient churches and the great statues of historical figures.
Tim Ferris, in his book, The 4-hour Work Week, said it is important to claim all of your dreams even if they seem petty or materialistic such as “I want to own a Lamborghini some day.” The important thing is that you claim them all–big, small, material, physical, spiritual anything you really want with no worry about how others will perceive them or whether they will really come true. Well, when I retired from the Air Force, I dreamed about how great it would be to fly business-class. It seemed like a pipe dream because after all, who can afford to fly business class on a retiree’s salary? In my wild fantasies, I pictured life with me disembarking from an airplane after a 9-hour flight looking fresh and rested–not all twisted up like a pretzel! But my vision was that I would need to make more money, work harder, certainly not retire to make this dream come true. This is how the Camino started for me, the first lesson was about how our vision should not be limited by a narrow idea of how these dreams are supposed to come true or about how things are supposed to happen. Instead of spending extra money that I didn’t have for business class, we were given a “free ticket” as private passengers, just Joe and me, with rows and rows of empty seats on a military aircraft. We had our own personal active duty “flight attendant” and even a refrigerator for our food. It felt better than business class, even better than first class because it came with a life lesson.
Lesson for the Day: “Remain open to your dreams but don’t be so quick to decide by what means they will come true.”
A wonderful gift may not be wrapped as you expect.”
― Jonathan Lockwood Hui
2 Days Ago: Security Alert!
09/15/2012, Seville to Bilbao
We thought today would be pretty uneventful, just a quick jaunt from Seville to Bilbao on the North Atlantic coast of Spain via Ryan Air, a no frills airline that offers cheap direct flights throughout Europe. We left Seville for the airport expecting that the most stressful challenge was going to be keeping our luggage to carry-on size. Let’s just say, WE WERE WRONG! We’d been told back at the Rota Naval Air Station that we would have to get our passports stamped at a police station so we’d have a record of entering the country. The typical customs procedures are not followed when arriving by military plane to a military base so we had no record of our arrival in Spain, at least as reflected by our passports. We thus walked to a police station in Seville under the blistering hot sun only to find that it was closed on weekends. Yes, it is still Africa hot here in the middle of September.
Joe: “Oh, come on darling, it was a nice day, a lot like New Mexico in the summer…. it’s a dry heat.”
Elaine: After finding that the police station was closed, we worked our way back to the center of the city to see the sights. On the way, we stopped at a tourist center and asked about any other police station where we could get our passports stamped. They directed us to the Police HQ about a kilometer away. We headed that way strolling through the fashion district and then into a “gypsy” looking area with a large central courtyard and some pretty rough looking people hanging out smoking cigarettes. I couldn’t help thinking that the police had picked a good location for their headquarters. We found the entrance to the building, and walked up to an officer sitting just inside the door. He listened patiently as we explained our problem with the passport documentation and he seemed genuinely apologetic when he declared, “Sorry, wrong place, you were supposed to get that done in Rota.” We had unwittingly traveled to Seville with the idea that we would just find any police station to document our entry. It turns out the passports had to be stamped at any police station within Rota, not any place in Spain. Maybe it was the sweat streaming down both our faces, or our pathetically wilted expressions (and clothing) that made him offer up a solution. It was simple, “Why don’t you just go to the airport?” Duhh! Why didn’t we think about getting a passport stamped at an airport?
Joe: By now Elaine is starting to wear down and I’m also starting to get stressed. We have several potential issues coming up at the airport tonight:
1) We are in a foreign country without proper documentation.
2) We have carry on baggage that’s slightly oversized (Ryan Air changes as much for checked baggage as for passengers and they are very strict on size)
3) We have potential “weapons” consisting of aluminum and carbon fiber trekking poles, a Leatherman utility knife and a titanium spoon and fork that I want to try to get through security.
So off we go to the airport to jump the next few hurtles.
Elaine: First the passports! Entering the airport we headed for Arrivals not Departures. Joe flagged down an attendant and I asked her where to go to get our passports stamped. We were instructed to enter through the arrivals gate. We both looked over at the sliding arrival doors labeled in bright red letters “Security Zone: Do Not Enter” and then back to the attendant. “Are you sure we should go in there?” She assured us that is exactly what she meant then quickly dismissed us. We hesitantly headed in that direction. There was a crowd standing around the sliding exit doors waiting for their loved ones to come walking through. They stared at us as if we were insane as we practically “moonwalked” our way backwards towards the “Arrivals” gate hoping to pass unnoticed. We reached the closed doors and pushed then pulled at the sleek frosted glass. It refused to budge, no matter how much force I used. Once I got over the immediate panic and desire to run, it didn’t take much mental acumen to determine that automatic doors won’t open automatically from the wrong side of a security zone!
We courageously stood in place and waited for the next exiting passenger to trigger the doors. After what seemed like hours, an arriving passenger casually walked through, unwittingly colluding with our break-in. I was fully prepared to be taken down by the security agents as we brazenly took our first step through the doorway. We instantly received attention by a gun-carrying airport security, but instead of a takedown he greeted us warmly, “May I help you?” After we explained our dilemma we were directed to the International Police Office. Incredibly, we were allowed to walk freely within the secure area while carrying two large, fully loaded, uninspected backpacks. We made our way to the police Lieutenant’s office and explained our passport dilemma. He asked me where we were heading and I nervously stuttered “Balboa.” I think he sensed how close I was to becoming incontinent and said, “Oh, you mean Bilbao? You must be thinking of the movie with Rocky Balboa.” He said it with such a warm smile that it brought a wave of relief to my petrified heart. After that gentle ribbing he graciously stamped our passports without a second thought. I thought we had gotten through the worst of it but I was wrong again.
Joe: Elaine and I exited the Arrivals area while thanking every official we walked past, including the janitor. We then made our way to the airport Departures with confidence on the outside and trepidation on the inside. Approaching the x-ray machines at security we did the typical drill, emptied our pockets, removed our shoes, etc. Elaine went through first so she could distract them with her beauty. I was quick behind with a smile on my face and some liberal “Buenos dias!” I cleared the metal detector and reached for my backpack lying on the conveyor belt. But before I could even make first contact with the backpack, I heard a booming voice cry, “Alto! Alto!”
They nailed me! I didn’t have to understand a single word of Spanish to understand the security guard sitting at the x-ray monitor. “This guy’s got a knife and a titanium spoon in his bag!” The guard called to his supervisor and pointed out the articles on the screen. I was done for. “Midnight Express” here I come. I started stuttering “minuto knife” and “Camino-Camino de Santiago” several times but they just looked at me strangely. Elaine laughingly told me later that “minuto” doesn’t mean “miniature” it means “minute” in Spanish. The Chief of Security walked over while taking off his jacket as if preparing for a long interview with this foreigner. He instructed me to collect all my belongings and follow him to “The Room.” I grabbed all my stuff and shuffled behind him in my stocking feet to a private room while envisioning the upcoming cavity search and jail time. Elaine is quick behind me talking in non-stop staccato Spanish while waving her LtCol Military ID card with fire in her eyes. The next thing I know they are laughing (at me?) I’m hearing the words “Camino” and “Frances” repeated several times as the chief starts drawing an imaginary map of Spain on the wall with his finger indicating several different starting points for our route. HE DOESN’T EVEN OPEN MY BACKPACK! He asks Elaine to tell me to not pull out the knife while we are in the airport. We then hear our first authentic, “Buen Camino” and he sends us on our way.
Elaine: Did you say “fire” in my eyes? If fire is the new spelling for near death, then you would be right. I was so scared I didn’t even remember I had a military ID so it wasn’t my idea to wave it around. It was the Chief who asked me to produce identification and I didn’t even stop to look down when 50 euros and several credit cards tumbled onto the floor while I was searching for my ID. I don’t even remember what I was babbling in Spanish, I just recall how relaxed he seemed for a man who was about to penetrate Joe right in front of his own wife. Thank God he turned out to be pro-military. We are now in the airport on the correct side of the security zone waiting for our plane to Bilbao. Please let the boarding be boring.
Lesson for the Day: Today’s lesson is a simple one, “No Guts, No Glory!”
“You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” – Wayne Gretzky
Trail Day 1: Why is Everyone Passing Us?
09/17/2012, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncevailles, 25.1 km
Joe: We woke early. We were worried about our readiness for this journey and our ability to make it to the other side of the mountains by nightfall so we wanted to get an early start. Dressing and packing was a slow process in the darkness and the cold. On the old wooden box serving as a bedside table there was one small lamp with a light bulb the size of a Christmas tree ornament. It lit the angled ceilings of our attic room with barely enough light to see by. We were excited and anxious to get started. Shouldering our backpacks we took our first steps on the Camino de Santiago. We tried to make our way quietly down the narrow rear staircase but our ackwardness with our backpacks and the old age of the home caused the boards to creek and groan as we worked our way to the ground floor. We felt better when we heard other guest whispering in their rooms. They were making their own preparation for the Camino. It was 0600 hrs when we hit the cobbled streets of Saint-Jean and we were the first pilgrims out.
It was cold, dark and misty. We could barely see the signs and the soon to be familiar yellow arrow blazes pointing us in the right direction. Elaine lit the trail in front of us with her headlamp as we walked through the empty streets and started ascending out of the village. The multistoried village homes quickly transitioned to farmhouses, barns and fenced in pastures. We continued to ascended and then ascend some more up into the mountains. The sun started to light the eastern sky after about an hour and we soon started to hear voices gaining on us from behind. As the young and old alike approached and walked past us in the morning mist we started to wonder whether we were in over our heads. It didn’t take long for us to recover from the shock of being passed so effortlessly by the other pilgrims. We were soon saying to ourselves “They’re pushing themselves too hard.” “This isn’t a race, we are going to just take our time and enjoy the journey.” The sun eventually burned off the surrounding mist and the vistas opened up before our eyes. These were actually clouds that we were climbing through. The temperature started to climb right along with us and at the same time so did our pain, our exhaustion, and our heart rates. Still, the young and the old passed us by. “Buen Camino” was all that we could say between our labored breaths. How are they doing this to us? We searched for answers…anything to help maintain a shred of dignity we could grasp hold of in the face of our snails pace. It must be the altitude, we are not accustomed to it. My ultimate embarrassment was the white-haired elderly lady that looked to be at least 70 hiking with a group of middle age women that, yes, passed us by.
Reaching Orrison we took a much needed mid-morning break. Breakfast consisted of café-con-leche and a potato omelet that looks a lot like a quiche but with less flavor. By now there were a number of pilgrims on the trail, many crowding in at the bar at the Orrison albergue. This is a popular point of convergence simply because it is the only show in town, the next real establishment isn’t available until Roncevalles about 16 kilometers and several mountain-tops away. This was our first taste of the camaraderie we would continue to experience throughout the Camino. Pilgrims pulling off their backpacks, setting them down on the ground and walking off into the bar without a worry. Most seemed more relaxed then yesterday, and spontaneous conversations between strangers lit up like torches all around us. After replenishing our water supply at a single roadside fountain we kept on climbing into a sky so blue it could have come straight out of a crayon box.
The march up the steep slope of the mountains was exhausting work. We ascended above the tree-line where there was little shade or shelter. Herds of cattle and sheep grazed on the hillsides undaunted by the strangers coursing through their home. We had become part of their scenery but the grass proved far more attractive and in the end, they paused only for brief seconds to acknowledge the passing pilgrims. Elaine and I stopped often to readjust our gear, drink some water, tighten our shoes, then loosen them, then tighten them, then loosen them later still. We reached the top of the mountains and walked along the ridges and mountaintops. It was beautiful, the bright blue sky above us, billowy clouds below us and a hundred shades of green spread out to the horizon. The trails were not as steep up here and the temperatures were lower as was the oxygen. We found ancient fountains built into the sides of the hills to replenish our constantly dwindling supply of water. The Spaniards simply route spring water to bronze taps mounted in elaborate granite headstones. We must have each drank a gallon of water. We were in a constant state of thirst. Reaching the other side of the mountains, I soon found that I’m a much better climber than a descender. Elaine labored more than me on the assent but when we finally started to descend it was my turn to lag behind. It was very steep and gravely and my knees rebelled from the pain. It took all my will and the fear of being left behind to force my knees into submission so that we could make Roncevailles by nightfall.
We completed our first day of the Camino de Santiago walking through lush forests, crossing cold mountain streams and finally stepping into the courtyard of the Roncesvalles Royal Collegiate Church of Saint Mary. Since the 12th century this church has been receiving all manner of pilgrims: sick and well, Catholic, Jew, pagans, and heretics, the rich, the poor and the vagabond. I’m not sure which category we best fit into but after what we’d endured for our first day we were certainly open to any category that would get us through the front doors and into a bed. We were guided by fellow pilgrims to the most deceiving sanctuary. From the outside it looked like an ancient addition to a century’s old church but on the inside it was actually a fully modernized albergue capable of caring for up to 183 pilgrims. This albergue is manned completely by volunteers. All the hiking shoes are checked at the door and placed in the “mud room.” Next, is the line for bunk bed assignments in any one of the many 4-person “quad” cubicles. Most of the arriving pilgrims were walking around in a daze from exhaustion, but some still had enough energy to laugh and sport with the hospitaleros. As we settled in upstairs in our assigned quad and looked around, we noticed a guy wander into the girls showers without even noticing. Sometimes the confused souls were gently guided by the half-dressed women over to the men’s side, sometimes they were just left alone to have their shower and leave without a clue where they were. Our bunkmates were two beautiful 20-something women from Berlin that we’d met earlier on the trail. I knew I was out of my element when instead enjoying this man’s slice of “quad-heaven” I bet all three women that I’d be the first to fall asleep…….and eventually, I was. We’d ascended a total of 4000 feet and descended 1400 feet today. I’d read that the first day is always the worst, we sure won’t argue with that.
Elaine: Growing up in New York City, I’d never hiked more than two hours or longer than it took to get to the nearest McDonalds or on a healthy day, to the Subways for sandwiches. Arriving at Roncevalles was like reaching the Holy Land for me. I could have ended my pilgrimage right there and felt completely happy. When we first saw the Church of Saint Mary, I was struck by it’s enormity. I was also taken by the way it was collocated with an equally high-traffic, upscale hotel on the other side of the courtyard. I read a sign on the wall that said, “Do not talk to the pilgrims, they are here for rest.” I was actually grateful for the caution. I had visions of tourists interviewing the exhausted pilgrims prodding for esoteric reasons for why they were doing the pilgrimage when all they wanted to do was get showered, fed and rested.
Crawling into bed tonight, I got the answer to my question about whether I could sleep with a bunch of strangers around me. The answer was yes and no. Every muscle in my body was exhausted in a way I had never experienced before. My mind, on the other hand, was racing. I had seen such beauty today. The skies were so blue they looked like they were photo-shopped. The cows and sheep walked freely among us with no fear. Our birds-eye view above the clouds, the rugged and simple homes along the Way, it was like a dream. My mind played the scenes of the day like a projector in my head with no option for pausing.
I started this day with great fears, worrying that I couldn’t hike very far or climb mountains. I learned I could walk as far as necessary if I can but occasionally stop to catch my breath and rest my exhausted feet, and above all, if I can loosen my expectations about where I should be and when.
Lesson for Today: Looking up at clouds in the sky while lying in the grass is sure to nourish one’s tranquility. But reaching out to clouds so close you can touch them is soothing to the spirit. Maybe it’s because we subconsciously feel closer to heaven.
“March on. Do not tarry. To go forward is to move toward perfection. March on, and fear not the thorns, or the sharp stones on life’s path. And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” – Khalil Gibran
Trail Day 9: Losing Track of the Days
9/25/2012, Los Arcos to Viana, 18 km
Joe: I’m starting to lose track of the number of days we’ve been on this trek and the names of the towns we pass through. The only thing we tend to remember are the kilometers we’ve traveled and the kilometers still left ahead of us…..and the people. Our interactions with our fellow pilgrims and the local Spaniards seem to stick with us much more than any “normal” day at home. We’ll be walking down the road and a car will pass by and Elaine says, “wasn’t that the cafe owner from the other night?” I respond, “yeah, I think it is……why would we remember that?” Everyone we encounter seems to be so engaged with life. They are friendly and interactive in a way I’m not accustomed to back home. I eventually realize it’s not the people, it’s us! Yes, the Spaniards are a very friendly. Yes, our fellow pilgrims tend to be more open than the typical crowd in the grocery store, but the major change is within Elaine and me. Traveling in this manner makes us vulnerable. It forces us out of our typical comfort zone and into a “receptive” mode where our eyes and ears are attuned to the surrounding environment. We have to be! It’s out of our fear and anxiety. Our path meanders through villages, farmer’s fields, narrow wooded paths, and along major roads. Our Way can be easily lost with one wrong turn. So we watch, we listen, we ask, we pause, we question each decision to ensure we are not stranded on the top of a mountain at the end of the day.
This vigilance forced by our surroundings and the amount of time available to us to just think as we walk along has opened up another line of thought for me. It can be summed up in the old adage “we create our own reality.” The idea is that we each see and experience our surroundings and our lives in different ways and most of it is based on our attitude, our approach and reaction to the events unfolding in front of us. I don’t want to get in too deep here and start contemplating my navel so I’ll just use an example and move on. We walk into a village at the end of the day after hiking up and down mountains for the last 20 km. We are tired, we are sore, we are hungry. We now have to choose between a half-dozen different hostels for our accommodations. We can take one approach, which I’ll call “Reactionary.” It’s based on worry and anxiety. “Will we find a bed?” “Will it be quiet?” “Will it be clean?” “Will there be bed bugs?” “Will it be safe?” “Will they have hot water?” All these thoughts and more run through our heads and create stress and desperation. We seek out familiarity; we seek out our comfort zone and jump at the first place we find acceptable. Invariably, when we fall into this trap we later in the day find that there were much more interesting places to stay. We say to ourselves, “Gee, I wish we’d taken a little more time to check that place out before we settled.” The alternative approach is what I’ll call “Inquisitive.” It’s based on having faith. It’s based on having the courage, the strength to remain open to your surrounding with patience instead of fear. The Inquisitive approach would look like this: We enter a village and just relax, maybe wander around a bit, maybe we drop our backpacks and sit down for a glass of wine in the central plaza. This really requires some faith and courage because we are just exhausted and want to lie down and rest. Sooner or later though we get the feel of the town. We watch where the pilgrims congregate and where the locals congregate and allow events to naturally unfold. This method always, always works. We find an ideal place to stay; a standout local cafe with fresh food and good company. And when I say “ideal” I mean ideal for us based on our personal tastes, ideal in our own minds. We took the time to learn and explore. Could there have been an even better place to stay? Probably. Could there have been an even better place to eat, more interesting people to meet? Most likely, yes. Maybe the place we choose after taking our time would have been the same exact place as the the first one we saw and lunged for. But, the difference was in our attitude and that makes ALL the difference. Whatever happens is based on an active choice instead of a powerless submission to the pressures we perceive based on our fatigue, our fears, and feelings of vulnerability. We no longer feel like victims of our circumstances, we are active participants in how we want events to unfold and that’s what I mean by creating our own reality. We push aside our natural tendencies to seek out familiarity and comfort in an effort to reduce our anxiety. Instead, we keep our faith that things will unfold as they should.
The pilgrims of earlier centuries had no idea where they were going to lay their heads at night, no idea if they would have a meal available at the end of the day. They risked sickness, injuries, bandits, wars, extreme weather and religious prosecution during this trek. All they had was their faith in their God and in their fellow man to provide for them when the need came. We sure have it a lot easier in today’s world, and yet I think we often feel even more vulnerable, my anxious because we have come to expect a level of security that they never had.
Arriving in the larger town of Viana around mid-day we started searching for a pension that was recommended to us by an old man that was putting out flyers. It seems that the capability of these folks to make maps that can actually guide a stranger to a specific place is still evolving. I think it comes with the village culture. Everyone traditionally knows the details of their town because they’ve lived there all their life. In many of these towns the number of outsiders has been limited until the recent explosion of pilgrims on the Camino. Now that there are thousands of pilgrims passing through each year, the need for additional accommodations and the competition between facilities has also increased. Thus an elderly man, obviously a farmer at one time by his appearance, is now laying out maps and printing out flyers to guide the pilgrim to a warm meal and a soft bed. As best we tried, we could not find the pension on his flyer. Meandering through the streets and alleyways we eventually found a building indicated by the arrow marked on the map. We knocked but no answer. We anxiously knocked again, then suddenly a voice came over an intercom asking for an introduction. Elaine explained that we had used a flyer to direct us to this building. Seconds later the door was unlocked and we stood in front of a middle-aged woman, obviously in the middle of preparing dinner. We self-consciously explaining why we were attempting to make reservations at her private home. She was exceptionally good natured and within minutes we found ourselves being led back to the central square and cathedral by a tall teenager who, on the urgings of his mom, left his home (and dinner) to escort two perfect strangers to the visitor’s center. Once there, we found another couple, two Canadians waiting in front of a large door. The visitor center was closed for siesta.
Elaine: Coming from New York City, a town where our motto is “don’t make eye contact,” I have been brought up to believe that people are mostly prey or predators and if you want to survive, just stick with your friends and family–everyone else is suspect. This trip has revealed the same TRUTH I have witnessed on every single one of our journeys: having faith that things will work out no matter how scared I am will always leads me to places and people that change my life, for the better. Each time, I am provided some lesson or experience that makes me think, “I could die today and feel happy.” Take today for example: Joe and I had walked into the town of “Viana” and were feeling lost. There were so many buildings, people everywhere and so much unfamiliarity mixed with our own exhaustion that we decided to stop in at the tourist center and ask for information. While we were waiting, we struck up a conversation with some Canadians who had formed a line in front of the tourist center door which was closed for siesta. They’d completed their Camino and were hoping to get some information about their follow-on trip to Sicily. The couple grew tired of waiting and after some more chatting, they decided to move along. Now it was Joe and me at the front of the line. As we debated how much longer the Center’s door would remain closed, an elderly Spanish woman in her 90’s walked up to us. She asked me where we were from and if we were going to enter the cathedral which was right next to the tourist center. I told her we were not waiting to enter the Cathedral but rather waiting to ask about local accommodations. When we explained about the failed map this wizened and frail stranger offered to take us to her house and have us stay with her! I could not believe what I was hearing. This would never have happened in the Big Apple. I saw the compassion and trust in this woman’s eyes and I could not help but feel that we had been visited by an earthly angel. She was barely able to walk and was using a cane, but she gently touched my arm and said, “Don’t worry, I will take you to find a place to rest.” And she did! Now how does something like that happen unless both she and we had relied on faith and trusted that things would work out as they should? As Joe mentioned, this is not based on some blind faith, but an active choice we make to engage and to have faith that events will unfold as they are meant to be.
Lesson for Today: It is natural to feel worried, but feelings can be respected without surrendering our decisions to them. Our mind and emotions can work together in the service of our best interests if we use both to guide us through the vehicle of faith in God’s perfect plan.
“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” – Henry David Thoreau
Trail Day 31: Pain and Cold and Wet and a Promise
10/17/2012, Astorga to Rabanal del Camino, 20 km
Elaine: There have been days on the Camino de Santiago where I have pushed beyond what I thought was my capacity, but today was the Grand Camino in this regard. I am typing right now on my iPhone from inside my sleeping bag which is acting as an isolation and recovery chamber for me. We are in Rabanal del Camino, high in the mountains, in a stone building with about 20 other pilgrims. It’s cold and dark and raining outside and there is no heat except for a fireplace in the dining area. The hospitaleros are two Brits with quick wits and such great warmth and caring, we decided to stay overnight. One of them is so attuned to each pilgrim who enters, he immediately sensed there was something wrong with me and steps forward to meet me like a parent scooping up an exhausted child.
As I type I can’t stop shivering, probably because my thermal regulation center has gone on strike along with my feet, calves and knees. They just refuse to accept any more punishment, I am completely exhausted. Why all the dramatics about pain now, so far into the Camino? Well, it goes back to my recent post about my father being ill. I’ve struggled to make the best decision about returning home immediately versus finishing the Camino. I think the natural impulse for most people would be to return home when a loved one is at risk. That morning when I turned around and walked back down the trail to reach out to our friends and we all came back crying; I felt they were important touchstones that could heal my anxiety. “How can you turn to people you just barely know for such an important decision?” you might ask. I hardly believed I could do it myself, but every single one of these people had trusted me with their own experience of loss–and I’m talking about the loss of important loved ones–a mother, father, husband, and wife. These people were on average, 15 years older than me and they had wisdom that comes from life experience. In the Spanish culture there is a saying, “The Devil knows more from being old than from being the Devil.” In this case, I had over 250 years of collective wisdom to draw from.
When I asked each one of our friends for his or her thoughts about whether I should finish the Camino or rush home, I could tell they were each pondering their responses with extreme gravity. None wanted to give a recommendation because of how important we each knew the outcome would be. But when I pressed for their thoughts, my request was met with a battery of questions:
“What do you know of his illness?” “Is it immediately life threatening?” “Have you asked your father what he would like you to do?” “What is your relationship like with your father?” “Would he feel comfortable telling you he wanted you to come home now?” “Do you have any unfinished business, things left unsaid, undone with your dad?”
These were just some of the questions they asked me as they considered how to respond. Beyond questions, they also provided anecdotes from their own lives when they were faced with similar decisions.
As we walked and shared, it became increasingly clear that, short of direct knowledge of what was wrong with Pop and an imminent need for my presence, I and the family would be best served by finishing the Camino. My father didn’t even have a diagnosis, he was feeling about the same as when I left according to both he and my mother, and I have no unfinished business with him–we’d talked daily before I left. But could I really keep walking in Spain when my father might receive some horrible news? I was afraid but resolved to wait.
“Resolved” does not capture the anxiety I was feeling about waiting. What could I take control over from halfway across the world? Duh!! I am on a pilgrimage seeking a stronger faith. I went to church and like so many little miracles I’ve experienced here so far, the priest started the service by asking us to move to the entrance of the church. He then informed us that the Pope has declared this the year of faith and that we were all to be baptized again as we renew our commitment and relationship with God and the church. I knew then that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, and I went even further to draw upon a family tradition of asking God to intervene through a “promesa,” a promise. I promised to walk the rest of the Camino without any medicine for pain. My mother had done this when my sister was a baby and had a life-threatening fever. She promised to wear white for a year if God would save her. Needless to say, my sister was saved and a tradition was born.
Now we have come full circle to me laying here in bed and shivering from the havoc this pain is wreaking on my entire constitution. There is a rebound phenomenon that occurs when a person abruptly stops an antiinflammatory and pain medication and I am no exception but I am committed to walking the Camino with nothing except antiinflammatory fish oil. It is my expression of faith and commitment to a greater cause. And, here’s some good news that we just received: My dad does not have cancer. I am even expecting he will be better than I left him when I get back from Santiago Campostela. This is indeed the year of faith.
Lesson for today: It is natural to pull away from others as a form of rest and protection when tragedy strikes, but true healing comes through the balm of compassion applied by others to the places we cannot reach.
“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” – Albert Schweitzer